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Hooray for Hegemony

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Baseball in 2018 is largely dominated by the biggest spenders. And that kind of sucks.

League Championship Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Milwaukee Brewers - Game Six Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

So the World Series matchup is set, and it’s....about as miserable a matchup as I think you could draw up. Boston and Los Angeles, the Sox and the Dodgers, fighting it out in the battle of the bigs.

I don’t want to sound bitter; when the Cardinals were in the playoffs year after year, hitting the World Seires twice a decade (or more), I wasn’t writing op-eds complaining about seeing the same team in the playoffs year after year after year. And I do admit to some small amount of hypocrisy here. When it was my club winning, it was, shockingly, much easier to look past a certain amount of dynastic bullying. I’ll cop to enjoying seeing the Cardinals do well any and every time they win, even if it means some other club isn’t getting much of a chance to shine.

However, it seems a little different now. What we have here in this World Series is a returning NL champion, an AL champion now going for its fourth title of the 21st century, and, not at all coincidentally, two of the three highest payrolls in the game, with only the Giants in second place serving as a cautionary tale about unwise spending not guaranteeing success. (And actually, the Sawx and Dodgers are 1-2 in terms of 25-man payroll at season’s end; it’s mostly dead money that pushes San Francisco up the list so high.)

Now, admittedly, we were very close to having a much more interesting situation had the Brewers gotten past the Dodgers; Milwaukee boasts just the 22nd-highest payroll in baseball this year, with just over $108 million total on the books. But of the final four, the Brew Crew was the only party crasher from the wrong side of the economic tracks; the Astros had the eighth-highest overall payroll and third-highest 25-man total in the game this year. If we consider only money spent on the active 25-man roster, the teams who made it to the league championship series this year were ranked 1, 2, 3, and 16. And let’s face it; as good as the Brewers were this season, and as well as they played late in the year and into the postseason, they clearly felt like the outlier in terms of roster construction and the way they went about winning. Which, hey, is not a bad thing at all; that scrappy underdog sort of feel is a big part of what we’re now missing completely in this World Series.

The top fifteen payrolls in baseball this year accounted for a .545 winning percentage, which means that the bottom fifteen played .455 ball. Of course, there is a chicken and egg issue to just dividing clubs into groups by payroll; the teams that are bad are not going to spend to get better anyway, since they cannot actually make themselves good entirely by spending, and thus push the disparity. That’s not enough to explain away such a massive gap, though; we’re talking a 90 point disparity in winning percentage between the top and bottom halves of baseball spending. When every team is a smart team, money wins out again, just like it did when every team was a dumb team.

To be fair, there were plenty of anomalies. The Oakland Athletics spent nothing, as usual, and rolled off 97 wins this season, along with a 95-67 Pythagorean record. Tampa Bay spent even less — including an absurdly low closing 25-man total of just $25.7 million — and won 90 games. You still have those smart teams that buck the trend. And on the other side, the Giants spent $205 million trying desperately to squeeze one more run out of an aging roster, and ended up with 73 wins for their trouble. Washington fielded what looked like an All-Star team roster on paper, and then again mysteriously harrumphed their way to 82 wins. (Though with a 90-72 Pythag, so we’re talking a lot of bad sequencing and close losses.)

Side note: want to get pissed off about something? Greg Holland for the Cardinals had a 7.92 ERA and 4.56 FIP, or a difference of 3.66 runs. For Washington, he put up a 2.97 FIP... and a 0.84 ERA. That’s a 2.13 run difference, in the other direction. Holland with the Nats was on fire; Holland with the Cardinals just was a fire. He was also hugely unlucky with the Birds, and extremely lucky in Washington.

I saw somewhere the other day on a message board that the Cardinals should absolutely spend big on relief this season, but not drag their feet like they did last year, because that’s why Holland was bad. I’m sorry, but that’s fucking stupid. I could buy it if Holland had just had a brutal beginning to the year but then dragged himself around after a couple bad weeks, a la Brett Cecil in 2017. But Holland had a 10.29 ERA in the month of July for the Cardinals, after having pitched since the second week of April. He had a two week break between pitching for St. Louis and picking up with Washington, which maybe was time enough for him to figure something out, but he also had a break of nearly a month from the end of May to the 19th of June, as well as a shorter but not insignificant gap in work from the 29th of April to the 5th of May. The knots some people will tie themselves in to blame the front office for messing things up, usually by not spending enough even when they signed one of the most expensive players of his type, is astounding to me.

But back to the topic at hand, sorry.

We have the highest payroll in baseball against either the third- or second-highest payroll in baseball, depending on how you prefer your accounting, in the World Series. Three teams in the American League won 100 or more games this year; those clubs were first (Boston), sixth (NYY), and ninth (Houston), in payroll. If you want to look at closing 25-man spending, though, those clubs were one (Boston), three (Houston), and five (Yankees). The clubs sitting at two and four? The Dodgers and Cubs, who won 92 and 95 games, respectively. (The Dodgers also had a 102-61 Pythagorean record, meaning they basically got Natted, only they were so good even getting Natted didn’t derail them in a weak NL West.)

Personally, I find this to be rather depressing. Maybe it’s just seeing the Red Sox and Dodgers meet up in the World Series that puts such a bad taste in my mouth, but something about the concentration of big spenders at the very top of the heap again, combined with the seemingly binary nature of baseball teams these days (i.e. you have 100 game winners and 100 game losers, but not a whole lot in the middle), sort of sucks some of the joy out of the game for me right now. It’s strange; baseball is the only sport I follow anywhere near this closely, this passionately, and yet I’m essentially arguing I’m depressed by the lack of a salary cap in literally the only North American sport without a salary cap. One would think I might be happier taking my pinko socialist tendencies to the NHL or NBA or something, but this is the sport I love, and thus am stuck with.

I’m sure there will be a few commenters who read this and will immediately jump into the comments section to declare see, this is proof the Cardinals just need to spend more to compete. Sadly, I can’t really disagree with that. I’ve seen some suggestions from people recently that the Cards just have a mediocre front office now. I can disagree with that, but not particularly vehemently. The Cardinals still have a good front office, but there are lots of very good, very smart front offices out there now. Even Boston, whose front office is currently trying to run the franchise into the ground with massive spending and short-sighted moves, was built through extremely smart drafting and planning (and accidentally tanking their way into a four-win Andrew Benintendi), that gave them the core to which they could strap huge rocket engines just to see how fast they can hit that wall right over there.

You can’t outsmart the rest of baseball anymore. You can be as smart as anyone, but you’re not going to be far and away the smartest at this point. Spending might be the way you have to go, because at least right now, it seems to be the only thing consistently working.