Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Helmet Law of Sports

You know how most girls hate the word "panties?" That's how I feel about the word "parity." It's a gross-sounding word, and even more it's been beaten to death in a manner befitting a non-ferocious dog at the Vick Ranch.

Parity is often provided as a main reason for the NFL's meteoric rise in stature and eventual usurping of Major League Baseball as the country's prime male addiction that doesn't involve pornography. There may be some truth to this, but it's likely an overstatement; people are obsessed with the NFL because football might be the most fundamentally American sport imaginable. It's the perfect mixture of violence and strategy, and the league has never shied away from using sex to help sell it, too. Plus, the concentrated nature of the game's season — 16 games, as opposed to 164 — seems a better fit for recent generations of Americans who have not only been raised to think they have ADD, but probably have psychosomaticaly contracted it because they want the drugs.

This is not meant to impugn football; I am a football fan, though admittedly I've always preferred the college version. I do suggest, however, that there are a myriad of reasons why the NFL is more popular than baseball these days, and I don't think it has a whole lot to do with the fact that one sport has a salary cap, and the other doesn't. That assertion is supported by the fact that both the NBA and the NHL have caps, and no one gives a shit about either of those leagues unless the Suns are playing.

My other beef with the whole parity thing is that it really isn't true. Yes, the structure of the NFL's salary system makes it so that tons of players are cut every season, which means there's a constant stream of acquirable commodities for struggling teams with a keen eye for talent. But if that's the case, why have the Lions continued to suck right through the parity era? And the Cardinals? Furthermore, why is it that the Patriots and Eagles are almost always division favorites? If financial clout — the ability to spend more than another team — is the primary ingredient to superior roster building, then in the NFL's universe, all teams should hover around the same level, with random fluctuation in W-L records and jersey colors serving as the only methods of differentiating teams. We see that's not the case, however, and immediately know that the answer is: Some teams are better run than others. Yes, you can point to an example like the New Orleans Saints' one-year turnaround as an example of "parity," but I'm not sure that's the case. The Saints got better because they landed one free agent who was undervalued on the market because of an injury situation, benefited from an incredibly productive draft leading into that season, continued the development of young players who had underperformed in years past, and implemented a new coaching and management strategy under Sean Payton. That kind of story can happen in any sport; look at what's happening with the Brewers right now.

The Brewers, in fact, serve as an excellent illustration of the non-necessity for a salary cap in baseball, but they're not alone.

Cleveland 55-39 $ 61,673,267
Minnesota 49-45 $ 71,439,500
Milwaukee 53-41 $ 70,986,500
San Diego 52-41 $ 58,110,567
Arizona 50-46 $ 52,067,546

All five of those teams are among the best teams in their respective leagues. All fall well below any kind of reasonable salary cap MLB would institute.

And here's another four teams:

Chicago 42-51 $ 108,671,833
Baltimore 42-52 $ 93,554,808
San Francisco 39-53 $ 90,219,056
Houston 40-55 $ 87,759,000

All four of these are among baseball's worst teams. All would probably be right around, or above, any kind of reasonable salary cap MLB would institute.

I know, I know. I'm cherry-picking the examples which support my argument, right? In a sense, that's true. Most of the teams who spent close to, or more than, $100 million a season are in playoff contention. But that's really only eight teams, five of which are in the American League. And four of the six division leaders are among that group, thanks to the big-spending Dodgers recently overtaking the Padres in the West by a half-game. But, for most of the season, half the division leaders have been "small-market" teams, and Cleveland has been in a dogfight with Detroit all season long, despite spending almost $34 million less than the Tigers.

The point is that while there is some correlation between money spent and on field results, it's far from guaranteed that a large salary will equate with success, and the correlation is in fact fairly weak.

(Apropos-of-nothing aside: I checked the calendar before writing this, and have confirmed it's 2007. Why the fuck does almost every rap CD still have skits? This shit was old by the time De La Soul dropped De La Soul Is Dead, and that abortion was released in 1991. Yet, here I am listening to the otherwise excellent Like Father, Like Son by Birdman & Lil' Wayne, and I'm forced to skip through ridiculous cliché Godfather-ripoff skits about "being a part of the family for life." Really? Really? I feel like kicking Lyor Cohen in the nuts every time I hear a rap skit, because he's smart and probably could have put a stop to this trend in its infancy.)

There are a few big reasons for this. One of the prime ones is something I've posted about before, which is that many big-ticket free agency acquisitions are disasters for the teams involved. Activity does not equal improvement when it comes to the free agent market, and it can often mean the opposite; I'm quite positive that the Dodgers would be running away with the NL West right now if they hadn't signed (or re-signed) Luis Gonzalez, Juan Pierre and Nomar Garciaparra in the offseason, and instead had let Kemp, Loney, Betemit and LaRoche take up those at-bats. That would also trim more than $25 million off the team's 2007 payroll. Money spent is not always money well spent.

Furthermore, there already exists an artificial market constraint that serves to allow lower-income teams to compete without the benefit of a Warbucksian approach to free agent acquisition; it's the fact that a player needs to earn three years of major league experience before they can begin receiving compensation more in line with their value on the open market. I can't find the specifics on this, but a player needs to log between two and three years of major league service before he's eligible for salary arbitration, and (I believe) six years of major league service before he's eligible for free agency. During this six-year period, a team essentially controls the player; the player has no leverage, outside of a holdout, to negotiate a better deal for himself. Arbitration is binding for both sides, but only the team can opt out of the process; the player has no say. And even an arbitration award in favor of the player rarely nets him close to what he could earn on the open market. So, a team is essentially guaranteed six years of service (roughly) at bargain rates from any player it develops. In addition, savvy teams like the Indians and Braves have sustained success by signing players to long-term contracts at below-market values early in players' careers. Recently, the Padres were able to do this with Adrian Gonzalez and Chris Young, both of whom are making at least $7 million per season less than either would on the open market.

All this proves is that there are lots of ways to skin a cat when it comes to building a competitive major league baseball team. In fact, it's become clear to teams like the Yankees and Red Sox, Exhibits A and B for those who argue for a salary cap, that the way the Indians and Braves operate is actually preferable; the administration of both teams have made it clear that their days of opting for pricey free agents over young, home-grown players. This isn't to say that the money for free agents is going to completely dry up, but it does suggest that there will be some market correction in the future thanks to the lessened interest from the league's two biggest spenders.

All of this argues for there actually being a situation that allows for competitive balance. And I believe the results are there: The last seven World Series winners have been St. Louis, the Chicago White Sox, the Red Sox, the Marlins, the Angels and the Diamondbacks. Even the NFL, paragons of parity, can't claim six different champions in six years. In fact, there's only been three.

There's one remaining reason — and it's a big one — for there to not be a salary cap in baseball; it really serves to protect owners from themselves. Owners have created the problem by offering ridiculous deals to players who aren't deserving the money. In many cases, they've done so while really only bidding against themselves. It would not require collusion for the market to undergo a correction; it would just require owners to stop allowing, as one blogger put it recently, Scott Boras to convince them that Barry Zito is Steve Carlton.

Small Market teams love to claim that its a lack of money that keeps them from competing, but it's simply not true. The reason the Pirates have sucked since Barrold left town was because they've made horrible decisions with the money they actually have. Same goes for the Royals, who can be counted on to load their roster up with overpaid veterans almost every offseason. Interestingly, those two teams can be counted on to make a healthy profit every season, thanks to the revenue sharing that takes place in baseball; they're pocketing the money that's supposed to be going toward player salaries, all the while protesting the unfairness of the system. The players — or agents — aren't to blame for the problem, yet the solution serves only to restrict their ability to make as much money as possible. Not only do I not think a salary cap is needed, I actually think it's wrong. It will be a cold day in hell before you can convince me that millionaire owners, who already have the run of the shop, need even more help to properly run their affairs.


Ookie said...

That is a power-packed post there, Diesel. I think that, at some point, I will end up conceding this debate, since this is an arena which you pretty much own and, overall, I think that you are right. But, seriously, I have a laundry list of contention points with just about every sentence in this post. A myriad of logical fallacies abound, my friend.

I pretty sure that I have adult ADD, so I will only bring up one point here: Are you honestly stating that there is more 'parity' in baseball than in the NFL? The Lions and Cardinals are really the only teams without a measure of success in the last decade, and it is because they are horrendously managed, and, in the Cardinal's case, cheap. (Way to kick me in the nads about the Lions, by the way). Also, it is not outside the realm of possibility that either one of these teams could break out at any moment, a statement that one would have to be crazy to say about the Royals, Pirates, Devil Rays, or Nationals. How many championships have the Rockefeller Yanks won in the last decade, as opposed to the gloriously managed, yet somewhat underfunded Croakland Athletics, hmm?

Also, no one ever declared that a salary cap would be a panacea for baseball. As Matt Millen proves, the existence of a helmet law does not mean that a select few dolts will not find another way to injure themselves.

Oh, and parity is a gorgeous word, as it (along with symmetry) is one of the most exquisite and fundamental concepts in all of physics and cosmology.

CodDammit, that's more than one point.

See you at 16th Street. I will have a printed copy of this post. Kidding.

- Big C

Pepe B. said...

That's a great post. Know why? Because it says pretty much everything I would have, except mine would have had 200 words about the NFL and MLB and then diverged into 3K about how shitty the Phillies are.

C-rizzle: Good points, but I do think that four or five years ago, you could have said realistically that it seemed impossible for the Tigers or Brewers to break out at any moment. Or even less extreme cases of teams that seem to blow themselves up every few years and somehow contend after a short period of rebuilding, like, say, the Dbacks or Marlins.

And hip hop skits are the bane of my existence. It's the one (and only) thing I don't understand about black music.

Diesel said...

I don't think I ever said there was "more" parity in baseball than football; I think it's irrelevant whether there is or not. Like "selflessness," parity is often cited as a virtue in sports without there being any justification for that opinion.

Richard Gadsden said...

"Also, it is not outside the realm of possibility that either one of these teams could break out at any moment, a statement that one would have to be crazy to say about the Royals, Pirates, Devil Rays, or Nationals."

Devil Rays have an awful lot of good young players, actually. If they weren't stuck in the AL East, I'd be predicting a division title within the next three years. Even in the AL East, they should be pretty competitive.

Richard B. Wade said...

Part of the reason we've had six WS winners in six years is because the baseball playoff system is such that the best team in baseball isn't all that likely to win.

Diesel said...

@ Richard B. Wade

Baseball's playoff system is no more fair to the best teams than that of any other major sport. But, fine, looking deeper:

Playoff teams in the last six years:
New York (A)
New York (N)
Los Angeles(N)
St. Louis
San Diego
Chicago (A)
Los Angeles (A)
San Francisco
Chicago (N)

19 out of 30 teams have been in the playoffs in the last six years, in a total of 48 possible playoff berths. I think that's indicative of a system in which any team that's well-run can expect a shot.