King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds, playoff regulars: Why baseball's "competitive balance" problem is mostly myth.


Salon Staff
March 9, 2004 1:00AM (UTC)

We were talking about hockey's impending work stoppage last week, you and I, and one can't get far talking about sports economics without the abominable snowman of the subject rearing his head: competitive imbalance in baseball. The sport's economy is broken, the thinking goes, and small-market teams are denied the opportunity to win championships, the exclusive reserve of big-city teams, especially the Yankees.

There is some imbalance. You have a better chance of winning if you play in New York than if you play in Kansas City, even if you're the Mets. But the advantage is nothing like what it's perceived to be. As this year's version of "only the Yankees can win" whining kicks into gear, I'll show you that if as many baseball teams made the playoffs as hockey and basketball teams do, nobody'd talk about competitive imbalance in baseball.

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Let me back up a little. Baseball comes up when you talk about hockey because the economies are similar, with most revenues being local. The competitive imbalance idea exists for the NHL, though in weaker form. I think that's because 16 of the 30 NHL teams make the playoffs, but it also could be partly because the very same market with the dominant team in hockey, Detroit, is home to a hopeless "small-market" club in baseball, and the hockey team that by all rights should be the sport's Yankees, the Rangers, are consistently lousy and have a habit of going a half century between Stanley Cups. For some reason, the NBA, with its repeating champions and small handful of teams that go deep in the playoffs year after year, has escaped this perception.

So anyway readers were trying to explain to me why regular folks are so much more likely to support the bosses in sports labor disputes than in the real world when this subject came up.

"Fans want the players to 'lose' and a salary cap to become part of hockey (or baseball): competition," wrote Jeff Lowell, because "we love fair play ... We're tired of losing free agents to big-money teams. We love it that a Tim Duncan can stay in a San Antonio, instead of fleeing to a New York, and actually win a championship or two."

I responded that "basketball, with its salary cap, has had far less competitive balance than baseball." I argued that over the last 20 years, since the NBA's salary cap began, baseball has had more champions than the NBA has had -- by a lot: 14-6 -- and the list includes the Reds, Royals and Tigers, who are thought of as perennial doormats.

Not fair! cried a new batch of letter writers. "Nobody complained about the economic system when the Tigers, Royals, Twins, A's, Reds, and Twins again were winning championships," wrote David Grigsby, meaning 1984 through '91. He was one of many who made a similar point.

And besides, "Winning championships should not be the judge of balance in MLB, as often the best team doesnt win a playoff series (see the past few World Series)," added Jason Mittell, whom I'll make the spokesman for this popular line of thinking. "A better measure is making the playoffs in baseball (which is actually a challenge, unlike basketball and hockey) -- the Yankees and Braves (in the Turner salad days) use their financial advantages to guarantee a chance each year in the playoffs. If you want to ask if there are imbalances in baseball, ask a Blue Jays fan." (Parentheses his.)

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I agree, who makes the playoffs is a good way to measure competitive balance, especially in baseball, where it's far more true than it is in basketball that anything can happen in a short series. As I've ranted before, the lowest seeds in the NBA playoffs almost never win. Hockey is somewhere in between -- as we saw last year, a hot goalie can take a low seed far.

So at the risk of writing a column for the benefit of three dozen obsessives, I decided to go all slide-rule-boy on you and do a little simple study. I thought I'd look at who makes the playoffs and who doesn't in baseball, the NBA and the NHL.

I didn't know, but I suspected I would find that the perceived competitive imbalance in baseball isn't a result of the economic system favoring large market teams, but of the fact that the baseball playoffs are twice as tough to make as the NBA or NHL playoffs. Eight of the 30 major league baseball teams make the postseason, while 16 of the 29 (NBA) or 30 (NHL) teams in the other sports do.

I was right. If twice as many teams made the baseball playoffs, even the worst franchises would reach the postseason once in a while, the way they do in the NBA and NHL. If half as many basketball and hockey teams went to the postseason, those sports would look as imbalanced as baseball looks now. Fans of, for example, the Montreal Canadiens, Los Angeles Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves, all at least semiregulars in the playoffs, would be whining that the economic system has to change because their team has no shot. (It would be amusing to watch Kings fans try to explain how Los Angeles is a small market.)

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Here's what I did: First, I decided to look at the last 10 years, not 20, because so many letter-writers believe that what happened in the '80s isn't relevant today. Baseball had no postseason in 1994, so I'd have had to back up to 1993 to get 10 years, but if I did that I'd be including a year in which the allegedly hapless Blue Jays won the World Series for the second straight time. I wanted to bend over backward not to help my own argument, so instead I just looked at the last nine years.

I made a list of who would have made the baseball playoffs from 1995 to 2003 if 16 teams qualified. Then I made a similar list for the NBA and NHL if only eight teams made the playoffs. Then I put the lists together into a rough chart, which I've posted as Page 2 of this column, showing how the three sports would compare if they existed in the same eight- or 16-team universe.

I found it fascinating. The first thing I noticed was how similar the three sports looked. There were about the same number of teams in each sport hardly ever making the playoffs, making it almost every year or falling somewhere in the middle. The second thing I noticed was how our perceptions of baseball would change if 16 teams made the playoffs.

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Our friends the poor Blue Jays, shut out of the postseason and without hope in the real Yankees/Red Sox-dominated universe, would have made the playoffs six times, same as the Cardinals. That's not poor, it's upper-middle class. It's the same neighborhood where the Pistons and Sacramento Kings live. It's Bruins and Sharks territory, teams that certainly haven't dominated the last decade, but have overall been big-time players.

In a 16-team-playoff world -- the real NHL and NBA world and a fantasyland for baseball -- the only teams with no playoff appearances since '95 are expansion teams and the Golden State Warriors. Every baseball team except the Devil Rays and the Tigers would have made the playoffs at least twice. That's right, even the Royals, Expos and Brewers would have had two playoff years. The Reds and Rockies would have gone to the playoffs four times. That's the same as the Kings and Canadiens in the NHL, who have hardly been powerhouses, but they haven't been hopeless losers either.

In that 16-team world, market size would still play a role. The teams congregating on the loser end of the chart tend to be from small markets -- Milwaukee, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Minnesota -- though they're joined by some poorly managed big-market clubs like Philadelphia. (The Phillies tied for the eighth and last N.L. playoff spot twice, and rather than going through hypothetical tie-breakers I just made them the loser both times because giving them the playoff spot would have led to more balance and aided my argument. The ties were with the Dodgers in 1995 and the Mets in 1999.)

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But market size wouldn't dominate the discussion of who wins. Houston and Seattle, big but not huge markets, would have gone to the playoffs every year but one, same as Boston and one time more than the White Sox, Indians and Giants. The Yankees, Atlanta and Los Angeles would have gone every year. More importantly, well-run small-market teams are solidly represented in the middle class: Oakland and Anaheim (which is often called a small market, amusingly) would have five playoff appearances in the last nine years. Colorado and Cincinnati would have four.

A side effect of having twice as many teams in the playoffs -- other than rendering the regular season meaningless, an idea we're ignoring for this discussion -- would be that poor management of big-market teams wouldn't be so obvious. The Cubs would have four playoff appearances, the Orioles and Mets five.

With 16 teams in the playoffs baseball would look nothing like our Yankees-centric universe. There would be a mafia of eight to 10 teams that go to the playoffs just about every year, the Yankees, Braves, Lakers and Red Wings of the world. There'd be a similar sized clump of teams that rarely or even never go, the Tigers, Devil Rays, Warriors and Flames types. And there'd be another bunch, a little over a third of the teams, that falls in that middle, going fairly often, but nothing like every year. We're talking Cubs and A's, 76ers and Rockets, Canucks and Blackhawks.

Looking at it the other way -- what if the NBA and NHL had eight-team playoffs? -- I found that those leagues would look a lot like baseball does now, without about a quarter of the teams shut out of the playoffs completely, roughly two-thirds of them rarely or never going, and just a couple or three going just about every year. The Red Wings, Avalanche, Flyers, Lakers, Spurs and Jazz would be the Yankees and Braves of the NBA and NHL in an eight-team format.

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Baseball does have a problem with competitive imbalance because only eight teams do make the playoffs, not 16. I've said before that the way to even the playing field is with real revenue sharing based on market size, and/or more franchises in the New York metropolitan area.

But the problem isn't nearly as severe as it looks, and isn't caused by the economic system but by a narrower definition of success. The argument that baseball is broken doesn't hold water if the evidence is the dominance of the Yankees, or the Yankees and Braves, or the haplessness of those 19 teams that have barely or never tasted playoff ball in the last decade. Competitive imbalance is a problem that calls for slight tinkering, not system overhaul.

Baseball could solve its "imbalance" problem by sacrificing its regular season the way the NBA and NHL have and expanding the playoffs. I think that would be a bad idea, and I also think it's inevitably going to happen, because expanded playoffs likely would mean more TV money. Too bad. The Newark Expos would be a lot more interesting solution.

If baseball sent 8 teams in each league to the playoffs, to match the NBA and NHL, this is how many appearances each team would have had since 1995. The basketball and hockey figures for comparison are actual playoff appearances, 1995-2003.

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0 appearances
Baseball:
1 (Tampa Bay)
Basketball: 2 (Golden State, Memphis)
Hockey: 3 (Atlanta, Columbus, Nashville)

1 appearance
Baseball:
1 (Detroit)
Basketball: 3 (Denver, L.A. Clippers, Washington)
Hockey: 1 (Minnesota)

2 appearances
Baseball:
5 (Florida, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Montreal, Pittsburgh)
Basketball: 0
Hockey: 3 (Calgary, N.Y. Islanders, Tampa Bay)

3 appearances
Baseball:
3 (Minnesota, Philadelphia, San Diego)
Basketball: 5 (Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, New Jersey, Toronto)
Hockey: 4 (Anaheim, Carolina, Florida, N.Y. Rangers)

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4 appearances
Baseball:
5 (Arizona, Chi. Cubs, Cincinnati, Colorado, Texas)
Basketball: 2 (Chicago, Milwaukee)
Hockey: 3 (Chicago, Los Angeles, Montreal)

5 appearances
Baseball:
4 (Anaheim, Baltimore, N.Y. Mets, Oakland)
Basketball: 3 (Atlanta, Houston, Philadelphia)
Hockey: 1 (Vancouver)

6 appearances
Baseball:
2 (St. Louis, Toronto)
Basketball: 4 (Detroit, Miami, Sacramento, Seattle)
Hockey: 6 (Boston, Buffalo, Edmonton, Phoenix, San Jose, Washington)

7 appearances
Baseball:
3 (Chi. White Sox, Cleveland, San Francisco)
Basketball: 4 (Minnesota, New Orleans, New York, Orlando)
Hockey: 4 (Dallas, Ottawa, Pittsburgh, Toronto)

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8 appearances
Baseball:
3 (Boston, Houston, Seattle)
Basketball: 3 (Indana, Phoenix, San Antonio)
Hockey: 1 (New Jersey)

9 appearances
Baseball:
3 (Altanta, Los Angeles, N.Y. Yankees)
Basketball: 3 (L.A. Lakers, Portland, Utah)
Hockey: 4 (Colorado, Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis)

If the NBA and NHL sent only four teams in each conference to the playoffs, to match baseball's eight total teams, this is how many appearances each team would have had since 1995. The baseball figures for comparison are actual playoff appearances, 1995-2003.

0 appearances
Baseball:
8 (Detroit, Kansas City, Miwaukee, Montreal, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Toronto)
Basketball: 6 (Denver, Golden State, L.A. Clippers, Memphis, Toronto, Washington)
Hockey: 8 (Atlanta, Columbus, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Montreal, Nashville, N.Y. Islanders)

1 appearance
Baseball:
4 (Anaheim, Chi. White Sox, Cincinnati, Colorado)
Basketball: 5 (Boston, Cleveland, Houston, Milwaukee, Minnesota)
Hockey: 7 (Anaheim, Buffalo, Calgary, N.Y. Rangers, Phoenix, Tampa Bay, Vancouver)

2 appearances
Baseball:
7 (Baltimore, Chi. Cubs, Florida, Los Angeles, Minnesota, N.Y. Mets, San Diego)
Basketball: 7 (Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland)
Hockey: 5 (Boston, Carolina, Chicago, Florida, San Jose)

3 appearances
Baseball:
2 (Arizona, Texas)
Basketball: 3 (Chicago, Orlando, Sacramento)
Hockey: 3 (Ottawa, Pittsburgh, Washington)

4 appearances
Baseball:
6 (Boston, Houston, Oakland, St. Louis, San Francisco, Seattle)
Basketball: 3 (New Orleans, New York, Seattle)
Hockey: 1 (Toronto)

5 appearances
Baseball:
0
Basketball: 1 (Miami)
Hockey: 1 (St. Louis)

6 appearances
Baseball:
1 (Cleveland)
Basketball: 1 (Indiana)
Hockey: 2 (Dallas, New Jersey)

7 appearances
Baseball:
0
Basketball: 3 (L.A. Lakers, San Antonio, Utah)
Hockey: 0

8 appearances
Baseball:
0
Basketball:0
Hockey: 2 (Colorado, Philadelphia)

9 appearances
Baseball:
2 (Atlanta, N.Y. Yankees)
Basketball: 0
Hockey: 1 (Detroit)

Notes: All teams that moved between 1995 and 2003, such as Quebec/Colorado or Winnipeg/Phoenix in the NHL, are referred to by their current location, but the figures represent the entire period.
Baseball: Tampa Bay and Arizona began play in 1998. There were three eighth-place ties in baseball, between Philadelphia and Los Angeles in 1995 and 1999 and between Philadelphia and the Mets in 2001. I didn't want to bother with tie-breakers, so I just gave those ties to the Phillies' opponents, since giving them to the Phillies would have meant a more balanced picture, helping my argument.
Basketball:
Memphis and Toronto began play in 1995-96.
Hockey:
Nashville began play in 1998-99. Atlanta began play in 1999-2000. Minnesota and Columbus began play in 2000-01.

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

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