We’ve gone through five years of having the wild-card playoffs, and I think people are pretty happy. Maybe Pirates fans are slightly less happy, but the whole thing has worked out. Yet there was concern! There was concern that it was a money grab. Short of that, there was concern that baseball was trying to inject some manufactured drama. One-game playoffs, so the line of thinking went, were best when organic. Having them every single season could and would take something away from the sanctity of the division races.
Again, I think it’s going well. One-game playoffs are always dramatic, regardless of why they’re being played. The division races are still important, because winning is the only way to bypass the elimination game. And sometimes baseball just needs the extra suspense. Now, even with just one wild card, that race could still be plenty tense. The division races, though, haven’t always been. And this year there might not be a single race at all.
No matter what you think about projections, you can’t pretend they’re useless. And now take a look at ours, as of right now. This is still showing only Steamer, and it doesn’t yet fold in any ZiPS, but how much is there to disagree with, really? At least as far as the division favorites go.
It’s inarguable that the Red Sox are the best team in the AL East. I feel similarly comfortable saying the Indians are the best team in the AL Central, and they’re still trying to add a big bat. I’m a believer in the Astros, myself, and I’m less of a believer in the Rangers, so the AL West is currently looking lopsided. I agree that, in the NL East, the Nationals look stronger than the Mets. Everyone in the world is going to pick the Cubs as strong NL Central favorites. And in the NL West, the Dodgers have a leg up on the Giants, and they still haven’t even made their upgrade at second base. That would stand to further widen the gap.
Two divisions are currently projected to be decided by 10 games. One’s at seven, two are at six, and one’s at five. Even the one at five is more like five and a half, and the second-place team there is the Angels, who the projections seem to like more than the crowd. Anyway, there’s no set cutoff where a race goes from being pretty good to pretty boring, but I’m going to stay simple and say five. This season, as of this moment, zero of six divisions are projected to be decided by less than five games.
Why don’t we look at the history? How does this compare to the recent past? I went in and made use of my team-projection spreadsheet, stretching back to 2005.
Between 2005 – 2016, there was an average of four divisions each year projected to be “close.” Two times, all six divisions were projected to be close. Last year set a new low, with only one qualifying division. That would’ve eased the transition into this year, the first year shown with zero close divisions. It feels like we went through a few seasons there with a great deal of projected parity. Now things could be cycling away from that.
Of course, this has concerned just the projections. How have things actually played out?
On average, two or three divisions each year have been reasonably tight. It’s a strange coincidence that all the results shown above are even. The odds of that are 0.02%! We’re in a nice little stretch here of two close divisions each season. Better than nothing. But still, we have those 2017 projections to take into account. We know projections can miss, but we also know these current projections appear top-heavy. This calls for a side-by-side comparison.
What should jump out to you most is 2011. Look at what happened in 2011! All six divisions were projected to be tight. And then, in reality, zero of six divisions were actually tight. The Red Sox were projected to win the East by two games. The Yankees won by six. The Tigers were projected to win the Central by one game. They won by 15. The Rangers were projected to win the West by three games. They won by 10. The Phillies were projected to win the East by four games. They won by 13. The Reds were projected to win the Central by three games. The Brewers won by six. Finally, the Giants were projected to win the West by four games. The Diamondbacks won by eight.
It was a weird season. An extreme season. And projections are conservative, so you expect reality to be a little stranger. Back in 2011, the projections went 0-for-6, in terms of seeing how many division races would be tight. This year, we’d be looking for misses in the other direction. Only one time has there been a greater number of actual close divisions than projected close divisions: 2016, with two instead of one. There was just a little bit more drama, although even there, the closest margin was four.
I shouldn’t need to remind you again and again that reality often leaves the math behind. Some roster could be torn apart by injury. Some other team could still make a blockbuster addition, or, failing that, a few teams could perform all wacky-like in one-run games. The sanest version of baseball is still more or less unhinged, so I’m not going to sit here and pretend to be able to tell you that the 2017 regular season has already been determined. It’s just, we appear to be looking at a locked-in landscape of favorites. They’re all there, and all the rosters look good. The projections match up with the perceptions. The probability is that something goes way right, and something else goes way wrong. It doesn’t usually all play out like you think. That just means this could be a year with some upsets. Not a single division race is projected to be a squeaker.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.