Money and Competitiveness

As a Twins fan, it appears to be my duty, decreed from the baseball gods themselves, to decry the influence of money on the game of baseball. In particular, I must complain about the distinct financial advantage the Yankees have over the Twins. It is difficult to listen to a man with $3.1 Billion in 2008 complain about his inability to spend on his team. (Of course, current owner Jim Pohlad does not have as much money as his father, but he is surely still rather wealthy.) Nevertheless complaints about lack of competitiveness is part and parcel of baseball throughout the years.

Let’s look at a stretch of the early American League. From 1901-1919, four teams won the American League, the White Sox, Red Sox, A’s, and Tigers. (The Tigers won from 1907-09 then again dropped off the face of the earth.) The Yankees were competitive in 1904, the Indians in 1908, the Orioles and Senators were jokes. Half of baseball was completely uncompetitive. The National League was worse, for a slightly shorter stretch. From 1901-1913, three teams, the Pirates, Giants, and Cubs, won the pennant every season. They were never pushed by anyone outside of that triumvirate. 62% of the National League were irrelevant. By Bill James’ Index of Competitiveness, discussed in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, the 1900s were the least competitive decade of the 20th Century.

This season, 5 of the top 9 payrolls in baseball made the postseason. Stop here; the flipside must be noticed. Five of the top 10 payrolls in baseball did not make the playoffs. Money clearly helps, but it is not dispositive. Money does not guarantee anything. To think more globally, baseball is the most competitive of the major sports. As Rob Neyer noted, 8 different franchises have won the World Series in the last 10 years, 14 in the last 20 years. No other sport can match that balance.

What advantage does money confer? Money makes it safer to make a mistake. Carl Pavano was a disastrous signing by the Yankees, but it did not matter. They could afford to replace him with another expensive player. Teams with less resources cannot afford to make similar mistakes. Regardless, money does not explain the Pirates or the Royals. They are poorly run franchises.

Your thoughts? Is griping over money just complaints of the jealous? Are there serious issues that undermine the game of baseball?

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6 Comments on “Money and Competitiveness”

  1. verdun Says:

    Of course the flip side of this is that only 3 of the lower 20 spending teams made the playoffs. Still a disproportionate number of the highest paid teams are in.

  2. sportsphd Says:

    True. Money clearly helps, but I am not sure there is any fix. The Twins could spend a lot more money, but the ownership does not consider it a good investment. You don’t get rich by spending profligately. The Steinbrenners think, correctly, that they can recoup their outlays if they win. However, fans tend to blame it on money or big-market/small-market. That obscures the real agency of these owners. No one made the Marlins owner sell of all of his talent after each World Series win. He deserves as much personal blame as the overall system does.

  3. tracking back Money and Competitiveness… tracking back Money and Competitiveness…

  4. verdun Says:

    Looking at the article referenced in the blog, I note that of the 3 playoff teams not in the top 10 in salary, 2 are in the next 10 (Cardinals and Rockies at 17th and 18th), and only the Twins in the bottom 10. So, as you say, money clearly helps. So does good scouting and a vibrant minor league system.
    must be nice to have $5.3 billion

  5. dixie_flyer Says:

    ” 8 different franchises have won the World Series in the last 10 years, 14 in the last 20 years. No other sport can match that balance.”

    I’m not sure that it’s so much “balance”, as it is that baseball playoffs are more of a roll of the dice than the other major sports…perhaps a better analysis would be a comparison of the concentration of teams making the MLB playoffs vs. that of other sports

    • sportsphd Says:

      I’m not sure about bigger roll of the dice. That’s true in basketball, where two of the top 4 teams always face off in the finals. But what about Arizona last year in the Super Bowl. Hockey is even crazier with #8 seeds like Edmonton making it to the Stanley Cup Finals. Baseball teams like to complain about the crapshoot nature of the playoffs, but this does not distinguish them. Playoffs are crapshoots. By its very nature, a 7-game series does not tell you as much about a team as a 162-game season. This is even worse when you deal with a 1-game, winner-take-all set up.

      You are right, though, about analyzing who makes the playoffs. I haven’t seen anybody do that yet.

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