Maddon says data use aids competitive balance
Rays manager identifies three reasons for recent trend in Majors
It is early, but a review of the division standings suggests that there is more competitive balance than ever before in Major League Baseball, with more clubs that could be considered legitimate contenders.
Competitive balance is the effect. What's the cause? Why is this happening now? Why do there appear to be, for instance, five clubs in the AL East alone capable of challenging for a postseason berth? Is this just an early-season aberration or has something really changed?
For an answer on the direction of the game, the beneath-the-surface-deeper-meaning level, let's go to Joe Maddon, manager of the Tampa Bay Rays and one of baseball's most thoughtful individuals. Why so much competitive balance?
"That's a great question," Maddon says. "I don't know exactly how to explain it, but I think, in general, organizations are understanding how to put their teams together in better ways. I think maybe the undervalued players are becoming more valued and [teams] are getting more out of lesser names because they've done their homework.
"They've built their teams in a different manner maybe than had been done before, which was based on star power, which was the attempt in the past. I just think it has a lot to do with the empirical database being a little bit higher and people paying more attention to what's in that database than maybe they have in the past.
"The data has always been there, but I think more attention has been paid to it lately. A classic example is Toronto now. Toronto really adds a lot of flavor to the division, and a lot of that is based on new methods. I think Baltimore is also incorporating more of that now. So our division keeps getting thicker, on an annual basis.
"Oakland has always been that way. You look at their offensive numbers, they're really low, but they're getting it done. Seattle wants to be [in] that group and they're working on becoming [part of] that group. In the Central, I know Kansas City got off to a bad start, but they'll be back.
"I might be wrong, but I give a lot of credit to a lot of the young general managers out there."
Many people will point toward increased revenue sharing as a primary factor in the increased competitive balance. And that has been a difference-maker. There is also no doubt that the global baseball talent pool has expanded, with an ever-increasing number of Latin-American players and the recent influx of East Asian players.
But in the never-ending search for an edge, there is a parallel search for better data in every aspect of baseball. The Rays, for instance, lead the world in employing shifts against individual hitters.
"Baseball is catching up to the rest of the world," Maddon says. "It's the age of information, but then you have to have the culture and the organizational willingness to utilize that information. It's one thing to talk about it, but it's another thing to actually employ it because you have to have so many people on board. If you have people pushing back or not wanting to embrace it, then you're always going to have conflict.
"In the future it could be that every organization is going to be pretty much cut from the same data cloth. With that, the edges are going to get smaller and smaller between winning and losing. It becomes more and more difficult to find that edge."
Maddon has one more set of reasons for the recent increase in competitive balance. Major League Baseball's rigorous testing program combined with long-term suspensions for the use of performance-enhancing drugs has eliminated the 70-homer season. That kind of performance could once be purchased. It is no longer available, so there is one fewer reason for the competition to be heavily, arbitrarily tilted.
"With the drug testing in place, [the result is] the more level playing field," Maddon says. "I've always felt you might have been able to buy greater performance in the past, whereas now performance is not as varied as it has been in the past.
"There was outstanding performance. There was really no middle class, I guess. There is much more of a middle class now, whereas before there were the haves and the have-nots. I think maybe the performances have been balanced, the playing field has been leveled a little bit by the drug policies that are in place. And I think that speaks to the more balanced play.
"I've said that since 2006 or 2007. It's a little bit of the freakonomics perspective where you've got to look under the surface and see exactly what is the root cause for the balance. There are obvious reasons, but you also have to dig under the surface for the actual reasons."
Nice job of digging, Mr. Maddon. The causes in the case of competitive balance are not always simple, but the effects are good for baseball.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.