The Rigged (National) Game
Since the New York Yankees and their $208 million payroll won the 2009 World Series in six games over the Philadelphia Phillies and their $111 million payroll, there’s been renewed debate among fans and journalists about how much money matters in baseball.
One side reminds us that for all the money the Yankees spent this decade—and they spent a ton—they only have two titles to show for it. There was even one year, 2008, when they didn’t get to the post-season. So how can money matter so much? Just look at the Mets. They’ve been the biggest spenders in the National League every year since 2003 but made the post-season just once, in 2006, and didn’t even get to the World Series that year. Yankees smart, Mets not, and even money-plus-smart guarantees nothing, so everyone quit your bellyaching.
The other side, led by folks like Joe Posnanski at Sports Illustrated, reminds us that it’s less a matter that the Yankees are outspending other teams than by how much they’re outspending other teams. The Mets may have outspent the Cubs (no. 2 in the N.L.) by $15 million in 2009 but the Yankees outspent the Red Sox (no. 2 in the A.L.) by $80 million. They outspent them, in other words, by the entire Toronto Blue Jays payroll. That $80 million difference between the Yankees and the Red Sox is the difference between the Red Sox and, well, no other team in the American League, because no other team in the American League had a payroll $80 million less than the Red Sox. (The Athletics were $59 million behind.) In terms of payroll, in other words, 1st and 2nd are further apart than 2nd and 14th. That’s the new math in baseball.
Posnanski also reminds us that baseball is a game where dominance can be obscured. The best teams lose a third of their games, the worst teams win a third, so the real battle is for that final third. Add in the two tiers of playoffs, including a best-of-five division series, and almost anything can happen.
Unfortunately it usually doesn't. Yes, this decade the Yankees spent and spent and have only two World Series championships to show for it; but just one other team, the Red Sox, won as many. It’s “only” two championships if you’re the Yankees. It’s “only” four pennants if you’re the Yankees. It’s “only” eight division titles and a wild-card berth if you’re the Yankees. Eight division titles and a wild-card berth would look pretty good in Kansas City.
How much does money matter? Here’s a chart of how often American League teams, ranked by payroll, made the playoffs since 1995:
No. of A.L. Playoff Appearances By Payroll Rank, Since 1995*
*based on payroll numbers presented in USA Today
Teams that spent the most money went to the playoffs 12 of the 15 years, teams that spent the second-most went 9 times, and so on. Half of the 60 playoff slots have been filled by whatever three teams were the spendiest teams that year. The 11 remaining teams fought over the other half.
Sure, there are certain years, such as 2000, when only one team among the top seven spendiest teams made it (psst: the Yankees). Plus you have certain teams, like the “Moneyball” Athletics and the Gardenhire Twins, who, for a time, can consistently make the playoffs despite low, low payrolls. But that 2000 Yankees and their no. 1 payroll wound up winning the pennant against the upstarts, while the “Moneyball” Athletics and Gardenhire Twins, despite five post-season appearances each this decade, have yet to win even one pennant. So even here, “money” generally matters more than “ball.”
What’s particularly troublesome is how consistent—almost codified—things have gotten recently. In the last six years, the Yankees, Red Sox and Angels, have each been to the post-season five times. During those six years, they were 1-2-3 in league payroll four times (2004-2007), 1-3-5 once (2008, behind Detroit and the White Sox), and 1-2-4 once (in 2009, when the Tigers outspent the Angels by $1 million). The true wild card in the American League is thus whomever wins the Central. That other wild card? It’s ensconced in the East (11 out of 15 times), and, in recent years, it’s almost always the Boston Red Sox.
By the way, if you’re curious about how payrolls and post-season appearance correlate for National League teams, here you go:
No. of N.L. Playoff Appearances By Payroll Rank, Since 1995*
*based on payroll numbers presented in USA Today
The discrepancy between the haves and have-nots of the N.L. post-season isn’t as dramatic—because the discrepancy between N.L. payroll isn’t as dramatic. Yes, it helps that the wealthiest N.L. teams (Mets, Cubs, Dodgers) have sometimes mismanaged their wealth; but it helps more than there's not one team willing or able to outspend every other team by an embarrassing amount in order to cover these mistakes.
All in all, the National League looks like the kind of system that people could defend as “fair enough.” But that’s the system without the Yankees in it. The one with the Yankees is decidedly more skewed.
These are just stats, of course, but they confirm what most of us feel: that baseball, particularly as it’s played in the American League, is a rigged game. In his post-World Series column in The New York Times, William Rhoden wrote the following:
The Yankees are widely despised because they buy players, but as Jeter pointed out, their cornerstones are homegrown: Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and himself. “We’ve played together for 17 years, including the minor leagues coming up,” Jeter said... “You don’t see that too often, especially with free agency and then guys staying together.”
This argument is often used by supporters of the current system to refute the Yankees’ financial domination. It actually demonstrates it. Four All-Stars, two sure Hall-of-Famers, on the same team for all (or most) of this time? Jeter’s right: You don’t see that too often. And why don’t you see it too often? Because for most teams, there’s always another, bigger team hanging around, checking out its best, young players, and declaring, after a moment or two, and maybe with a nod of appreciation, “He’d look good in pinstripes.” The Yankees kept Jeter and Rivera and Posada, in other words, because it didn’t have to worry about the Yankees.
Every fan of every small- or medium-market team knows this. We develop even one good player—a Joe Mauer, a Zack Greinke, a Felix Hernandez—and the question is always: How long do we get to keep this guy? The answer is usually: Not long. In this way, 20-25 teams feel like farm systems for the other 5-10. For fans, it’s a feeling of increasing helplessness and hopelessness, and it’s destroying the game.
Rhoden ended his post-World Series column in The New York Times this way. It's kind of tongue-in-cheek but mostly cheek:
If Matsui or Johnny Damon do not return, the Yankees may go after St. Louis outfielder Matt Holliday. Need one more starting pitcher? Why not go after the Los Angeles Angels’ John Lackey? Posada has two years left on his contract. Who is to say that as Posada winds down, the Yankees won’t go after Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer? The franchise has its shopping cart out.
Beware. With checkbook in hand, the Yankees may be coming to a neighborhood near you.
That’s so New York. As if he had to tell us to beware. As if we didn’t already know.