Monday, December 2, 2019

Newsletter Preview: "Competitive Balance"

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for nearly 25 years.

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 11, No. 83
September 26, 2019

The Tigers, of course, are just one of a number of teams racking up losses this season. Four teams have lost 100 games. At the other end of the standings, three teams already have 100 wins, and two, the Braves and Twins, can still get there.

This kind of bifurcation breaks, and could potentially shatter, a record tied just last year, when six teams finished with at least 100 wins or losses. Since expansion pushed the schedule to 162 games in 1961 (1962 in the NL), there have been five seasons in which at least five teams posted numbers that big. Two were expansion years, 1962 and 1967 (five); one was 2002 (six); and the other two are the last two years. If we do get to nine, that’s a 50% leap over the previous record.

Have you heard a peep about this from the league office? From Rob Manfred? From an owner or six? Mind you, competitive balance is supposed to be the reason why hundreds of millions of dollars get transferred from big-city teams to small-city ones. It’s why there are rules in place that penalize teams that invest heavily in putting a great team on the field. It’s why there are rules in place that forbid teams from spending freely on international amateurs and greatly restrain their spending on domestic ones.

Competitive balance was the rationale behind free-agent compensation, the issue that spurred the owners to strike in 1981. It was the nominal reason why teams forced a strike in 1994, when they were pursuing a radical rollback of free agency via a payroll cap. It was never far from the lips of Bud Selig, who coined the phrase “hope and faith” to convince fans and media that his only goal was providing good baseball to fans of all 30 teams.

It was always a lie. “Competitive balance” has always been code for “the players make too much money.” Ever notice how the rules and contraptions and limitations deemed essential for competitive balance always, coincidentally, transfer wealth from labor to management? That there was never a plan, not once, to improve competitive balance by forcing the teams to, you know, compete more, rather than less?

This has always been true, but the 2018-19 seasons hopefully put the fallacy to rest forever. Baseball had the best competitive balance in its entire history from the dawn of free agency through 1993, the last full season before the strike. Of the 26 teams that played through that period, 17 seasons, 22 won a division title, and the Expos sort of did in 1981. Eighteen of 26 teams played in the World Series. Thirteen teams, half the league, won the World Series.

The owners, led by Bud Selig, looked at that landscape and decided that baseball had a competitive balance problem.

Nearly every change the league has made since then, clawing its way to wins in CBA negotiation after CBA negotiation, has chipped away at competitive balance. That process accelerated in the last two CBAs, which all but eliminated competition for international talent and sharply reduced competition for major-league talent. Parallel to great gains in revenue from a variety of sources, those CBAs made “winning baseball games” a smaller and smaller part of “making money.”

Bud Selig looked at the best competitive balance in baseball history and lied about it to make more money for him and his pals. Rob Manfred? In February, coming off a season in which six teams won or lost 100 games, said, “There has been no meaningful change in the distribution of winning percentages in major league baseball.” Why? Because the teams are making money hand over fist. (Rob Arthur, take it away.) There are draconian penalties for spending too much money on your product, and none at all for spending too little.

I don’t know what MLB's next argument will be. Maybe it will remain “competitive balance,” even though the current state of the game is the product of the league setting the rules with minimal opposition. No matter what it is, though, let the history of management’s approach to competitive balance be the context in which you hear their arguments. In 1993, they said black was white. In 2019, they’re saying white is black. They’ll say anything to keep the lion’s share of the green.


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