Parity the name of the game in 2008
Well-balanced talent, opportunities make competition tight
We thought that parity had reached its Major League Baseball peak in 2007. It turned out that season was just parity's warmup act.
A rare and remarkable statistical feat was achieved last season when no club played above .600 and no club played below .400, just the second time that had happened in the modern era. But for sheer competitive balance, what has happened in the first half of 2008 might be topping that in its own way.
This is the year when nearly everybody is good enough to win, at home. As the All-Star break arrived, only two teams in the National League had winning records on the road. In the American League, two teams were above .500 on the road and two more were at .500.
The Los Angeles Angels were the exception to this rule, playing above .600 on the road for most of the first half. Their manager, Mike Scioscia, had created a mantra of sorts, variations on the theme: "We can't concentrate on where we play or who we play, but on how we play."
Maybe the other 29 clubs should look into it.
Two questions arise from this situation. One is the obvious: Why is this happening? The second is: Will it continue?
There are two schools of thought on the "why." One is that this domination by the home teams is inexplicable.
"I have no idea why and none of the people I talk to have any idea, either," said manager Ned Yost of the Milwaukee Brewers. "And I talk to Bobby."
"Bobby" is the venerated manager of the Atlanta Braves, Bobby Cox. The thinking here is that if Cox can't explain this phenomenon, then this phenomenon has no explanation.
But for those who have found an explanation, the answer is parity. The idea is that the talent and the opportunities have become so well-balanced among franchises, that almost everybody is at least tough enough to be able to win at home.
"It's parity," said manager Lou Piniella of the Chicago Cubs. "It's parity. In the National League, there is so much competitive balance. Any team can beat you at any time."
Piniella's club had the best overall record in the National League at the break, and also, by far, the best home record, soaring above .700 in the truly Friendly Confines. But on the road, the Cubs, like almost everyone else, were below .500.
"All the teams can compete," Piniella said. "There is no invincible team. Maybe Tampa Bay."
Piniella smiled slightly at that last suggestion, but he knew that he had also hit on something. There may be no better reference point for increased parity than the performance of the Rays. This club, a perennial doormat in its short history, a franchise that has never won more than 70 games in a season, is now, by record, one of the closest things to an elite team that 2008 baseball can have.
The success of the Rays is the success of parity in contemporary baseball. They can succeed by making intelligent decisions, as opposed to merely making expensive decisions. With a player payroll only a fraction of that of their primary competitors, they have built a young and talented team in the diligent, traditional way.
Their success may be surprising to many, but that is the thing about competitive balance: It allows for surprises. One league away, there wasn't any preseason buzz that the best division was the Central, but there it is, with Chicago, St. Louis and Milwaukee looking very much like the three best teams in the entire league.
Piniella is usually right anyway, but when he says "there are no invincible teams," he has just spoken the ultimate truth about Major League Baseball 2008. There are a few very good teams, there are many, many teams with a legitimate chance to be postseason teams, but the 1927 Yankees don't exist any more.
Will this trend last? This is a bigger question than whether the Tampa Bay Rays will last, although they do represent the cutting edge of the phenomenon. This trend should last. The playing field in Major League Baseball, while it has not been completely leveled, is missing the tremendous, unbridgeable gaps between the haves and the have-nots that used to exist.
So yes, this trend can continue, right into five great divisional races and two wide-open contests for the Wild Card berths. (In one divisional race, we give the Angels a large and apparent edge, because they seem to be operating at their own level, by being able to win on the road at their own acceptable pace.)
Any given baseball season will generate its own history, its own excitement, its own phenomena. But now, here in 2008, fully engaged in the age of increased parity, you get all that and surprises, too. In the second half, you'll want to stay tuned, stay online, stay somewhere well within range of all this competitive balance.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.