Friday, June 15, 2007

Parity

Anyone else notice how the recent World Series combatants are holding up this year?

The Cardinals, White Sox, and Astros are all in the bottom seven of ESPN's power rankings. And BP's. AOL, Fox Sports, and SI.com are slightly nicer, but none of these teams escape the bottom ten in any of them.

If you just go by the stats, it's even worse. The teams rank 27th, 29th, and 30th in runs scored. The Cardinals rank last in the NL in run differential, 14 behind the Nationals. The White Sox are 29th in expected winning percentage, saved from the cellar by the 30th-ranked Cardinals. While you're perusing that last link, check out who sits at 30th in ESPN's RPI.

According to Baseball Prospectus, the Redbirds will make the playoffs just 1.56% of the time, and this figure is more than three times the chances of the Astros and Sox combined.

What about the Tigers, you say? Flip the switch on your time machine to "back," and watch how quickly they morph from AL champs to laughingstock, to the point where they have to eke out a living playing themselves on TV guest appearances.

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What's going on here? Three things, really:

- Baseball's playoff system has led to inferior league champions the past couple of years. You can believe that it's because of intangibles, or you can acknowledge that neither of the past two World Series champs was even the best team in its own division. (And let's not forget that the previous three Classics were all won by Wild Cards.)

- Variance has reared its ugly head. Every year, you're going to see some teams that have the inherent talent level of a .500 team, but finish with a very good or bad record when things don't break their way. The 2006 White Sox stayed very healthy and got some breakout seasons from their hitters; they won 90 games. The 2007 Cardinals have had ineffective pitchers and poor health; they're floundering.

- Parity is improving. For all the complaints cast at Bud Selig and the big-budget Yankees, life is pretty sweet outside the AL East. More teams are competitive deeper into the season, and every franchise--with the possible exception of the Nationals--can reasonably contend for a playoff berth in the next five years. As we've seen, once you're in, anyone can win.

I got pretty sick of the Braves winning all the time--2006 was the first year they missed the playoffs since I started watching baseball--but you have to be impressed with what they accomplished, because we're not going to see it again for awhile. That is, unless the Yankees shock the world this year and keep their streak alive.

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