Hal Bodley

Competitive balance the new normal in baseball

Competitive balance the new normal in baseball

ST. PETERSBURG -- Seldom has there been such widespread competitive balance in Major League Baseball. One of former Commissioner Bud Selig's favorite lines was about every team having renewed hope each spring no matter what the realistic outlook.

The 2016 season is nearly a month old and Selig certainly is getting his ages-old wish, not to mention fans in just about every MLB hamlet. Through Wednesday's games, only four teams were more than five games behind first place in their division.

In the closely-knotted American League West, a mere game separates the top four teams, and the struggling preseason favorite Houston Astros are just five back.

Baltimore, which was running away with the AL East, was cooled by the Tampa Bay Rays, losing two of three games, and it watched its once-commanding lead dwindle to a half-game over Boston.

The Orioles are back at Camden Yards this weekend for a telling four-game set with the surprising Chicago White Sox, who've won six in a row, eight of their past 10 and suddenly own the best record (16-6) in the AL.

Ah, yes. Competitive balance.

"As we look back over the years, there's probably a little more now," O's manager Buck Showalter says. "You can make a case for about everybody. There are a lot of people engaged in the competition. It's going to be fun to watch as it unfolds."

Showalter, a three-time Manager of the Year Award winner, believes emulation has helped create the evenness.

"They [team executives] learn from everybody," he says. "They see how bullpens are being put together and find ways to make up the difference regardless of payroll.

"People go into the offseason knowing exactly what they're going to spend. There's a better definity about what you're missing, and it's just a matter of whether you can go out and get it. There are so many numbers and statistics out there, it's pretty obvious you can tell what you're lacking compared to the teams you're chasing."

The Orioles began the year by winning their first seven games, the best start in franchise history dating to 1954. For Showalter, the winning streak was the longest at any point during his six-plus seasons as O's skipper.

Since a torrid beginning, competitive balance has taken over. Before rookie Joey Rickard's three-run homer propelled them to a 3-1 victory over Tampa Bay on Wednesday night, they'd lost three in a row and eight of 12.

These Orioles remind me of the Toronto Blue Jays early last season. Their pitching was shaky, but their powerful offense kept them in the race. Then, at mid-season, the Jays obtained left-hander David Price and streaked to the AL East title.

In the past 36 innings (through Wednesday), the O's have scored just five runs. And the firestorm of homers and runs batted in from the bats of Manny Machado, Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis has gone quiet.

And had it not been for lefty Matt Moore's one costly pitch (to Rickard with two out in the fifth inning) the outcome of Wednesday's game at Tropicana Field might have been different. The Orioles managed just two other singles.

The baby-faced 24-year-old Rickard a year ago was in the Rays' Minor League system, but he was obtained by the O's in last December's Rule 5 Draft. He and Moore briefly played together in August when the pitcher was at Durham working on his comeback from Tommy John surgery.

Starting pitching is obviously the Orioles' Achilles heel, but Chris Tillman's nine-strikeout effort was encouraging.

"I look at it as going out there and going as deep as I can, giving our team a chance to win," said Tillman, who became the first O's starter to win a second game. "I think one swing and we came out on top in that game."

The Orioles' late Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver lived with a big home run to support strong pitching.

"It was a typical Earl Weaver game tonight," Showalter said. "We'll take it and go home."

Earlier, I asked Buck who's been working overtime this season manipulating his players, about this team and how it relates to the existing competiive balance in MLB.

"Good pitching always beat good hitting," he said, repeating baseball's much used axiom. "Just the other night against Chris Archer. When he's on top of his game and we're on top of our game offensively, he'll win [as he did 2-0 Monday night].

"We've faced some outstanding pitchers lately, and that's our biggest problem: We cannot measure up to a lot of the starting pitching. But we keep catching the ball, and I've been able to spread the load around [in the bullpen]."

With a frown, Showalter added: "Offense comes and goes with everybody, but what happens on the mound is what makes the difference."

Especially, when the teams are so even. Call it the Era of Competitive Balance.

Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is the senior correspondent for Follow him @halbodley on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.