Finding the Toughest and Weakest Divisions by Jeff Sullivan March 7, 2014 I hope you don’t think this is going to be an extensive study. I hope you don’t want for this to be an extensive study. Because, look, here’s the deal: And that’s it. Those are the results. You can leave now, enlightened, if you so choose. All that’s coming is explanation, commentary, and history, and some people want that and some people don’t. The AL East projects to be strong! The NL East projects to be strong, too, relative to something other than the rest of this year’s major-league baseball. Relative to that, it’s pretty weak. I wouldn’t say it’s critical to have an understanding of divisional strength, but at the very least, it’s neat, and more than that, it can help reconcile differences between team strength and playoff odds. After all, if you play in a weak division, your odds will look better than they would in a strong division. I feel a little weird writing when I already gave away the conclusions, but, always move forward, that’s what I say. The graph above was simple to generate. As you know, we’ve got author-maintained depth charts for every team in the league. As you know, we’ve got 2014 projections that blend both Steamer and ZiPS, and as you might know, this page exists, showing off a detailed team-by-team WAR summary. Making the graph above was almost as easy as just adding numbers together. I did have to make one adjustment, because the linked page projects a few too many WAR. But that did nothing to change the order — it just brought all the numbers down a little bit. I wound up with the AL East projected for 188 WAR. In second place is the NL West, at 176, so that makes the AL East the toughest projected division in baseball. At the other end, the NL East is projected for 142 WAR. Next-lowest is the NL Central, at 154, making the NL East the weakest projected division in baseball. Both the Nationals and Braves, of course, are pretty good, but the division’s mighty thin behind them, and it stings the Mets extra bad to have to play this season without Matt Harvey. Not that Harvey being healthy would be enough to turn the Mets into certain contenders, but a healthy Harvey is the very image of a difference-maker, and, well I didn’t expect to spend this paragraph daydreaming about the Mets. Over the past decade, the best division in baseball has averaged 195 WAR, and the worst division in baseball has averaged 142. The projected numbers, naturally, regress toward the mean, so there’s going to be a smaller spread, but there’s a clear gap between the upper tier and the lower. It certainly shouldn’t be a surprise to see the AL East on top, but it’s worth taking a moment to discuss some of the implications. For example, the Orioles and the Mariners are projected for just about identical WAR totals. Yet we give the Orioles a 12% shot at the playoffs, while the Mariners come in at 41%. The Mariners also have higher playoff odds than the Blue Jays, despite projecting for a lower WAR. The Orioles and Phillies are tied in playoff odds, even though the Phillies project for a significantly lower WAR. While the Marlins project for one more WAR than the Astros, they also project for six more wins. Everybody take a breath, and the next paragraph will contain more examples. By total projected team WAR, the Braves currently rank 16th, between the Indians and the Pirates. By playoff odds, the Braves rank sixth, between the Red Sox and the Angels. There’s a definite upper class of five teams, by playoff odds, but by WAR, there isn’t that same separation, as the Rangers and Rays are right there with the Nationals. Even though those three teams are equivalent on the WAR page, the Rangers and Rays combine for playoff odds of 86%, while the Nationals are at 77% on their own. I’m just going to let you eyeball the rest. Obviously, the projections aren’t perfect, but they’re also the best we’ve got right now, and they should convey a pretty good sense of things. It isn’t just about how good a team is. It’s also about the context in which that team exists and competes, and while over the long run these things should average out, in any given year the divisions are going to be uneven. Right now, the NL East looks particularly weak. The AL East looks strong, but then, that’s usually the case. For funsies, here’s an overview of the last ten years. For the nine years that the AL West had four teams, I multiplied the divisional WAR by 5/4. For the nine years that the NL Central had six teams, I multiplied the divisional WAR by 5/6. For so long, we accepted that one division had four teams while another had six. The more distant that gets, the more hilarious it seems. That’s absurdly unfair! All right. The weakest division was the 2005 NL West. That’s the NL West the Padres won with an 82-80 record. The five teams combined for a WAR of 126. The strongest division was the 2008 AL East. That’s the AL East the Rays won with a 97-65 record. The five teams combined for a WAR of 210. The four strongest divisions were all the AL East. For that matter, the AL East was the strongest division in six of the ten years. In three of them, the AL West was the strongest division. In one, it was the AL Central. That means that, over at least ten years, the National League hasn’t had the strongest division in baseball. Nor does it project to have the strongest division in 2014. The gap between the leagues seems to be shrinking, but it has undeniably existed for a while, and that’s evident in the WAR. Especially since WAR includes a league adjustment, on account of the NL having been inferior. On average, over the decade, the AL East came in at 189 WAR. The NL Central came in at 154. It’s been helpful to have the Red Sox and the Yankees in the same division, so that each could compete with the other. And this makes the accomplishments of the Rays all the more incredible. In time, the Rays will regress, as long as they don’t spend a lot more money. Already, the farm system is drying up, as they haven’t been able to lean on high draft picks. But plenty is already in the books, and lately the Rays have been a little bit miraculous. Which, yeah, sorry, Toronto and Baltimore. A lot of it’s cyclical, but that’s no consolation today.