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MLB, Same as it Ever Was

The arrival of the Colorado Rockies to play at Fenway tonight in game one of the World Series is sure to be heralded as sign that the new era of baseball economics is working. One writer at mlb.com goes so far as to say "Avoid logic at all cost... Parity = removal of logic." We won't avoid logic here at TSE, nosiree!

One can't argue with the idea that lessons can be drawn from the Rockies' success. They are relatively low in the spending rankings, listed as having the 25th highest of 30 payrolls in the 2007 database at USAToday.com. Like the 1999-2004 vintage Oakland Athletics, they built a successful, low budget team around a different model from the typical organization. But what does history say about the upstart Rockies? Are they a unique harbinger of change?

To examine the question, lets consider the data on playoff appearances since the league expanded to 30 teams ten years ago, and how playoff success matches up with spending. The top spending team during this period are the NY Yankees, who have an immaculate 10 appearances over ten years. Third in the spending category and second with 8 appearances are the Braves, whose average payroll rank is 6. Second in spending (average rank 5.7) and third in appearances are the Red Sox, with 6. The Red Sox and Yanks are so dominant that no other team from the AL East has managed a single playoff appearance in the past ten years.

What may seem novel about this year are the playoff appearances of three teams with below median payrolls. But this is not out of step with recent history. In 2000, there were also three playoff teams with below-median payrolls, and there has been at least one such team among the eight contenders in each year since: two in 2001, two in 2002, three in 2003, one in 2004, one in 2005, and three in 2006. It is hard to discern a trend in these figures.

The Red Sox and Yankees account for four of the last nine world series champions, and the Sox are heavily favored to win again. But even if the Rockies pull off the upset (they are currently given a 33% chance at tradesports), you don't have to go back very far to find a close parallel. The 2004 Marlins upset the league's biggest spender (the Yankees, of course) with a team ranked 25th in payroll.

Spending money on players doesn't guarantee a world championship, of course. But as the Sox and Yanks demonstrate, plenty of money plenty well spent sure increases your chances.