Uninspiring races a warning to dream of competitive balance
At the start of September the National League pennant races looked promising
The Phillies and Reds have already clinched and other contenders have faded
Teams are clinching not because they're winning but because others are losing
This year's National League pennant races are the kind that could one day inspire songs: Dour songs, about futility and lack of meaning, sung by moping teenagers.
As September began, Atlanta was up three games on Philadelphia in the NL East and the wild card was a live issue, with four teams within range of the Phillies. San Diego led the NL West by five; Cincinnati topped the NL Central by six.
With the air crisp, all of that has changed. The Phillies have blown past the Braves and clinched the East. The Reds rolled to the Central title. The Padres are within two games of the Giants' in the West and the Braves' in the wild card race but Colorado, Los Angeles and St. Louis, all formerly relevant, have died their deaths.
In theory, this has not been an especially dull race. In practice, September has been a month of listing apathy. And with baseball's labor agreement due to expire in just over a year, this should be taken as a warning about the ideal of competitive balance, encouraged ever more by every recent accord for no reason whatever.
The point isn't intuitive, but think of the races.
The Phillies and Giants have been fantastic this month, riding brilliant starting pitching to the top of their respective divisions, but have taken their leads largely by default, with the Braves and Padres losing more than they've won down the stretch. The Reds have the worst September record of any contender, going 11-15 yet cruised to the division title largely because the Cardinals have been nearly as bad. The Rockies and Dodgers meanwhile, have simply faded.
Teams winning out on the basis of being less mediocre than others will never be any more compelling than a bicycle race run on flat tires. Making things worse, though, are two more factors: The broad weakness of the National League and the more particular weakness of the three teams that should dominate it.
As evidence of the first point, take Baseball-Reference.com's SRS statistic, which adjusts run differential for strength of schedule and rates teams by how many runs per game better or worse they are than an average major league club. By this measure, the 95-win Phillies and 90-win Braves are as good as the 87-win Red Sox Red Sox, the 88-win Reds are as good as the 77-win A's and the 88-win Padres are as good as the 82-win Blue Jays.
National League partisans will protest, but there's lot of reason to think that a team of which no one thinks much, like the A's, would do quite well if dropped into the Senior Circuit next year. This just makes for less excitement, for the same reason the masses were bored by the NBA's Eastern Conference and the UFC's lightweight division for years: Races involving weak horses don't thrill.
The second point is that the irrelevance of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs and New York Mets -- three teams with enormous natural advantages -- makes for a huge, sucking void in the standings. If the Mets and Dodgers were vital, for example, you might have a three-way race atop each coastal division, with teams guaranteed to miss out on October. Aside from that, it takes villains to make heroes: How much more meaningful would a Reds division win be if it came over a bullying Cubs team, vaunting over the money minted along Clark Street?
Broad equality among teams, with none standing out as especially good or especially bad, and a diminishing of the power of big city clubs are essentially the goals of the apostles of competitive balance. And these goals, where not rooted in the desire of owners in smaller markets to make free money, are well-intentioned enough. Any structure within which the Tampa Bay Rays couldn't stand as probably the best team in baseball would be one in need of change.
In the ideal game of the parity preachers, though, who point to the seemingly random results in American football as a goal worth striving for, all teams would be average, with some just being slightly less average than others. Each year, there would be hope and faith for all, and each year a cluster of slightly above average teams would trip into October questing for a large trophy and handshakes with the commissioner.
As baseball's races this year show us, though, a game actually built on this line is on par with roach fighting, without the illicit kick -- one has interest in the spectacle, but unless money is involved, less in the outcome. A great race needs great teams; it needs the swagger of wealth; mostly, it needs the prospect of a team playing spectacularly well and still losing out on what it wants. A prize that can be had by any club playing tolerable baseball is hardly a prize at all.
The game is so good that this will hardly matter, and there is still reason to praise races that could come down to the final day of the season on Sunday. Still, as September fizzles down, it is worth remembering that equality makes for better civics than sport.
Tim Marchman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.