One subject that always comes up when discussing labor -- especially in Major League Baseball -- is a salary cap. A decent-sized segment of fans seem to believe that all leagues should have a salary cap and it's some sort of magic wand when it comes to creating "parity" in the leagues.
You see, there are salary caps in the NFL, NBA and NHL. Major League Baseball doesn't have one (it has the "luxury tax" which some teams use to justify limits in spending, but there is no hard cap in MLB). This creates a belief that it's implicit that MLB is heavily skewed toward "large-market" teams and it isn't fair for others. Meanwhile, in the other leagues, the salary cap creates "parity" and it's much easier to turn things around from a bad team to a good team. When a smaller-market team wins a championship in a different sport, it's proof that the salary cap is needed in MLB. When a team quickly turns things around -- as the Bengals did en route to their Super Bowl berth this season -- it's proof that MLB needs a salary cap.
We could keep going, but let's call these what they are: Fallacies.
Let's run through some of the reasons why MLB does not need a salary cap to create parity. Major League Baseball hasn't had a repeat champion since the Yankees pulled it off in 1999 and 2000. So we'll start with 2000. It's a natural starting point and a big enough sample without going too far back into history to the point of the data not being relevant in today's landscape.
As noted, MLB hasn't seen a repeat champ in a long time. It's now up to 21 straight World Series we've seen a new champion crowned.
In the NBA, the Lakers won three straight (2000-02) and later repeated (2008-09). The Heat went back-to-back in 2012-13. So did the Warriors in 2017-18.
The NHL currently has a back-to-back defending champ in the Lightning. The Penguins also went back-to-back in 2016-17.
Over in the NFL, the Patriots repeated in 2004-05. That's it, but we'll have plenty for the great, holy bastion of parity in a bit.
By this measure, Major League Baseball has the most parity.
MLB championships this century:
- Red Sox, 4 (2004, 2007, 2013, 2018)
- Giants, 3 (2010, 2012, 2014)
- Yankees, 2 (2000, 2009)
- Cardinals, 2 (2006, 2011)
- Diamondbacks, 1 (2001)
- Angels, 1 (2002)
- Marlins, 1 (2003)
- White Sox, 1 (2005)
- Phillies, 1 (2008)
- Royals, 1 (2015)
- Cubs, 1 (2016)
- Astros, 1 (2017)
- Nationals, 1 (2019)
- Dodgers, 1 (2020)
- Braves, 1 (2021)
That's half the league with a World Series title from 2000-21. Only four teams have multiple titles. Several "small-market" teams make an appearance while some large-market teams don't.
In the NBA, starting with the year 2000, here are the teams to win multiple titles:
- Lakers, 7
- Spurs, 4
- Warriors, 3
- Heat, 3
Six teams won a single title, or one less than the Lakers did the entire time.
The NHL has had six teams (Devils, Red Wings, Penguins, Lightning, Blackhawks and Kings) win multiple titles and account for 15 of the last 21 titles.
Starting with Super Bowl XXXV, the NFL has seen the Patriots win six titles. The Ravens, Buccaneers, Giants and Steelers each have two. Eight teams have won exactly one. That leaves 19 teams that haven't hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.
By this measure, Major League Baseball has the most parity.
How about teams that didn't necessarily win the big game/series?
In the 2000s, 21 of the 30 MLB teams have won their league's pennant. The Red Sox (four), Giants (four), Yankees (four), Cardinals (four), Astros (four), Tigers (two), Phillies (two), Rays (two), Rangers (two), Royals (two) and Mets (two) have done it multiple times. While we're here, again note the lack of correlation between market size and multiple finals appearances.
In that same time period, the NHL has seen 23 teams in the finals with 10 having gone multiple times. The Devils, Lightning and Penguins lead the way with four each.
Over in the NBA, holy smokes, man. Five teams have been to the NBA Finals at least five times in the 2000s (Lakers (seven), Heat (six), Spurs (five), Warriors (five), Cavaliers (five)). Four more teams have been twice and seven teams have been once, leaving 14 that haven't been at all. Is this the parity the salary-cap hawks want in MLB?
The Super Bowl has seen the Patriots nine times in the 2000s with the Giants, Steelers, Seahawks and Rams each having been there three times. Eight other teams have been there twice with seven teams having made one appearance. That's 20 teams that have made it and 12 that haven't.
By this measure, either the NHL or Major League Baseball have the most parity with the NFL close behind. The NBA isn't close.
MLB has the most exclusive playoffs in this group of four (at least for now). Eight of the 30 teams made it until the 2012 season introduced a second wild card, running the total to 10 of the 30. The outlier was the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, which had 16 teams.
Still, every team has made the playoffs at least once in the 2000s.
The Mariners have the longest playoff drought, after making it two straight years (2000-01), they haven't been back since. The next-longest playoff drought is actually the Phillies, who made it five straight times from 2007-11, a stretch that included two pennants and one championship. The next-longest would be the Tigers and Angels, who haven't made the playoffs since 2014. Note for our purposes: The Phillies and Angels are large-market teams and the Tigers are an above-average market.
Only nine MLB teams haven't made the playoffs within the last five seasons.
In the NHL, the Buffalo Sabres have the longest drought and it's at 10 seasons. Only six teams haven't made it within the past three seasons.
In the NBA, the Sacramento Kings haven't been to the playoffs since 2006. The Hornets (six years) and Bulls (five) are next and eight teams haven't been within the past three years. A few of those droughts will end this year, too.
Over in the NFL, the Jets are working on an 11-year drought and lead the way. The Broncos are next at six with the Dolphins, Giants and Lions at five. Eight teams total haven't been to the playoffs within the past four seasons.
Major League Baseball has the least "parity" on this front, but it again should be noted that it's been much more difficult to make the playoffs due to having the lowest percentage of teams making the postseason. MLB has 33 percent of the league making the playoffs compared to more than half for the NBA and NHL. As such, it's more a function of format than salary cap. In terms of percentages, MLB isn't far off NFL in number of teams qualifying for the playoffs in the last handful of seasons.
There's more. Via YES Network's James Smyth, an excellent sports researcher, on Twitter (with numbers from before the recently completed NFL postseason):
- Twenty-nine of the 30 MLB teams have made the playoffs since 2010. In the NFL, all 32 have. In the NBA, it's also 29 out of 30.
- Since 2015, 19 of the 30 MLB teams have made multiple playoff appearances. In the NFL, it's 20 of 32. Remember, a lot more teams make the playoffs in the NBA (25 of 30) and the NHL (28 of the 31 non-Kraken teams).
- If you go to the last eight remaining teams in the playoffs, since 2010 29 of the 30 MLB teams have done it. In the NFL it's 27 of the 32. In the NBA it's 26 of 30 and in the NHL it's 28 of the 31 non-Kraken teams.
- Last four remaining since 2015? MLB: 14 of 30. NFL: 17 of 32. NBA: 15 of 30. NHL: 22 of 31.
There isn't anything in here to suggest that MLB is lagging behind -- and certainly not far behind -- in any meaningful way that necessitates a salary cap to "fix" competitive balance.
I feel it incumbent upon myself to mention that this entire exercise is not meant to denigrate any other leagues at all. I'm a fan of all four to varying degrees. I'm a huge Bears fan and I chuckled that by going to exactly 2000 I accidentally looped in my favorite NBA team's lone Finals appearance.
No, this was an exercise to illustrate that while the salary cap might work well for other leagues, it just isn't needed in Major League Baseball and it especially isn't needed to address a fictional "parity" problem. There simply isn't a problem with it in MLB.
A final point
Something else to ponder for the salary cap people is where MLB is supposed to put it. As noted far earlier here, we often hear that a salary cap would "make things more fair" for small-market teams.
Each MLB team has a 26-man active roster. They have 40-man rosters and it would be much more complicated than this, but let's just say for the sake of making a point that MLB figures the "average" player is worth $4 million. In only using the 26-man active roster, that means a salary cap of $104 million. Given the exploding revenues the league has seen in the last decade-plus, that would be ridiculously low, but I chose it to underline a point.
Here are the final payrolls from the lowest-five salaried teams in 2021:
How would a salary cap have changed things for these teams in 2021? Would the Pirates have actually doubled their payroll just because the Yankees and Dodgers and Mets weren't allowed to spend more? Would the Rays have added almost $30 million just to get up against that cap? Be honest.
The salary cap might work in other sports, but it won't work in baseball. It's wholly unnecessary and there's already parity. Anyone looking at the full picture would realize this.