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On NL Inferiority in general and the Astros in particular


Migrant Redbird

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Baseball Prospectus: Joe Sheehan

This was published a week ago. Apologies if it's already been posted elsewhere.

Not sure that I agree with Sheehan's thesis, but it's an interesting article nonetheless.

Wade's misguided mandate from owner Drayton McLane was to win as many games as possible in the short term. He's done that; the Astros, projected by me to win 73 games (and -77 differential) and by PECOTA to win 72 (-82), have already won 74, on their way to more than 80. It's hard to say that Wade didn't do the job he was asked to do.

Now, that might have made them an NL Central contender in the past few seasons; no NL Central team has won 90 games since 2005. However, what McLane—and arguably Wade—failed to see was that the competitive landscape had shifted. The Cubs were getting better. The Brewers' young talent was coming together to make them a true contender. The days of taking the NL Central with fewer than 90 wins were clearly numbered,... The Astros were built to win 80-something games and catch some breaks, which is not just the wrong plan at the wrong time, but the wrong way to build a baseball team, period.

Of course, McLane's mistake is the NL's problem in a nutshell. For nearly a decade now, the emphasis has been on being good enough, rather than on being great. The Yankees and the Red Sox, the A's and the Angels, all set tones in the AL in the early part of the 2000s, forcing everyone to either build teams that could win 95 games, or abandon hope of contending. Some teams did the latter, which is why the AL, while being the superior league, has had something of an underclass of franchises in constant rebuilding mode. At the top, however, the work by the front offices and the willingness of a number of owners to plow profits into the baseball operation set the standard for the entire league.

The NL didn't have that. There was no NL version of Billy Beane or Theo Epstein, and there was certainly no George Steinbrenner or Arte Moreno. There was no striving for excellence, but rather an understanding that, if you built a decent team, caught some breaks, and maybe made the right move at the trade deadline, you could win 89 games and reach the postseason. For most franchises, it was enough to aim lower. Over time, the effect was a league with inferior talent, on field and off, and an incredible amount of parity. That's how, in consecutive seasons, an 82-win team and an 83-win team have made the playoffs. It's how a team with no more than 85 wins made the postseason in each year since 2004, a streak that will probably continue this year. The NL isn't inferior to the AL just by chance. It's inferior, to a large extent, by choice—the kind of choice that Drayton McLane made when he hired Ed Wade and told him to try to win in 2008, and the choice he'll make when he tells him to try and win in 2009.

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I just had a conversation along these same lines with a friend yesterday. Our conversation did not deal with the Astros in particular, but we did talk about the AL's recent superiority over the NL.

My friend posited that it may be due to the dh in the AL, which I didn't agree with. I posited that it had more to do with teams like the Yankees and the Red Sox (who have a great desire to win supported by significant economic resources) who set the standard in the league and force the other teams to either strive to reach a higher level or die.

I think that this is even understood by many of the "let's rebuild" fans on OH, of which I'm a member. We believe that the only way to really compete with Boston and NY is to take our lumps and rebuild the farm system and the team, rather than continually patch the team with middling free agents. While rebuilding will not guarantee success (especially if done improperly), the patchwork approach is likely to fail most of the time.

(I realize that no team is built 100% from homegrown talent and trades, but you get the point.)

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... I posited that it had more to do with teams like the Yankees and the Red Sox (who have a great desire to win supported by significant economic resources) who set the standard in the league and force the other teams to either strive to reach a higher level or die.

At this point, it might just resolve down to money.

While everyone knows that the Yankees and Red Sox outspend everyone else, I was under the assumption that the NL competed quite well below that point. When I went to look it up, I found that 5 of the top 6 payrolls in MLB were in the AL in each of the last 2 years.

I've been thinking of generating some graphs demonstrating the relative correlation between payroll and performance for several teams over the last few years, but haven't had time lately to do it.

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I think the reasons are mainly economic, and driven by the Red Sox and Yankees, but helped by the wildcard.

In a league where the two richest teams are in the same division you're forced to go with the assumption that you'll need to win 90+, and probably 95+ games to make the playoffs. Some years, of course, you'll sneak in with around 90. But it'll be pretty rare to make the playoffs in the current AL with fewer than 90 wins. Teams plan accordingly. They see the $10s of millions that even one good playoff run can bring them, and they go all in when they see a chance.

In the NL there is no team (ok, now arguably the Cubs) that drives this. And certainly no division with two superpowers that'll drive the wildcard up into the mid-90s in wins. And again, teams aren't stupid. They're not going to go for broke trying to get 98 wins when they're likely in the playoffs with 88. On the free agent market 10 wins costs $30+ million a year.

I think the NL's best chance of catching the AL in overall quality would be to have Mark Cuban buy the Cubs, and someone similar buy the Astros or Cards or Brewers. Or have something similar happen with the Mets and Phillies/Braves.

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I think the reasons are mainly economic, and driven by the Red Sox and Yankees, but helped by the wildcard.

In a league where the two richest teams are in the same division you're forced to go with the assumption that you'll need to win 90+, and probably 95+ games to make the playoffs. Some years, of course, you'll sneak in with around 90. But it'll be pretty rare to make the playoffs in the current AL with fewer than 90 wins. Teams plan accordingly. They see the $10s of millions that even one good playoff run can bring them, and they go all in when they see a chance.

In the NL there is no team (ok, now arguably the Cubs) that drives this. And certainly no division with two superpowers that'll drive the wildcard up into the mid-90s in wins. And again, teams aren't stupid. They're not going to go for broke trying to get 98 wins when they're likely in the playoffs with 88. On the free agent market 10 wins costs $30+ million a year.

I think the NL's best chance of catching the AL in overall quality would be to have Mark Cuban buy the Cubs, and someone similar buy the Astros or Cards or Brewers. Or have something similar happen with the Mets and Phillies/Braves.

Going hand in hand with the two big spenders in the AL is that the small market AL teams realize the futility of trying to respawn with some veteran retreads and load up with kids to develop to compete.

We have seen that with the Indians, Tigers (not this years version though), A's (perpetually), Twins, and now the Rays. The Royals back in the day had their own baseball academy.

The only real good examples of that in the NL have been the Marlins and the Brew Crew. The Pirates throw off talent to get young again, but lacks comprehensiveness.

It seems like some NL teams (the Stros being the poster child) get stuck in the doom loop of being just good enough to compete, without really building something of quality. Sort of like the teams in the NBA that get stuck in the rut of winning 44 games, make the 7th or 8th seed in the playoffs and miss out on the lottery.

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