Why Repeating is So Difficult

In the fall of 2001 I was starting my last year of undergrad, working as an RA, trying to figure out what to do with my life, and using Barry Bonds’ chase of the home run record as a diversion from the reality that was staring me straight in the face.

I have always loved baseball, but at that stage of life I had become a part-time baseball fan. The main reason for this: The Yankees and The Braves. I loved the game, loved the Giants, had started dabbling in some unsophisticated fantasy games, but loathed/detested/hated the post-season. I hated NBC and Bob Costas and Joe Morgan, and then I hated FOX and Joe Buck and Tim McCarver. I hated the fact that Giants only sniffed the playoffs and when they got there bowed out quickly and often in very lame ways. Mostly, I hated the inevitability of the Yankees, and to a lesser extent the Braves. I hated Paul O’Neil and Chipper Jones and that my boyhood hero, Roger Clemens, was in pinstripes. I hated that a team could win 116 regular season games and then fold like a house of cards in the face of the “indomitable” Yankees. And I hated the Braves and the complaining about how they had “only” won one Series despite winning the division every year, because I would have given an arm for “only” one WS trophy. The post-season sucked.

And the Yankees made the World Series again in 2001 and it was this big stupid patriotic thing because of 9/11 and everyone just knew the Yankees would win because New York needed them to. It all seemed wrong…America’s game had been taken over by a corporation, the evil empire, and it was awful. I railed against the system, called for a salary cap, decried the injustice.

And then a funny thing happened: The Diamondbacks won the World Series. The Diamondbacks. They hadn’t even existed five years before this! Then, in 2002 the Yankees lost to the Angels in the FIRST ROUND OF THE PLAYOFFS…the Angels. Then in 2003, the Yankees made it back to the WS and lost to the Marlins…the Marlins? And then, in the kicker of all kickers, in 2004, after having acquired Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees collapsed in the most dramatic and amazing way possible to the Boston Red Sox…the Boston freakin’ Red Sox.

Then the floodgates of weirdness opened up. The White Sox won in 2005 for the first time in a hundred years. The Cardinals won in 2006 after winning only 83 games. The Red Sox won AGAIN in 2007 (hell really had frozen over). The Phillies won in 2008 after spending 30 years as one of the worst franchises in baseball (and the Yankees didn’t even make the playoffs that year!). The Yankees did win in 2009 after spending big, but it didn’t have the same inevitable feeling as the late 90’s teams. And then, miracle of all miracles, the Giants won the World Series this year. (Let me just say that again…the Giants won the World Series this year!!!!!!!)

Since the Yankees late 90’s dynasty no one has repeated as WS champion and only one franchise (the Red Sox) has won 2 and they did it with two pretty different teams.

Meanwhile, people still rail against the injustice of baseball’s structure (even though, over the same 10 year window, the NFL has had 2 teams win half the championships, and the NBA has seen 2 teams win 7 of the championships).

In many ways, the NFL and NBA do have more “fair” economic structures, but it hasn’t produced the same kind of parity at the championship level that baseball has. Why is this?

Much has been said on this subject, but I want to explore my own “pet” theories, so here is part one of a two parter on why it is so hard to repeat as champions in MLB.

Part One: The Big Picture

1) In the early 2000’s MLB created a new collective bargaining agreement that has allowed for revenue sharing and a luxury tax. Far from the “harder” cap system of the NFL it has allowed for small market teams to enjoy a larger revenue stream and has helped curb, to an extent, the spending of the big market franchises.

It’s not a perfect system and I can go on and on about some of the details in the deal, but the bottom line is this: in each major league season there are AT LEAST 10 teams (more like 10-12) that can realistically win the the World Series (I would argue that pre-wild card, there were closer to 5-6).

So, can the Pittsburgh Pirates hope to win the World Series year in and year out? No. But can they (or the Kansas City Royals, or the Oakland A’s, or the Tampa Bay Rays, or the Minnesota Twins, etc) work and exploit the system and be competitive for windows of time? YES!

Some teams (The Yankees, the Red Sox, the Phillies) can spend their way into contention every season. That is inevitable under the current system. However, large market teams do find ways to screw this up all the time (see the Mets, the Dodgers, the Cubs, even the Angels this past year).

The point is there are 10-12 good teams every year, and it is harder and harder to have one supremely dominant team (the Red Sox are going to challenge this notion this year), which means that the 8 that get in to the playoffs are all capable of making a run.

Look at some of the teams that didn’t make it this year: the Cardinals, Rockies, White Sox, and Red Sox. Were the 2010 Giants CLEARLY superior to those teams? Not really. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine one of those teams making it in on the last day of the season and enjoying a Giants-like ride through the playoffs (each team had better line-ups than the Giants and strong starting pitching)…

2) Which brings me to the fickle nature of the playoff system: The Giants have been on the brutal end of this before, but with 8 closely matched teams in 3 short series, statistically speaking, anything can happen. Jose Cruz, in the middle of a Gold Glove season, can drop an easy flyball in soul crushing fashion, or Ian Kinsler can hit a ball off the top of the wall that comes back into fair play. Weird stuff happens and sometimes it screws you over and sometimes it leads to a parade down Market Street.

3) The rise of market-exploiting, statistically minded, smart executives has helped close the gap between rich and poor teams. Mostly this has meant the recognition of the importance of using young, cheap players who offer similar production value to older, more expensive options. Nothing new in this statement, but it has helped create the effect I described in point number 1. When it gets to playoff time, there are a lot of good, evenly matched, teams in the playoffs. And even if all 8 teams aren’t good, the series’ are short enough that mediocre teams can have everything work right at just the right time (see the 2006 Cardinals). The worst team in baseball can beat the best team in baseball in a short series even one out of ten times.

I do not think that it is impossible for a team to repeat under the current conditions. I also think that if the right pieces fall together a shrewdly managed club with deeper resources could put together a good multiple championship run (the Phillies and Red Sox are the closest to this right now).

However, the current economic structure of MLB, though still unfair, has actually created some of the greatest parity the game has ever seen, making repeat championships an impossible (to this point) feat.

Tomorrow we look more specifically at the role pitching plays in repeating as champions.