Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The parity question

Last week, two SN bloggers posted their disparate opinions on parity in Major League Baseball. bartolis argued that MLB wasn't nearly as lopsided as most people think, while ES46NE10 took the opposite stance. In fact, the argument bartolis made was that MLB has more parity than the NFL. Naturally, as a fan of a long-perceived "small-market" baseball team which has, nevertheless, performed very well in recent years, I'm intrigued by the chance to do a little more research into this point.

The crux of the pro-parity argument seems to be that, from 1993 to 2007, a span of 15 years:

23 different MLB teams were among the final 4 playoff teams.
23 different NFL teams were among the final 4 playoff teams.

But is that in itself an endorsement of parity? Is "Final Four" status an indication that all is well and good? ES46NE10 counters with:

The answer lies in the bottom feeders - the NFL's parity is such that every year since 1993, 30 of the 32 teams have had a legitimate shot at making the playoffs, and with the NFL's "Any Given Sunday" mentality, actually riding that playoff appearance into a Super Bowl appearance and maybe even a victory.

I think, though, that, while "legitimate shots" are nice, and it's true that virtually any NFL team -- and an increasing number of MLB teams -- have a chance of winning it all every year, the championships, at least in MLB, still go to the teams with the highest payrolls.

Again, as a fan of the Twins, who made the playoffs for four out of the five years from 2002 to 2006, I often thought, "Man, this is a good team, but they lack X," where X was "another starting pitcher," "a right fielder," "another lefty in the bullpen" or whatever. And, with their meager payroll, wouldn't it have been nice if they could have added a premiere free agent at their position of need, someone who would have cost about $15 million/year, filled a great need, and might have pushed them into the top half of league salaries? In fact, adding $15 million to the Twins' total salaries from 2002-2006 gives them the following rankings in MLB team salaries:

2002: 14th
2003: 16th
2004: 13th
2005: 15th
2006: 15th

Not exactly the Yankees or Dodgers, eh? Still, with their scouting, talent development, coaching -- and that little extra bit of cash, they might have done better then three first-round exits and an ALCS loss in four playoff years. It might have been nice, as a fan of the team, to see a level playing field. I'm sure A's fans can sympathize.

But what about the teams that actually did win the championships? I'll limit the span of my research from 1995 onward, since in 1993 (remember, there was no World Series in 1994), player salaries had not yet rocketed into the stratosphere. Since then, here are the MLB salary rankings of the World Series champions:

1995: 3 (Braves)
1996: 2 (Yankees)
1997: 8 (Marlins)
1998: 2 (Yankees)
1999: 1 (Yankees)
2000: 1 (Yankees)
2001: 8 (Diamondbacks)
2002: 15 (Angels)
2003: 24 (Marlins)
2004: 2 (Red Sox)
2005: 14 (White Sox)
2006: 10 (Cardinals)
2007: 2 (Red Sox)

Over those 13 years, that gives an average salary rank of 7.1. And if you think it's the Yankees' 20th-century WS wins that are skewing the data -- well, you're partially right. The average of the WS winners from 2001 on are 10.7, still putting the average World Series winner in about the top third of salaries.

Then we come to the 2003 Florida Marlins, who won it all with just a $49 million payroll, toppling the $153 million Yankees in the process. Yes, it can happen. But even with such disparity and low expectations (the Marlins had 79, 76, and 79 wins the previous three seasons and were an OK-but-not-great 91-71 in 2003) and a little luck, the underdog can win, at least occasionally. But was it really that absurd that a team with the 24th highest payroll should win it all? Even .500 basketball teams occasionally win the NBA draft lottery, after all.

To test this, I created a spreadsheet to pick one random number from 1 to 30. There were 30 chances it would pick number 1, 29 chances to pick 2, 28 chances to pick 3, and so on, down to a 1 in 455 (1+2+3+...+29+30) chance of picking #30. This was meant to crudely represent the notion that the team with the highest payroll (represented by the 1's) would have the best chance of winning the championship, followed by the #2 team, the #3 team, and so on. Still, it's possible that the #24 team (or #17 or #29) can still win.

Running this test a thousand times (don't worry, it wasn't nearly as time-consuming as it sounds), I get an average result of 10.9. Technically, this doesn't prove anything regarding baseball, but it does show that, given the small sample size we're using (13 seasons, or 7 post-Yankee seasons), the unlikely teams can still win occasionally, and this year's Marlins seem to be on the same track. Over the long run, though, the teams with the most chances to win -- most often represented by higher salaries -- will tend to dominate. Re-run the 2003 season a thousand times, and I'd bet the Marlins -- who had the seventh-best record in all of baseball, and were within five wins of six other teams -- win it all less than 10% of the time.

Yes, better front offices, managers, scouting departments, and the like can close the salary gap very well when there's a monetary imbalance. But why should teams be required to play the game with fewer resources? If you're a good Monopoly player, do you offer to start with only $1,000 instead of $1,500? If you're a good chess player, do you start with two fewer pieces? Of course not. Everyone starts with equal resources and it's up to the skill of the players (and some luck, in many cases) to determine a winner. Talent, not money, should determine who wins and loses. It would be just as ludicrous for the Yankees to be able to give MLB $1 million during an inning to get four outs.

True, there are no such salary imbalances in the NFL to explain why teams like the Lions and Cardinals continue to struggle every year. But what if the Patriots, for example, had been required to play $15 million below the salary cap this decade? They'd still have the same excellent coaching staff, would still have drafted Tom Brady, and would still have cheated :) And, in all likelihood, they would have still been a very good team and maybe even gone deep in the playoffs. But there probably wouldn't be any talk of crowning them the team of the decade. Instead, they'd be more like the Minnesota Twins of the NFL -- very good, but lacking the resources to get over that final hump.

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