Sunday, November 22, 2009

Playoff Opportunities(?)

Mr. Zimbalist at the WSJ is one of a sizeable number of mainstream writers who, in the wake of the Yankees 2009 championship, have recently argued against payroll as the source of New York's advantage. By extension they also argue against the need for a salary cap-like system in MLB, something the other major American sports all possess. Instead, these writers argue alternatively that low market teams pocket revenue money, that other teams outspend too, or in the case of Zimbalist, that parity exists already. In the case of the WSJ piece, in addition to a couple bailout/Geithner jokes we get this gem of Yankee justification -- since 2004 twenty of the thirty MLB teams have made the playoffs! Hurray for parity!

He's right, technically speaking. Nine of the fourteen AL teams (64%) and 11 of the 16 NL teams (69%) made the playoffs in the past six years. Here's the list if you're curious:

AL: Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Twins, Oakland, Indians, Tigers, Rays, White Sox
NL: Dodgers, Mets, Cardinals, Braves, Phillies, Cubs, Brewers, Padres, Rockies, Diamondbacks

That actually seems pretty good ... in isolation. Here's the NL parse:

Dodgers - 4/6
Cardinals - 4/6
Phillies - 3/6
Astros - 2/6
Braves - 2/6
Cubs - 2/6
Padres - 2/6
Rockies - 2/6
Brewers - 1/6
Diamondbacks - 1/6
Mets - 1/6
Wild Card spread: West (3), Central (3)

The picture here is pretty rosy. Eleven teams have made the playoffs the last 6 years, and the spread is fairly even. I'm actually a little surprised that no NL East team has won the Wild Card the last six seasons since it's considered the most competitive division in the NL; the teams must cancel each other out via divisional play. All this aside, none of these teams have to contend with the Yankee leviathan until the World Series (besides the yearly interleague drubbing); so it's a little disingenuous to use the NL as evidence of parity if the argument is about the Yankees.

Let's turn our attention to the American League.

Yankees - 5/6
Red Sox - 5/6
Angels - 5/6
Twins - 3/6
White Sox - 2/6
Tigers - 1/6
Indians - 1/6
Athletics - 1/6
Rays - 1/6
Wild Card split: East 5/6, Central 1/6

So, three teams in the American League (the Red Sox, Angels and Yankees) have won 15 of the 18 postseason slots available to them (83% -- they can't win the Central). The only AL parity that actually exists is in the AL Central, where four teams have made the playoffs from that division the last six years. Oh, and guess which are the top three AL teams by average payroll during that period too?

Let's expand our sample size a little further and see if Zimbalist's contention works better on a larger timeline (I doubt it). Here's the AL picture in the wild card era, the past fifteen years.

Yankees - 14/15

Red Sox - 9/15
Angels - 6/15
Indians - 6/15
Athletics - 6/15
Twins - 5/15
Mariners - 4/15
White Sox - 3/15
Rangers - 3/15
Baltimore - 2/15
Tigers - 1/15
Rays - 1/15
Wild Cards: East 11/15, Central 1/15, West 3/15

Now I know that playoff appearances is kind of a silly metric for examining parity (something like winning percentage or run differential is superior without even wading very deep into the sabermetric pool) , but come on. Look at the top spot (and to a lesser extent the Wild Card breakdown). Seems fair to me! How any self-respecting journalist can use playoff appearances to argue that baseball has parity with a straight face is beyond me.



Blogger John said...

yeah, i don't have much to say because i think you're right on. you just can't compete for a sustained period of time without the resources.

10:20 PM  

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