What Has Caused MLB Teams' Swift Fall to Mediocrity in 2014?

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What Has Caused MLB Teams' Swift Fall to Mediocrity in 2014?
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When it comes to elite, powerhouse teams, there suddenly seems to be a void in Major League Baseball this season. At least, that's what the numbers indicate.

Only one team, the 76-50 (.603) Los Angeles Angels, is playing .600 ball through Thursday's games. That's a lofty winning percentage to meet, but it reinforces what feels like an increased level of parity in the sport.

Besides, as great as the Angels have been, they may not be able to sustain their pace. Their pitching has taken two big hits with season-ending injuries to lefty Tyler Skaggs (Tommy John surgery) and Garrett Richards, the right-hander who was a dark-horse Cy Young candidate before a torn patellar tendon ended his 2014 on Wednesday night, per Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times.

While 90 wins is a somewhat arbitrary number, it's also a pretty good standard to use when quantifying what might qualify as a good season. For one thing, "90" is a round number, and reaching that mark typically puts a team in the playoff picture, if not in the actual playoffs.

In 2014, though, there's a shortage of squads on pace for a 90-win season, at least compared to a year ago.

MLB Teams on Pace for 90-Plus Wins in 2014 (.556 Win %)
TEAM CURRENT WINS WIN PACE
Los Angeles Angels 76 97.7
Oakland Athletics 74 95.1
Baltimore Orioles 73 94.6
Washington Nationals 73 93.8
Milwaukee Brewers 71 90.6
Los Angeles Dodges 72 90.4
Kansas City Royals 70 90.1

MLB.com

Just last season, there were 11 teams—or 57 percent more—that reached the nine-zero mark:

MLB Teams that Won 90-Plus Games in 2013
TEAM 2013 WINS WIN %
Boston Red Sox 97 .599
St. Louis Cardinals 97 .599
Atlanta Braves 96 .593
Oakland Athletics 96 .593
Pittsburgh Pirates 94 .580
Detroit Tigers 93 .574
Los Angeles Dodgers 92 .568
Cleveland Indians 92 .568
Tampa Bay Rays 92 .564
Texas Rangers 91 .558
Cincinnati Reds 90 .556

MLB.com

On the surface, that appears to be a pretty big disparity and drop-off for 2014, no?

Plus, there's always the chance that one or two of those clubs on pace for 90 double-yoos—say, the surprising Milwaukee Brewers or Kansas City Royals—happens to fall off pace.

That could mean we just might see the fewest 90-win team seasons since the 1994 player strike, as Neil Greenberg wrote for The Washington Post at the end of May. The fewest over the past 20 full seasons was six, which happened several times in that period, most recently in 2008.

Here's the thing, though: There actually haven't been that many 90-win clubs each season in recent years, as this table shows:

Number of MLB Teams with 90-Plus Wins By Year
YEAR # TEAMS WITH 90+ WINS
2013 11
2012 9
2011 9
2010 9
2009 7
2008 6

MLB.com

So maybe 2014's mediocrity deserves quotation marks, as in, "mediocrity."

Then again, there's a good chance we'll have a postseason without either the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox—two of the sport's marquee franchises—for the first time in, well, quite some time, as Mike Bauman of MLB.com writes:

For the first time since the Wild Card era began in 1995, there could be a postseason without either the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox. 

This is not about either rejoicing or moaning about the possibility. This is about noticing it, and thus noticing the way the game has changed.

Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Pirates and those Royals—two laughingstock franchises whose resumes include not years but decades of ineptitude—have either made or been on the fringes of the postseason for two straight seasons now.

So how has MLB changed—and been changing—to the point where parity has become the status quo and elite teams have become few and far between?

Steve Ruark/Associated Press
During his two decades as commissioner, Bud Selig has created and fostered the idea and spirit of parity in baseball.

 

Selig's Socialism

Bud Selig's Robin Hood-like schemes—namely, revenue sharing and the luxury tax—force the rich to give to the poor, creating more financial opportunities for small- and mid-market clubs.

Here's Bauman again:

The game's economic structure has changed dramatically since the Yankees' last great run of dominance in the late 1990s through the year 2000. Revenue sharing, unknown when Bud Selig first became Commissioner of Baseball 22 years ago, is now an economic fact of baseball life.

This is the leading edge of Selig's legacy. His background was as the owner of the franchise in baseball's smallest media market, Milwaukee. He believed that fans of every team were owed by baseball the sincere "hope and faith" that their team could compete and could win. Revenue sharing was the device that brought hope and faith to more franchises than ever.

 

All About the Benjamins

In recent years, cable television broadcast deals, both national and regional, have brought in massive amounts of money—like, millions and even billions.

This allows even some of the smaller-market organizations to be able to afford the opportunity to spend to sign free agents and extend their own players before they reach free agency.

Al Behrman/Associated Press
The Braves spent last offseason locking up their young talent, like shortstop Andrelton Simmons and first baseman Freddie Freeman.

 

Lock 'Em Up

Speaking of which, there's a definite trend toward teams locking up their homegrown talent. That makes it less likely that the monster-market teams in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago can simply throw big bucks at players in their primes.

Instead, top talents are extending their stays well into their late 20s and early 30s, after which ponying up is a much bigger risk.

 

If You Built It

While teams can afford to dole out big-money contracts, there's still a need to draft and develop young talent from within.

This approach, when carried out properly, is what makes and keeps small-market clubs competitive because team-controlled talent is both cheap and productive.

 

Isn't Stat Nice

The Moneyball mindset has evened the playing field, as front offices unearth new and better ways to evaluate players and mine for market inefficiencies.

Employing smart decision-makers and scouting and developmental staffs has become a must in baseball, especially for organizations, like the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays, who don't have the financial fortitude to fight the big boys.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press/Associated Press
Savvy front offices, like the one Billy Beane runs in Oakland, have given small-market franchises more than a fighting chance.

 

Stars Seeing Stars

Major injuries to big-name players happen every year, but it feels like 2014 has been especially rough, doesn't it? 

There has been a rash of Tommy John surgeries to pitchers that began at the beginning of the year (i.e., Jose Fernandez, Matt Moore, Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy) and has carried right on through (Tyler Skaggs).

"Losing two guys like that for an entire season is a difficult blow," A's manager Bob Melvin said back in April, via Jane Lee of MLB.com, after starters Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin were both lost to ulnar collateral replacement surgery. "Losing one's a blow, two's tough."

Beyond that procedure, though, a host of other stars have been out for extended periods of time—like Clayton Kershaw, Paul Goldschmidt, Troy Tulowitzki, Edwin Encarnacion, Prince Fielder, Masahiro Tanaka and Bryce Harper, to name just a few—and it's hard for teams to play well when their best players aren't on the field. 

 

Closer Competition

Gone are the days of "enhanced" sluggers and spikes in offensive numbers. Pitching and defense now rule baseball.

When there are fewer runs scored in a game, there's obviously less margin for error and less separation between the best and the bad. That brings parity and reality to the sport.

This can be attributed at least in part to the implementation over the past decade of steroid testing and increasingly harsher penalties for violations and/or positive results. Remember, it's now 80 games for a first offense, 162 for a second and a lifetime ban for a third.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
With pitchers like Clayton Kershaw dominating baseball, the difference between winning and losing is thinner than it's been in a long time.

 

The Bottom Line

Baseball's "mediocrity"—or at least, the sport's lack of elite teams and the increase in parity—is a somewhat legitimate issue.

Ultimately, though, there are some fluky, aberrational elements behind this happening in 2014.

So while it's possible this trend could continue, it's just as likely that MLB will once again have a powerhouse team or three by next season.

Even if neither the Yankees or Red Sox are.

 

Statistics are accurate as of Aug. 21 and come from MLB.comBaseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com, except where otherwise noted.

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11

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