- The Astros, Dodgers and Nationals are making a mockery of their respective divisions, forcing the not-so-wild wild-card races to deliver compelling competition.
The Dodgers' pursuit of the single-season wins record has been getting plenty of attention lately, which is good, because it is serving as a distraction to what is shaping up to be one of the weakest years for postseason races in recent memory. With just over seven weeks to play in the 2017 regular season, three of the six division leaders—Washington in the NL East, Los Angeles in the NL West and Houston in the AL West—lead their respective packs by at least 13 games. What's more, the NL wild card race appears to be a foregone conclusion as well, what with no team closer than six games out.
Considering only the six seasons since MLB adopted the two wild card format, and using the standings through the close of play on Aug. 8 as a yardstick, the current set of division races is the least compelling thus far by a few measures:
• The three double-digit leads equals the number on that date in the first five years combined. The 2013 Braves led the NL East by 15 1/2 games through Aug. 8, the 2015 Royals were 10 1/2 games ahead in the AL Central and the 2016 Cubs were outpacing the rest of the NL Central by 11 games. You won’t be shocked to know that all of them finished first.
• This is the first time in the two-wild-card era in which only one division race—the NL Central, where the surging Cubs lead the slumping Brewers by 1 1/2 games—is closer than four games. In 2013, there were two such races, and in each of the other seasons there were at least three.
• The six leaders are a combined 51 1/2 games ahead of their closest pursuers, an average of 8 1/2 games in each of the six divisions. That blows away the previous maximum of 34 games, set in 2013. The average for the five completed seasons at this point is 25.2 games ahead, which roughly equates to six four-game leads. Twice the combined margin has been below 20 games, in 2012 (18 1/2 games, with the Rangers' 5 1/2-game AL West lead the largest) and in 2014 (19 1/2, with the Orioles' five-game AL East lead the largest).
All of that equates to something of a snoozefest, and we can cast at least some of the blame on the Dodgers, whose .705 winning percentage puts them on pace for 114 wins, which would be two shy of the record set by the 1906 Cubs and equaled by the 2001 Mariners. The 332-point gap between the best and worst teams in the league (the Phillies, at .373, own the latter distinction) is by far the largest of the two-wild-card era, beating out the 292-point gap in the 2012 NL (Nationals .621, Astros .369 in their final year in the Senior Circuit). The 84-point standard deviation in winning percentage in the current NL—that’s the measure of variation throughout the league—is the largest of the period as well, beating out the 78-point 2013 AL (thanks again to the bottom-feeding Astros).
To some extent, the three races that are virtually wrapped up are due as much to collapses by the other teams as they are to the dominance by the frontrunners. Last year’s two NL wild card teams, the Mets and the Giants, were expected to contend again in 2017, but myriad injuries and regressions up and down their rosters has knocked those teams a combined 35 games below .500. Throw in the Marlins’ typically half-baked attempt at contending, and the rebuilding “efforts” of the Phillies and the Padres and suddenly there’s a lot less competition in either division. As for the AL West, the defending champion Rangers (who won 95 games in 2016) and a very solid Mariners team (86 wins) were both hit hard by early-season injuries this year, which helped the Astros built a 10-game lead by May 28.
Fortunately, there are compelling division races in the AL East, AL Central and NL Central, and it's worth remembering that in each of the previous five seasons, two teams that led their respective divisions on Aug. 8 did not finish there. Those ousted leaders averaged a two-game cushion at the time, with the largest the aforementioned 2012 Rangers' 5 1/2-game lead over the A's; twice, teams overcame four-game leads, namely the 2013 Cardinals in the NL Central and the 2014 Angels in the AL West.
Note that the count of division lead changes includes a pair of ties atop the standings. In 2013, the Rangers and the A's were tied for the AL West lead through Aug. 8, and Oakland ended up wining; in 2016, the Orioles and the Blue Jays were both surpassed by the Red Sox and wound up meeting in the wild-card game.
Indeed the presence of the two wild cards in each league lowers the stakes of these races a bit, providing a safety net for teams that lose the lead. In each of the previous five seasons, at least one team ousted from the division lead still qualified as a wild card. In 2012, it was the Rangers, in 2013, the Pirates, who lost a four-game lead in the NL Central, and in 2014, the A's, who frittered away a four-game lead in the AL West. In 2015, both AL wild card participants were teams that had surrendered division leads, namely the Yankees (2 1/2 games in the AL East) and Astros (1 1/2 games in the AL West), and last year it was the tied Blue Jays and Orioles—both of whom fumbled their 2 1/2 game leads over the Red Sox—in the AL and the Giants (whose eight-game lead over the Dodgers had been whittled to one game by that point) in the NL.
Accounting for the two wild card races in each league during this timespan is a hairier exercise, but we can cut through the complexity to note a few things:
• Only in the 2015 NL have both of a league's wild card leaders through Aug. 8 wound up in the wild card game; that year it was the Pirates and the Cubs.
• Only in the 2015 AL and the 2016 NL have neither of a league's wild card leaders through Aug. 8 wound up in the wild card game; each had one preliminary leader winning their respective division instead. In the 2015 AL, it was the Blue Jays rallying to take the AL East and the Angels missing out completely, while in the 2016 NL it was the Dodgers capturing the NL West and the Cardinals and the Marlins (who were tied for the second spot) losing out to the Mets.
All of which is to say that we can still expect some change between now and the end of the season. According to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds—which account for remaining schedule and projections for available players—Cleveland's four-game advantage over Kansas City is far more secure than Boston's four-game edge over New York. The Indians have an estimated 94.4% chance of bringing home another flag, with the Royals (four games behind, 4.2%) and the Twins (5 1/2 games behind 1.3%) complete long shots. By comparison, the Red Sox have "only" a 62.4% chance at taking the AL East, with the Yankees (four games behind, 33.7%) still with a strong chance and the Rays (6 1/2 games behind, at 3.5%) not out of the rearview mirror. Even the Cubs, with their narrower lead, rate a better chance of winning the NL Central (69.0%) than the Red Sox do in the AL East, with the Cardinals (2 1/2 behind, 19.8%) having a better shot than the Brewers (1 1/2 behind, 8.5%) and even the Pirates (3 1/2 back, 2.6%) not entirely dismissible.
The odds say that the NL wild card race is just about over, with the Diamondbacks (94.4%) and Rockies (83.4%) rating as heavy favorites, with the Cardinals (six games back, 8.0%) and Brewers (seven back, 4.6%) barely fogging the mirror. The AL is a much different story, with the Yankees (two ahead for the top spot, 53.1%) the favorites and then a clear preference for either the Rays (31.8%) or Mariners (31.2%) emerging from the three-way tie to claim a second spot instead of the Royals (17.3%), with the Twins (1 1/2 behind, 9.2%), Angels (two games behind, 6.9%), Orioles (1 1/2 behind, 6.8%) and Rangers (four behind, 4.8%) holding out hope, and even the Blue Jays (four behind, 3.3%) not completely buried.
So yes, there are still races to decide who goes to the postseason dance, and in fact 15 of the 30 teams have at least a 10% chance of either a division or wild card spot, eight in the AL, seven in the NL. It’s just that the stakes have been lowered by the three runaway races, and even if the wild card races summon our good friend #TeamEntropy, the one-and-done finality of those games will quickly erase what’s transpired. It’s just one of those years.