Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal are off and running with their new analytics-heavy approach to the Orioles (“What to watch as Orioles head to first winter meetings led by GM Mike Elias,” Dec. 8). Along with Jon Meoli, we all hope the new executives work data-driven magic. At the same time, we should bear in mind some stubborn numbers against which they’ll have to push with the shoulders of Sisyphus.
This past season concluded half a century of post-traditional baseball. It was in 1969 that Major League Baseball launched divisional play, remaking each league’s pennant race into two divisional contests, with a postseason shootout to decide the winner. In the American League, things were further souped up with the designated hitter. As a result of the latter innovation, the game began to split along the seam between National League and the American League. Then, during the second half of the 50-year span, 1994-2018, the split ripped open. This didn’t happen because of any further rule change. The culprit was money.
Baseball has crowned 24 champions since 1994, the strike-shortened season when no World Series was played. Of those 24 champs, 13 have been from the American League and 11 from the National League. They’re listed here, with their payroll rankings among all Major League teams in the year of their title(s):
American League: New York, five titles, with payroll rankings of 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st; Boston, four titles, with payroll rankings of 1st, 2nd, 2nd; Houston, one title, with payroll ranking of 18th; Kansas City, one title, with payroll ranking of 16th; Chicago, one title, with payroll ranking of 8th; Anaheim, one title, with payroll ranking of 15th.
National League: San Francisco, three titles, with payroll rankings of 7th, 7th,10th; St Louis, two titles with payroll rankings of 11th and 11th; Florida, two titles, with payroll rankings of 5th and 25th; Chicago, one title, with payroll ranking of 6th; Philadelphia, one title, with payroll ranking of 13th; Arizona, one title, with payroll ranking of 8th; Atlanta, one title, with payroll ranking of 4th.
On the AL side, the median MLB payroll ranking for a World Series champion is second. For all intents and purposes, the AL features three contenders: New York, Boston and Everyone Else. Based on the data of the last 25 years, if you’re a Yankees fan, the chance that your team will win the World Series in a given year is 25 percent. If you’re a Red Sox fan, 20 percent. And a fan of any other team? About 1.5 percent. And if your team pulls off that improbable feat, the prospect that it will get back to the mountaintop anytime soon is dim. None of the EE teams that actually won a title between 1994 and 2018 has done it a second time.
Typically, Everyone Else teams have a small window to contend. Maybe, if everything goes their way during the brief good times, lightning strikes — they win a pennant and get a shot at a World Series title. Win or lose, they soon fall out of sight again, like periodic cicadas that don’t have much time to make noise before returning underground. Kansas City’s recent history is the template.
For the NL, the median payroll ranking for a World Series winner is 8th. No duopoly of big-pocket franchises flips cigar ashes on the others. True, the NL has its greats and not-so-greats, but every scuffling ball club knows that it can turn things around, compete and have a fighting chance to claim the ultimate prize in October if it makes the right decisions on and off the field. No one is doomed to be a glorified farm operation for the mega-market clubs. In the NL, a top-tier payroll not only isn’t necessary, it almost looks counterproductive. During the last quarter century, only one World Series champion from the NL ranked as high as fourth (Atlanta, in 1995) in its winning year. The three teams that had multiple championships averaged 8th (San Francisco), 11th (St Louis), and 15th (Florida).
Opening Day is when National League fans tune in to the annual drama that will decide who emerges victorious from the entire field. The outcome is unpredictable, the competition usually wild. Opening Day is when AL fans flip on yet another sequel to Yankees versus Red Sox. More and more, they don’t flip on at all.
Solution? I wish I knew. I had one for the Orioles a decade and a half ago when the Montreal Expos were poised to move to Washington but needed Peter Angelos’ OK. He was engaged in tough negotiations, insisting on meaningful compensation for the damage that a new franchise so close to Baltimore would inflict on his ball club. In the end, he settled for what seemed to me to be fool’s gold, a lopsided joint cable TV deal with the Nationals. What should he have done? I thought he should approve the franchise’s relocation from Montreal with just one condition. He should have insisted that the new Washington team take the Orioles’ place in the AL East and the Orioles move to the NL East.
George Angell, Baltimore