Brian Burke thinks that advanced analysis in baseball is leading to boring seasons and a growing gap between the game's haves and have-nots. A large part of his argument rests on the notion that we know who's going to be good in any given baseball season whereas every NFL team has a chance. Look, I really enjoy Burke's work and AdvancedNFLstats.com is my go-to football site. In addition, Burke knows more about sports analytics than I will learn in a lifetime, but I think he misses a couple of points with this piece.
First, we don't really know who's going to be all that good in any given baseball season. Many people were dead wrong about the Nationals this year. Very few people gave the Red Sox a puncher's chance at the AL East title, let alone the World Series title. On the flip side, the New England Patriots have won nine of the past ten AFC East titles, and they're currently in first place with a two-game cushion. The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since 1990. My favorite NFL team has won one playoff game in the past 55 years. The notion of parity in the NFL* is more complicated than it seems as we're about to see.
*At least the NFL parity disciples aren't as annoying as their NBA brethren. I have a friend who is a devoted NBA fan, and he tells me that baseball is a dying game because the same team wins every year and "something something something Yankees 27 championships!" There have been 67 NBA seasons. The Lakers and the Celtics have 33 titles -- right under half of the total -- between them. And this is in a sport with one of the most inclusive playoff systems known to man.
Second, the NFL's parity is mainly an illusion. The reason that many NFL teams seem to have a shot is due to nothing other than randomness. According to Tango Tiger (WARNING: MATH), eleven NFL games tell us about as much about a team's talent level as 69 baseball games. That means that sixteen NFL games is about the same as 100 baseball games. If we ended the season in late July at the century mark, we'd get much different results in baseball, too. The Reds played their 100th and 101st games on July 23rd of this year (the twi-night doubleheader in San Francisco). As of that date, the division winners would have been the same though only barely as the Dodgers had just overtaken the Diamondbacks at that point in the season. The Pirates still would have hosted the Reds in the Wild Card game, and the Rays would have hosted the Orioles in the AL Wild Card game. In 2012 at the 100-game mark, the Pirates would have hosted the Braves in the Wild Card game while Texas and Chicago would have won the AL West and Central divisions respectively. The Tigers would have traveled to Oakland for the AL Wild Card game.
Third (and finally for now), Burke mixes and matches franchise success with large market status. He refers to the Cardinals as "the team with the 2nd most all-time championships", but earlier laments that baseball awards a "greater advantage to big-payroll teams." St. Louis is, by any reasonable measure, a small market. The Cardinals had the tenth highest payroll in the game this year, which is above average, but only $6 million higher than the Reds*. This leads to Burke calling for a salary cap and floor in the game of baseball. Any talk of price ceilings and floors always gets my sugars up, but baseball needs them to be competitive some might say.
*By the way, the Reds had the twelfth highest payroll in the game although Cincinnati is one of the smallest metros in the major leagues. How can that be? This doesn't fit the "baseball is run by ogres" storyline.
Well, no, baseball does not need any such thing. Baseball teams are free to greatly alter their spending to meet team needs and adjust their strategies. There is no point in making the Astros spend $80 million a year when spending extra money is not going to make the Astros a playoff team at this point in time. Conversely, a team like the Reds shouldn't be limited when they have the core of a winning team. It makes sense that teams in a position to win should spend more than teams in a position to lose. A salary cap also doesn't address spending outside of player salaries. Teams are now free to spend more money on player development or scouting, but a salary cap may force them to allocate that money toward free agents that don't make sense for the team at that point in time.
What is it about baseball that brings out the concern trolls? Whenever I talk to someone who thinks baseball is dying, he/she offers me all these ideas that would make baseball the greatest game again. "It would be a better game," he'll say.
"Would you start watching it if they made these rule changes?"
"Well, no, but that's because I only like the NFL."
My aforementioned friend who is a big basketball fan once asked me how I could possibly like the fact that there are 162 games a season. I told him that I love baseball, and I really can't get enough of the game. I asked him how much he would like it if our favorite college basketball team played 100 games a year. Well, he said he wouldn't like that at all, that it would be too much of a good thing.
So here we have a sport that has 162 games a year, and its fans can't get enough of the game. Revenues and attendance are up, and the game is very much alive. However, we continue to give column inches and air time to people who tell us that we should want fewer games, because it would make the game more exciting. They tell us that baseball needs more showboats or fewer showboats. It all depends on the writer or the paper or the time of year, mind you. They tell us that baseball has too much downtime. Never mind the fact that football has thirty seconds of standing around between plays. Never mind that the last two minutes of a basketball game can last twenty minutes in real time. They tell us that baseball is an old game, and that the world has passed it by. Please ignore the fact that we enjoy learning about the great players of the past. Forget your boyhood idols that made you smile and stand a certain way in the box in a little league game. They tell us that soccer is the world's game and that baseball has limited appeal. Don't pay any attention to the fact that baseball is flourishing in Japan and other countries to the east.
These same people don't want to watch more than sixteen or 30 or 82 games of their favorite teams in other sports in a calendar year. You explain this phenomenon to me, because I don't get it.
Baseball is like joining an enormous family with ancestors and forebears and famous stories and histories. It’s a privilege, it means a lot. The people who tell me they hate baseball or are out of baseball, they sound bitter about it. But I think that they sense what they’re missing. I think that they feel that there’s something they're not in on, which is a terrible loss and I’m sorry for them.
- Roger Angell
Joe Posnanski makes the argument that the Boston championship teams of 2004, '07, and '13 constitute a dynasty. He points out that only eight teams had won three or more World Series in a ten-year span since the advent of the lively ball in 1920. The 2004-13 Red Sox are now the ninth team to do so. While I appreciate Poz's efforts to clearly define the meaning of a baseball dynasty, I'm not sure it's possible to pin down a sports dynasty so easily. Poz's definition would exclude the Big Red Machine, which won four pennants in seven years, more than the recent Red Sox teams have won in ten years. The 1929-31 Athletics aren't included although they won three consecutive pennants and back-to-back World Series titles.
There's more to sports than winning the championship at the end of the final postseason series. The Buffalo Bills won four consecutive conference championships in the early '90s yet they could never win a Super Bowl. I would say that's a better sign of dominance than the Pittsburgh Steelers winning two Super Bowl titles in four seasons from 2005 to '08. Other people may disagree, and I hope that they do. A sports dynasty is a bit like a Hall of Fame debate: Everyone draws the lines in different places. Greatness can be difficult to pin down.
Matthew Futterman examines the World Series ratings by demographics and finds that younger generations are not watching like our parents and grandparents do. Futterman makes a couple of good points about the pace of the game, but I feel many of these "baseball is dying" articles miss the point with regards to World Series ratings. Baseball is a tremendously healthy organism when you look at attendance figures, revenues, and the explosion of local cable contracts. The World Series probably is less prestigious than it once was, but that's not necessarily a reflection of some decline in the popularity of baseball. It's easier than ever to follow your team in baseball. I'm guessing that many people here watch well over 100 Reds games a year. However, we only have so much time and many of us allocate our time to our team rather than the Game of the Week or Sunday Night Baseball. This is a great development in many ways, because we can watch our favorite players and teams whenever we want. The downside is that we've lost some of our connections to the game's national storylines. I don't think it's necessarily a bad trade-off.
May I suggest the Mariners or Rockies as attractive options for Mr. Perez?