2015 MLB Season Could Bring Historic Level of Parity

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistFebruary 27, 2015

Elsa/Getty Images

It's a cliche worn past the point of usefulness: Everyone's a contender in the spring. This year, it could have the benefit of being true.

We're talking parity, the golden goose every professional sports league is allegedly chasing—the effort, as former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig put it, per USA Today's Bob Nightengale, "to provide hope and faith in as many places as possible."

"Hope" equals interest, which equals ratings and merchandise and tickets sold. It's about the dollars, as usual.

Whatever the motivation, the result in MLB is undeniable.

Yes, deep-pocketed behemoths such as the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers maintain a competitive advantage over their coupon-clipping cohorts.

Don't tell that to the small-market Kansas City Royals, who came within an ill-placed Madison Bumgarner fastball of a World Series title last year.

Big picture, as ESPN.com's Jayson Stark points out, 27 out of 30 MLB franchises have made the playoffs in the past 10 years. Compare that to the NFL, a supposed paragon of parity, where 28 of 32 teams have made the playoffs, with far more slots available.

Oh, and the three MLB teams that haven't crashed the postseason party in the last decade? The Miami Marlins, Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners—all clubs that are expected to contend in 2015.

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They're far from alone in that regard. Baseball Prospectus projects 18 teams to win at least 81 games next season, and for all but seven squads to finish within six games of .500.

The pitching-rich Washington Nationals, who inked ace Max Scherzer this winter, are one of 2015's few clear favorites.
The pitching-rich Washington Nationals, who inked ace Max Scherzer this winter, are one of 2015's few clear favorites.Evan Vucci/Associated Press/Associated Press

With the advent of the second wild card, that means the majority of teams will at least be on the edges of the postseason picture. And as we've seen time and again, once you're in, anything can happen in October.

Really, other than the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers, who looks like a near shoo-in to clear the 90-win plateau?

And who besides the Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves, Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies and Minnesota Twins appears to be a non-factor?

Take those seven squads out of the equation. That leaves nine National League teams scrambling for three playoff spots (assuming two go to the Nats and Dodgers) and 14 American League clubs competing for five spots.

Yes, you can parse the remaining contenders. In fact, let's do exactly that, breaking them into categories based on how surprised you should be if they finish in the money:

Not surprised: Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Angels, Pittsburgh Pirates, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners, St. Louis Cardinals.

Nope...still not surprised: Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Royals, Miami Marlins, Milwaukee Brewers, New York Mets, New York Yankees, Oakland A's, San Diego Padres, Toronto Blue Jays.

OK, didn't really see that coming, but I'm not, like, speechless: Cincinnati Reds, Houston Astros, Tampa Bay Rays, Texas Rangers.

You can quibble with the categories. Baseball Prospectus, for example, has Tampa Bay winning 86 games. And if the Astros, a young group on the rise, warrant mention, why not the Twins?

Even the fourth-place Houston Astros, led by MLB hits leader Jose Altuve, can't be counted out.
Even the fourth-place Houston Astros, led by MLB hits leader Jose Altuve, can't be counted out.Ted S. Warren/Associated Press/Associated Press

That underscores the point: MLB is chock-full of teams with the potential to make noise if things break right. That's always true to some extent, but in the past there was more of a chasm between the top, middle and bottom tiers.

Right now, it's scarcely wider than the chalk down the third-base line.

How did we get here? There are multiple theories. In a profile of Selig written in October, Thomas Barrabi of the International Business Times credits the revenue-sharing agreement reached in 2002 and the luxury-tax threshold enacted a year later.

Here's Rick Burton, a former pro basketball commissioner in Australia and current sports management professor at Syracuse University, per Barrabi:

Bud Selig has moved baseball to a situation where you do have competitiveness by small-market teams in an age where dollars should drive everything. You want every team to believe that this year they can contend. I think baseball has that now, but I don’t think they had that back in 1998 or back in the mid-to-late '90s.

Not everyone concurs. Writing for The Atlantic, in an article not-so-subtly titled "Baseball's New Parity: A Myth," Adam Felder points out that the biggest-spending clubs, in aggregate, consistently outperform the penny-pinchers.

"While it's true that money doesn't buy championship rings," Felder argues, "money does at least get your team into the jewelry store."

But let's not wander too deep into the weeds. The point, as any analyst or even casual fan would admit, is that the bulk of MLB franchises entered spring training this year with a realistic shot at keeping the faithful, well, faithful at least until the leaves start to turn.

Revenue-sharing and luxury-tax arrangements enacted on former Commissioner Bud Selig's watch have been credited with leveling the playing field.
Revenue-sharing and luxury-tax arrangements enacted on former Commissioner Bud Selig's watch have been credited with leveling the playing field.Kathy Willens/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Here's something else we could see: brain-bending tiebreaker scenarios.

Last September, with several division and wild-card races coming down to the wire, yours truly broke down the various end-of-season permutations. Some are simple; two teams tie, they play, the winner moves on.

Others require a pen, cocktail napkin and advanced degree in mathematics (and perhaps philosophy). Like, what happens if three teams tie for the two wild-card spots? I'll quote myself, because I don't want to unpack it again:

Strap on your thinking caps.

First, let's talk about A, B and C designations. Team A plays Team B in Team A's home park...and Team C plays the winner in the winner's home park....

... How are the A, B and C designations assigned? They're chosen by the clubs themselves, with choosing order determined by head-to-head records.

Got that? Good, because there'll be a quiz at the end.

Seriously, this could happen. Heck, we could see a four-way tie. (Don't ask what happens then.)

OK, now the obligatory caveat: They play the games on the field, not on paper, to trot out another bromide. Injuries, slumps, trades—so much can happen to shift the balance of power over a 162-game grind.

So it's entirely possible we'll arrive at the finish line and find a few clubs pulling away from the pack, and the great parity promise going up in a puff of stratified smoke.

Don't be surprised, though, if 2015 concludes with a lot of teams, yours included, bunched in the middle, scratching and clawing to the end.

Maybe someday we'll even get a new cliche: Everyone's a contender in the fall.