MLB: How to Fix a Problem That Few See?
The graph you see in the image above is something I put together last fall concerning an issue that is, again, back on the mind of some baseball bloggers of my acquaintance.
However, I beg your indulgence to ignore it for a few minutes until I set the context for discussing it.
My friend eyebleaf at Sports and the City made a post that inspired a post that in turn initiated a conversation at Ghostrunner on First all relating in some way to what needs to be done about the two elephants in the room in the AL East.
And it's in continuation of that conversation that I submit this column.
The main problem with this problem is that no one who has the power to address the problem thinks it's a problem (I'm looking at you, Uncle Bud).
The problem doesn't affect anyone in the NL at all, and it affects 2 of 3 divisions in the AL only marginally (i.e. as it relates to the Wild Card race), so naturally there's no groundswell of passion among baseball executives to fix a problem that only affects three teams.
That problem is, on the surface, primarily the New York Yankees, and secondarily, the Boston Red Sox. But, in reality, it's not so much a matter of those two teams and the choices they make, it's more that the system in place, in several ways, fails to allow for the reality of the situation.
There are actually several factors that conspire to put the rest of the AL East behind the eight ball every April:
1. The Unbalanced Schedule. This is, sadly, not going to change. Why? Because nothing makes money for MLB like the maximum number of games between the Yankees and Red Sox on television. These showcases drive the economic bus on TV revenues. The downside is that the other three teams in the division are competing for the wild card with teams in other divisions that have much easier schedules.
2. Divisions. Again, not going to change because without divisions, there can be no unbalanced schedule.
3. No effective salary control. Not only is this a complex issue, but there can be all sorts of unintended consequences.
4. Few teams make the playoffs. In the last 11 years, only once has an AL East team other than the Yankees or Red Sox made the playoffs.
These are not the only things that need fixing (hello, the draft!) but these are the major factors related to the competitive imbalance in the AL East.
While if your only concern is competitive balance, addressing either of the first two would help tremendously, it's a given that's not going to happen, so let me look a bit closer at the latter two.
Both a salary cap and playoff expansion are oft-proposed changes, and not just by fans of teams in the AL East. Let me take them in turn.
In the larger sense, I want to leave the analysis of the potential consequences of a salary cap to those with more economic smarts than I have.
I have seen a lot of discussion of the concept, and I remain unconvinced it's the best solution, but it's not one I'd adamantly oppose, either.
However, it's worth noting that a ceiling is wrongheaded without a floor, and the complexity of such a system seems a very big headache to take on to curb the excesses of, frankly, just one team.
That said, I do want to point out why that one team is a problem. Allow me to direct your attention back to the graph above. The X axis reflects the years since 1988, and the Y axis is team salary in tens of millions.
Now, in the years prior to 1993 the Yanks were only occasionally the holder of the highest payroll, and once or twice in the late '90's they were No. 2 by a relatively small margin, so you have to understand that there's no line on that graph for the highest payroll in the league.
The green line is the Yankees, and the other lines reflect the rest of the league at five-team intervals (the No. 5 team, the No. 10 team and so forth). Notice that through 1993, the top 20 or so teams are relatively closely bunched between the low 40's and the high 20's.
Even after the Yankees became the (almost) constant No. 1 team, the pace of salary separation between the charted teams remains fairly constant for eight years.
As late as 2001, the payroll of the Yankees was only about 16 percent higher than the No. 5 team in baseball, and the intervals are fairly evenly spaced.
But then what has happened since is clearly illustrated. While the spacing of the other intervals remained fairly consistent, the Yankees payroll skyrockets away from the pack.
This is the reason they take so much grief, not because they are the highest but the margin of their lead. A full 75 percent higher than the No. 5 team in the league.
It's also the reason why they skew the results in the AL East. The Red Sox enjoy the good fortune of being able to spend enough to be competitive with the Yankees, but fair-minded people shouldn't expect the Boston franchise to go cheap out of some sense of fair play.
The same onus is on the other teams in the division: either spend with the Yankees (whether you can afford it or not) or face a never-ending string of irrelevant seasons, Tampa Bay's 2008 notwithstanding.
So, Mr. Selig, unless you are prepared to just callously say "Suck on it" to those other three teams, you do have a problem.
I want to digress here just a moment to address another aspect of this discussion. I'm willing to admit this doesn't pertain to the point at hand directly, but I am seizing the chance to say something that comes to my mind every time some sort of revenue distribution is discussed.
Some invoke words like socialism or whatever and argue that every team is entitled to whatever profits it can make.
The thing is, this misses the point of what MLB actually is. Major League Baseball is not 30 individual businesses competing for the same consumers, it's one business operating in 30 separate locations.
For an analogy, consider a mid-sized city. Is the Wal-Mart on Main Street in competition with the Wal-Mart on Baker Street? Heck no.
It's in competition with the Target. Likewise, the Red Sox and Yankees are competitors on the field, but as business entities, they are two locations of the same company.
The NFL team across town, or whatever other potential reciever of the consumer's entertainment dollars is the competition.
Once you understand that reality, then the concept of shared revenues takes on a much different light.
An argument can be made that rather than a salary cap, every team should be budgeted a fixed amount of money for all player procurement and development costs.
One team might chose to direct that money to a free agent signing while another to building a baseball acadamy in Brazil, but their resources for putting players into their organization would be equal across the league.
How profitable your individual franchise was would be derived from how well you ran your business off the field, and how effectively you put together that team.
All that said, rather than proposing some huge and complex solution to this situation, let me point to one much more simple and obvious answer.
That's not to say that I don't think someone ought to settle the Yankees' hash about the information illustrated on that graph, but that's a matter of cosmic justice, for another day. In the meantime, point No. 4 above holds the key.
No, I'm not proposing as some other do that the playoffs be expanded. In order to do it properly you'd have to double the number of playoff teams and that is not only impractical on a number of levels, but it's a violation of the sport for over half the teams in the majors to make the playoffs. No, it's much simpler than that.
To wit, simply drop the requirement that all division winners make the playoffs. If the best four teams in each league make the playoffs, regardless of division, then most of the problem goes away.
Admittedly, there remains the problem of the unbalanced schedule. But one might as well try to solve the problems one can.
It seems to me that such a move would promote more fan interest in teams across the majors, not just in the AL East.
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