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Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Competitive Balance?

How much of the recent Yankee success is due to the expanded playoff format?

Before 1969, the American League was comprised of one division in a format that whomever won the most games during the regular season would represent the American League in the World Series against their National League counterpart. From the years 1969-1993 this format changed somewhat by splitting the American League into two divisions, the AL East and the AL West, and the two divisional winners would meet in the ALCS to determine who would represent the AL in the World Series.


I was not yet born in 1969 so I am not sure why they would split into two divisions, but knowing a little bit about what happened in 93-94, I think that a lot of the reasons behind this was so that baseball would be more interesting to the casual fan, there would be two pennant races instead of one, there would be more playoff games, and thus more money for the owners of baseball teams. I am sure there must have been other reasons, but for my purposes here I will not go into those. For many of those same reasons, the AL split into three divisions in 1994, giving us now even more playoff series and supposedly even more pennant races (or so they tell us) to keep the casual fan interested and coming to the ballpark.


I am 26 years old so I do not remember what is was like to have only one division in each league, but I think that it had to be the best of times in baseball because it proved just how far superior MLB was to the other major sports of football, basketball, and hockey. The regular season meant something in baseball. Teams had to go to work day in and day out to secure their shot at a world championship and there was not any coasting into the playoffs without being the best team in the league.


Even the two division format prevented this to some extent although you might have a hard time convincing the 1993 Giants that they deserved to go home while the Philadelphia Phillies went on to the World Series. However, the 3-division format with the wild card is an embarrassment to baseball of the worst kind. A perfect example of this was the 2000 World Series where the Yankees went on to win the World Series with the fifth best record in the American League. No they did not have the fifth best record in baseball, they just had the fifth best record in the AL! This is just inexcusable. Baseball has always rewarded the best team during the regular season. Is it a more reliable indicator to see who?s better in a 7-game series or a 162 game regular season schedule?


This all lead me to start to think about the mass media?s insistence that there is such a chasm in competitive balance that things must change in order for more teams to compete with the hated New York Yankees! They say that there is no way anyone can compete with the Yankees because they will just go out and buy another championship. They tell us that most fans do not care because they already know that their hometown teams cannot compete with those capitalist pigs, the Yankees! How dare they play within the economic rules of baseball in order to field a winning team year in and year out.


I am a fan of a small-market team, the Cincinnati Reds, but I look upon the Yankees with more envy than I do hatred. I would love for George Steinbrenner to own the Reds. I?m sure that no matter what his economic limits might be from being in a smaller market than New York, I can assure you that Mr. Steinbrenner would not idly sit by and watch the Reds field losing team after losing team all the while blaming it on an uncompetitive balance and whining about salary caps and payroll.


But have the Yankees dominated as much as we think? Most in the media would have you believe that from 1996-2001, the Yankees have ruined baseball by the way they have handled their teams, but I think the 3-division format with the added on Wild Card has been more influential to Yankee dominance than the idea that they have bought championships.


If we go back to the pre-1969 days or even the era between 1969-1993, I think we?ll see that the Yankees aren?t as dominant as everyone would have us believe them to be. My method for figuring this is using the Pythagorean method incorporating runs scored and runs allowed between teams during a given year. For example, in 1996, the Yankees scored 76 runs against the Angels while allowing the Angels to score 76 runs. Using the Pythagorean method, the Yankees expected winning % against the Angels would be .500. So in the era of 1969-1993, the Yankees would have split the 12 games they would have played against the Angels.


For the pre-1969 era, I had to readjust the schedule to 156 games to allow every team to play everyone 12 times. Again this would mean that the Yankees would split their 12 games with the Angels. I took the top teams in the AL in each year to see what the expected regular season record would have been had the Yankees been vying for a playoff spot in 1969-1993 or the pre-1969 era.



Cleveland 94-62

Texas 90-66

New York 86-70

Baltimore 82-74


AL East 1969-1993

Cleveland 98-64

New York 89-73

Baltimore 85-77


As we see what would have happened in the other playoff formats, the Yankees did not belong in the playoffs. If we were in the pre-1969 era the Indians should have been going to the playoffs instead of New York. Even if we were in the 2-division format, the Yankees would have been home because Cleveland would have won the AL East this year. However, the Yankees were in the playoffs this year and eventually went on to win the World Series. Were they as dominant as they seemed to be? I don?t think so. Essentially the playoff format had more to do with the Yankees squeaking into the playoffs rather than them being the best team in the AL. Overall, the Yankees seemed to be the third best team in the AL.




New York 102-54

Baltimore 93-63

Seattle 87-69

Cleveland 82-74


AL East 1969-1993

New York 106-56

Baltimore 97-65

Cleveland 85-77


1997 usually doesn?t come into most arguments because the Yankees didn?t win anything this year. They actually were the wild card team in 1997 and didn?t advance to the World Series so most people conveniently leave 1997 out of the big picture of the Yankee dominance because they didn?t win, but by my method, it further incriminates the 3-division format with the Wild Card because now it looks as if the fourth best team in the AL represented the AL in the World Series. Cleveland benefited from playing in the AL Central, giving them a playoff spot when they hardly deserved it. It seems a lot of people believe that the Yankees run of great teams began in 1996, but we really see that it began in 1997 even though they have nothing to show for it other than further evidence that the 3-division format is a complete disaster.




New York 105-51

Boston 91-65

Texas 84-72

Cleveland 82-74

Anaheim 78-78

AL East 1969-1993

New York 109-53

Boston 95-67

Cleveland 85-77


There isn?t much to say about 1998 other than the Yankees were absolutely amazing. They were by far and away the class of the American League and this is the first time since 1996 that the rightful owner of the AL Championship represented the AL in the World Series. I don?t think this was due to their being an absence of competitive balance, but rather the Yankees having the season of a lifetime.



New York 94-62

Boston 93-63

Cleveland 92-64

Texas 88-68


AL East 1969-1993

New York 98-64

Boston 97-65

Cleveland 95-67


1999 was the year that really showed the devout baseball fan that the 3-division format with the Wild Card completely ruined the pennant races. Can you imagine what would have happened in the AL East with New York, Boston, and Cleveland all within 3 games of each other going down to the wire? What a pennant race that could have been!


However, it was ruined because these 3 teams were the class of the AL and were in no danger of not having a playoff spot. All three were in the playoffs. What if all three were playing with 1 chance at the AL East crown, or even the shot to go to the playoffs had we been in the pre-1969 playoff format?


MLB didn?t give anything more to the fans by having more playoff teams; they cheated the fans out of what could have been the greatest pennant race of all time. In my opinion, 1999 was the end of the Yankee dominated AL. New York had great years in 97 and 98, but by my method the Red Sox and Indians were within 2-3 games of the Yankees and the Pythagorean method has swings within 4-5 games so it would be easy to envision the standings ending up in any combination of the 3 teams. The Yankees do end up winning by my method but not by so much that you could make the argument that the Yankees are buying championships.



Oakland 92-64

Chicago 90-66

Cleveland 90-66

Seattle 87-69

New York 83-73

Boston 82-74


1969-1993 AL East

Cleveland 94-68

Boston 85-77

New York 85-77


Now we come to the World Series debacle of 2000.  If anyone should be screaming about competitive balance it should be Oakland because they should have won the AL hands down. It could be argued that the Yankees were the third best team in the old AL East, yet they won the World Series. In the pre-1969 era, the Yankees would have finished in fifth place, hardly buying a championship. There isn?t really much to say about 2000 with regards to the Yankees. They should not have been anywhere near the playoffs let alone in the World Series. The Subway Series was a nice story, but it was a display of the feebleness of MLB to have the 2 best teams competing for a World Series title. An interesting note about the 2000 series is that MLB once again robbed the fans of a great pennant race.


According to my method the AL West using the divisional format of 1969-1993 would have looked like this:


Oakland 95-67

Chicago 93-69

Seattle 91-71


Three teams all within four games of making the playoffs, but because of the 3-division format, there was not pennant race because all three teams ended up making the playoffs along with the Yankees, who didn?t belong. The only team that should have been complaining about imbalance this year was Cleveland who got robbed out of a playoff spot.



Seattle 108-48

Oakland 105-51

New York 87-69

Cleveland 82-74


AL East 1969-1993

New York 90-72

Cleveland 85-77


Seattle and Oakland were the class of the AL by a wide margin yet neither of them represented the AL in the World Series. Granted the Yankees did win the AL East so they should have at least got into the ALCS, but again, the best team in the AL did not represent the AL in the World Series. If we went to the playoff format before 1969, the Seattle Mariners should have been to the World Series.


So in recap, in the pre-1969 format, here is who should have won the AL:


1997-New York

1998-New York

1999-New York (but just barely)




In the 1969-1993 playoff format here is who should have been in the ALCS:

1996- Cleveland vs. Texas

1997- New York vs. Seattle

1998- New York vs. Texas

1999- New York vs. Texas

2000- Cleveland vs. Oakland

2001- New York vs. Seattle


In conclusion, I think it is fairly easy to say that scheduling and playoff format have been a bigger factor in this era of Yankee dominance than Mr. Steinbrenner going out and buying a championship. If we used the pre-1969 playoff format, the Yankees only legitimately win two AL Pennants and I don?t think anyone was screaming about competitive balance issues when Toronto won back-to-back AL Pennants in 92-93 or when Oakland won AL Pennants from 88-90.


Why should everyone be so quick to jump on the "Bash the Yankees" bandwagon? Even in the 1969-1993 playoff format the Yankees would have won 4 AL East titles, but who is to say they really would have won in 1999, bringing them down to 3 AL East titles and who is to say that they would win each ALCS in those 3 years? Maybe they would have, but maybe they wouldn?t have.


What is fair to say is that instead of ruining baseball with another terrible bargaining agreement, let?s try to fix the competitive balance problem by changing the scheduling and playoffs format. Eliminate the 3-division format with the Wild Card, and watch the Yankees championships disappear.


NOTE: Starting in 1998, the Devil Rays replaced the Brewers in the AL, so I just replaced Milwaukee with Tampa Bay from 1998 forward. The teams in the AL remained at 14 so it didn?t pose a problem.


NOTE: Special thanks to for providing me with all the information I needed to complete this study.


David Bergner Posted: January 15, 2003 at 05:00 AM | 14 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Boileryard Posted: January 15, 2003 at 01:23 AM (#608380)
While this is an interesting article, I think it misses the point. The casual fan is not annoyed or turned off by the Yankees regular season success. In fact, regular season success is generally ignored when discussing the best teams of a given season or era. People get frustrated that the Yankees, once in the playoffs, have gone on to win championships.
From 1998 through 2001, the Yankees won 14 consecutive playoff series. During this period, they also won 12 consecutive World Series games. This is beyond the bounds of normalcy, and cannot be explained by any metric or bit of revisionist history. All that you can say about the Yankees run is that it was remarkable- a statistical oddity. It is not likely to happen again for a very long time (by any team). No, they were not always the best team during these years, but the best team does not always win. Strangely though, during these years, the Yankees always won.
   2. Jason Posted: January 15, 2003 at 01:23 AM (#608383)
Not to be overly harsh, but this ground has been covered for at least 2 years by Rob Neyer. Yes things would have looked different with a different playoff format. Like the Florida Marlins. It would sure be interesting to see what they would have been like in a different format. But do fewer playoff spots really reward anything? What if the two best teams are in one league or the other? Then the WS is meaningless according to your line of arguing. Is the team with the best record really the best? A fewer playoff format really only rewards luck. The team with the best record every year is almost invariably a product of fortune as much as good GMing. Few injuries unexpected performances... More playoff spots could be argued to reward GMs that build a good team only to lose a key superstar for a few months in the season or other scenarios. The thesis of your article consists mostly of a value judgement not any real facts
   3. Rob Wood Posted: January 15, 2003 at 01:23 AM (#608386)
David's article is a way of looking at issues that have received a great deal of attention. Sure, many people have written on this subject, that just means it is an important topic. I think David's approach is interesting and his conclusions derive from his research. These are characteristics of good research. Thanks.
   4. McCoy Posted: January 15, 2003 at 01:23 AM (#608390)
I don't think you would want George to be the owner of a small market team especially if it happens to be your favorite team. Looking back at George's history I see nothing of the trailblazing or pioneering sort one would need to be in a small market economy. George did nothing to boost attendance other than relying on the Yankee mystique and spending huge gobs of cash. He came late to the game in terms of building your own station for revenue. In fact his greatest strength was the amount of money he had, exactly the one resource he would not have in a small market team. So besides the cash what other skill does George possess? Does he have an eye for talent? Not really, this dynasty got its roots back in the days when Steinbrenner was banned from baseball and his track record before Cashman was not all that great (besides Reggie). Does he know how to handle the media and his own employees? I think no on these two. Steinbrenners image only changed when the team was winning. Winning tends to do that, but losing doesn't.
If anything George would be your typical small market owner. He would neglect his stadium (already doing that now). Yell often and loudly that he needed a new one to compete and that somebody else besides him was going to pay for it. Threatening relocation anytime a stadium proposal hit a bump. Alienate fans by casting off coaches and players at a whim and misusing revenue sharing left and right.
   5. McCoy Posted: January 15, 2003 at 01:23 AM (#608402)
I don't think it was a matter of Steinbrenner laying down his pride and letting his people do the job. Steinbrenner had to let his people do the job because he was kicked out of baseball and by the time he came back they were winning again. One year after he comes back the Yanks were leading the division when the strike hits and then afterthat the Yanks make the the playoffs every year. So there is little need for Steinbrenner to go into one of his classic mess up the team mode of operation.
   6. Geoff Posted: January 15, 2003 at 01:23 AM (#608408)
There is also the issue of teams' behavior under the different formats. If the 5th best-in-the-AL Yanks knew that their playoff berth was in jeopardy (which in that year it wasn't), they would have approached things differently late in the year. Play more front-line talent, focus more (for what that's worth, who knows), maybe even make an extra trade at the deadline to ensure their best chance. I don't know how to measure how much of a factor this is, but it's got to matter some.

   7. Srul Itza Posted: January 15, 2003 at 01:23 AM (#608409)
I think we can attribute the Yankees' rise in the 1990s to a number of things. Cable television certainly helped. The Yankees could outspend everyone even more. My theory is that after his team's struggles in the 1980s, Steinbrenner decided he would lay down his pride and handed baseball operations over to baseball people. This, along with money, helped the Yankees rise again.

I dont't think you give enough credit to the contributions of Howard Spira to the Yankee success. In some ways, he almost single-handedly helped to rebuild the franchise -- by getting Steinbrenner suspended.

On July 30, 1990, Fay Vincent ordered Steinbrenner to resign and banned him from day-to-day operation of the team for life, becuase he paid $40,000 payment to Spira for damaging information about Dave Winfield. He was reinstated in 1993.

Okay, it is an exaggeration, but his absence seems to do wonders for the team. He was also suspended in 1974 for two years, as a result of his conviction for illegal campaign contributions to Nixon, and thereafter the Yankees went on their late 70's run of success.
   8. jwb Posted: January 16, 2003 at 01:23 AM (#608418)
I was not yet born in 1969 so I am not sure why they would split into two divisions

Then-AL President Joe Cronin said, "You just can't sell a ninth place team." or words to that effect.
   9. Srul Itza Posted: January 16, 2003 at 01:23 AM (#608423)
Charles: You are right insofar as they were lucky to reach the post season some of those years, but a little credit where credit is due.

From 1996-2001, the Yankees went 14-2 in post season series, including runs of 11 straight series won, and 14 straight world series games won.

That may have been luck, but if so, it is DAMN IMPRESSIVE luck.

   10. David Bergner Posted: January 17, 2003 at 01:23 AM (#608431)
When trying to do the research for this article, I felt that I needed to come in with a hypothesis and then let the data either support my hypothesis or destroy it. To be honest, I thought the Yankees would do worse than what they did. I didn't really expect them to be that good in 1997 or 1999, but it did work out to where they did seem to be the dominant team, even though 1999 could have went either way. I wasn't surprised that the Yankees didn't fair too well in 1996, 2000, & 2001. I haven't ran the numbers for 2002 so I'm not sure how it would have come out for last year, but I'm pretty confident that New York wouldn't have won the AL in the pre-1969 days simply because the MIN, SEA, OAK, ANA were just too strong.

The other point I wanted to make was that this study didn't intend to argue that the Yankees' playoff runs weren't impressive because they surely were. However, I still don't think that a team that clearly isn't the best team in the American League should represent the American League in the World Series. We see just a few months ago when the Wild Card Angels actually win the World Series. The tragedy of the AL in 2002 came down to the fact that both Oakland and New York won 103 games and both weren't even in the ALCS. Some people might argue that both the A's and Yankees had a chance to get there but just couldn't beat the Twins and Angels. I disagree with this sentiment b/c how much more can you ask of these teams? Oakland and New York go out and play hard for an entire year and get no reward. It just doesn't seem legitimate in my mind.

Even in the NL we see something terrible in that San Francisco was sporting the 4th best record in the NL yet came within a few outs of winning the World Series.

I'm all for nice stories, but SF/ANA was just horrible. SF came in with the 4th best record in the NL and ANA had the 3rd best in the AL.

Maybe I'm old school for 26 years old, but whatever happen to the meaning of the best team AT LEAST gets a chance to win the World Series? I don't think any serious baseball fan can honestly believe that Anaheim is the best team in baseball, AND that my friends is just wrong.
   11. David Bergner Posted: January 18, 2003 at 01:24 AM (#608440)
I'll give a comment on Steve's and Jordan's comments.

I was never around in the pre-1969 days either so I don't know what baseball would be like with only the one-division-winner-take-all format. I think that with baseball, the tradition is so rich and I truly believe that baseball is the greatest sport ever. That said, in my mind, I don't care if the Reds are in last place and completley stink! I still love'em and I'm going to watch as many REDS games as I can. It's sort of the same thing with guys like Rob Neyer and Bill James who are big Kansas City Royals fans.

With the NFL/NBA/NHL, the regular season is devalued and I think this isn't conducive to deciding who has the best team overall. Baseball is a grueling 162 game season, but if all of a sudden we are going to start allowing a bunch of teams in the playoffs, then why does it really matter that we play that many games? Couldn't we just get by on 100 games instead of 162? What about 85 games? I think one of the reasons the NFL is so popular is parody, but let's face it. The NFL stands for everything that is not American. It's almost a socialist sport in that everybody has to play by the same rules and salary caps and whatnot. The design is to keep teams all around the same level. Take this year. We have TB/PHI and OAK/TEN. Last year we had STL/PHI and NE/PIT. The only team that is back in a championship game is Philadelphia.

You ask who's the best team? With baseball it's still sort of simple although not as simple as it used to be. The best team was always the team with the best single season record in their league. If a team does well early and then starts to coast and ends up losing the league by a game only means that that team wasn't the best team, because great teams don't turn on the autopilot and coast. They shut the door on all opponents no matter how many games they are ahead in the division.

I understand what you are saying about the fans and how they won't want to watch baseball if their favorite team is in last place. I'm not sure how to argue that point other than there is a tremendous lack of true baseball fans out there. For me, I'm a midwest guy who is a REDS fan. I still watched almost every playoff game and every World Series game this year even though I really don't like either Anaheim or San Francisco. The point is that it's still the World Series and it's still the playoffs.

I don't know if I can answer what the deal is with fan interest in baseball. If you read a lot of the work by Baseball Prospectus they can provide some answers that you are looking for. I guess there can only be so many Billy Beanes in the world! Baseball is a slow, patient game. America isn't made up of a lot people who are patient and attention spans seem to be getting less and less. This is probably not the best thing for the sport of baseball.

Yes, I would love contraction!

I completely agree with you about the "WHY" the extended playoff format is wrong. A lot of what you said are reasons why I think we should go back to either the 2-division or 1-division format.
   12. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: January 19, 2003 at 01:24 AM (#608452)
This whole idea that somehow the team with the best regular season record is therefore the "best" team in the league is superficial. This may be true in some abstract sense, but in fact since the rules provide for 8 teams to make the postseason, the "best" team is the one which positions itself best to survive that tournament. To pretend that a team which went 14-4 in postseason series between 1996 and 2002 is "lucky" is quite a stretch.

Yes, the Yankees are "lucky." Lucky they have the winning tradition which gives them an advantage in luring premier free agents from here and abroad, lucky they have the population base which provides the cable revenue, lucky they have an owner obsessed with winning, lucky they are competing against nits and incompetents (with a few exceptions), lucky they won this game or that game because of Jeffrey Maier or Jeremy Giambi (and unlucky that a few bloop hits fell in for Arizona). This is news? They didn't win those championships because of the setup. They won because they were presented with four challenges: Get into the playoffs, get into the LCS, win the LCS, and win the World Series. And they did. Four times in seven years. Just like those "lucky" wild card Angels did this year, and more power to them.

To me, and I suspect to most fans, the team which performs best when the stakes are highest is the best team, not necessarily the team which can beat Tampa Bay or Cincinnati the most times in a year. Case in Point: The 1954 Indians went 89-21 against the Boston Red Sox (69-85), the Detroit Tigers (68-86), the Washington Senators (66-88), the Baltimore Orioles(54-100), and the Philadelphia A's (51-103). They won 111 games, but got swept by the New York Giants (97-57) in the World Series. Were the Giants lucky? Or were the Indians simply exposed? And by the way, the Indians played the Giants 21 times in Spring Training that year. They won 8.

The regular season is the first test of which team is the best. It is not the final exam.
   13. David Bergner Posted: January 30, 2003 at 01:28 AM (#608656)
JYJJY - You are right about ANA and SF having the best pythagorean methods in 2002, but you are WRONG about the methodology that I used to figure things out. You have to remember that I went back to the pre-1969 days of scheduling and then the 1969-1993 days to figure up where each team would have been then. The scheduling would have been completely different back then, than it is today.

In the pre-1969 era, the NL would have been 12 teams instead of 16 and the Giants would have played every team exactly as many times as everyone else would have. In 1969-1993, SF would have had to play their fellow NL West cohorts 18 times while playing the teams from the NL East only 12 times apiece.

As I've said before, I haven't run the numbers on SF or ANA for those eras. I'm inclined to think that maybe they would have been the best teams in the league and this World Series turned out to be an aberration of the playoff system and MLB got lucky.

However, I'd have to run the numbers and see.

I'm not saying that you might not be right, but you did get my methodology wrong so your conclusion that my methods destroy my thesis is clearly in error.
   14. David Bergner Posted: January 30, 2003 at 01:28 AM (#608657)

I agree with everything you are saying!

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