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It's anyone's ball game

Freeway World Series beckons as parity grips MLB

Posted: Tuesday March 20, 2007 11:46AM; Updated: Tuesday March 20, 2007 4:07PM
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Young stars such as second baseman Howie Kendrick will be the key to the Angels' World Series run in 2007.
Young stars such as second baseman Howie Kendrick will be the key to the Angels' World Series run in 2007.
Kirby Lee/WireImage.com
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Here is a message for George Steinbrenner, Derek Jeter, Brian Cashman and everyone else who has bought in to the Yankees culture that the season is a failure if New York does not win the World Series: The '90s are so over. The baseball world has changed so much from when the Yankees won four titles in five years that the Yankees' world-championship-or-bust mentality has become awkwardly outdated.

Don't get me wrong. The aspiration to win it all should always remain paramount. But the Yankees continue to set themselves up for joyless seasons and their own definition of failure by thinking they should win the World Series every year. Last season they lost two-thirds of their starting outfield and they still won more games than any team in the league and blew the doors off the rest of their division -- and went home horribly unhappy, ready to fire the manager, run a Hall of Fame pitcher out of town and heap more abuse on an all-time great third baseman. Their fans have zero interest in Division Championship hats.

This just in: The Yankees probably won't win this year, either, even if they do have the best team on paper heading into Opening Day. The World Series? It'll be all SoCal -- the Angels over the Dodgers. Why? Because the best team doesn't win any more; teams with young legs do. These are five reasons why the game has changed to the point that the Yankees' philosophy is obsolete.

1. Better distribution of revenues and information. (Translation: better distribution of talent.)
Revenue sharing has had a profound effect on the competitive balance in the game, but so has the Information Age that we have entered as a society. More and more front offices, which often were stocked with failed players and comfortable lifetime company officers, have turned their operations over to smart business people. Baseball no longer is a closed shop, and the most forward-thinking organizations no longer accept as a valid reason for making policy, "Because that's the way we've always done it." Intellectual energy is even more the coin of the realm than actual dollars.

How does one quantify this effect? I believe that when the Yankees were winning championships in the late '90s there were maybe four or five teams that could possibly have won the World Series. Today? There are only six teams that can't make the playoffs (Nationals, Royals, Devil Rays, Reds, Pirates and Orioles), and of the 25 teams that have a shot, any shot, at playing in October, roughly 15 of them could win the World Series -- about three times as much real competition as the Yankees faced in the '90s.

To put it another way, the gap between the best team in baseball and the 15th-best team in baseball is far smaller than it was during the Yankees' run. Here is one take on this widespread improvement in the quality of teams: The Texas Rangers were a bug on the Yankees' windshield during their postseason runs, winning a total of one game in three first-round series against the Bronx Bombers. Last year? The Detroit Tigers were a vastly superior team to those Rangers teams.

2. The postseason is a crapshoot.
Yes, Billy Beane was right. But he's even more right about it as the years go on. Again, this goes back to a larger pool of quality teams. To borrow from the NCAA, as the talent gap shrinks between the No. 1 seed and the No. 4 seed the more likely the possibility of an "upset."

Here's how much things have changed: In all postseason series from 1995 (the start of the wild-card era) through 1999, the team that won the greater number of regular-season games came out on top 52.5 percent of the time (21-19).

But from 2000 to '06, the team with more regular-season victories won only 36.2 percent of postseason series (17-30).

3. The best team doesn't win.
Greatness need not be a requisite for a world title. Chew on this: Of the past seven world champions, only one finished in first place with more than 92 regular-season wins -- the 2005 White Sox (and they didn't even make the playoffs the next season). Of the other six world champions, three were second-place teams and the other three posted 83, 87 and 92 regular-season wins.

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