Posted June 25, 2013

Unprecedented NL Central race could prove merits of new playoff format

Pennant races
Adam Wainwright's 2.31 ERA and 106 strikeouts in 116.2 innings are a large part of the Cardinals' MLB-best record. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

Adam Wainwright’s 2.31 ERA and 106 strikeouts in 116.2 innings are a large part of the Cardinals’ MLB-best record. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

What do the top three teams in the major leagues by winning percentage all have in common? They’re all in the National League Central. As the Wall Street Journal‘s John W. Miller pointed out on Monday, since the advent of divisional play in 1969, no single division has ever been home to the three best records in baseball, and a division has only produced the two best records seven times in the 44 seasons prior to this one. Here’s the graphic that accompanied Miller’s piece (via Aaron Hooks):

The Cardinals, having lost Sunday night, are now 47-29, but that’s an insignificant change with regard to the above.

The first thing I notice when looking at the graphic is that there are some memorable pennant races on that list. The 1978 American League East battle between the Yankees and Red Sox, which culminated in a one-game playoff, was the best of that bunch, but the 1982 and 1987 AL East and 1993 NL West races also came down to the final day of the season. That’s four of the previous seven instances. Of the other three, the 2001 AL West was notable for involving the team with the most regular season wins in major league history, the 116-win Mariners.

That 2001 AL West race is also notable for being the only one of the previous seven to occur during the wild card era, which is significant for two reasons. The first and most obvious is that, for the first time of those seven seasons, the team with the second-best record in the majors was not shut out of the postseason. That was a large argument in favor of the wild card, and in that case it worked perfectly. There was no tight race that was undermined, and no 100-win team that saw its season end without a playoff berth, something that would have been a glaring injustice given that the A’s won 10 more games than three division winners that year.

The other reason that 2001 season was significant was that it was the only time during the six-division era that the teams with the top two records in the majors were in the same division, which makes it all the more telling that it took a 116-win team to make that happen. To recalibrate, then, the top two records came from the same division six times in 25 years of four-division play, or once every 4.2 years, but just once more in 29 years of six-division play.

That makes what’s going on the NL Central all the more remarkable, though it also suggests that it’s all the less likely to last until season’s end. After all, the Reds are just a half-game ahead of the fourth-place Red Sox, and we’ve seen the Pirates suffer dramatic second-half collapses in each of the last two seasons. The chances that the top three records will all still reside in the NL Central come September 30 remain slim. Though given the softening of the other divisions around baseball, seeing the season end with the top two records in the NL Central wouldn’t be surprising, even given that 19-year history of six-division play.

The other wrinkle here is the reformatted wild card system. If the Cardinals, Pirates, and Reds do all finish with one of the majors’ top three records, all will make the postseason. That has a ring of faireness to it, but given the history above and the fact that all three teams are separated by less than three games in the standings right now, it would also seem to rob us of a potentially classic pennant race.

However, the one-game wild card playoff format has put the emphasis back on finishing first. The new format guarantees that two of those three teams will reach the Division Series, but only one will be guaranteed a Division Series berth at season’s end, while the other two will have to face off in a winner-take-all single game playoff for the other entry. The regular season stakes aren’t as high as they were in 1978, and the one-game playoff is manufactured drama rather than an unexpected final twist, but it seems to me that, at least in this very rare situation, the new format, which did heighten the pennant race excitement last September, is indeed an improvement.

14 comments
RobertBirchmeier
RobertBirchmeier

This is a little dumb since we're not even at the all-star break.  This is a great article for September, but speculation this far in advance is just a big "what if", nothing more.

Wisconsin Death Trip
Wisconsin Death Trip

You failed too mention the OTHER aspect of that division. My Brew Crew fighting for the right with the Cubbies for the cellar dweller honor. YIKES! 

Edward31
Edward31

Looking at the body of Selig's "work," you can make the case that he was easily the worst---the absolute worst---commissioner in MLB history. But hey, the guy has always been great in doing what's in his own best interest, as well as the best interests of his colleague owners.

ChristopherKucharski
ChristopherKucharski

So, you could end up with the second best record in baseball and you are out in one game.  Brilliant move by Bozo Selig.  Don't have a problem with another wild card team, but to have it only a one-game series is beyond stupidity but also not surprising coming from the biggest fraud in professional sports.

olaf27
olaf27

I happen to really like the the new playoff system. It will take awhile but eventually people will start to like it and relish the opportunity for their team to play a one-game playoff. This year looks to be the most competitive year yet in terms of division races and wild card races.

josephfinn
josephfinn

Ha.  Ha.  Like anything could validate this stupid play-in game system.  We had a nearly perfect system with 2 wild-card teams and Selig comes up with this cracked idea that supposedly makes division races more important (why, with an extra wild card is, of course, never explained).

Michael10
Michael10

Hey Cliff, your age is showing again...the first wild-card (six-division) playoffs were only 19 years ago--after the 1994 strike--not 29.

Yes, the MLB wildcard is even younger than Mike Trout. Anyone whose followed the game the last two decades knows that...

hddh
hddh

The new format is terrible. Divisions need to be abolished, and the 4 best teams in the league should make the playoffs. 

WCoastPro
WCoastPro

I agree - the new wildcard format is paying off already. Worked great last year and the incentive to win you division is back. It had been nearly non-existent previously.  

David22
David22

@ChristopherKucharski I agree! It seems ridiculous that a team could've swept another during the season and beat them by say 7 games in the WC standings but be eliminated from postseason by a single play-in game.

abigsoxfan
abigsoxfan

@Michael10 Great catch Michael. Kinda shows you the fall of journalism where an alleged journalist can be so wrong on such an obvious fact. I hope he acknowledges his grievous error and gives you credit for it's correction. 

Michael10
Michael10

@hddh No way will anything like that every happen -- that's basically a  tournament seating, which would essentially reduce legitimate playoff races from four per league to one (for fourth place in each league...)

MattBugaj
MattBugaj

@WCoastPro Agreed. Honestly, who cares if the 4th and 5th best teams in each league get a fair shake? They get s lightly cracked door they have to fight their way through.