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Fact-checking Rob Manfred’s tanking claims

And a brief discussion on club competitiveness in present-day baseball

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

“I hate the negativity of the coverage that surrounds the coverage of the game right now.”

I would advise you to click away, Commissioner Manfred. This isn’t going to be the post for you.

Anecdotally, at least, we increasingly see a stratification between the respective races to the top and bottom of the standings as quasi-superteams assemble while others dismantle their rosters down to the core. But how does the notion that there is still just as much parity in baseball actually play out according to the numbers?

To measure “the distribution of winning percentage in Major League Baseball,” I took the final records of all 150 individual clubs over the past five seasons to see if the league-wide standard deviation in wins changed. A higher standard deviation would indicate a growing divide between the proverbial “haves” and “have nots,” whereas lower figures would substantiate Manfred’s claim that the playing field remains as balanced as it has been.

For the sake of user-friendliness, I also scaled win-loss percentage into wins-per-162-games to provide a more relatable frame of reference.

In each of the last five years, the standard deviation has indeed risen without any reversal of trend. Empirically speaking, winning percentages are becoming less equitable over time.

Manfred’s rhetoric also comes at a particularly interesting time considering the most apparent spike on the graph above is between 2017 and 2018. If one of MLB’s stated goals is to deliver an engaging product to all of its markets, there are several other barometers we can use to determine whether or not this objective is being met.

We need to establish a bright-line somewhere, so let’s chalk up our definition of a truly miserable, uninspiring season as a winning percentage of .400 or worse, which works out to approximately a 65-97 record over the span of 162 games. These are the types of seasons that leave fans destitute and hopeless by the early summer.

In 2018, five teams (Orioles, Royals, White Sox, Marlins, and Tigers) sank to these depths with an average record of 59-103 among them. At only one other point (2002) since MLB expanded to 30 clubs in 1998 did this number of bottom-feeders even reach four in a single year. To find the last time baseball did feature five sub-.400 clubs, you have to go all the way back to 1981–or 1977 if you’re looking for a full, non-strike-shortened season.

From multi-month standoffs over free agent negotiations to holding top prospects in the minor leagues to game the service time system to suppressing minor league pay at below a living wage, various procedural mechanisms force owners’ decisions into a binary paradigm of business-savvy versus baseball-savvy moves with relatively little overlap. Despite the conjecture from MLB officials that the league is just as competitive as it always has, the numbers bear out a different perspective on recent history.