The Divide Between the Best and Worst Is Growing

There’s room for debate over whether the present mix of super teams and tanking teams is good for baseball.

On the one hand, the Astros-Dodgers World Series last fall — as well as many of the matchups that preceded it — made for compelling theatre. The Astros featured one of the best offenses in MLB history. The Indians’ rotation was the definitely the best by some measures. There’s something to be said for appreciating rare performances in real time. And the field of elite clubs likely to participate in this coming October’s postseason — especially in the American League — promises more of the same.

Meanwhile, teams at the other end of the spectrum are operating rationally. Clubs are best positioned to win by acquiring premium long-term, cost-controlled assets. The best way to do that is by loading up on early draft picks and bonus-pool dollars. Even with the addition of the second Wild Card, few clubs seem interested in sustaining mediocrity.

Still, there can be consequences if too many teams are simply not competitive and the best teams are dominant.

Fans might be responding at the gate already. Earlier this year, two million fans were missing. Now, through July 23rd, 2.55 million fans are missing.

While a frigid April had something to do with attendance woes, gate receipts are still down nearly two million fans, or roughly 5%, from last April 15 through July 23 compared to the same period last season.

Of course, it is difficult to isolate how much effect tanking clubs are having on attendance, as the gate is threatened by other factors, as well: an improved at-home TV experience and the rising cost of tickets, for example — the latter of which has been influenced by the secondary market, which clubs like the Blue Jays have tried to better control.

This contributor is not here to opine on whether the growing void between the best and worst teams is ultimately good or bad for the sport. I will note, however, that we have not often seen such a gap between the best and worst teams.

The standings reveal that, as of Tuesday, the Astros possessed a run differential of +188, the best mark in baseball. The Royals, meanwhile, owned a -188 figure, representing the worst. That felt, to this author, like a sizable gap after just 100 games. Turns out, it is pretty sizable.

The 376-run difference would represent the largest since at least 2003. The 331-run canyon between the Red Sox (No. 2) and the Orioles (No. 29) would qualify as the second-largest gap over that same timeframe. The season is not yet finished, so I suppose it’s possible those gaps close, but that seems improbable. More likely, they keep growing. Since 2003, the only other time the best and worst teams in the majors were separated by 300 runs was in 2003, when the Braves and Tigers finished 311 runs apart.

To think about this another way, for the Royals and Astros to play a game with 50-50 odds on an outcome, the Royals need to be spotted about 3.7 runs to begin the game. That’s staggering.

When expanding this out to include the top five and bottom five teams, the projected run differential of 1,980 runs this season would be the greatest mark of the decade. Some teams have been constructed really well. They’ve made shrewd draft picks and trades. Others have not. The competition gap is stretched as wide as its ever been in the 21st century.

Last October, this contributor wondered if the era of the super team had arrived. All eight teams in the division round of the playoffs had run differentials of plus-100 or better. Now, as Jeff Sullivan noted back in February, not all super teams succeed (see: Nationals, Washington). But what might be even more troubling in team-building philosophy is to consider that not all of these tanking models will lead to success stories. What becomes of the tankers that fail? Perhaps a decade or more of terrible baseball. There’s no guarantee that the Marlins or Padres or White Sox become the next Astros or Cubs. Extreme team-building philosophies are logical and rational in a vacuum. Whether they are more healthy or destructive for the sport is another question.

It’s not clear whether the gap between the best and worst will continue to grow. Maybe the last couple of years represent an outlier, though teams are more and more attempting to operate as efficiently and rationally as possible. No one team is valuing moving from, say, 74 to 77 wins. The gap between the best and worst, at least in the short term, is growing.

We hoped you liked reading The Divide Between the Best and Worst Is Growing 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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grandbranyan
Member
Member
grandbranyan

More comprehensive revenue sharing. Hard salary cap & floor. Raise the minimum.

Oh, yeah. Pay the minor leaguers too.

mikecws91
Member

Pay the minor leaguers?! COMMIE!

Johnston
Member
Johnston

Every one of those ideas is bad for baseball.

jayman4
Member
Member
jayman4

Agree. I have given this more thought than is warranted. I think MLBPA and MLB need to negotiate the % of baseball revenues spent on player salaries. Once that is decided (renegotiated on a regular cadence), that number is then split equally over all teams. Teams can defer, trade salary allocations, etc. but the money is spent. If a team wants to defer their spending (e.g. rebuilding), fine either they trade their allocation or defer it but there is a tax on unspent salary, etc.

Lots of details to be hashed out and want to keep incentives for revenue teams control the most, but it does require transfers from big market teams to small for them to spend their allocation. Obviously big markets will dislike this but the alternative is a painfully skewed competitive landscape.

But I think this aligns incentives pretty well and brings in some sense of balance of inputs into the system.

brood550
Member
brood550

Hard salary caps harm players. The good players will get paid but the mid and low tier players will be sacrificed to make that work. I will never support hard salary caps.

baubo
Member
baubo

I’m not for or against a salary cap, hard or soft, but to outright say a system is bad for players makes no sense. Every system benefits some players and hurts others. The question is which people do you prefer to benefit.

In fact, the way baseball works, which is essentially a collective of individual performances, a hard cap is generally good for mid-lower tier players. Because paying $40mil to a 5-6WAR star and replacement level guy the minimum doesn’t provide more benefit than splitting that cost to give $20mil apiece to two 2-3WAR players. This isn’t like basketball where a superstar essentially raise the playing level of role players around him. Or in football where the QB is integral to ensuring that every other part of the offense (linemen, backs, receivers, etc.) work collectively. In baseball, Mike Trout doesn’t make Justin Upton hit better just because they’re next to each other in the lineup. In basketball, a 3 point shooter benefits greatly if he plays next to LeBron as opposed Zach Lavine.

That said, there are certainly issues with hard caps. Most notably that it will provide a clear upper limit to team spending the way current system does not. But on the flip side, it’s not like the current system is giving players tons of money either, because teams are skating around the uncapped system by reducing the impact of FAs to their teams through more utilization of younger, cost-controlled players.