The last season with Bud Selig as commissioner is turning out to be the epitome of his Grand Design, a baseball world in which revenues continue to grow, attendance remains strong and virtually every team in baseball has "hope and faith" of making the playoffs, even almost halfway through the season. It is the endgame of increased revenue sharing, a "competitive balance tax" on high payrolls, limits on spending in the draft and international market and -- this one falls outside of Selig's realm -- the quick spread of information that has narrowed the talent gap in front offices and dugouts.
The cynic has his or her own word for this new world order: mediocrity.
There are no great teams in baseball. There are two very good teams: Oakland and San Francisco. There are four teams that are bad enough to somehow have played themselves out of contention in this democratic baseball society: the Cubs, Diamondbacks, Padres and Rays, who are the only teams more than six games out of playoff spot. And in the big, fat middle you have the other 24 teams, nearly indistinguishable from one another night to night. Yes, earthlings, even the Astros are in the hunt, just six games out of a playoff spot, and one-half game behind the defending world champion Red Sox.
This morning, with 43 percent of the season done, 16 teams are within five games of .500. Translation: the majority of baseball is mediocre. In the 17 years of play with 30 teams, this marks the second-most teams hanging around .500 after games of June 16, trailing only the 18 teams within five games of .500 through June 16, 2009.
Here's how much the game has changed: If we define mediocre as any record within five games of .500, we can see the rise of mediocrity recently in the era of 30 teams:
Great teams don't exist any more, and haven't for years. In the past eight years only three teams have won 100 games. In the eight years prior to that, 16 teams won 100 games. No team is on pace to win 100 games this year.
What we are set up for in the second half of the season is either the wildest pile-up of a chase for the playoffs, or a low-speed, steam-coming-out-of-a-wheezing-radiator crawl toward 86 wins and a back door into the postseason.
Playing .500 baseball is no longer an insult. Baseball in 2014 is about hanging around .500, treading water while waiting out injuries, and waiting for a three- or four-week stretch of playing good baseball. That just about describes the Angels, Braves, Dodgers, Nationals, Orioles, Pirates, Rangers, Reds, Red Sox, Yankees, etc.
The Brewers and Blue Jays are hip to this formula, having already completed their one brief run of winning baseball. Milwaukee began the season 20-7. It is 22-22 since. It can keep playing mediocre baseball -- just go 48-43 the rest of the way -- and get to 90 wins, which was good enough for playoff baseball in the NL last year.
Toronto, too, already had its run. It went 25-7 after starting 13-17 and has gone 7-6 since. The Jays can continue to plod along at 49-42 the rest of the way and still get to 90 wins.
Perhaps now the Royals, winners of eight straight, have launched one of those runs.
At this rate, with so many teams allowed to hang in contention, the trade deadline next month will either be a fascinating game of speed chess or the dullest last week of July since ... well, last year, when the final seven days before the July 31 deadline saw only 11 trades, including ho-hum deals for the past-their-prime Alfonso Soriano and Jake Peavy and a bunch of guys you never heard of. It was the worst ratio of breathless rumors to actual deals anybody cared about, and you better prepare for more of the same false advertising.
See, all these teams mired in mediocrity think they have a chance of winning the World Series. They have tricked themselves (and you) into thinking that "anything can happen," "we can get hot any time now" and "just get in and anybody can win." They pray to the gods of the 2006 World Series champion Cardinals, who alchemized 83 wins into gold. It sounds great, and all of us could stand to use a little more optimism in life, but it contains very little truth.
The truth is that teams that are mediocre this deep into the season do not win the World Series. Fifteen of the 16 world champions since 1998 were at least six games over .500 on June 16, with an average margin of 12 games better than break even. (Even the '06 Cardinals were +14 on this date.) The only team in the 30-team era that was mediocre in mid-June -- among the 179 teams so defined -- and went on to win the World Series was the 2003 Florida Marlins (-3). So there's your one inspiration: a 1-in-179 outlier.
Since 1984, more than twice as many franchises have won the World Series (19) than have won the NBA Finals (8). As for this year, if you apply the +6 rule of thumb today, the world champion will come from among six teams: San Francisco (+16), Oakland (+14), Milwaukee (+13), Toronto (+11), Detroit (+7) and St. Louis (+6).
Is all this mediocrity good or bad for baseball? Let's wait to see what the second half brings. There is nothing in sports like the day-to-day drama of a pennant race, and if mediocrity keeps more teams in the race, then you get more games in September with one or both teams playing with something on the line.
If you're the type of person that likes the good old days and needs a Goliath in your narrative -- the honest-to-goodness great team everybody is trying to knock off -- maybe you need to re-think your position. In the 1963 World Series, for instance, a 99-win Dodgers team beat a 104-win Yankees team, the kind of clash of the titans people came to expect in the Fall Classic.
But here's the problem with such Kodachrome memories: the 1963 season stunk. Seventeen of the other 18 teams in baseball finished more than 10 games out of first place. Few people watched. Every team but the Dodgers drew less than 20,000 fans per game -- yes, including the Yankees, who averaged 16,362 people at a stadium that held 56,000.
Today every team except Tampa Bay and Cleveland draws more than 20,000 fans per game. Every team but the Indians outdraws the '63 Yankees. Attendance this year is virtually even with last year (just 22 fewer fans per game). And despite the lazy, popular myth about how the Steroid Era sent the turnstiles spinning, it remains true that the worst attended season since steroid testing with penalties began in 2004 still outdrew (on a per-game basis) the best attended season of the Steroid Era (1995-2003).
So people generally have come to like this new democratic baseball world that keeps teams in the race. A generation has grown up with expanded postseason play -- now with 10 entrants instead of two -- and has come to know postseason baseball as October Madness, not the coronation of kingly teams. Selig was successful at executing his blueprint. With the season nearly half over, fans of all but a handful of teams still truly believe that their mediocre team is simply one 20-7 run away from the playoffs. And they may just be right.