Can One Bad Team Swing a Division Title?

Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t really have strong opinions about the AL Central this year, either aesthetically or competitively. I picked the Tigers to win the division because I like their young pitchers, I had to pick someone, and I didn’t want to just choose the same 12 teams that made the playoffs last year. But if the Twins or Guardians, or even the Royals finished first, I wouldn’t be unduly surprised.

Mostly, I want to go the entire season without having to watch Byron Buxton leave the field on a gurney, for much the same reason I’d like to visit the Grand Canyon before I die. I’ve never actually seen it, but I’ve heard it’s wonderful. Apart from that, I’ve got an open mind.

Even so, the first two weeks of the season have brought some remarkable results. Stephen Vogt now has a better winning percentage than any manager in MLB history (minimum 10 games), as the Guardians jumped out to an 8-3 start. The Tigers and Royals are right behind, and Kansas City has had one of the best rotations in the league so far.

These three teams have one thing in common, other than their division: They’ve all played the White Sox.

On Tuesday, the White Sox got their second win of the season. They jumped all over one of the Logan Allens, and in one inning raised their season-long scoring total by 31%. They ended up blowing that five-run lead before coming back to win it on an eighth-inning RBI double by Dominic Fletcher — never a dull moment with those guys! — but either way, Chicago has pulled its overall record all the way up to 2-9.

Before that, the White Sox had gone a combined 0-8 against divisional opposition. The Guardians also took three out of four from the Athletics, the other team that’s threatening to turn this American League season into SEC-SoCon Challenge Week.

Why does this matter? Well, let’s take the Royals specifically. There are reasons to believe this team can stay over .500 all year; they seem to have a legitimate no. 1 starter in Cole Ragans, plus at least three other competent mid-rotation arms. They also have a superstar shortstop, Bobby Witt Jr. That doesn’t sound like much, but they’re a reliever or two away from fitting the description of the Cleveland teams that ran this division in the late 2010s and early 2020s.

On the other hand, Royals fans of a certain age remember another season that began brightly after a long period of irrelevancy: 2003. That was Kansas City’s only winning season between 1993 and 2013; the Royals started 16-3 in a white-hot April that saw them take five games from five meetings with the Tigers. Those Tigers, as you probably remember, went 43-119.

This early in the season, we have no way of knowing if there’s a 2003 Tigers team out there. Or of telling a 2003 Royals team — start hot but drop down to .500 by June 1 and miss the playoffs — from a team like the 2005 White Sox. Ozzie Guillen’s men, having made the playoffs once in the previous decade, went 17-7 in April and stayed on it all year. They went 99-63 in the regular season and 11-1 in the playoffs, en route to the franchise’s only World Series title in the past 107 years.

We’re weeks, at least, from knowing whether it’s safe to adjust our priors.

So I’d like to speak more generally about the impact of having one absolute stinker of a team in your division. Generally, this sort of thing tends to shake itself out. In 2022, the Nationals became the first team in the six-division era to lose at least 14 games to all four of their divisional opponents. Did that shake up the division? Not really; the Braves and Mets tied with 101 wins and had the same record against Washington. But the Wild Card was a different story; the Phillies, who went 16-3 against the Nats, beat the Brewers to the last playoff spot by a game. Of course, there were three 100-loss teams in the NL that year, two of them in Milwaukee’s division. The Brewers went 27-17 against 100-loss opposition; the Phillies went 28-5.

You can only play the teams in front of you, but you have to beat up on the cupcakes.

To an extent. Since MLB expanded to 30 teams in 1998, there have been 43 100-loss teams. I went through their opponent-by-opponent records, looking for instances in which an extremely bad team played one divisional contender fairly close but got blown out by the other, to the point where that discrepancy swung a divisional title.

I’ll be honest, I had been operating under the assumption that this happened all the time. Certainly what happened in the 2022 Wild Card race can’t be uncommon; where playoff seeding or one of the various Wild Card berths is decided by who does best against bad teams generally. But when it comes to the division title, one specific weak opponent rarely determines the race.

Of those 43 teams, I was able to find three cases in which performance against a 100-loss team swung the divisional battle:

In 2003, the Minnesota Twins won the AL Central by four games over the White Sox; four games happens to be exactly how many more wins the Twins picked up against those 119-loss Tigers. The following year, the Dodgers went 16-3 against the 111-loss Diamondbacks and won the NL West by two games over the Giants, who went 14-5 against Arizona. Had those contenders finished with the same record against their respective last-place opponents, both divisional races would’ve gone to a one-game playoff. As it was, both second-place teams missed the postseason altogether.

In 2021, the Dodgers won 106 games and lost out to the Giants by one game in the NL West. Much is made of the Giants’ one-game advantage in the season series between the two clubs, but the division was also decided by their record against the 110-loss team Arizona put out that year. The Giants went 17-2; the Dodgers only managed to go 16-3. Had they won another game against the Diamondbacks, they would’ve forced the last one-game tiebreaker in MLB history.

And that’s it, at least in terms of actually deciding a divisional race.

There were a ton of near-misses. The 2001 Astros and Cardinals tied for the NL Central despite varying fortunes against the last-place Pirates; Houston, which had the better record against Pittsburgh, won out on a tiebreaker anyway.

Or consider last year’s AL West. The top three teams were separated by just two games, while three games separated their records against the Athletics, who lost 112 games. But the team with the best record against Oakland was the Mariners, who went 12-1 in those matchups and finished in third place anyway. Equalizing the Astros’ and Rangers’ records against Oakland would not have changed the finishing order in the division, nor would the Rangers have changed seeding in the Wild Card ranking if they had gained (or lost) a game in the standings.

In the past 25 years, divisional opponents have had won-loss discrepancies as great as eight or nine games in a season against a 100-loss divisional opponent. But those large gaps don’t appear between contenders; it usually happens when there are two cellar-dwellers in the division who go about .500 against each other but get smoked by everyone else.

Usually, bad teams play good teams about the same, and division titles are frequently won by margins too large to be explained solely by one bad opponent. When the Rays went 18-1 against the Orioles in 2021, they also won the division by eight games — too great a gap to be closed solely by their performance against one particularly bad club. It’s not like the Orioles won the season series against the Yankees and Red Sox that year.

There probably won’t be a 115-loss team this year — even with the win last night, the White Sox are on pace to lose 132 games, but they have time to turn it around — and even if there is, the scheduling conventions introduced last year will reduce the impact of one bad team on a division title or the Wild Card race. Would-be contenders only get to bully the runt of the litter for 13 games a season, rather than 19, though they still play roughly twice as many games against divisional opponents as they do vs. intraleague ones.

So if history is any guide, the Guardians probably won’t regret dropping one game to the White Sox in April. But better to win them all if you can anyway; you can never be too careful.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic,, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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Brad Johnsonmember
1 month ago

I think you meant Logans Allen.