MLB makes better case for parity than NFL
Postseason, World Series results debunk popular notion
If you want a sterling example of split-sporting personality, look no further than Pittsburgh's North Shore. Within walking distance of each other sit Heinz Field, home of the dynasty-building Steelers, and PNC Park, home of the perpetually rebuilding Pirates.The Steelers, as you might have heard, are hoping to climb the "Stairway to Seven" ("One for the Forefinger on the Second Hand" wasn't quite as catchy) when they face the Packers in Super Bowl XLV on Sunday. The Pirates, meanwhile, enter 2011 merely hoping to avoid their 19th consecutive losing season. To some, the clear disparity in social standing for this Pittsburgh pair illustrates a larger truth -- that market size matters not in the NFL and is dictatorial in Major League Baseball. And from that supposed truth arrives the premise that the NFL possesses more parity than baseball. At least, that's the assertion made by Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim in their interesting new book, "Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won." "Trying to predict who will win the next Super Bowl is a fool's errand, but trying to predict who will win the next World Series is far easier," the authors write. "Though you might not be right, you can limit your potential candidates to a handful of teams even before the season begins." If we take an expansive yet expeditious gaze at history, then the generalization is a fair one. The Yankees, after all, have won 27 World Series titles since 1923 (an average of once every three years), while eight current teams have never won one.
THE WINNERS ARE ...
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Obviously, baseball's lack of a salary cap creates a clear dividing line between the haves and have-nots, in terms of player payroll, and that's where the authors' premise originates. It is also why many casual baseball fans (or people who simply don't support the sport at all) who I talk to tend to voice their opinion that the Yankees and Red Sox seem to be the only teams who have a realistic shot at a title on a consistent basis.Certainly, those two teams tend to command more national TV face time than any others, which is probably why the casual fan tends to feel that way. (Of course, that 86-year title drought endured by the Red Sox before 2004 is conveniently forgotten in such discussions.) But the parity premise is not only imprecise, it's incorrect. The Steelers, having participated in three of the past six Super Bowls, help prove as much. Looking back at the past 10 years of Super Bowls and World Series, both the NFL and MLB have seen the exact same number of teams -- 14 -- compete for the ultimate prize. The Patriots (four appearances) and Steelers (three) have set the standard in the NFL, and the Colts have appeared twice. Meanwhile, the Yankees (three), Giants (two), Phillies (two), Red Sox (two) and Cardinals (two) are all repeat attendees in MLB. (The NBA, for the record, is barely worth mentioning in any discussion of parity. Over the past three decades, only eight different teams have won an NBA title. Compare that with MLB, where eight different teams have won the title in the past nine years.) Continuing with the championship discussion, consider this: The Super Bowl has been held since 1967 and has had 18 different winners. Pretty panoptic, right? Well, no fewer than 20 teams have won a World Series title in that same time period (and there wasn't a World Series held in 1994). Of course, it's not all about championships. Part of the thrill of being a sports fan is merely rooting for a team that you know has a shot at the playoffs. Once you get in, anything can happen. On that front, there seems to be a popular misconception that the NFL clearly has more competitive balance than MLB. It's just not so. At least, not recently.
MLB Wild Card Era
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Since 1995, MLB's first year utilizing the Wild Card, 27 of the 30 teams (the D-backs and Rays joined in '98 and have both since reached the World Series) have made it to October. In the NFL, in that same time frame, only one team -- the Houston Texans, who formed in 2002 -- has failed to reach the playoffs.That's a pretty small gap, all things considered, and we must certainly consider that the NFL allows 12 teams to advance to the playoffs vs. MLB's eight (for now).
In the past five years, that gap has been erased. The NFL has seen 24 of its 32 teams reach the playoffs since 2006, or 75 percent. In that same timeframe, MLB has seen 22 of its 30 teams make it to October, or 73.3 percent. As Jayson Stark of ESPN.com recently noted, only 15 of baseball's 40 playoff teams (or 37.5 percent) in that five-year span had reached the playoffs the year before. Compare that with the NFL, which saw 29 of its 60 playoff teams (or 48.3 percent) repeat. Over the last 15 years, 120 postseason slots have been available in baseball, and 61 teams (50.8 percent) have made a back-to-back appearance in the postseason. The NFL's percentage of repeat postseason entries in that same timeframe is nearly identical. Of the 180 available playoff spots, 90 (50 percent) have gone to teams that returned to the playoffs in consecutive years. As baseball has gotten younger in recent years, its competitive balance has improved. Eleven of the last 12 World Series clubs have gone to different clubs, and only two of the top nine clubs in terms of Opening Day payroll in 2010 reached the postseason last year. Three teams from the bottom 12 in player payroll (the Reds, Rays and Rangers) advanced to October. Baseball, by its nature, isn't a sport that lends itself to parity. I'm not telling you anything you don't know, but teams play 162 games, not 16. That's a heck of a lot of time to separate the best from the rest. Any team can beat any other team on any given day (as is the case in the NFL, where teams have a week to prepare for each other), but the sheer length of the schedule rewards those who can beat other teams with the most consistency. The MLB postseason also inherently rewards the fittest, not the flukes. A best-of-five opening round creates a little more uncertainty than the best-of-seven format in the League Championship Series and World Series, but it still provides a more suitable setting for the deepest and most talented team to shine than a single-elimination setup. When you consider those built-in factors, what's transpired, in terms of the number of different teams contending for and, ultimately, hoisting the World Series trophy, defies popular wisdom. Yes, baseball's structure allows for some major economic disparity (the Royals' Opening Day 2011 payroll, as an example, projects to be just $2 million more than Alex Rodriguez's season salary), but that hasn't translated into the kind of predictability of which the game is often accused.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.