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Baseball should ignore calls for "competitive balance"

Apr 22, 2010, 1:13 PM EDT

A must-read article by Joe Sheehan at Sports Illustrated, um, illustrating why arguments comparing the NFL’s competitive balance to baseball’s competitive balance are simply wrongheaded.

The hypothetical which kicks off the article — where baseball’s playoff races would stand right now if, like the NFL, the whole season was 16 games long — perfectly illustrates the insanity of the comparison. If this were football, every team would be in it until the end, because one game means so damn much in football. Baseball has ten times as many games, rendering many of them near-disposable.  The two sports’ respective rules, business models, histories, cultures, atmosphere, vernacular and fan bases all stem from this distinction.

Personally I like baseball better, but that’s just me being provincial. Objectively saying one is better than the other in any given respect is an exercise in prejudices, not reason. I’m told that a few rational people like football too, and good for
them, but it makes no more sense to compare the two than it does to compare salami sandwiches and pumpkin pie. They’re both great in their own way, but they really don’t share the same universe.

Which leads me to the money quote of the article.  It’s borne of the misguided impulse of baseball fans — and believe me, it’s only baseball fans who do this — to reflexively defend their sport to those who say it’s inferior to football.  It’s a call-to-arms of sorts, telling baseball fans to own baseball and its history and to act in the same manner as football fans do (i.e. not giving a diddly durn about how the conditions in one sport impact those in the other):

Instead of cowering when it’s compared to the NFL, MLB and its leaders
should stand up and brag about the differences that make its game great.
It should note the math of the issue, that the NFL’s competitive
balance is the natural consequence of a short regular season and a
larger postseason, and that MLB’s competitive balance, considered in the
context of its own sport, is good.

Henceforth, I’ll engage in any argument that compares baseball’s current competitive landscape to the competitive landscape that existed in baseball’s past or its hypothetical future.  I will ignore, however, those who criticize baseball for not living up to the standards of a sport that, for all of its charms, is utterly alien to baseball and those rules, conditions, culture and history which make it great.

  1. SabathiaWouldBeGoodAtTheEighthToo - Apr 22, 2010 at 1:25 PM

    MLB can start considering an NFL-like competitive balance structure when the NFL considers an MLB-like PED testing program and penalty structure.
    In other words, it ain’t never gonna happen.

  2. Andy H - Apr 22, 2010 at 1:31 PM

    Baseball doesn’t have a competitive balance problem, it has a NY Yankees problem. The Yankees are so far ahead of every other team – even the Red Sox, Mets and other big market teams – in terms of revenue and ability to spend that they have an unfair advantage unlike any team in any other sport. Take out the Yankees, and I don’t think anybody ever complains about baseball.
    I don’t have any ideas on how to fix the problem (nor, for what its worth, do I have a problem with the Yankees using their advantage while they’ve got it).

  3. Drew - Apr 22, 2010 at 1:42 PM

    Screw pumpkin pie. Salami is where it’s at.

  4. YankeesfanLen - Apr 22, 2010 at 1:52 PM

    TAKE OUT THE YANKEES????????….wait, I’m reporting this terrorist threat to Homeland Security….okay, then you’ve just dismissed the history and other factors that Craig just listed and you will have football.
    You also have the problem of reducing total MLB revenue to a point where about 10 teams will disappear.

  5. Alex K - Apr 22, 2010 at 1:54 PM

    I was hoping for the “I hate pro football with the intensity of 1,000 burning suns” tag on this post.

  6. Ace - Apr 22, 2010 at 2:02 PM

    Me too! Along the same lines, who could forget this little gem from Craig back in January: “But one thing is indisputable: baseball is better than football in every conceivable way.”

  7. jwb - Apr 22, 2010 at 2:06 PM

    Another thing MLB could do to be like the NFL is have the lower finishing teams in a division never play the higher ranked teams in other divisions. For example, if the Royals never played the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels and Rangers and the Twins never played the Orioles, Blue Jays, A’s and Mariners, things would tighten up a bit in the AL Central.

  8. jwb - Apr 22, 2010 at 2:07 PM

    I neglected to mention that think this would be a horrible idea.

  9. NYYFanInBama - Apr 22, 2010 at 2:09 PM

    One of the reasons I am a Yankees fan is the history of the team. Another is that Steinbrenner (First George and now Hal) is willing to spend to give his team the best possible chance to win. As you know, not all of this big spending has paid off (Carl Pavano is just the worst of many). But before anybody remarks on my use of the word “willing” let me point out that the Yankees share their revenue, plus have paid the luxury tax every year since its inception and that this money is distributed to the other 29 teams. One team, the Marlins, has already gotten in trouble for pocketing instead of spending this money. Other teams do the same. Instead of whining about the Yankees spending, you really should look closely at the owner of your favorite team. Does he reinvest that money in the team as he is suppose to or does he pocket it? Another big market team, the Mets, had several opportunities during the off season to make their team better but didn’t do it. Why? Because the owner wasn’t “willing” to spend the money.

  10. scatterbrian - Apr 22, 2010 at 2:27 PM

    For argument’s sake, this makes you wonder how it would play out if baseball was played with only one game each Sunday. You’d basically only need one starting pitcher per team. So theoretically the Astros could go with Roy Oswalt every game and they’d probably fare better than they do now.

  11. KR - Apr 22, 2010 at 2:34 PM

    I dunno, I think the Mets are perfectly willing to go spend money, they’re just bad at it.

  12. indy_ralph - Apr 22, 2010 at 2:46 PM

    Len, I think you are either misreading Andy’s comment, or I am misreading your tongue-in-cheek response (or both?). I don’t think Andy is suggesting to actually remove the Yankees from the league. He’s saying, “Aside from the Yankees” there is no competitive balance problem. I, for one, think Andy has one of the more level-headed opinions on the whole matter. Not that he or I have any solution.

  13. Jack - Apr 22, 2010 at 2:50 PM

    You can put all the lipstick on this pig that you want, but, the bottom line is baseball needs a hard salary cap. How can one team spend so much more on players simply because they happen to have the richest TV and licensing contracts? Imagine the success baseball would undergo if ALL teams had a legit shot at a title year in and year out regardless of market size. Hell,with the interest this would bring we might even have a televised MLB draft. The argument against a cap always comes from the same big market baseball fans who, for obvious reasons, don’t want any parity in the league.

  14. Pete Toms - Apr 22, 2010 at 2:53 PM

    I like the NFL, I love baseball.
    Sheehan is also bang on in his observation that MLB killed off one of it’s greatest appeals in its pursuit of competitive balance – the pennant race. NOTHING in pro sports compares (compared is more accurate) to the emotions of a 162 game pennant race. The Jays losing the AL East to Detroit in 87 in the 162nd game is my most emotional memory as a sports fan. The Jays won 96 that year. Winning the WS in 92 & 93 was a piffle in comparison.

  15. YankeesfanLen - Apr 22, 2010 at 3:51 PM

    Old fashioned pennant races were always fun around here too, but expansion kinda put the nix on that. I find Wild Card interesting even though the AL East always imitates the AL as a whole.
    Indy Ralph and Andy H- I can only give a week analogy fo “getting rid of the Yankees” (to where I don’t know). You can’t talk sense to me on this point- If you were Steve Jobs would you ditch the iPhone? So, since I’m already an off-the–wall fanboy here-
    The Universe is the straw that stirs MLB’s drink

  16. I love baseball - Apr 22, 2010 at 3:59 PM

    You don’t need to be a football fan to understand that competitive balance is of ultimate importance in any sport – it’s about an even playing field. In baseball the playing field is simply not even. The ONLY reason this hasn’t been so painfully apparent as to require a change is that the component of chance plays such a large part in which team wins or loses a particular game. The very best teams in the history of baseball won about 70% of their games – the best in history. The Dolphins did better in 1972 as well as have many other NFL teams. Sure the season is shorter but the fact is the better team wins more often in football than baseball and this obscures the inequity in baseball.
    Eventually teams will have to have equal access to talent or the game will collapse.

  17. Craig Calcaterra - Apr 22, 2010 at 4:02 PM

    “Eventually teams will have to have equal access to talent or the game will collapse.”
    Teams had profoundly unequal access to talent and almost zero in the way of competitive balance for the first 90 years of its history and they called it a “golden age.”
    While there are some problems that could use addressing, I see no reason to think the game will “collapse” without equal access to talent, however you define it.

  18. YankeesfanLen - Apr 22, 2010 at 4:25 PM

    Money aside (and Jason I know it’s NEVER aside) there has to be a management group that is doing superior analysis and money to pay for it, however begrudingly. Over the span of time there have been Yankee owner-cheapskates and marginally capable or forever-changing managers.
    I don’t want baseball to have an idea-of-the-year. How about just making a couple of incremental changes once in a while and let emotion, intelligence, and talent development take it’s course?
    We’re only behind3-0 and everbody wants to hit a home run?

  19. mike in MN - Apr 22, 2010 at 7:02 PM

    This has been my issue with all the baseball blowhards in the media also. Instead of constantly whining about how the NFL isn’t really any better than the NFL, they should start talking about what is great about baseball (and also be open to changes that would make the game better). But, instead, they often try to say “the nfl uses drugs, why take it out on us”, or “we have more different WS winners than SB winners”, or whatever. Quit feeling persecuted, and start making changes and promoting the good things!

  20. joethefirst - Apr 22, 2010 at 9:08 PM

    Baseball is the best sport, because it takes the most skills and the greatest stammia.
    Some changes are needed to balance out the big difference in revenue. Here are some changes that would work:
    1. No team may sign more than one class A FA during any year.
    2. Put caps on draftees’ salaries. Small market teams often will bypass drafting a big name amateur, because they can’t afford to pay tens of millions to a kid who may not make it out of A ball. (Yes, this year, the Nats were an exception to this general rule, but, of course, all rules have exceptions.)
    3. Require small market teams to spend the revenue-sharing funds. Structuring this would be a bit complicated, b/c money is fungible, but accountants surely could develop a scheme to enforce such a rule.
    4. Go back to a balanced schedule between the divisions in each League and stop the extra series for regional rivalries. Since most of the struggling teams are in the Leagues’ two Central Divisions and the teams most fans want to see play on the coasts, this would help the landlocked interior teams, because they’d get higher attendance for some of coast teams’ games.

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