Is The Lack Of Parity In Baseball Myth Or Reality?

As the baseball season approaches October, the postseason field will begin to take shape.  As Giants-Philles and Red Sox-Yankees took the national stage this weekend, it got me thinking about the perceived lack of parity in baseball.  The networks were touting the great ratings that these games did over the weekend, but who could blame baseball fans for only watching these big market clubs when that’s all the national media covers.  (See the Pirates’ 15 minutes of fame as a “nice story” as a glaring example of the total lack of attention paid to small market clubs.)

Do we always have to have the SAWX and the YANKS shoved down our throat year after year?  Are their postseason spots predestined by the commissioner’s office?  In a word… yes.  After all, the Yankees have made the playoffs every season but one since 1994.  The Red Sox have made it six out of the last eight years.  On the NL side, slowly but surely, the Phillies are on their way to making this a triumvirate of I-95 despotism over the sport of baseball.   A fifth straight NL East title is a sure bet for Philadelphia with their dominance showing no sign of slowing down.  Around the top of the sport, it seems like another year of same ol’, same ol’.

In fact, as the standings sit on August 9th, three out of the four NL Playoff teams from last year look set to make it again this year.  The only projected change is in the NL Central, where the Reds will likely lose the division title to the Cardinals or Brewers, who have both made recent playoff appearances.  We all know that the NFL is the league of parity and MLB is the league where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, but just how real and widespread is this lack of parity in baseball?

I set out to prove just how unequal and unfair the baseball postseason was by looking at the cold, hard facts of teams that have made the postseason the last five years in the four major pro sports (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL).  I figured we’d see what we all generally assume about baseball – that the upper class is well defined with little hope of entry and the other sports see much more yearly turnover with regards to the postseason.  But that’s only assumptions.  Did the numbers prove the lack of parity in baseball to be a myth or reality…

Let’s start this brief trip down Sabermetric Street by analyzing the postseason data for the shining beacon of parity, equality, and justice, the National Football League.  The NFL is famous for its propensity of teams that go worst to first, but there are also teams like the Patriots and Colts that have had long runs at the top of the sport.  Here’s the table of the division winners and wild card recipients since 2006…

NFL 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006
NFC East Eagles Cowboys Giants Cowboys Eagles
NFC North Bears Vikings Vikings Packers Bears
NFC South Falcons Saints Panthers Bucs Saints
NFC West Seahawks Cardinals Cardinals Seahawks Seahawks
NFC WC1 Saints Packers Falcons Giants Cowboys
NFC WC2 Packers Eagles Eagles Redskins Giants
AFC East Patriots Patriots Dolphins Patriots Patriots
AFC North Steelers Bengals Steelers Steelers Ravens
AFC South Colts Colts Titans Colts Colts
AFC West Chiefs Chargers Chargers Chargers Chargers
AFC WC1 Ravens Jets Colts Jaguars Jets
AFC WC2 Jets Ravens Ravens Titans Chiefs

Teams that won a division title: 21 of 32 (65.6%)
Teams that made a playoff appearance: 24 of 32 (75%)
Repeat division winners: 11

To little surprise, over 65% of teams in the NFL won a division title in the last five years including every team in the NFC South.  The list of teams that have made a playoff appearance only grows by three though and a quarter of the league’s teams have missed the playoffs.  

The key to this particular study though is the yearly turnover in the Playoffs.  From year to year, how many new teams make the postseason?  For the NFL, I thought this number would be extremely high with the reputation for parity.  But in reality, only about half of the league’s playoff slots are changed from year to year.

Yearly Playoff turnover:

2007: 6 of 12
2008: 7 of 12
2009: 7 of 12
2010: 5 of 12

Total year to year playoff turnover: 52.1%

While many new playoff teams take advantage of the league setup, the Ravens, Jets, Packers, and Eagles have all made multiple wild card appearances in this time.  Furthermore, teams like San Diego, Indianapolis, New England, and Pittsburgh have all had long streaks at the top of their division.  Perhaps those facts explain what I percieved to be a lower than expected number, but a look at MLB shows another story (2011 playoff teams projected).

MLB 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006
AL East Red Sox Rays Yankees Rays Red Sox Yankees
AL Central Tigers Twins Twins White Sox Indians Twins
AL West Rangers Rangers Angels Angels Angels A’s
AL WC Yankees Yankees Red Sox Red Sox Yankees Tigers
NL East Phillies Phillies Phillies Phillies Phillies Mets
NL Central Brewers Reds Cardinals Cubs Cubs Cardinals
NL West Giants Giants Dodgers Dodgers D’Backs Padres
NL WC Braves Braves Rockies Brewers Rockies Dodgers

Teams that won a division title: 18 of 30 (60%)
Teams that made a playoff appearance: 22 of 30 (73.3%)
Repeat division winners: 11

Shockingly, almost the same percentage of teams have made the MLB Playoffs as the NFL Playoffs since 2006.  The projected three new division winners this year also boosts that number close to the NFL counterpart.  But what about that yearly playoff turnover?  Surely with teams like Boston, New York, and Philly hogging a spot year after year, this should be much lower.  After all, only three out of eight new postseason participants are projected for this year.  In the words of Lee Corso, not so fast my friend!

2007: 7 of 8
2008: 4 of 8
2009: 4 of 8
2010: 5 of 8
2011: 3 of 8 (projected)

Total year-to-year playoff turnover: 57.5%

Even with only three new playoff teams in 2011, the yearly playoff turnover in MLB is still significantly higher than the NFL!  This means that Major League Baseball actually sees more postseason parity from year to year than the NFL.  (I’ll give you a second to do a spit take at your computer).  Now while this brief napkin math is far from a perfect and definitive proof, these numbers tell us that parity in baseball is at least in the same ballpark as the widely heralded NFL, especially outside the Sox/Yanks/Phils triangle of doom.  

The sports with the least amount of parity at the top are the NBA and NHL.  In the NBA, only 15 teams have won a division title since 2006.  In the NHL, that number is only 14.  Of course, the total playoff numbers are skewed with nearly every team making the postseason and the year-to-year turnover rates are (perhaps obviously) quite low.  29.6% for the NBA and 23.4% for the NHL.  To that point, only three teams in each league have missed the playoffs each year since 2006.

In the end, when you crunch the numbers and compare baseball to the other major pro sports, the lack of parity in baseball is simply a myth.  And in truth, we’ve seen that play out on the field this year with Cleveland and Pittsburgh becoming legitimate contenders.  Uncle Bud can proudly swipe a piece of the parity pie from Roger Goodell and the shield.  Yes, the Sox and Yanks and Phils may routinely appear in the postseason and on our televisions seemingly every weekend, but don’t let that fool you about the overall parity of the sport, which is actually alive and well.  Unless you live in Baltimore or Toronto that is… 

Matt Yoder

About Matt Yoder

Award winning sportswriter at The Comeback and Awful Announcing. The biggest cat in the whole wide world.