Postseason Reveals Widening Gap Between Haves, Have Nots

The Indians are the last team of their kind standing, the last small-market club remaining in the playoff field, and it may not be all that surprising.

On Friday, this author wondered whether we might be entering an era of super teams. One reason to think that might be the case? This year, for the first time since 1999, six teams produced run differentials of 140 or greater (the equivalent of about 0.9 runs per game). Also: all eight teams that advanced to the divisional round of the playoffs posted run differentials of 100 or greater. Maybe it’s just an outlying season, maybe it’s nothing. On the other hand, it’s a rare event, fueled also in part by the quantity of non-competitive teams in the sport.

That a lot of those non-competitive teams also possess only modest spending power oughtn’t come as a surprise. In a post last month, Craig Edwards found that baseball’s age of parity was over, that the relationship between wins and payroll has grown stronger.

Besides Cleveland, the current postseason includes the Cubs, Dodgers, Nationals, and Yankees*. The Red Sox were only just eliminated yesterday. Those organizations represent the richest in the game. And what makes matters more difficult for the rest of the league is that now the wealthiest teams are often being operated like savvy small-market ones. Except, where those small-market clubs are exposed to the risk of injury and ineffectiveness, their large-market counterparts can still fill holes with star talent and nine-figures contracts when compelled.

*The Astros represent an interesting case: a large-market team with a league-average payroll. As the young players of their rebuild reach arbitration, however, the club is likely to spend more.

It’s a result of all these influences that a lack of parity is emerging. Even the Yankees have demonstrated patience, selling at last summer’s deadline, and have been rewarded by arriving ahead of schedule.

Now, baseball will never feature the sort of imbalances of talent that exist in the NFL and NBA. A single baseball player can’t shape events like an NBA star or NFL quarterback, each of whom are capable of dominating the ball. The last 17 postseasons have produced 11 different champions. There have been no repeat World Series winners since the Yankees’ mini-dynasty of 1998-2000. The NBA and NFL finals, meanwhile, are typically predictable. LeBron James and Steph Curry (or the Spurs) will meet in the NBA Finals and some combination of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Russell Wilson will meet in the Super Bowl. Jayson Stark has debunked the myth of NFL parity.

Baseball will always be subject more greatly to the forces of randomness. Corey Kluber and Max Scherzer can’t throw every pitch in the postseason. Baseball is always going to be the most difficult North American team sport in which to build a dynasty.

But there’s at least one factor that might increasingly aid in dynasty-building: market size. Revenue streams vary widely between markets compared to the NFL and even in the NBA.

We haven’t heard much about this issue in part because the average age of players has declined in the PED testing era. That’s removed some of the competitive advantages of free agency. Young players have become even more valuable. The small-market Kansas City Royals went to back-to-back Worlds Series and won one.

Since PED testing began, the average age of a major-league position player has declined by a full year, removing hundreds of age-30-something seasons from the free-agency market. For whatever reason, careers are ending earlier. Part of it might be a product of declining PED use in the game. Part of it might be more efficient use of payroll, clubs now preferring to replace the middle class of free agent with cheaper, internal, pre-arbitration alternatives. But with greater attention being paid by players to nutrition and training, with greater interest from teams in optimizing performances by way of data, perhaps the average age will begin to inch up.

The relative abundance of youth has helped less affluent clubs. Younger players tend also to be cost-controlled ones, which has rewarded organizations for drafting and developing well. Smaller-market teams have generally been ahead in the analytics movement, as well — because they had to be ahead in the analytics movement. By now, though, every team has analysts, every team is looking for value at the margins, every team values pre-arbitration players and prospects. Some premium front-office talent has migrated to larger-maker clubs. It’s become more difficult to find the next big thing, to find a significant edge.

When the rich teams also become smart teams, efficient teams, parity between market sizes is threatened. And perhaps that’s where we are. While competitive-balance picks are a minor parity-promoting tool, while hard limits in the international market should theoretically help small-market teams, while there’s a soft salary cap in terms of a luxury tax, while national media dollars are shared — despite all that, there’s still quite a divide between the Haves and the Have Nots of the sport in terms of overall resources. There is also no salary floor forcing smaller-maker owners to spend.

We haven’t heard much about parity being an issue for a while and that’s because it hasn’t been an issue on the game’s biggest stage, the playoffs, recently.

But unless Cleveland wins the World Series, a large-market team will prevail. It will be the large-market clubs that will enjoy the spoils of the 2018-19 free-agency class and it’s these efficiently run, large-market clubs that appear to have staying power.

Moreover, players like Bryce Harper, Francisco Lindor, and Manny Machado have shown less willingness to trade earning potential for early security. More and more players are aware of the rising share owners have of revenue. Perhaps more young stars will begin to hit free agency earlier.

Parity has never really existed in baseball. Geography has decided the fate of many clubs. Perhaps for a variety of factors, though, the divide is growing.

The Royals’ position-player core of Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas is headed to free agency. After the final out of the regular season, they huddled in the Kauffman Stadium infield one final time and embraced. They know this chapter is coming to the end. Kansas City knows it’s going to be long road back. And for markets like Kansas City, the environment is not as favorable as it was a decade ago. It’s going to be longer road back.

We hoped you liked reading Postseason Reveals Widening Gap Between Haves, Have Nots by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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ARodTheGOAT
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Member
ARodTheGOAT

I think you did a great job of outlining the problem, but I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about solutions. Would it be as easy as a hard salary cap? More revenue sharing? Draft/free agency rule tweaks?

I really have no idea myself – just curious on yours and others’ thoughts

Phillies' Front Office
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Phillies' Front Office

Hard salary cap is impossible with league having the strongest major league union, any pro-parity change will need to protect player salaries.

Chickensoup
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Chickensoup

Except baseball players are overall underpayed in comparison to league revenue. Last I heard the MLBPA only takes in 41% of revenue. The other major team sports (all salary capped) are near 50/50. They basically sacrifice pre-free agent players to excessively enrich post FA players. An absurd number of players make league minimum, including players that are worth more than $30 million. The MLBPA doesn’t care about them until year 6(7) for all intents and purposes