Revenue Sharing is Nice, But Interleague Play Has Leveled the Field

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As baseball emerges from its gala All Star break, the focus of fans turns to the July 31st trading deadline and which teams still have a chance to succeed. Hint: there's a lot of them! Baseball's head honcho Bud Selig likes to brag about parity in the national pastime and point out that even a small market team like Tampa Bay can win a pennant. Even President Obama made note of the competitive balance in baseball today. So, what exactly is the driving force behind the huge number of teams still in the playoff race?

Two weeks ago, just as interleague play had come to an end, Peter Gammons opined that revenue sharing was the key:

George Streinbrenner's birthday seems to be a good time for a reminder that Bud Selig's revenue sharing has flattened the baseball earth. Salary cap or no salary cap. In this century, eight different teams have won nine World Series, compared to seven different NFL teams winning 10 Super Bowls, five different NBA teams winning 10 championships.

Ask Hal Steinbrenner and John Henry how much they're funding the delicate balance of power. Ask Fred Wilpon, and he'll point out that on July 4 the Florida Marlins are buyers and believe they can win the NL East.

Gammons then lists eight teams he thinks have been all but eliminated from the playoff race; he lumps in the Blue Jays as team nine because of the tough threesome ahead of them in their division. He continues:

Otherwise, the AL East's big three are within five games of one another; the charging White Sox have made the AL Central a wild race, with three teams separated by four games; Texas and L.A. are tied in the AL West; four teams are within two games in the NL East; five teams are within four games in the NL Central; and while the Dodgers are off on "Mannygan's Island" in the NL West, the Giants and Rockies are No. 1 and 2 for the wild card.

That's how it works with revenue sharing and without a salary cap. In the last 25 World Series, 18 different franchises have won; the Yanks have won four, and the others with multiple championships are the Twins, Blue Jays, Red Sox and Marlins.

Gammons is wrong. Revenue sharing helps, but the real cog that drives competitive balance is interleague play. The 15 to 18 interleague games that each team in each league played served as a normalizer. Look: the average AL team won 55% of their interleague contests and the average NL team lost 55%. Since nearly every AL team was successful and nearly every NL team was not, and because the Wild Card and division races are isolated within their respective league, the interleague games didn't create any significant gaps in the playoff push.

For example, before interleague play started on June 11th, Tampa Bay was 6 games behind first place Boston. On July 4th, they were five games back. On June 11th, first and fifth place in the NL Central was separated by 5 games. On July 4th, it was down to 4.5 games. In the AL West, Seattle went from 4.5 back to 2.5 back. Atlanta moved 3.5 games closer to the NL East lead. I could go on but you get the point. Division races got closer this season because there was a distinct separation of power in interleague play.

So what good is revenue sharing? If anything, revenue sharing discourages parity as the supposedly small-market teams like the Florida Marlins and Kansas City Royals gladly accept cash from the big boys like Boston and New York, but scoff at putting the money towards player development or salaries. The Marlins tend to succeed a bit more than the Royals because they are thrifty with their money; Kansas City's frugality comes off as ridiculous when they drop big cash on failed free agents like Kyle Farnsworth.

So today, just two weeks away from the trading deadline, there are at least 15 teams and possibly 20 who think they have a ghost of a shot at postseason play. This is good! This is also surely evidence of parity but it has nothing to do with revenue sharing. It has to do with the unbalanced schedule that was instituted over a decade ago with the Great Equalizer known as interleague play.


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20 Comments

I think clubs utilizing free agency rules to their advantage has also leveled the playing field. As laid out in the 2006 CBA, clubs can keep Rule 5 players longer and now receive "sandwich" draft picks when they lose even a Type B free agent. This system allows for a team to lock up young talent long enough to put a competitive product on the field.

The Pirates trading their good players for peanuts every year has leveled the playing field for ever team except the Pirates... and the Nationals.

I like the cut of your jib, Colonel. Perhaps we can examine that aspect in a future blog post. Especially the sandwich part, yum-o.

Or clubs can lose Type A free agents to teams that signed two other Type As, therefore receiving only a fourth round pick in exchange for losing their high priced talent.

/no funeral

Check out this list of Type A free agents for the 2008-2009 year. Most of them are veterans that could be easily replaced. The teams that lost unique talent (Teixeira, etc.) traded the player beforehand to get some worth before losing the player.

I know the Cardinals would gladly take any draft compensation for "losing" Aaron Miles.

Correction: Those are A and B Free Agents.

I think I'm missing something here: If all the good AL teams are playing crappy NL teams in interleague play, shouldn't the net effect on the divisional and wild card races be zero? Where's the compression effect coming from? Seems to me that Seattle and Atlanta could have picked up just as much ground from playing good ball for a month against teams in their own league. I'll buy that the unbalanced schedule has made division races closer than they necessarily appear (with more games against division opponents, it's easier for teams to gain ground, especially in the last month of the season), but I'm not seeing interleague play as a Great Equalizer.

My point is that if teams played an infinite number of interleague games under this Great Separation of Power and no intradivision games, every team in the division will approach a certain winning percentage.

For example, let's assume every AL East team wins 60% of their interleague games. As the number of interleague games approaches infinity, every AL East team's winning percentage approaches .600, and fans get tired of seeing the same teams over and over again.

Sure, we're not approaching infinity enough to make MUCH of a difference, but interleague play IS keeping teams close and alive. Imagine if the Cardinals, Brewers, Astros, and Cubs played each other over those two weeks instead of the AL Central. ONE of those teams would absolutely have lost significant ground in the division race. Instead, they're all "alive" in the playoffs race and thinking about what pieces to buy.

But within the next two weeks back in divisional play before July 31, one of those teams absolutely will fall so far off the lead that making a deadline trade will seem ridiculous. I'm looking at you, Ed Wade.

My hypothesis is not perfect and I appreciate your pointing out its flaws.

Also, remind me in the future that calculus and Money Baby do not mix.

No, that makes sense. Under your hypothesis, interleague play effectively shortens the regular season by 2 games or so (AL teams will win, on average, 2 more games against NL competition than they would have against teams in their own league and vice-versa). And since the bulk (or maybe the entirety?) of interleague action takes place in the first half of the season, that effect is magnified as we look at the standings right now.

So, is the point really that interleague play serves to keep pennant races tighter, because all AL teams are likely to win more than lose, and all NL teams are likely to lose more than win? In other words, interleague play defers/delays the stretching out of the division standings?

I believe that is the secret sauce this year, Gorge.

I use this site to take a break from thinking. STOP IT!!!

I think you're making the mistake that even though the average AL winning % is (say) 60%, that doesn't mean that every team is 60%, the better teams will be 70% and the worse ones 50%. So it could actually widen the gap, not close it depending on those teams winning % against each other. Of course more analysis would have to be done, and the unbalanced schedule could mean you turn out to be correct (but not in the way you mean)...


Remember that in a balanced schedule a worse team can only catch up on a better team by luck.

I needed to turn over my graph-paper Zelda map and take notes on the back to keep up with this thread.

I would show you the standard deviation in wins from each division but my head would explode.

But for the most part, the teams within the divisions were pretty close this season.

http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/standings/index.jsp

The greater point is each win against an unbalanced opponent doesn't weigh as heavily in the stands, I think. Playing different opponents causes 1/2 game shifts rather than one up, one down full game differences. I think.

I may be way off on this, but I think that there are more division matchups after the break as well.

I just don't get it. I'm going to stick to making fun of guys for their Twitter usernames on other posts today.

I'm pretty lost, but I'm going to say that whoever gets to play the AFC West has a SUPER shot at winning the pennant.

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