On Thursday night, the Cubs became the first team to clinch a division title this year, wrapping up the National League Central not with a victory of their own but with the Cardinals' loss to the Giants. While the other five division races have yet to be settled, only two are particularly competitive: the AL East, where the Red Sox lead both the Blue Jays and Orioles by two games, and the NL West, where the Dodgers lead the Giants by four. Certainly, there's chaos to be had in both wild-card races, but it's worth considering how this year’s division races stack up relative to the others in recent years.
Given the addition of the second wild-card slot in each league in 2012, that seems like a good place to start. To examine this, I began by looking at the division races two ways: through Sept. 15, the midpoint of the final full month of the regular season (albeit with a variable amount of games remaining); and with 17 days remaining, the equivalent of two weeks plus a Friday-Saturday-Sunday weekend to go, as is the case at this writing (the 2012 season actually ended on a Wednesday, but it's been Sunday since then).
As it turns out, with just four completed seasons plus this one, the two measuring points don't diverge greatly in what they tell us, except in one instance. Here's the second method.
|As of t-17||total||within 5||changed|
Total is the sum of the games behind the division leader of the six second-place teams; Within 5 is the number of teams within five games of first place (including some that might be lower than second place); and Changed is the number of first-place teams as of that date who did not wind up winning their division. We don't know how many that will be this year, but already, we can see that this is the least competitive set by the cumulative measure—roughly the equivalent of an eight-game lead in each division. By that measure, the closest races were in 2012, when the average was a five-game lead.
The main difference between this measuring point and using Sept. 15 every year comes from 2014, when the cumulative margin swung from 33 games on Sept. 11 to 44 on Sept. 15—nearly as wide as this year, but with fewer games remaining. While easier to research via Baseball-Reference.com, the variable number of games remaining is a glaring enough flaw that it’s worth discarding for the remainder of this exercise.
While this year's numbers are distorted by the Cubs' current 17-game lead, even if we drop the largest lead from each year and exclude it from that total, this year is the least competitive of the five, with a cumulative 30 1/2-game lead from among the other five teams. That edges out 2013 (29 games), which featured the sample's second-largest margin: the Dodgers' 12 1/2-game lead over the Diamondbacks.
Beyond that, we can see that through the first four years of the new format, the number of teams within five games of a lead is fairly consistent, with an average of four, and there's been an average of one lead change per year. Two of those four changes stem from ties atop the lead as of that date: the NL Central tie between the Pirates and Cardinals on Sept. 13, 2013, and the AL Central tie between the Tigers and Royals on Sept. 11, 2014. In both cases, the team that lost out still made the playoffs as a wild card. In 2012, the Rangers slipped behind the Athletics but still claimed a wild-card spot, but that wasn't the case for the White Sox, who fell out of the picture entirely after leading the Tigers by two games at this juncture.
So we've established that this isn't a very good year for division races relative to other years since the format change. But what about before that? The previous five years (2007–11) were chockfull of end-of-season drama, featuring three straight years of Game 163 tiebreakers, two years in which the Mets were eliminated on the final day and the Game 162 mayhem that inspired the addition of the second wild card. Those seem like halcyon days, but collectively, those races weren't appreciably closer or more volatile when measured from this particular vantage:
|As of t-17||total||within 5||changed|
With 17 days to go in the regular season, the average cumulative gap was slightly smaller in this five-year sample (35.1 games) than in the more recent one (37.1), even if we exclude the furthest outliers (23.7 to 25.0, in that case). That memorable 2011 finish was nothing special as far as division races go; in fact, the 43-game cumulative gap is the second largest of the past decade, with this year's the only greater one. What's more, there were actually fewer teams within the five-game margin in the final five years of the old format (13) than the first five years of the new one (20). Admittedly, five games is an arbitrary threshold, but that’s still a lot of ground to make up over 2 1/2 weeks. The difference may reflect an increased number of teams making an effort to stay in the race as the number of playoff slots increased, but that’s only a theory.
Also worth noting is the fact that the Mets' 2007 and '08 collapses represent the only times within that span in which there were changes in the division leader from the point in question to the end of the season. The Mets missed the playoffs both years, and the losers of those three tiebreaker games (the 2007 Padres, '08 Twins and '09 Tigers) all stayed home, so there was drama in that regard. You can make a case that it was at least somewhat more organic than that produced by the winner-take-all–wild-card game, but it's really a matter of taste. Divisions and wild cards are all artificial constructs that MLB has created to add to the late-season drama as well as reduce travel.
Travel back another five years (2002–06) and the average cumulative gap was wider (40.2 games) than in the two samples from the past decade, with by far the least competitive set of races in the first of those years—a cumulative margin of 56 1/2 games. There were more lead changes in that half-decade (six, three of them resulting from ties), but the number of teams within five games (17) was still fewer than the 2012–16 stretch. Taking the 2002–11 decade as a whole, the average cumulative margin was 37.7 games—still larger than the past five years, with an average of just three teams within five games of the lead, compared to an average of four more recently.
While I could continue this exercise by traveling back further, those more ancient seasons don't improve the case for the previous format, at least based upon this quick-and-dirty methodology; I'll spare you the numbers. You can bemoan what’s been lost with the addition of the first and second wild cards—namely that sense of finality for a team that runs out of time to grab first place by the close of the regular season, and the shifting of the focus from the cutoff below the first- and second-best teams to that below the fourth- and fifth-best teams. But by now we’re in the 23rd year of the three-division era, and we may as well bemoan the rise of the World Wide Web. With baseball’s revenue booming, it’s clear that there’s no turning back the clock to a simpler format.
Study it long enough and it’s clear that there’s no format that guarantees tight division races every year. But whether it’s division races or wild-card races or some mix of the two, we’ve almost always got something to focus upon as the regular season draws to a close. For that we should be grateful.