On a competitive balance high

Despite words to the contrary, competitive balance in baseball has never been better than it presently is.

Originally Published: April 29, 2004
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

I'm not sure when people -- that is, baseball writers -- first began wailing about "competitive balance." I keep hearing about the 1950s as the "Golden Age," which always strikes me as a bit strange considering that from 1949 through 1958, nine of 10 World Series were won by New York teams (seven for the Yankees, one apiece for the Giants and Dodgers).

The 1960s? Not bad, once the Yankees stopped winning in 1965. While there were still a few perennial non-contenders (the Senators, the Indians, the Phillies), otherwise the pennants were spread around pretty well.

Competitive balance in the 1970s? Forget about it ... and you probably have unless you were a fan of the Orioles, Yankees, Royals, A's, Reds, Dodgers, Pirates, or Phillies, because those eight teams captured 34 of the 40 division titles available in the decade. From 1976 through 1978, four teams took 11 of the 12 division titles available.

Earl Weaver
Earl Weaver led a dominant Orioles team to five AL East division titles, three AL championships and one World Series title in the 1970s.

None of those four teams repeated in 1979 ... but then three of them returned to the winner's circle in 1980, and the fourth (the Dodgers, if you're curious) won the World Series in 1981.

For some reason, though, things began to change in 1982. That season, perennial doormats Atlanta and Milwaukee both won division titles, the Angels won their second flag in franchise history, and the Cardinals won their first since 1968. The middle and late 1980s were something of a golden age for competitive balance. From 1982 through 1989, not a single National League division titlist managed to repeat the next season. Over that same span, only the '85 Royals and '89 Athletics were repeat winners in the American League. So when people talk about competitive balance, maybe their frame of reference is the 1980s.

But how aberrational was that era? There are obviously different ways to measure competitive balance, but a very basic question is, did this team have a chance to win, according to the standings? To answer that question, I made a list of every team that was within five games of first place at two points in the season: on the morning of August 1, and after the regular season had been completed. In the absence of one of those neat graphs with the squiggly lines, I'll present some of the data in five-year chunks, going back to 1969.

First, the percentage of major-league teams within five games of first place the morning of August 1. This method does occasionally miss some teams that actually wound up finishing in first place -- notably, the 1969 Mets -- but not many teams do make up a five-game deficit in two months.

         "Close" on 8/1
1969-1973      30%
1974-1978      30%
1979-1983      40%
1984-1988      35%
1989-1993      36%
1994-1998      36%
1999-2003      39%

A quick note: in these studies I ignored 1981 because the truncated schedule makes dates and deficits irrelevant to the matter at hand. Anyway, by this measure the competitive balance over the last five seasons has been on a par with anything that most of us have seen.

You don't think August 1 means anything? OK, let's look instead at the final standings ...

         "Close" (at close)
1969-1973       26%
1974-1978       28%
1979-1983       28%
1984-1988       27%
1989-1993       22%
1994-1998       32%
1999-2003       31%

Different specifics, same story. After a tough stretch in the early '90s, a higher percentage of teams are finishing close to first place than ever before (at least since 1969). So what changed in 1994? Right. Major League Baseball created two new divisions: the Centrals. Six divisions means two more teams (the first-place teams) are automatically added to the list of contenders, and the way is also open for more non-winning contenders.

Marlins
Getty ImagesThe Marlins were the NL wild card representative in both of their World Series championship seasons (1997 and 2003).

And I left out something, didn't I? The wild card, another of Dr. Frankenselig's creations. We know that wild card teams are no slouches when the postseason rolls around, so shouldn't we include them when we're checking competitive balance? The chart below is mostly the same as above, but it changes quite a bit after 1994, when we count not only those teams that finish first or within five games of first, but also the teams that won the wild card or came within five games of the wild card ...

           "Close"
1969-1973    26%
1974-1978    28%
1979-1983    28%
1984-1988    27%
1989-1993    22%
1994-1998    42%
1999-2003    35%

There's one obvious way to divide the data: before 1994, and after (I'll actually exclude 1994 this time since the season ended early):

           "Close"
1969-1993    25%
1995-2003    38%

All right, no more data. Now, if you'll give me a moment to don my editorialist's hat ... OK, got it (and lemme tell you, it's getting to be a pretty snug fit) ... If by "competitive balance" we mean that a significant number of teams have a fighting chance to win the World Series, then we're probably at an all-time high. In any given season since 1994, roughly four out of every 10 teams finished the schedule within five games of either a division title or the wild card, and that's a lot of teams.

And yet, the Commissioner continues to prattle on about "competitive balance" and, even more cloyingly, "hope and faith." Well, he and his fellow owners solved the "problem" 10 years ago when they created two new divisions and four new postseason berths. In the face of the evidence I've presented above, I'm led to one of two conclusions: that the Commissioner won't be happy until 1) MLB is like the NHL and the NBA, with more than half the teams not only having the chance to make the playoffs, but actually making the playoffs, or 2) the Commissioner's own team, which hasn't played a postseason game since 1982, actually makes the playoffs.

Then again, maybe those two things are one and the same. All I know is that among all the other things that make this the greatest time to be a baseball fan, is the fact that most baseball fans this winter could reasonably harbor high hopes for their team in 2004. Almost everybody is happy, or will be soon.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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