May 21, 2002
Competitive balance

File13 gave his perspective on Bud Selig's latest whining, and wonders what baseball nuts like The Fat Guy and I think. The Fat Guy has his say here, so I guess it's now my turn.

First, I generally disagree with TFG when he says "a pox on both houses", meaning players as well as owners, should the labor talks lead to another strike. People often rant and rave about millionaire baseball players, but no one ever seems to get exercised about multimillionaire owners. It's hard to overstate the dirty, dishonest, and underhanded tricks that the owners have used, especially since Beelzebud Selig first infested the Commissioner's Office, and I can't help but think that anyone rationally looking at this should see it for what it is, namely an attempt by oligopolists to artificially control their costs. The Baseball Prospectus has been all over this, from Joe Sheehan's recent observation that

Baseball salaries have this magic ability to turn raging free-market conservatives into autocrats with the snap of a finger. Frothing Republicans who lusted after Jack Kemp's "enterprise zone" concepts are often appalled that Jason Giambi is able to make $120 million on the same free market that they defend so vigorously in other segments of society. The owners work very hard to keep their financial information quiet, but are quick to publicize how much money the latest free agent is raking in.

to Doug Pappas' eye-opening expose on the widespread bookkeeping fraud that the owners have perpetrated, which earned him a hysterical phone call from Bud himself.

In short, I'm in complete agreement with Christine Quinones' rule of thumb: "[T]he players aren't always right; the owners are always wrong; if the players agree with the owners, count your silverware." I certainly won't be happy with the players if they strike, but I'll sympathize with them a lot more than I will the owners.

I'd like to take a closer look at the notion of "competitive balance", which is one of the Budsters catchphrases when he's talking about payrolls. In Bud's World, only free spending teams make the playoffs; in his mind, most teams enter the season with no "faith and hope" of playing in October. The idea that he wants to impart is that unlike the Good Old Days before zillionaire free agency, everyone had a decent shot at winning.

The problem, of course, is that this idea is, like most things Bud says, completely divorced from reality. Let's take a quick look at the era 1921-1964, which roughly corresponds to what is considered baseball's "golden age". In that 44-year period, how many pennants did each team win? For the American League:

Team Pennants Longest stretch between pennants
New York 29 Three seasons
Detroit 6 22 seasons (1946-1967)
Philadelphia/KC 3 40 seasons (1932-1971)
Washington 2 39 seasons (1926-1964, as the Twins)
Cleveland 1 42 seasons (1955-1996)
Boston 1 27 seasons (1919-1945)
St. Louis/Balt 1 43 seasons (1901-1943)
Chicago 1 39 seasons (1920-1958)

Not a whole lot of hope and faith in there for most teams. Remember that this was the era of the reserve clause, when a player was bound to his team until they traded or released him. There were no big salaries, no unequal income from media or luxury boxes, and no reason to be a consistent loser other than incompetent management. But Bud doesn't want you to think about that, he wants you to get caught up in a mist of baby boomer nostalgia so that you'll characterize the players as greedy and the owners as beleaguered.

The Yankees' longest stretch without a pennant after 1921, by the way, is 14 seasons, from 1982 to 1995. Coincidentally, that's right in the middle of the free agent period. The Yankees spent a ton of money on all kinds of free agents during that time - Dave Collins, Steve Kemp, Ed Whitson, Danny Tartabull, John Montefusco - and pretty much sucked most of the time. At some point, they figured out that developing players (Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettite, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Alphonso Soriano, to name a few) and paying to keep them was the secret.

The Senior Circuit for the same time frame looks like this:

Team Pennants Longest stretch between pennants
St. Louis 12 17 seasons (1947-1963)
New York/SF 9 13 seasons (1938-1950)
Brooklyn/LA 9 20 seasons (1921-1940)
Chicago 5 56 seasons (1946-2001)
Cincinnati 3 20 seasons (1941-1960)
Boston/Milwaukee 3 33 seasons (1915-1947)
Pittsburgh 3 32 seasons (1928-1959)
Philadelphia 1 49 seasons (1901-1949)

Here there were three dominant teams, with the Cubs having a good run from 1929 through 1945. The bad teams - Chicago after 1945 and the other four underneath them - were really bad. As Rob Neyer noted awhile ago, the Phillies may have been the worst-run franchise in history. But again, each team had roughly the same salary expenses. Well-run teams that cared about winning did so, and poorly run teams that didn't care usually didn't.

There's no difference today. Whatever a team's resources are, teams that use them wisely generally do well. Teams that actually invest in their product can go from hopeless to dominant, as Seattle and Atlanta have done.

Even truly low-income teams like Minnesota can compete if they're smart. Part of being smart is recognizing when a big spender is willing to pay top dollar for players who have hit their peak. A few years ago there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth when the Twins were forced to trade All Star second baseman Chuck Knoblauch to the big bad Yankees for a passel of minor leaguers. Knoblauch had one good, two decent, and one mediocre season for the Yankees, never acheiving the heights he had as a Twin. He's now an outfielder in Kansas City, struggling to stay over the Mendoza Line. As for the Twins, two of the players they got were Cristian Guzman, their All Star-caliber shortstop, and Eric Milton, their reliable lefty starter. Trades can be tricky things, even when one team is apparently over a barrel.

The bottom line is simple. Good management and a well-defined plan is the key to success in baseball, just as it is anywhere else. Bud and the owners are just trying to sheild themselves from that truth at the players' expense. Don't you believe it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 21, 2002 to Baseball