Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, July 18, 2023 -- "Competitive Balance"


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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter:
Vol. 15, No. 66
July 18, 2023

A few days past the All-Star break, 58% of the 2023 season has been played. That number will be well over 60% by the time we hit the trade deadline in two weeks. Trade rumors have come to dominate the conversation more than any other topic, certainly more than anything on the diamond, with Shohei Ohtani the point of overlap between the off-field chatter and the on-field activity. More on that topic tomorrow.

Today, though, let’s take a second to consider just how good baseball’s competitive balance is. Thirty teams are approaching 100 games played, four months of baseball, and only a small handful have been clearly eliminated from contention. The A’s, Royals, Nationals, and Rockies are all at least 14 games from any sort of playoff berth and, at that, they weren’t trying to win anyway. Two more teams, the Pirates and Cardinals, are 11 games out in both the NL Central and NL wild-card races. Those two are turning their attention to the 2024 roster -- the Pirates with call-ups, the Cardinals eyeing the trade market.

There are four teams in a bit of a liminal state, within 8 1/2 games of a playoff berth today, but all playing .470 baseball or worse. The Mets, Padres, and White Sox are three of the most disappointing teams in the game, while the Cubs are about where they were projected to be, even after spending a lot of money last offseason. All four will probably land as soft sellers over the next two weeks, though the teams’ overall situations, considering talent base, payroll, and future roster makeup, make that a complicated decision.

All four of these teams are close enough to a playoff berth, and invested enough in 2023, that a six-game winning streak or taking nine of ten would probably move them out of this group. The White Sox have series with both the Twins and Guardians before the trade deadline, giving them a puncher’s chance at changing their story.

Even if you peg all four as sellers, though, that’s still just ten teams, of 30, who aren’t contenders nearly four months into the season. Baseball is still suffering from the lies of the Bud Selig Era, when the man tasked with leading baseball spent decades selling the idea that only a small handful of teams had a chance to win the World Series, a chance to contend for the playoffs, all as part of a long-term strategy to mold the sport’s business to the whims of its worst owners. It was a lie then -- even with smaller playoff fields, most teams went into a season with a fair chance to be in them. Selig’s lies, accepted and reported as truth, have been in the sport’s water supply for my entire writing career, and have poisoned two generations of fans and media.

The fact is, as we approach the 100-game mark, 20 teams are within 5 1/2 games -- within a good week -- of a playoff berth. Some of those are very good baseball teams, like the Rays, Rangers, and Dodgers. Some...aren’t, like the Twins, Guardians, and Tigers. As we’ve learned over 30 years, though, the baseball playoffs don’t really distinguish between the two. If you’re good enough to make the playoffs, you’re good enough to win the World Series, and as of July 18, two-thirds of the league has a shot at the playoffs.

This isn’t that unusual a scenario, either. The trade deadline serves as an opportunity for teams to self-define. Last year, 12 teams were sellers, based on their actions, and the Orioles’ place on that list was controversial. In 2021, the split was 16 buyers and 13 sellers, though with two fewer playoff teams. I didn’t publish a split in 2019, the first year of the single deadline, but just reading my coverage it looks like another 16 or 17 teams were buyers, again with a smaller playoff format.

There are 20 teams within 5 1/2 games of a playoff berth today, and four others inside 8 1/2 games. For a league that plays 162 games over 187 days and lets just 40% of its teams into the playoffs (smallest field of the major U.S. sports), that seems to be as good as you could possibly hope for.

Bud Selig lied to you. Baseball’s competitive balance is just fine, and if you don’t believe me, believe the front offices, who will spend the next two weeks showing you how many of them have hope and faith.