The illusion of parity

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Did you know that, during the last decade, all but seven teams reached the playoffs? And did you further know, that during the 2000s, 19 of baseball’s 30 teams reached the playoffs more than once? Never mind the fact that eight of 30 teams make the playoffs every year; that’s parity!

Or at least it is if you’re ESPN’s Senior Editor David Schoenfield. In the companion piece to his crazy realignment scheme, Schoenfield spent yesterday’s Hot Stove U. column writing about parity in baseball. Schoenfield starts with the proposition that baseball has a competitive balance equal to or greater than that of the NFL, and then he finds some proof.

From the get-go, Schoenfield’s proof isn’t what we would call rigorous. Baseball enjoyed eight different World Series champs in the 00’s while football has seen six or maybe seven Super Bowl champions. “Baseball has more champions, nearly half of its 30 teams have reached the World Series, and more than two-thirds have played in a league championship series,” he writes. “The NFL totals are clearly similar.”

Schoenfield goes on and on about baseball’s maybe, not-quite-there competitive edge and even manages to talk about how money helps. He writes:

There is no denying that a correlation exists between payroll and success (good players, after all, generally cost more money). Check out the table below. Of the 10 teams that won the most games in the decade, six were in the top 10 in total payroll. Of course, payroll is not the sole determining factor in winning, as many pundits want you to believe. The Twins and A’s both made the playoffs five times in the decade, and the team that spent the smallest amount, the Marlins, won a World Series. And market size is not always a direct line to payroll. St. Louis plays in the 20th-largest market, smaller than Minneapolis, Denver, San Diego or Cleveland, and not much larger than Tampa or Pittsburgh. Of course, the Cardinals are often wrongly portrayed as a large-market franchise simply because they are successful.

Notice the number of times Schoenfield turns to the one-offs. Yes, the Marlins won the World Series, but they did so not with the lowest payroll but with the 20th lowest figure. They are an outlier and not even an unreasonable one at that. Media market size, meanwhile, doesn’t matter as much as Schoenfield would have you believe because baseball revenues are driven by in-stadium finances and reach. The Cardinals might play in the relatively small St. Louis, but their popularity and reach extend well beyond the borders of that Midwestern city.

Schoenfield is right about one thing here though: There is a correlation between money and winning. Take a look at this table reproduced from numbers the ESPN scribe provides:

The best-fit line returns an R-squared of 0.45. This suggests a fairly strong correlation, over the span of 10 years, between wins and money spent on payroll. It doesn’t imply causation, and money isn’t the only factor in winning. But in terms of an argument for parity, this graph one doesn’t help the cause. Outliers will win; small-market, low-payroll terms will get lucky now and then; but money will come out on top more often than not.

It’s easy, in the end, to link this to the Yankees. That mark in the upper right-hand corner — the one with more wins and more dollars spent than anyone else — represents the Yanks, and as the 2003 Marlins skew the data, so do the Yankees. Without them, the R-squared drops to 0.36, still a reasonably strong indication of correlation but one that definitely allows for other factors. Of course, with the Yanks making the playoffs nine out of ten times, that leaves just seven spots for the other 29 teams, and any edge can help.

So is there parity in baseball? I don’t think so, and I believe Schoenfield overstates his case. Money can still get you places. Whether that is a bad, though, is an entirely different question all together.

You can never have enough non-roster relievers
Did the Yanks make a mistake by passing on Reed Johnson?
  • the artist formerly known as (sic)

    If you ignore the outliers of the Yankees and the Marlins, “the R-squared drops to 0.36, still a reasonably strong indication of correlation but one that definitely allows for other factors”.

    Like intelligence, drafting strategy, player development, GM savvy, etc. There may not be complete parity, but it’s still there. The shit small-market teams that never get ahead have low-payrolls, yes, but they’re also horribly run. The well-run low-to-mid payroll teams still make the playoffs and have an opportunity to succeed.

    • Rose

      The shit small-market teams that never get ahead have low-payrolls, yes, but they’re also horribly run.

      Agreed. I’ve always felt that the small market teams should put the majority of their money into their management team and scouting…that way the draft and their prospects will turn the wheels for the team…instead of the payroll.

      Stink for a few years and pile up on well thought out draft picks…trade them off before they hit free agency or get expensive for even more prospects…repeat.

      • the artist formerly known as (sic)

        Agreed. The problem with “studies” like this is that 30 teams is statistically insignificant. Why each team makes the playoffs or doesn’t is the result of idiomatic factors. The Twins are different from the Royals and the Royals are different from the Pirates. If you really want to examine “parity” and whether there is competitive balance or not, it would seem more accurate to go team-by-team, assessing past decisions and future outlook. If there is a substantial percentage of teams that are well-run and still unsuccessful, then I think it becomes fair to say that parity doesn’t exist in baseball.

        • Rose

          You still have to define “success”. Is just making to the first round of the playoffs a success? Is it winning it all? Winning the division? AL/NL Champs?

          The term “success” may also have entirely different meanings for different teams and owners. Setting a definition for “success” that all teams may not agree with might not work in determining parity either.

          • the artist formerly known as (sic)

            I would say that if there are well-run teams that can’t make the playoffs because they can’t afford purchasing the additional 1, 2 or 3 win players on the open market to get them over the hump, then you’d have a problem worth discussing.

            I wouldn’t define “success” as World Series titles though. As Billy Beane said, more or less, “my job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that else f*cking luck”.

            • Rose

              I wouldn’t define “success” as World Series titles though. As Billy Beane said, more or less, “my job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that else f*cking luck”.

              Exactly. But to the Yankees…winning the World Series is a success and nothing else. Who knows? Reaching 1,000,000 fans for the season for the Pirates might be a success in their eyes.

              And you can go even further to say that the person analyzing the parity…might have an even entirely different view of success as well. So many parties involved.

    • Klemy

      Good points.

      Also, what if the scale for payroll to wins ignored teams like Pittsburgh, where seemingly no attempt at winning is being made? Wouldn’t that bring it even more inline? Honestly, I’m asking because this type of discussion isn’t my strong point.

      • Rose

        The Pirates make me pretty angry as a baseball fan. They’re one of the oldest teams in the game and they seemingly do “just enough” so it doesn’t look entirely obvious that they don’t give a shit. Even though it’s still fairly obvious to everybody.

        • Klemy

          Agreed. As a kid I went to my first ever MLB game in Pittsburgh. I used to like them along with the Yankees. I toured Three Rivers Stadium and got to run around on the field. It was a big thing as a 12 year old.

  • Rose

    “Parity” is becoming an annual topic around this time.

    This is from last January.

    I agree that baseball has some good parity. I think the illusion lies in the amount of games played and the amount of teams. While one team can sneak their way into the playoffs in a weak division…after working so hard to do so after a grueling 162 game schedule…you face the best team in that league in a 5 game series without home-field advantage and are seemingly eliminated before you even played the first game.

    • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Archimedes Torquemada

      Baseball is the perfect storm of anti-parity forces, though, in a way other leagues are not. In order of importance:

      A) Smallest percentage of playoff teams to total league size
      B) Longest season in terms of games played (larger sample size = stronger correlation of true talent level to games won, fewer fluke or lucky teams making the postseason/remaining in contention)
      C) No salary cap of any type forcing an annual redistribution of talent/breaking up markedly overtalented teams
      D) Limited revenue sharing/salary floor to ensure elimination of markedly undertalented teams
      E) International loopholes to draft/player entry system to force elite young talent to least successful organizations

      • king of fruitless hypotheticals

        You can take it one further–championships require winning a larger number of playoff games; how many other sports have multiple best of 5/7 series?

        ok, ok, i know hockey has a best of 20 and they keep getting screwed up with that even number, but football is one and done. is the nba more like us, hockey or football?

  • Rob

    eight different World Series champs in the 00’s while football has seen six or maybe seven Super Bowl champions”>

    …. Yeah.. who knows for sure how many. If only we could easily look this up.

    • Rob

      Referring to “eight different World Series champs in the 00’s while football has seen six or maybe seven Super Bowl champions.” Sorry.. messed up my blockquote.

      • A.D.

        My assumption is they’re planning on using this superbowl, the 09-10 season as the last one, of which we do not know the winner.

        Though the last 10 superbowls have 7 different winners as of right now.

    • Benjamin Kabak

      If only we had a time machine to jump ahead to Sunday night so we could know if the Colts are repeat-decade winners or if we can add the Saints as the seventh team to that list.

      But, hey, snark :)

  • Slu

    So is there parity in baseball? Kind of, and I believe Kabak overstates his case.

    You cannot have sustained, long-term success without money. You cannot keep players that are fan favorites and “faces of the franchise” without money. You can’t make the playoffs every year.

    As Schoenfield states, you can win though, and most teams have done so, for at least a short period. You just have a much shorter window and a much smaller margin for error. So I think you are both right!

    And it is better in MLB than in the NBA, and they have a salary cap.

    • Rose

      You cannot have sustained, long-term success without money.

      Define success. The Twins have been quite successful over the years despite having the 7th lowest payroll in all of baseball.

      You cannot keep players that are fan favorites and “faces of the franchise” without money.

      The Twins, witht he 7th lowest payroll in baseball, are also closing in on a long-term extension with Joe Mauer, a real big fan favorite. But you’re right. Without money, you probably can’t keep Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, etc. for several years WHILE ALSO adding a bunch of other 8 figure salaries to boot. You can certainly keep one or two.

      You can’t make the playoffs every year.

      Nobody makes the playoffs every year. The Yankees are the closest in the 2000’s but even they didn’t make the playoffs in 2008. Luck, age, health and consistency also plays a big roll. You can dish out $39.95 million to a Carl Pavano and not see any results. You can have a team consisting of David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Johan Santana, K-Rod, JJ Putz, etc. and not even come close to the playoffs. Or you can luck out with an Aaron Small, Shawn Chacon, etc. You just never know sometimes.

      • A.D.

        It’s easier to make the playoffs every year in the other major sports because of increased playoff spots.

      • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Archimedes Torquemada

        Define success. The Twins have been quite successful over the years despite having the 7th lowest payroll in all of baseball.

        Have they? The Twins, like the A’s, are a mid-market team that has the organizational savvy to make smart decisions and build playoff contenders SOMETIMES, but they can’t
        A) ever build a team good enough to actually get over the final hump and beat the elite big spending/big market AL teams (Yankees, Red Sox, Angels), even in the short-series small sample size anything can happen ALCS/ALDS combo
        B) remain contenders ANNUALLY. The Twins, like the A’s, have to judge come July/August whether or not they can really “make it”, and often than answer is “no”. So they have to cut bait, sell off things, and go into hibernation and wait for next year to try and climb the hill again. They’ve never had a Yankees/Red Sox/Angels permanence as title contenders, because they know they can’t afford to keep players and they have to sometimes tear it down to build it all up again.

        The Twins success is very, very, very different from the Yankees/Red Sox/Angels success.

        • Rose

          Well that’s my point. Success is different for everyone. The Twins have the 7th lowest payroll yet are 14th overall in attendance in 2009. 2.4+ million fans for the Twins is pretty successful. Especially when you consider they were 7 games back at the beginning of September.

          Yes, you can’t really compare this success with the Twins to the success of the Yankees, Red Sox, and Angels. But the point I was trying to get across was just that.

        • MattG

          “The Twins success is very, very, very different from the Yankees/Red Sox/Angels success.”

          Oooo, I don’t think so. The Angels in particular went on a prolonged bout of success when their farm produced.

          If there were a way to create a chart like this one, in which salary was replaced by home-grown talent, you might find an even stronger correlation.

        • king of fruitless hypotheticals

          success: winning one world series, having a fire sale, and then never spending more than they can absolutely publicly-armtwist out of you on player salaries.

      • Klemy

        Define success. The Twins have been quite successful over the years despite having the 7th lowest payroll in all of baseball.

        That figure is about to change, very soon, for the next 10 years. :)

  • A.D.

    Don’t have insider, but by some of the notes you pulled out, it looks like the classic, lets give a few examples that stick with people and thus they think that the argument is reasoned.

    I think there is parity in baseball, and not because the Marlins won with the 20th worse payroll, but more that almost every team has been in playoff contention over the past decade, and many have made the playoffs. That and because a team with a bottom 1/3rd payroll can win a WS because of the salary & player development model.

    Otherwise one of the main differences between football & baseball is the schedule, a couple of close losses or losing to teams one shouldn’t can flip a team from the Superbowl to out of the playoffs, where as the 162 game schedule in baseball allows some room for error.

  • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Archimedes Torquemada

    Did you know that, during the last decade, all but seven teams reached the playoffs?

    List of MLB teams that did not make the playoffs in the new 2000s (7):
    Blue Jays, Expos/Nationals, Pirates, Orioles, Rangers, Reds, Royals

    List of NFL teams that did not make the playoffs in the new 2000s (2):
    Lions, Texans*

    (*NOTE: the Texans entered the league in the 2002 season and thus, had only 8 opportunities to make the playoffs instead of the usual 10.)

    Even saying “only seven teams totally sucked the past decade” isn’t really all that much of an accomplishment. The NFL had only two such “perpetual suckitude” teams, using said playoff appearances metric, which is pretty crude and flawed to begin with, mind you.

    Speaking of which, here’s how I’d measure parity or the lack thereof:

    A) Which teams in the league are either totally or virtually eliminated from playoff contention at the halfway mark of the season? What percentage of these teams were the SAME TEAMS from the previous few seasons? The key to a lack of parity is not simply having bad teams, but having CONSECUTIVELY bad teams, teams that suck for an extended period of time where they haven’t simply not made the playoffs, but rather, they haven’t even CONTENDED for the playoffs for a LONG TIME.

    B) For the above teams (virtually eliminated from playoff contention by the halfway point), how often do those teams actually rally and pull themselves back into playoff contention for the season’s final month (even if they don’t actually seal the deal and make said playoffs?) Here’s an example of how a league like the NFL is naturally more parity-prone than MLB is: If a baseball team is, say, 20 games back at the ASB, in 100 such seasons, how often does that team rally and go crazy in the second half and make the playoffs? Maybe 5 or 10, tops? Meanwhile, in the NFL, teams can go 1-7 or 2-6 in the first half of the season and get on a roll and easily go 8-0 or 7-1 or 6-2 and be a playoff contender; in 100 such seasons, there’s probably 20-30 seasons where that team is back in playoff contention by December. Baseball’s long season (i.e. large sample size) makes it much harder for teams that suck in the beginning of the season to stop sucking and start winning enough to make the second half of the season non-academic. If you’re out by the break, your second half is utterly pointless. In the NFL, you’re never really out of it until you’re like 2-9. The shorter season lets anyone get on a hot streak and remain in virtual playoff contention.


    C) What is the frequency of teams going from worst-to-first? From being at the bottom third of the league in W/L and then making the playoffs the next season? Leagues with parity enable bad teams to become good teams literally overnight, thus keeping fans of teams who have a bad year optimistic that their team is capable of being a winner again.

    • the artist formerly known as (sic)

      yuuuuuuuuuuuup. you’d really need that kind of sophistication in data analysis to draw any significant conclusion about “parity”.

    • A.D.

      With the NFL there are 2 more teams than baseball, but also 4 more playoff spots each year, thus its easier to make the playoffs, making it a quite flawed comparison.

      • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Archimedes Torquemada


    • Will

      Using the “who made the playoffs argument” is skewed toward the NFL because it has 4 more slots per season (or 40 more playoff teams per decade). I don’t think anyone is arguing that MLB should expand its playoff format?

      Another factor that makes the NFL seem more competitive is the 16 game schedule. A few bounces (or teams resting there players at the end of the season) here or there and a 8-8 team can be a 10-6 team (just ask the Jets).

      As for your definitions, can you cite one example of a 1-7 or 2-6 team bouncing back to make the playoffs in the NFL? Also, as mentioned above, the schedule is why you can’t compare the sports on that basis. After 80 games, if a baseball team is 30-50, the sample is large enough to conclude that it is a pretty bad team. In the NFL, however, a 3-5 team has not only played an insufficent sample, but is not far removed from a teams qualifying for the extended 6th playoff slot.

      Regarding your letter C, Schoenfield has the following:

      “One more point. Another argument you hear is that the NFL salary cap system creates more competitive balance (or “fairness”) because it’s easier for bad teams to turn around their losing ways and make the playoffs.

      Is this true? Not really.

      Let’s define a “bad” team as a franchise that has had at least two consecutive losing years. How often does that team make the playoffs? One final set of factoids from the decade:

      Baseball: Eight of 80 playoff teams (10 percent)
      NFL: 15 of 120 playoff teams (12.5 percent)”

      • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Archimedes Torquemada

        Perhaps we should expand our playoff format, though. It would dramatically help the fans of perpetually crappy teams keep a horse in the race if it were easier to make the playoffs.

        Baseball’s combo of only 8 playoff spots and a whopping 162 games means it eliminates the relevance of more games for more teams of more fans more frequently.

        The whole point of any parity goal or conversation is to keep the rooting interest of fans. You want your teams to all have a shot at relevant games down the stretch so the fans don’t lose interest.

        • Will

          I’d prefer to not lessen the integrity of the 162 game schedule and diminish the credibility of the playoffs by adding more playoff teams. Let the NFL revolve around ratings. Much of its popularity is gambling induced anyway, so it really doesn’t need to worry about the quality of its product. Baseball’s bread and butter, however, is its 162 game schedule. Considering that the sport is has had record attendance and revenue (which will pass the NFL in total dollars within five years), MLB would be silly to water down that what makes it strong.

    • Chris

      Leagues with parity enable bad teams to become good teams literally overnight

      I’m not sure that I agree with this. Baseball is going to be more static than football because there are guaranteed contracts and there is a longer season. Changing that doesn’t give you parity, it just means that a teams record is not as reflective of the true talent level of the team, or a teams talent level can change very quickly because you can turn over your roster very quickly. True parity means that the talent level for the best and worst teams is quite close.

    • Klemy

      The Bills haven’t been to the playoffs since ’99…but I digress.

      • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Archimedes Torquemada

        Ah, thanks. I figured I’d probably goof and leave someone out.

        Good catch.

  • Will

    The two important questions are: what is parity? and is it good? I am not sure how you can answer whether there is parity without first defining, which I haven’t seen done in here. In providing his one-off examples, at least David Schoenfield does imply some definitions (i.e., different champions, playoff teams, etc).

    Do the Yankees have an advantage because they can afford to spend more money? Of course. That doesn’t mean baseball doesn’t have “parity”; it just means that it doesn’t have spending parity, which, of course, no sport does (if you think the NFL salary cap isn’t full of loopholes, guess again).

    Now, as for the second question, MLB has survived and thrived with the Yankees reaping the benefits of being vastly popular in a large region that is crazy for baseball. Unless MLB can somehow transform itself into a limited distribution, national event that is highly conducive to gambling, then I think it would be wise to keep on with its current economic structure.

  • MattG

    This conversation, like your chart, is totally different when you remove the Yankees. The other 29 teams actually do enjoy plenty of parity. There are large payroll teams with excellent chances of winning, large payroll teams with no chance of winning, small payroll teams with no chance of winning, and large payroll teams with excellent chances of winning. Parity abounds when the Yankees aren’t there to cloud perception.

    But MLB shot themselves in the foot. When the introduced the luxury tax, they thought it would ensure that the Yankees never really skewed the graph. The joke is that before the luxury tax, George was actually restraining himself. Once the other 29 owners passed legislation that made it OK to steal, George gave ’em all the bird.

  • ManBearPig2.0

    Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t r the statistic used for correlations and R^2 for regressions. I think a regression is appropriate here, but last week you used an R^2 (regression) when a correlation was the right move.

  • pete

    money CAN absolutely lead to winning, and without money it’s nearly impossible to win as consistently as the yankees do. But A), money without smart decision-making is less likely to win than less money with smart decision-making (i.e., how successful your franchise is has more to do with the quality of the FO than the depth of their coffers), B) while teams without much money aren’t going to make the playoffs 10 years in a row, they CAN win world series, and they can compete on an annual basis, like the twins and cardinals have been doing for a while, and C) while money can lead to winning, winning always leads to money, so taking financial risks pays off. The only situations where this isn’t true are the ones where teams are in either in severe debt because of stadium-related or other issues.

    Following on that, my question is this – why does everybody focus on capping the high-end, where the competition is, while certainly more consistently competitive, not at all head-and-shoulders above the rest in any season? I’m not saying I agree with a salary floor, but what I am saying is why isn’t MLB, or at least the writers who whine about the yankees winning, focusing on figuring out a way to get teams like the Marlins out of their stadium debt? IMO, there should be a reward for low-budge teams that win. Basically like a reverse-luxury tax, except based on revenue rather than payroll, where if one of the bottom 10 teams in terms of revenue wins over 90 games, for example, they get a $10 million (towards the next year’s payroll) reward, $15 for making the playoffs, etc. up to say $30 for winning the world series. I just think that teams should be rewarded for making good decisions and putting together strong clubs, and a financial reward would allow them to keep core players or sign free agents. If a team exists in a market that can’t sustain a winning franchise a la St. Louis, then no team should be playing there, and if they are, then they deserve to suck, because whoever decided to put them there is an idiot. I really think, though, that winning does in the long-term develop enough of a fan base to sustain winning in the future. It just requires taking a financial risk.

  • Wouter

    And what happens to the regression coefficient (not just R²) when you exclude the Yankees?