First Pitch: Are the Pirates a Sign That Baseball is a Fair Game?

Earlier this week it was announced that Bud Selig would retire after the 2014 season. I would believe this, but Selig has said this before. This is about the sixth or seventh time that Selig has said he would be retiring, so it’s hard to take this announcement seriously.

One aspect of Selig’s reign as commissioner is that baseball seems to favor big market teams, while making it harder on smaller markets to compete. Selig talks about how the league has parity, pointing to how many different World Series winners there have been. That doesn’t really mean that the league has parity, since the playoffs are set up so that anyone who makes it can win. The problem has long been that the big market teams always made the playoffs, combined with a few different small market teams each year.

The Pirates are one of those small markets this year. Here is how the current playoffs stack up:

Team – Pre-Season Payroll Rank

Boston – 4th

Detroit – 5th

Oakland – 27th

Cleveland – 21st

Texas – 12th

Tampa Bay – 28th

**Texas and Tampa Bay are tied for the second Wild Card spot

Atlanta – 16th

St. Louis – 11th

Los Angeles Dodgers – 2nd

Pittsburgh – 20th

Cincinnati – 13th

Out of the 11 teams in the hunt, three are in the top five in total payroll. Five are in the 11-20 range. The other three are in the bottom third of the league, with two in the bottom five (one of those still needs to win to officially make the playoffs.

If you remove the Wild Card contenders, then you get the following picture:

Teams in the Top 5: 3

Teams in the Middle 3rd: 2

Teams in the Bottom 3rd: 1

The Wild Card game definitely adds some parity, as it is allowing the Reds, Pirates, Rays, Indians, and Rangers a shot at the playoffs. All of those teams entered the season ranked 12th or lower in payroll. But that’s not really true parity. It’s more of a spectacle, since a one game playoff isn’t nearly the same as the best of five series that the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Tigers will enjoy.

None of this means that smaller payroll teams like the Pirates can’t win. Any team can win in the playoffs. And as we’ve seen this year, any team can make the playoffs. Regardless of how much money you have to spend, the approach to building a team is the same. You build with young talent, then once you have a contender you spend to add to that team, or keep the team together.

Mark Melancon Pirates
If the Pirates would have been on the opposite end of the Melancon trade, they wouldn’t have won 97 games like the Red Sox. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

The advantage that big market teams have is that they can afford mistakes. Take the Red Sox, for example. They were on the opposite end of the Mark Melancon trade. They traded Melancon, Stolmy Pimentel, Jerry Sands, and Ivan De Jesus for Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt. They also committed about $7 M to Hanrahan, who struggled, then missed most of the season with an injury.

If the Pirates made that trade, then committed $7 M in dead money to a relief pitcher, they probably aren’t contending this year. The Red Sox make that trade (plus similar trades for guys like Andrew Bailey) and they won 97 games.

Or what about the Dodgers? They have six players making $15 M or more this season. Only one of those players is more than a 3 WAR player. Two of those players — Josh Beckett and Matt Kemp — missed a lot of time with injuries and had down years when healthy. Those two combined made $37 M, which is half of the Pirates’ payroll. I don’t even think I need to mention where the Pirates would be if they had $37 M in dead weight on the payroll. Yet the Dodgers won their division, and finished two wins behind the Pirates.

Any team can win in baseball. Some teams find that task easier than other teams. For the Pirates, it means building up a young team, then adding two of the best and most valuable free agents over the off-season in Francisco Liriano and Russell Martin. For the Dodgers, it means getting a young team, then adding a ton of high paid players to the roster. The same goes for the Red Sox. A few injuries or bad contracts sink the Pirates, while the Red Sox and Dodgers can still contend with those obstacles.

The Pirates won 94 games and are in the playoffs, even if that is only the Wild Card round. That’s going to be used as a sign that baseball is fair, and any team can contend. The only problem with that argument is that it will ignore just how difficult it was for the Pirates to contend, and how easy it can be for other teams.

Links and Notes

**The 94th Win Providing Some Questions For Next Year

**Cuban First Baseman Jose Abreu Declared a Free Agent

**Pirates Have Six in John Sickels’ Top 75 Prospects

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I just wish that somebody would respond to my idea about having small market teams having permanent high draft picks to offset the advantage that large market teams have by virtue of their ability to spend enormous sums on free agent players.


I think it is a very interesting and complicated question. I still remember one of the First Pitch articles after the most recent Steelers’ Super Bowl win lamenting how baseball is constructed to perpetually doom small market teams. I was of a similar mind but I have moved away from that position.

There is inequality, largely driven by the local nature of revenue in the MLB, as compared other sports leagues. However I do not think NFL level fairness is really an appropriate goal, (I may be small minority.) The differences in revenue leads to different expectations and strategies. There are different way to construct rosters in baseball, draft and develop, overpay for free agents, whatever the As are doing (they do not really have much home grown talent.) I think, again maybe I am a small minority, this adds to the interesting nature of baseball.

Much of the research has shown that there is a linkage between payroll and winning, however its small and the question of causality is unproven. It is correct that revenue/payroll afford a team to make mistakes, but only to a point. Boston went from worst to first because the Dodgers traded for many of their large contracts. No team has stepped in to purchase the Angles or Philadelphia’s massive mistakes.

I think small teams windows become unsustainable because they abandoned the process that got them there and attempt to mimic large market teams. (I admit this is a sweeping unproven generalization) Free agent contracts by their nature are risky, peak performance of players aligns with the six years of service time. There are legacy cost to free agent contracts, as New York is finding out.

What is more worrisome is that the MLB has been restricting the rules surrounding drafting and international markets thus constricting what strategies are available to smaller market teams. I am not sure how to evaluate the competitive balance picks yet. As piratemike points out there is something disingenuous about giving the Cubs, White Soxes, Astros, top picks. In the end I do not believe there is an easy answer to the question.


I think what you and piratemike have both hit upon is that MLBs financial inequity is not simply a payroll problem, although that is a large part of the problem, and one that would require an NHL-style financial crisis to be addressed, but it’s even more so a revenue issue, and as long as the revenue gaps between big market and small market clubs remains cavernous, the Pirates ability to compete will be sporadic and fleeting. Teams like the Pirates, Indians, Royals et al need to realize the enemy isn’t the MLBPA, it’s the Dodgers and Yankees.


To go even further with this premise, we still don’t know how the effects of the slotting system for the draft will play out–this was the one avenue the Pirates and their small-market brethren could out-compete the big market teams, and that potential advantage has been removed from them. Likewise, we don’t know the long-term effect of exploding local cable revenue; yes, the Pirates get a bigger chunk of money from national TV deals, but that doesn’t begin to bridge the gap between what they get in local revenue as opposed to the Dodgers or Yankees or Rangers. In five years, I fear the answer to this question will be “Hell. no, and it ain’t even close.”


The only way the t.v. money could be evened up is for all the money to be pooled and then split evenly and that is not even possible.
As far as the draft slotting goes it was done because the Union didn’t like the extra money being spent on non-union players. now that money that the Pirates spent on over slot spending will be applied to union players and of course the Union gets a larger cut of the pie. The Union could care less about parity, it just cares about ….M….O….N….E….Y…..!


I don’t think the TV money needs to be evened up, but (to paraphrase something Bill James said years ago) if the Pirates play the Dodgers in LA, shouldn’t the Pirates get some of that money? It would certainly be in the game’s best interests if a certain percentage (and I’m talking a large percentage, up to half) went into a common pool–it certainly wouldn’t eliminate the discrepancy in local TV revenue, but it would mitigate it.


Tim, your article gives me a chance to tout my plan that I have brought up before here and on other blogs’.
Small market teams should be given a permanent place at the top of the draft.
You mentioned before maybe a lottery which would be one way to go so that teams won’t be able to lose on purpose to get the #1 pick.
The Union will never allow a really true salary cap so the rich teams will always have the biggest advantage because once the top players reach free agency the only teams that can afford them are the big boys.
Lee pointed out that the Pirates might be drafting 27th next year.
It is wrong that a team like Pittsburgh or Oakland, Tampa or whomever will actually be punished for competing while teams like the Yankees, Dodgers et.c will go on about their business and re-sign their superstars like Kershaw and at the same time pick up a few more high priced quality free agents to make their team even more powerful while the Pirates whose only assets are their players who they drafted and nursed through the minor leagues will leave to get that big contract that the Pirates can’t possibly afford. Maybe they can get a player extended like Cutch for a home team discount but the can’t do that for everybody.
I’m not saying that quality players can’t be found at #27 and at later rounds but the reason they have the system they have now is to allow teams with losing records to get better by getting first shot at the best draft picks but when you have teams with over 200 m payrolls with other teams at 60m the disparity is just to damn large and what I suggest is the only way that the field is evened up somewhat because the Union will never allow the players salaries to drop.


I should point out that I have only an idea above and there are problems that I have not thought about such as teams dropping their payroll to qualify for a higher pick but if teams are based on population or the area they serve or other variables.
Where the cut-off point should be etc. but those are things that can be worked out.
Of course with the way they are handling instant re-play who knows.


The two main issues of inequity are: 1. Large market teams can make huge mistakes and still contend and make the playoffs (which you mentioned). 2. Small market teams are forced to focus on a winning “window” where 3 or 4 of their best players are in their prime, before they lose them. Sure Minnesota and now Tampa Bay have been able to maintain competitiveness for extended periods. But they are the exception, and neither has won a WS since the payroll discrepancy became so mammoth (Twins last WS there was not this huge discrepancy). And now the Twins are paying the price for giving large contracts to their top players.

Peter Hendrickson

Interesting post, just want to make a quick comment.

I would be interested in comparing what the actual salary sizes of the teams and the parity that exists between them in addition to looking at the rankings. The benefit of looking at the actual salaries themselves is that the difference between the one payroll and one that ranks immediately after it may be quite different than say for two teams elsewhere in the rankings. Just doing a pure ranking doesn’t account for how large the differences between teams can actually be.

In particular, it amazes me how much larger the Yankees and Dodgers’ payrolls are compared to any other team. The dropoff between the Dodgers and the third largest payroll is almost $57 million!

Even better, if you could make this as a percentage, the numbers would be really nice and easy to compare to each other.


And, now that we’re winning, we will no longer be picking high in the draft. It blew my mnd this morn when I discovered we will be picking 27TH!!!

Yuck! Gonna be hard to get excited about that. The percentages of players being drafted that low being good major leaguers really drops to about 33%.


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