How Much Hope and Faith Is in Major League Baseball?

Teams are competitive far deeper into the season than they used to be.

Teams are competitive far deeper into the season than they used to be.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally printed in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2017. You can purchase a copy of it here.

I was a fan for many years. I ran a club, and one thing I’ve known, I’ve been convinced of, is that every fan has to have hope and faith. If you remove hope and faith from the mind of a fan, you destroy the fabric of the sport. It’s my job to restore it.”
– Bud Selig, in a Q&A from January 2000

In 2000, baseball was in a competitive crisis. Success was increasingly tied to payroll, creating a struggle for many small-market teams. And the money disparity between baseball’s bourgeoisie and proletariat was growing, leaving numerous teams chronically uncompetitive. On this course, Commissioner Bud Selig saw the sport drifting towards implosion. But this was a war within that Selig was determined to win, with plans rooted in principle.

As Major League Baseball’s newly full-fledged steward, Selig wanted to infuse into baseball his Hope and Faith Theory. That meant inspiring belief in as many fans as possible that their teams could be postseason-bound. It couldn’t just be rooters of the dynastic (and at the time, financially robust) Cleveland, Atlanta and New York Yankees franchises who could feel a World Series within reach; fans throughout the country needed to be invited to the season-long party, with as many squeezed into the ballroom as could comfortably fit. A competitive climate, Selig argued, would mean more butts in stadium seats, more eyes fixed to game telecasts, and more profits flowing through the game.

Resoundingly, this monetary endgame was achieved, as MLB has become a financial powerhouse. The league now pulls in $10 billion per year on the strength of swelling attendance, massive television contracts, lucrative new ballparks and a flourishing digital arm in MLB Advanced Media. MLB’s standing as a Chris Traeger-like picture of good health seems to warrant Selig’s place as one of MLB’s greatest-ever commissioners. But the vast revenues don’t directly reflect how well Selig accomplished the Hope and Faith target he laid out 16 years ago. No doubt, there is greater competitiveness in baseball today than in 2000, but we don’t really know the extent of the upturn. To address how well Hope and Faith have been built and sustained through baseball’s six-month season and across multiple years, we need a new tool.

Close Competition, Now in Statistical Form

Quantifying an intangible emotion like optimism seems like a tall order, but we absolutely can design a metric that gauges Selig’s Hope and Faith ambition for MLB. In keeping with the mantra, we’ll call it the Hope and Faith Index (HFI), and it will measure the average number of wins separating teams from playoff spots. The HFI algorithm uses this fundamental process:

  1. For each team leading either a division or Wild Card race, a deficit of zero is appended.
  2. For each team chasing a playoff slot, the algorithm considers whether the club is fewer games back in the division or, when applicable, Wild Card race. The smaller figure gets recorded as that team’s playoff deficit.
  3. All deficit figures are summed and then divided by the count of the number of deficits included. And, voila! That’s the HFI.

Previous studies have evaluated competitiveness via the spread of full-season win-loss records, but that method has its limits. It examines the standings at only a single point: the last day of the season, following Game No. 162. In reality, competitiveness within the baseball season is fluid across all 162 games, making the HFI a novel way to create a continuous index of competition. The HFI is totally time-flexible; it can be built to reflect any span of games that suits our needs.

When it comes to tallying up deficits, I specifically avoid using the standings as of actual dates. They just don’t make for good comparison within years (since teams have differing numbers of games played on each given date) and between years (since seasons start on different dates between March and April). To sidestep these inconsistencies, I record the standings at each given game number. Ask me what competitiveness looked like at the halfway point of a season, and I’ll give you the HFI as of Game No. 81 instead of June 30. This construction more tidily facilitates HFI comparisons across all years of my dataset.

I omit all data from the strike-disrupted 1981, 1994 and 1995 seasons, as the many canceled games make for biased HFIs. I include all other seasons dating back to 1974, as from that year and onward, Retrosheet has a full accounting of major league games played.

Of course, the postseason format in the ’70s was much different than the three-division, one-/two-Wild Card format of the past two decades. With 22 teams in the majors up through 1976, and then 26 teams until 1993, the only playoff slots went to the winners of the two American League and two National League divisions. This highlights another bright spot of the HFI—it adapts to altered playoff-entry formats. That gives way to the initial two questions we’ll aim to answer: How much Hope and Faith has there been in baseball since the ’70s, and how productive were Selig’s playoff format initiatives?

The HFI Across Seasons

Here we’ll deploy the Yearly HFI (YHFI), which will include every single deficit piled up by all teams in each season. We’ll begin with analysis of the black line in the chart below, which shows the actual YHFI across the entire time frame. When looking at this chart and all HFI figures, remember: the lower the HFI, the better, because smaller deficits mean more of Selig’s Hope and Faith flows through baseball.

01_yearly-hfi

This chart has some seriously jagged lines. The YHFI typically jumps around by one game (either up or down) from year to year. Even with those fluctuations, we can still pick out a trend of poor YHFIs in the earlier two decades. From 1974 to 1993, the YHFI hovered around eight games per season. Think about that: If we had to guess where a given team typically stood in the standings in this 20-year period, our best estimate would be eight games out. As recently as 23 years ago, the average team didn’t have a prayer at a playoff berth, and many seasons took the form of a lopsided Charlie Brown baseball hellscape.

But after 1993, competitiveness in baseball was reborn anew. That statement may be surprising; after all, in 1994, Major League Baseball was about to enter its darkest hour—the 1994-1995 strike. But after that season, in Selig’s second year as acting commissioner, MLB’s playoff structure evolved. Each league’s pair of divisions were split into three, giving teams fewer rivals to hop over in a playoff push. And crucially, a Wild Card was added to each league, pitting non-division leaders in a free-for-all for a fourth playoff slot.

The result? The YHFI took a nosedive. In 1993, it was 9.02; in 1996, the next season in which a full slate of major league games was played, it plummeted to 4.71. It swung up and down after that but eventually settled in at a new normal (5.84) in 2003. Fully aggregated across the two-division era (1974-1993), the HFI was 7.91; in the first Wild Card era (1996-2011), it was 5.79. That was a 26.8 percent improvement, representing a very nice boost in Hope and Faith.

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More change was still to come, as a second Wild Card was introduced in each league in 2012. Now it’s the top two non-division winners who are granted the opportunity to collect a shiny, flag-laden World Series trophy. The second Wild Card rankles purists (and the 2014-15 Pirates) who hate to see a ~90-win season come down to a single sudden-death game. But there’s no denying the second Wild Card is good for competition. In the second Wild Card era (2012-2015), the aggregated HFI sank to 4.58, amounting to a 42.1 percent improvement upon the two-division era. It’s now typical for teams to be fewer than five games back of a playoff spot and in the thick of the race. This is a remarkable advancement of Hope and Faith.

Beyond the actual HFI figures, showing what baseball’s competitive state actually was, we should consider what could have been. The medium-dark gray line shows what the YHFIs would have been if, in the two-division format, one Wild Card existed in both the American and National Leagues. Similarly, the light gray line shows the prospective YHFIs had there been two Wild Cards up for grabs in each league. Both curves assume the season would have unfolded in exactly the same manner but with additional playoff spots available at the end. And what we see in these gray curves are big downward shifts and flattened, horizontal trends across the length of the chart. This means there were massive gains to Hope and Faith that could have been netted in these hypothetical scenarios. The addition of a Wild Card in both the AL and NL would have dropped the 1974-1993 aggregated HFI to 5.82. And, if the second Wild Cards were in place, the aggregated HFI over the same 20-year time frame would have been 4.67.

In the two-division era, even when Selig initiatives like revenue sharing and the luxury tax weren’t yet in full force, the hypothetical HFIs were just a hair worse than the “actuals” registered later on. Those initiatives may have been good at democratizing major league baseball, giving both big- and small-market clubs a fair chance at contention, but from a purely competitive standpoint, the HFIs are essentially the same. Perhaps the hypothetical HFIs would worsen if historical teams actually worked to attain Wild Card positions, pulling off deadline deals to create greater distance between good and bad teams. But even without identical conditions, we can say the historical implications of this finding are enormous.

Think about all of the revenues owners (and players) of years ago missed out on by not creating more playoff slots and more meaningful races for non-division leaders. We need not shed tears for these millionaires and billionaires, but then again, for a league and union that were in the business of maximizing baseball profits, both sides passed up buckets of money by not making common-sense changes to the playoff format. The very presence of Wild Cards is a huge boon to Hope and Faith.

The HFI within Seasons

The YHFI is great for benchmarking across the 39-year period. But there are more details to explore. Namely, there is a journey through the season the YHFI doesn’t capture. So let’s look at the HFI in another way. Over the three eras of interest in my dataset—the two-division era (1974-1993), the first Wild Card era (1996-2011) and the second Wild Card era (2012-2015)—let’s examine the HFI when the 162-game season is divided into 18-game spans. That partitions the season into nine periods, so we’ll call this version of our index the NHFI and chart it in the heat map below.

02_heatmap-2

Here’s the Dylan Thomasian guide to reading this chart: The closer that boxes are to black, the deeper baseball’s fans are into the depths of despair, when hope for contention is lost upon all but a few fan bases. The nearer that boxes are to bright white, the more optimism brims for fans all across the country, because a greater number of teams are jockeying for playoff slots. With that in mind, what can be gleaned from this chart? Namely this: With each passing era, major league teams have gone less gently into the night of their seasons. Moving downward, darkened gray boxes are pushed out toward the rightward end of the chart, and big NHFI gains are made in the early parts of seasons.

For instance, in the span of games 55-72 (end of May/beginning of June), the 1974-1993 NHFI was 6.80. Teams were still in the earlier stretches of the year, yet it had already become clear that many clubs’ postseason chances were quickly evaporating. After the first Wild Card was implemented, the deficit in the corresponding period was chopped to 4.76. With this 30 percent improvement, many more fans could come to the ballpark feeling their club had at least an outside shot at the postseason. And in the modern second Wild Card era, that average 55-72-game deficit has been cut again, now to 3.52. This is nearly a 50 percent improvement from the two-division era.

These are serious upgrades in sustained Hope and Faith, although the gains do shrink as the calendar rolls into the latter stages of the season. In the penultimate period (127-144), for example, improvements on top of the two-division era are a slimmer 24.7 percent in the first Wild Card era and 36.8 percent in the second. That the returns diminish isn’t surprising, because even in the hyper-competitive second Wild Card era, teams do sell off and rebuild. But the ample Hope and Faith present in baseball today makes this midseason decision tougher than ever.

Consider this chart of the Daily HFI (DHFI), showing the size of the average deficit at Game No. 108—the generalized two-thirds point of the season for when the trade deadline is set—for every season in the dataset. In addition to the raw line graph, a locally weighted regression (LOESS) smoother runs through the data to iron out the yearly peaks and valleys.

03_game108

For a general manager, it’s easy to justify a pare-down to your owner and fan base when your club is nine games out, which was a typical state of affairs near the trade deadline in the early ’90s. But with the sub-six-game HFI seen today, fewer sell-offs are so easily defensible. I’ve directed this Hope and Faith concept on fans, but it just as easily can manifest itself amongst teams. A five-game deficit feels like an obstacle that can be surpassed with one strong, well-timed run.

In light of this surging Hope and Faith at the two-thirds stage of the season, maybe it makes sense to push the trade deadline back. That shift would give teams extra time for self-assessment ahead of their ultimate buy or sell decision. So, what’s an appropriate date? A reasonable choice would be the competitive state that motivated MLB and the union to pin down July 31 as the deadline in 1985’s collective bargaining agreement. Perhaps there is a better level of competitiveness for timing a trade deadline, but let’s view this as an attempt to modernize, and not optimize, its timing.

The DHFI can guide us here as well. The chart below shows the DHFI across every day of the 1985 and 2015 seasons.

04_daily-hfi

Unlike the across-year charts, these within-year curves are very strongly linear (with R2 values exceeding 0.94 in both cases). And for these two seasons, there’s a clear, huge disparity in Hope and Faith all through each year. The 2015 curve is significantly more gradual than its 1985 counterpart. In 1985, the DHFI worsened by one for every 10.4 games played; in 2015, the DHFI worsened by one for every 19.6 games played.

That 2015 HFI increase rate is great for Hope and Faith. But it has ramifications for an attempted refresh of the trade deadline. Look at the horizontal dotted line, drawn so that it begins with the 11.35 DHFI that teams registered at Game No. 108 in 1985. It never comes close to intersecting with the 2015 curve. The worst DHFI posted in 2015 was 9.30, which is not anywhere close to the same neighborhood. Remarkably, when it comes to the trade deadline, baseball arguably has too much of a good thing: There is so much Hope and Faith that no deadline can be justified by the original 1985 standard.

Selig’s Legacy of Hope and Faith

The addition of multiple Wild Card slots looks like a masterstroke from baseball’s former commissioner. But before we all jump on eBay to purchase Bud Selig bobbleheads (these do exist), we need to acknowledge one important caveat: The Wild Cards were not an innovation without precedent.

For years, Wild Cards have been used in the other major North American pro sports leagues. The NFL adopted a format of three divisions plus a Wild Card in 1970, over two decades earlier than MLB. The NHL has sent multiple non-division winners to the playoffs in all non-“Original Six” years. So has the NBA, which has done so since that league’s inception in 1946. It feels like an expanded MLB postseason should have been a plainly obvious update long before it actually happened.

Yet, I don’t think it’s fair to say this unoriginality diminishes Selig’s achievement. The fact is that because of the toxic situation he inherited—exceptional divisiveness amongst the owners themselves—it took a particular set of skills to accomplish the task, skills that were acquired over a very long career as a baseball fan and owner. Consider this excerpt from Ben Reiter’s 2014 Sports Illustrated profile of Selig:

I understood that if you wanted to get people to cooperate, it may be a slower, evolutionary process, but it was the way to get things done,” Selig says. “It would take longer. And it may be more difficult. But my style, which was oft criticized as too slow and too cautious, led to 30-to-nothing votes and led to revenue sharing and the Wild Card and so many other things. There’s no way you could have just come in there and say, ‘Bang, let’s do it.’ I was very cautious. And here I am, responsible for most of the changes in baseball over the last 20 years, more changes than ever before. But not without a lot of pain.”

In the end, Hope and Faith in baseball was more than restored. The average playoff deficit is 42.1 percent less today than in decades past, and the season’s first half is now especially competitive. With more clubs in the playoff hunt, millions of additional baseball fans are engaged deep into the year. And so the fabric of the sport, once a worry for Selig, is now intact and looking better than ever because Hope and Faith is at an all-time high.

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Gerald Schifman is the lead researcher at Crain's New York Business and a writer at The Hardball Times. He previously worked in the New York Mets' baseball operations department and in Major League Baseball's publishing department. Follow him on Twitter @gschifman.
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jim
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jim

Excellent stuff — especially the idea of moving the trade deadline back.

Mike Mathias
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Mike Mathias

Ironically, 2000 was the only season in Major League history when no team won 60% of their games and every team won at least 40%.

Luis
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Luis

The Wilpons exact a 65% reduction in any hope factor..:-)

Jeremiah
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Jeremiah
While I enjoy the expanded playoffs, I don’t buy it as a “plainly obvious” step guaranteed to succeed. First off, plenty of NFL and NBA postseason berths have failed to inspire much optimism, when the Warriors or Cavs or Pats are standing between your team and the championship game. At the other extreme, if the series are short enough or the rounds are so numerous that anyone has a chance for an upset, will fans be more excited, or jaded because the championship no longer reflects skill? By the author’s HFI metric, a 30-team postseason would be the ideal structure,… Read more »
Gerald Schifman
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I don’t advocate for expanding the playoffs at every opportunity, but the situation of years ago did call for it. Deficits were huge under the exclusive playoff system of the 1970s and 1980s, and opening up the playoff doors to more teams would have yielded large improvements in competitiveness through each season. Adding playoff entrants is not a panacea for improving MLB. For one thing, the returns figure to diminish with each expansion. But more importantly, we and many more would agree that an HFI hovering near zero for the entire season isn’t ideal. To identify the optimal HFI, one… Read more »
Snider Fan
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Snider Fan

At an extreme, if every team made the playoffs then fans would have little interest in regular-season games. And I’m not sure the goal should be to make everyone feel their team has a chance so much as creating a system where the best team wins. At least that’s the way the game was played up until 1969.

I’ve gotten used to the Wild Card, but think the second WC is ridiculous. Eventually there will be another round of playoffs and the World Series will last until Thanksgiving.

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