As Baseball Considers Its Future, Parity Isn’t the Problem

HOUSTON — A general manager’s job is to build World Series teams. Yet as he sat in the Atlanta Braves’ dugout on Monday night, with his players on that stage as they prepared for the Houston Astros, Alex Anthopoulos made a confession: His path here was a mystery.

“I wish I knew,” said Anthopoulos, Atlanta’s general manager. “I’ve been in baseball since 2000, with 10 years as a G.M., and I don’t know how you get to a World Series, I really don’t. You’ve got to get in. Get in and hopefully guys step up.”

In baseball, the sport with the longest regular season, the reward for six months of excellence is a lottery ticket. Even the worst team almost always wins 50 or more games every year, and when the most impactful player — the starting pitcher, in theory — changes every night, randomness can swing a short series.

For all of the issues facing team owners and players as they negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, with the current one expiring Dec. 1, Major League Baseball has crowned more different champions in recent years than the N.F.L., the N.B.A. and the N.H.L.

The turn-of-the-century Yankees (1998-2000) are the last team to win consecutive World Series. Since then, 14 different franchises have worn the crown, with Atlanta trying to become the 15th. There have been 12 different champions in the N.F.L. and the N.H.L., and 10 in the N.B.A.

Charlie Morton started Game 4 of the 2017 World Series for the Houston Astros, but more people remember him closing out Game 7 as a reliever.Credit…Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Morton started Game 3 of the 2020 World Series for the Tampa Bay Rays. It went poorly as he allowed five earned runs in four and a third innings.Credit…Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Atlanta’s Charlie Morton, who was scheduled to start Game 1 here on Tuesday, has reached three of the last five World Series, with the 2017 Astros, the 2020 Tampa Bay Rays and this year with Atlanta. He has witnessed multiple ways to win a pennant.

“With the Astros, there was a lot made of the draft picks, the losing — three 100-loss seasons and they got a bunch of draft picks, their scouting, their analytics departments, obviously,” Morton said, adding that the roster still bears the imprint of the former general manager, Jeff Luhnow.

“The Rays, when I was there, were a $60 million payroll team, heavy into analytics and scouting, developing from within, all on a much lesser payroll. Then the Braves have a little bit of everything.

“What it really comes down to is the clubhouse, I think, besides the obvious talent and ability to play the game. To make it this far, I think the clubhouse is the deciding factor. Because how tight the group is is really what allows you to get deeper in the postseason.”

At 88-73, this Atlanta team had a lower winning percentage (.547) than any of the franchise’s last 10 postseason teams, all of which fell short in the N.L. playoffs. Maybe this group has better clubhouse chemistry, or maybe things simply broke better with the playoff draw: A punchless Milwaukee Brewers lineup in the first round and a weary, crumbling Los Angeles Dodgers roster in the N.L. Championship Series, where Atlanta had home-field advantage.

Anthopoulos did his part in July to strengthen his depleted outfield, trading for four veterans — Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario and Jorge Soler — and hoping some combination would work. He had no idea that all four would be part of the starting lineup for Game 1 of the World Series.

“No one would tell you in a million years, ‘We’re getting these four, they’re all going to do this and this, we’ll win the division, get through the playoffs,’” Anthopoulos said. “They did it, but it’s just a reminder: Get in and anything can happen.

“Because this is my fourth year here; in 2019 we won 97 games, we had a great club, Josh Donaldson was an M.V.P. candidate, Freddie Freeman was an M.V.P. candidate, Max Fried was great, we had so many really good players. We lost to the Cardinals, and they deserved to win, but we had leads in Game 4. Things happen.

“The Giants are great, the Dodgers are great. You’ve just got to get in.”

Eleven teams won more games than Atlanta this season, including the Toronto Blue Jays and the Seattle Mariners, who did not qualify for the American League playoffs. The Giants won 107 games in the regular season but lost in their division series to the 106-win Dodgers.

The Giants, though, pushed the Dodgers to the limit in that best-of-five series. Facing elimination in Game 4, the Dodgers started Walker Buehler on short rest. Leading by one run in Game 5, the Dodgers used their best starter, Max Scherzer, for the save. The exhausted duo combined for just 12 innings in the N.L.C.S., allowing 10 runs.

Max Scherzer of the 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers overextended himself early in the playoffs and that led to a short outing Game 2 of the N.L. Championship Series and his being unable to start the decisive Game 6. Credit…Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In that way, the Dodgers were a bit like the 2001 Mariners, who tied a major league record with 116 victories, then clawed their way through a tough five-game division series with Cleveland. Unable to line up their pitching the way they wanted, the Mariners lost to the Yankees in a five-game A.L.C.S.

“We couldn’t believe it,” said Bret Boone, the Mariners’ second baseman in 2001. “I remember sitting on that bus after we lost and we were looking at each other like, ‘That didn’t really just happen, did it?’”

Boone can trace the evolution of the playoff format through his family. His grandfather, Ray, played in the era when the regular-season champions of each league met in the World Series. During the career of his father, Bob, there were four divisions, with the winners playing in two league championships series.

Most of Bret’s career — and that of his brother, Aaron, the manager of the Yankees — was in the six-division era, with four playoff teams in each league. Now there are five in each league, with more teams likely to be added as part of the next C.B.A.

“The parity’s been a really positive thing for the health of the game,” Bret Boone said. “I loved it when there were only four playoff teams, but when I look at it now, I think: what’s good for the game? Good for the game is for more fans and more cities being excited about baseball. I think it’s good to have wild cards and all these rounds.”

The absence of dynasties, or even repeat champions, has led to more teams winning championships. As the players and the owners chart a new course, they should remember that the competitive landscape is close to ideal, just the way it is.

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