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MLB’s illusion of parity is just that — an illusion

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Baseball may have more different champions than either the NFL or NBA, but to say that it has achieved parity would be a lie.

World Series - Atlanta Braves v Houston Astros - Game Two Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Over the last few years, professional men’s sports have had a competitive balance problem. Since 2004, only Super Bowls XLVII and LIV did not contain at least one of Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, or one of the Manning brothers. The NBA, somehow, has been even worse, as LeBron James took his team to the Finals every year from 2011 to 2018, while the Golden State Warriors went to five straight (including four straight matchups with James and the Cleveland Cavaliers).

On the surface at least, Major League Baseball has much more parity — the league has not had a repeat champion since the 1998-2000 Yankees, and only three teams have multiple championships in that time. More so than any other sport, executives have absolutely no clue what exactly a team needs to do to make the jump from also-ran to World Series champion. These trends have led the New York Times to declare yesterday, “As Baseball Considers Its Future, Parity Isn’t the Problem.”

And yet, the more I think about it, the more I find this whole idea eyewash. Sure, baseball might have more parity than the NFL or the NBA, but I wouldn’t exactly call what we have parity. It’s just that, compared to these other leagues, MLB’s lack of parity is not nearly as obvious, or at least easier to hide.

Let’s start with the narrative that Major League Baseball has been pushing this year, the fact that, if the Atlanta Braves win the World Series this year, then 15 teams — half the league — would have won at least one championship in the 21st century. As admirable as this feat is, however, it’s also misleading: the Red Sox, Cardinals, and Giants have combined for nine of the last 20 titles, and if the Houston Astros win, then the Commissioner’s Trophy will have been awarded to just four teams more than half the time since 2001.

When you look into the League Championship series, we see even more repeat participants. The Houston Astros, for example, have gone to the ALCS every year since they faced the Yankees in the 2017 ALCS. But even before their recent run of dominance, the most reliable way to determine at least one participant in the ALCS was to look at the previous year’s participants: teams that went to back-to-back League Championship Series include the Toronto Blue Jays (2015-2016), Kansas City Royals (2014-2015), the Detroit Tigers (2011-2013), the Texas Rangers (2010-2011), the New York Yankees (2009-2010), and the Boston Red Sox (2007-2008). Similarly, the Dodgers have gone to the NLCS five times in the last six years, the Chicago Cubs went to three straight (2015-2017), and the Cardinals to four straight (2011-2014).

The divisional titles are even worse. The Los Angeles Dodgers won eight straight NL West titles, relinquishing the title only because the San Francisco Giants won 107 games this year. Additionally, since 2008, every single NL West title has been won by either the Dodgers or the Giants except for 2011, when the Arizona Diamondbacks won 94 games. Moreover, the Astros won four straight AL West titles in 162-game seasons, and the Atlanta Braves have won four straight NL East titles.

At the end of the day, the discussion about whether or not Major League Baseball has true parity is not a simple issue, but one with a lot of nuance. Yes, it’s true that a larger number of teams have won the World Series than have won a Super Bowl or NBA Finals over the last two decades, but to pat the league on the back for achieving “parity” would be to ignore many other realities — namely, that a well-run organization can essentially give themselves an automatic playoff berth by gaining a stranglehold on the division, and that multiple teams have gone to several consecutive League Championship Series recently. As with everything, the question of “parity” in baseball comes down to how you frame the issue — and how you spin the discussion.