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Monday, July 06, 2009
The Cleveland market is not the problemI've been beating the Eric Wedge and Mark Shapiro drum quite a bit lately, including this morning, when I wondered why in the heck one or both of them haven't been fired yet.
Cleveland Frowns, however, says that the problems lie elsewhere:
But before becoming too shaken up by the prospect of either of these men hanging on to their jobs here in Cleveland, we recommend considering just how much we should expect from them and our baseball team that plays on the low end of what is unquestionably an uneven playing field . . .
There's more to it than that -- some numbers talking about market size, mostly -- but the gist is that it's market size rather than Wedge and Shapiro that lies at the root of the Indians' losing ways.
I guess I'd be more willing to buy that if (a) the Indians' biggest problem was losing its superstars as opposed to not even having their less-than-star-studded club play up to its potential; and (b) if the Indians' didn't field multiple enormously successful clubs since 1994 or so, with all of those teams playing under the same basic business dynamic as today's club.
More generally, the Frowns' article makes a big effort to explain away much of the success of smaller market teams in the past couple of decades, discounting the Rays because they had so many high picks, discounting the Cardinals because they play in "the best baseball town in America" (never mind that it's a smaller town than Cleveland), both the Cardinals and Blue Jays because of new stadiums just prior to winning their titles and removing the Marlins and their two titles from consideration altogether because they were "unquestionably weird." Frowns doesn't explain how those titles were "weird" apart from the fact that their example cuts against their argument.
I think the final nail in the coffin of that argument is the resort to football and basketball:
Or, you might also protect yourself from such bad feelings the way we do here at Frowns, that is with a growing sense of apathy toward Major League Baseball as a whole, and especially in comparison to the NFL and NBA, leagues that understand that meaningful competition requires a level playing field.
Number of teams who have won the World Series since 1990: 12
Number of teams who have won the Super Bowl since 1990: 12
Number of teams who have won the NBA Finals since 1990: 7
Level playing field, indeed.
Posted by Craig Calcaterra at 1:33pm
Blaming the market is a pretty horrible retort. And while football may be a slightly more level playing field, that’s just the nature of a game where injuries dictate nearly everything, and many only last a handful of years.
Trying to say the NBA is more balanced is ridiculous when only the Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, Bulls, Heat, Pistons, Rockets and Sixers have won titles since 1979. That’s eight team in 30 years, and two of them, the Sixers and Heat, only won once; meaning six franchises have taken 28 of 30 titles, and three franchises have won 19 of 30. And the rich seemingly continue to get richer.
For Indians fans to blame market size is even more ridiculous considering all of the superstars they’ve had over the last decade and a half. Look at some of those mid-90’s clubs. I don’t even need to list the names but will, because they were loaded. Belle, Murray, Thome, Ramirez, Vizquel, Lofton, Baerga, Justice, Matt Williams, Giles, Sexson, Fryman, Alomar (both the good and bad one), and even Juan Gonzalez and Ellis Burks later on too. It’s not like they couldn’t get big-names in their. The market size thing is totally moot.
They produced a ton of hitters in the 90’s and spent money and won their division 6 out of 7 years, that they never quite got that title is besides the point. They fielded championship caliber clubs for many years, by using the FA market to their advantage, producing homegrown talent, and making solid trades.
Posted 07/06 at 02:19 PM
Also, the Browns, in supposedly the most level league, are always freaking terrible.
Unless you count the Baltimore Browns. They’re usually quite good.
Posted 07/06 at 02:36 PM
I basically agree with your argument, except for the following:
“(b) if the Indians’ didn’t field multiple enormously successful clubs since 1994 or so, with all of those teams playing under the same basic business dynamic as today’s club.”
I came of age as a sports fan in norther Ohio in the mid-90’s, right as Art Modell was tearing the still-beating heart out of Cleveland’s chest. That void had to be filled with something, which ended up being a group of young ballplayers by the names of Lofton, Vizquel, Joey, Thome, and Ramirez. They filled that void and the seats at the Jake for 455 straight games.
I don’t think the effect of the Browns’ (and really the Cavs’) absence from Cleveland in those years can be measured even by advanced economic metrics. I don’t blame anyone who wasn’t there for not understanding this, because the circumstances were so unique and are unlikely to be replicated anytime soon. It was truly a perfect storm, and I try to feel lucky for having been there even as I slam my head against a brick wall in response to this abominable 2009 team.
Posted 07/06 at 02:42 PM
Remember too that MLB has done this in two fewer seasons (1994 was a strike year, and the 2009 World Series has yet to be played).
It’s also an arbitrary endpoints problem if you only look at the champion and ignore the team they beat. We all know that any series can usually turn on a little bit of luck here or there, so to only pick out the winner leaves some of the picture obscured.
The total number of different teams who played for the championship in each league:
If anything, it goes to show you how consistent this is. MLB and the NFL both have the exact same number. The NBA has four fewer teams overall and five fewer champions. These leagues may be playing on uneven fields, but you sure wouldn’t know it by looking at who wins (or loses) the last game.
Posted 07/06 at 02:46 PM
I love when people try to tout the parity of the NFL over MLB without looking at any actual numbers. They always wind up looking foolish.
Posted 07/06 at 02:48 PM
As a Clevelander living in Charlotte, I am very ambivalent about the Wedge-Shapiro situation. On one hand, I think that there is some truth to the idea that Cleveland’s market works against it. I remember some pretty pitiful crowds in 2007, the year the team made it to game seven of the ALCS, and the attendance didn’t improve much the following year.
Also, I think that the business climate actually is much different than it was during the Renaissance of the mid- to late-nineties. Back then the Indians were selling out on a nightly basis, but they also had less competition for the fans’ sports dollars. Cleveland is a football town above all else, and the Indians’ run of consecutive sellouts coincided with the time the city spent without a football team. Also, the mediocre Cavs featured Terrell Brandon as their marquee player, and some of the most boring basketball that I have watched.
That said, it’s obviously possible for small-market teams to be competitive, even without nightly sellout crowds.
I do not know enough to understand how much of this mess is because of Eric Wedge. There are plenty of shrill voices ready to run him out of town—but really, at this point firing him doesn’t accomplish much other than “sending a message to the fans.” Terry Pluto wrote about just how pointless firing a manager mid-season would be. What, they promote Joel Skinner to the dreaded interim status, then maybe become tempted to give him a full-time gig if the team plays .500 ball the rest of the way? The Indians are dead in the water at this point, and I’d almost just as soon wait until the year is over, unceremoniously ditch Wedge, and start fresh with an established manager.
Personally, I like Wedge. I was excited when the Indians promoted him, and appreciate his mild, even-keel nature. At the same time, the Indians have played far worse than their Pythagorean Record over the past two seasons, and it seems that, barring some extraordinarily fluky bad luck, Wedge has to be a large part of that problem.
As a Cleveland fan, I really don’t know what I’d do about Shapiro. He’s done some very good work. He inherited John Hart’s ability to spin gold (Choo, Hafner, Cabrera) out of straw (Ben Broussard, Einar Diaz, Eduardo Perez). The farm system has some solid talent, at least according to Baseball Prospectus.
That said, the team has been utterly unable to produce any impact players in the past few years. It’s too early to tell on the past few drafts, but the last first-round pick to make a difference on the team was CC Sabathia in 1998. The system seems glutted with lefty starters who can’t strike anyone out (Sowers, Laffey), and a bunch of middling corner bats who should really be playing every day (Garko, Francisco).
I remember two years ago, during the team’s 2007 run, there was talk about the impending contract situations of three players: Hafner, Westbrook, and Sabathia. Long story short, Shapiro gave Hafner and Westbrook contract extensions, and passed on Sabathia. To me, this has been his biggest mistake as GM. The Indians may be a small-market club, but they do have a bit of money to throw around, to plug up holes or sign young players to long-term extensions. Giving a large chunk of that money to Hafner and Westbrook has crippled the team far more than the lack of attendance. More damningly, they didn’t even seem like great deals at the time—Westbrook was a solid enough mid-rotation starter who was never going to win a Cy Young award, while Hafner was having an awful season at the time and the sabermetric community was already going on about how poorly players like him age. A team with limited resources can’t make deals like this and hope to stay competitive.
My guess would be that Wedge is gone after the season, and Shapiro gets another year or so to turn the team around. This seems rational to me, because again, what purpose is there to fire Wedge right now, other than to appease people who call into talk radio shows?
This comment was, um, longer than I expected. In closing, I recommend Terry Pluto if you want some reasoned analysis on the team.
Posted 07/06 at 02:51 PM
Jeremy Fox said...
You can’t blame the market; Cleveland Frowns is using an overly-narrow and stochastic measure of success (winning the World Series). Plenty of small-market teams have made the playoffs since 1990. And once you’re in the playoffs you’ve got a legitimate shot to win the Series, which is all you can ask for.
Posted 07/06 at 02:52 PM
What is the significance of the 1990 date? Is that when NBA or NFL implemented a salary cap or something? Just wondering why 1990
Posted 07/06 at 03:05 PM
Craig Calcaterra said...
Not sure why they picked 1990. Could have been because it’s a nice round number with a largish number of years in play. Could be that it’s the closest round number to the time when people generally agree that market size and payroll started to play a bigger role. Seems rather random to me. Maybe it’s just as simple as avoiding 1989 (and the 20 year span) so that they didn’t have to account for small-revenue Oakland winning a series.
Posted 07/06 at 03:10 PM
Oh Craig, tell me you didn’t use the “number of different champions” argument to show that MLB is on an even playing field.
I feel like this argument comes up all too often, with people pointing to the (almost completely fair) NBA system and questioning whether there is really any parity in that league.
The problem in the NBA is not the system, it’s the game. It requires fewer “moving parts” than the other sports, so it’s much more prone to dynasty than the other sports. In basketball, if you get one or two outstanding players, you can be a championship contender for 10 years. No such luck in baseball or basketball, where you need 20-50 players on your roster.
But look where those NBA teams are from: Boston, Los Angeles, Detroit, San Antonio, Miami, Philadelphia, Houston, Chicago. Maybe the larger markets are over-represented a litte, but it’s a good mix of geography and market size. Plus New York has not won in over 30 years.
MLB has a positive correlation between payroll and winning percentage. Payroll is extremely dependent on market size. These things are indisputable yet people keep on arguing that they’re irrelevant.
Posted 07/06 at 03:37 PM
Craig Calcaterra said...
Mark—the Frowns post is the one that brought up the number of different champions thing to show, well, whatever it wanted to show. I merely used their own metric back at them to show them that they can’t rely on the number of champions as a decent measure of parity if, at the same time, they wished to espouse the superiority of the NFL and NBA.
I’ll agree that there are much better measures, and I’d submit that by those better measures, baseball still comes out better.
Finally: whatever claim someone wants to make about the NBA’s allegedly superior system had better account for the sheer amount of misery incurred by fans of every team faced with the cold hard truth that trading FOR overrated, overpaid, past-their-prime players is actually a GOOD strategy (i.e. “expiring contracts”) as opposed to something that should be avoided at all costs.
Posted 07/06 at 03:42 PM
“I’ll agree that there are much better measures, and I’d submit that by those better measures, baseball still comes out better.”
It doesn’t come out better because of the collective bargaining agreement, it comes out better because the nature of the game is more prone to parity. In effect, it sounds like you’re saying that because baseball has more parity than basketball that nothing should be done to promote further parity. And that’s an argument with which I cannot agree.
I agree that the “expiring contracts” phenomenon is peculiar, but it’s an automatic byproduct of a system in which you have guaranteed contracts and a soft (or hard) salary cap. The only reason you don’t see it in baseball is because there’s no benefit associated with acquiring such a player other than simply saving money in the future. But this situation doesn’t really advantage anyone—both large and small market teams treat expiring contracts as valuable currency.
Knowing the NBA CBA as well as I do, I can’t fathom how a knowledgeable sports fan would prefer the MLB’s CBA. Unless they’re a New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles fan, of course.
Posted 07/06 at 03:50 PM
Boston, Los Angeles, Detroit, San Antonio, Miami, Philadelphia, Houston, Chicago
The only small market here is San Antonio. All of the rest are relatively-to-very large. Sure, Detroit, Houston and Philly may not be the first places that spring to mind when you hear the phrase “large market,” but they aren’t exactly Milwaukee, or even Cleveland.
FWIW, I’ve always wondered at people calling Miami a “small market.” I think it’s more a “city that, for some reason, cannot support a baseball team, especially one that is notoriously terrible at public relations.” Miami is one of the dozen largest TV markets in the country - it may not be New York or LA, but it’s only a small market in Jeffrey Loria’s imagination.
Posted 07/06 at 04:05 PM
Craig Calcaterra said...
Mark—I guess I don’t get what you’re measuring by then, because it is undeniably the case that Chicago and Los Angeles fans have had far, far more to cheer about in basketball over the past 20 years than they have in baseball.
I’ll grant you that if you’re measuring by some platonic ideal of what a CBA can look like, sure the NBA’s may be better. Heck, maybe soccer has it right, I have no idea.
But we don’t operate in platonic ideals. In baseball at least, there is over a century of owner-player interaction that got us to where we are today. To simply say we should change x, y, and z in baseball’s business environment ignores all of that. Given all that has transpired over the decades, there is no way that baseball is going to have a salary cap absent some sort of apocalypse which shows no signs of coming. To agitate for one, then, is a futile effort that ignores the current bargaining posture of the owners and the players (fun fact: there are owners who are far more opposed to a cap than many of the players are).
For my part, I’m not arguing for platonic ideals. I’m arguing from reality and aesthetics and stuff. Those thing dictate that salary capology is absolutely miserable from a fan’s perspective, be it from the NBA’s expiring contract calculus to the NFL’s ruthless unguaranteed contract, praise you now cut you tomorrow milieu. I’ll also note that a salary cap without a salary floor doesn’t even solve the problems many salary cap proponents want to see, and that if you institute a salary floor you are actually inhibiting teams from rebuilding in as efficient manner as possible.
There are many other anti-cap arguments, all advanced better by smarter people than me, so I won’t recount them here. Suffice it to say, however, that I don’t think there is a practical competitive balance problem in baseball, and certainly not one so pronounced that it interferes with my enjoyment of the game (and if attendance and revenue numbers are to be believed, not many other people are complaining either).
Sure, some things could be done better—the draft is rather messed up at the moment and there should be incentives in place that encourage/coerce teams into spending revenue sharing money on baseball talent as opposed to stashing it in other parts of the owner’s business empire. But as I sit here at the halfway point of the 2009 baseball season, I note that all but a handful of teams are still in the hunt. Can the same be said for basketball in January or February?
Posted 07/06 at 04:05 PM
See, I agree with pretty much everything you wrote. No, I’m not suggesting that Selig could unilaterally impose a salary cap. But I would be completely in favor of those fixes that you suggested. That’s sort of the essence of my point—if there are ways to make the system more “fair” (i.e. teams on equal footing regardless of market size), then those ways should be implemented if at all possible.
As I said before, baseball has more de facto parity than any other sport. That’s just the nature of the game; the best teams aren’t much better than the worst teams (relative to other sports), and there’s a lot that can go wrong. But it also has the least de jure parity. The rules aren’t set up to even the playing field, at least not to the extent that they are in the NBA and NFL. I guess all I’m looking for is a concession by baseball die-hards (of which I am one, believe it or not) that the system just isn’t fair. It seems that whenever this discussion comes up, people point to the number of different champions or a small market team here or there and exclaim “See! The system is fair!” without addressing the root question.
It seems one of the main obstacles to reforming the system (draft pick compensation, salary floor, revenue sharing) is getting people to admit that yes, there are problems with the way the system is currently constructed. The occasional Tampa Bay isn’t going to change that.
Posted 07/06 at 04:25 PM
“Can the same be said for basketball in January or February?”
Posted 07/06 at 04:32 PM
Craig Calcaterra said...
The we don’t really disagree, because I’ll grant that baseball’s system is not fair. I just won’t go so far as to say that it’s blatantly unjust (as so many columnists argue when free agents sign in the winter), or that the inherent unfairness in the system is so bad that it’s worth doing radical things to address it.
Ultimately there is so much that is right in baseball that I’d hate to mess with simply to address the relatively fewer things that aren’t right.
Posted 07/06 at 04:32 PM
“Well, yes, Craig, but only because the majority of teams make the playoffs. That is what makes the “most championships in x number of years” lean even more favorably to baseball as compared to basketball. The NBA has 16 teams elegible for the playoffs, compared to 14 uneligible. Yet, despite this, only 7 different teams have actually won the championship since 1990. I honestly can’t figure out how they pulled that off. “
The reason for this, as said above, is that the difference between teams in basketball is much larger than in baseball. The top basketball teams win 75% of their games in a season; this has happened but once or twice in baseball history. The inverse of this is also true. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the best team tends to win.
Were 16 teams able to get into the baseball playoffs, it’s a sure bet that you would have an even wider range of champions than you already do.
“The we don’t really disagree, because I’ll grant that baseball’s system is not fair. I just won’t go so far as to say that it’s blatantly unjust (as so many columnists argue when free agents sign in the winter), or that the inherent unfairness in the system is so bad that it’s worth doing radical things to address it.
Ultimately there is so much that is right in baseball that I’d hate to mess with simply to address the relatively fewer things that aren’t right.”
I’m curious what these supposedly “radical” things are. I can’t see a way that any “radical” changes would be met with the union’s approval, but perhaps these ideas are not being suggested based on practicality.
Posted 07/06 at 04:48 PM
Cleveland Frowns said...
Thanks for the link Craig, but I have to take issue with the substance of your post.
First, your nail in the coffin doesn’t work because we never once referred to the metric of “number of different champions,” which is not all the issue. We only referred to “market size.” Note that the San Antonio Spurs, a team in the league’s smallest market, had a legitimate dynasty in this last decade with four championships— something for which there is absolutely no corrolary in the modern MLB. As your commenter Mark pointed out, there are other reasons why the NBA is more fertile ground for dynasties. The point is that NBA dynasties can generally be attributed to draft picks, trades, and free agent signings that any team could have made.
More specifically, we pointed out that in the last 17 years, only one team in a media market smaller than the Indians has won an MLB title. You can tell us that this is a meaningless coincidence, but it seems like it should mean something. It also seems meaningful that if you average the market sizes of the teams that have won, the average market size rank is 7th, less than half of Cleveland’s 17th, and when you remove the outliers of the Cardinals and Marlins and the number goes down below 5th. Note, in addition to the other factors that we note about the Cardinals, they have a fan base that extends to at least six other states that have no home MLB team, so it’s probably unfair to measure their market as only St. Louis (note that the Team routinely ranks in the top 5 in MLB merchandise sales). And we did explain why the Marlins titles were “weird”, in a footnote to our post, that it looks like you completely ignored. We’ll explain again: Huizenga’s 1997 spending spree was weird. The confluence of successful drafting in the dark years after his sell-off, with Loria’s willingness to spend big bucks for some high priced free agents brought the Marlins their second title in 2003. Also at least a little bit weird.
Anyway, the main point was ONE smaller media market than the Indians since 1990 (no magic to that number). Seems remarkable, that’s all. And it should be a relatively non-controversial point. As Mark notes, “MLB has a positive correlation between payroll and winning percentage. Payroll is extremely dependent on market size.” Our post just noted the connection between market size and championships, and that it appears to be remarkably strong.
More interestingly, as Mark pointed out, is that “[t]hese things are indisputable yet people keep on arguing that they’re irrelevant.”
Will just note in closing that “winning a title is an ‘overly narrow and stochastic measure of success,” is not something I will tell my mother if she ends up on her deathbed without having seen a Big Three Cleveland team win a title. “Plenty of small-market teams have made the Playoffs” is not the point when the extra money is what gets you that extra starter or bat that lets you advance, as the numbers bear out.
Posted 07/06 at 04:57 PM
Craig Calcaterra said...
Thanks for commenting. A couple of points:
I didn’t ignore the footnote, I simply missed it. I’ll note, however, that “The confluence of successful drafting in the dark years after his sell-off, with Loria’s willingness to spend big bucks for some high priced free agents” sounds like anything other than “weirdness.” It sounds like a pretty good game plan for any small to mid market team. Draft well, develop talent, and then in the short window during which time that talent is ready to bloom, get some finishing touches and hope for the best.
And that hope for the best may be the key to all of this. You’re not wrong on your construct of championships since 1990. Facts are facts. But I think you are very wrong to discount the significance of strongly competitive teams. I’m sorry, but it wasn’t payroll that kept the Indians from winning the title in 1997, it was Jose Mesa and Tony Fernandez. That #### just happens. Same with 2007. Boston has a bigger media market, but a bunch of screaming New Englanders didn’t will them back from 3-1. Random chance in a short series was mostly responsible.
The Indians, more than almost anyone else, showed that you can win without going crazy. They did so in 1995 and 1997 and 2007 and many many years in between. They showed that, yes, you can compete over the long grind of a 162 game season if properly constructed and properly coached. Would it have been nice to be able to simply add big names each offseason and each trading deadline? Sure, but it wasn’t essential.
But for a handful of games across a 12 year period, the Indians could have had three world series titles. That they didn’t is not attributable to a broken system, even if that system is flawed in many respects.
Posted 07/06 at 05:08 PM