September 21, 2010
The Great NL West race
The wild card has ruined the thrill of the pennant race, they say. The Yankees and Rays, the two teams who almost by consensus are considered the best in baseball, should be in the middle of a good, old-fashioned dogfight right now. Instead, they are locked in the embrace of the biggest September sister-kiss in recent memory. Both teams were, as of Monday morning, better than 1-in-75 favorites to make the playoffs. This is a bum deal, traditionalists scream. Where’s our September swoon—our choke job for the ages? “I’m not greedy,” you say, “I don’t need Bobby Thomson in a one-game playoff. I just want to watch one go down to the wire.”
Fair enough. Let’s try to construct as exciting a division race as the wild-card era will allow. First, we had better start with three teams. Two teams are great and all, but we want to maximize the number of direct, head-to-head matchups between the teams. The presence of three teams in the race allows us to harness the multiplicative power of factorials to increase the number of games in which both teams have a fighting playoff shot. Now let’s put a little—but just the slightest amount—of separation between the teams, so that there is some potential comeback drama. Say no more than one-half or one game between the teams.
We should be careful, though, to make sure the race has enough parity between the teams. To equalize the difference in the standings, let’s give the third-place team the best expected record (we’ll give them a viable MVP candidate as well). Next, we’ll give the second-place team the second-best expected record (and the best bullpen in baseball). Finally, we’ll make sure the first-place team has excellent starting pitching (but with some questions about whether the ace is the pitcher he used to be).
Now let’s give the teams a bit of an uphill battle. We’ll lower the probability that any of the three teams wins the wild card to single digits, effectively making this a winner-take-all-affair. We’ll even give it some interesting temporal elements: we’ll give one team a venerable 19th-century lineage, one a middle-aged lifespan, and one an adolescent Selig childhood. We’ll put all these elements into our hypothetical blender, along with about two weeks left to play, and crank it up to 11.
Presto change-o: out comes the 2010 National League West. The following table describes the relevant features of the race:
Imagine an alternate universe where the cosmological constant is sufficiently large to cause contraction of the universe accelerating until the Big Crunch took place. Got it? You should now have an inaccurate model of the universe but an accurate model of the 2010 NL West in your head. Our playoff odds report is most fascinated with the success of the Giants, since their third-order record is the weakest of the three teams. Let’s look at various rate stats for the race, to see if we can’t handicap it a bit.
If you want an even race, this is about as good as you’re going to get. Two teams lead the others in two categories—the Rockies (TAv and EqBRR) and the Giants (SNLVAR and PADE)—but finish third in two others. Meanwhile, the Padres may be the most balanced: They lead in WXRL and do not come in third in any category. The reemergence of Jhoulys Chacin (2.72 RA since a mid-August recall from Triple-A) may buoy the Rockies' pitching staff, while the acquisition of Pat Burrell (.266/.372/.516 in a Giants uniform) likely makes San Francisco’s offense better than its seasonal TAv would suggest.
So how about the teams’ schedules? The three teams have relatively balanced schedules. Each has at least one series left against one of its opponents, and both the Padres and Rockies get a crack at the first-place Giants. Of particular note is the final series of the season, which will pit the Giants against the Padres for three games in San Francisco. Meanwhile, the Rockies will hit the road, where they have struggled, to face the disappointing but still dangerous Cardinals. Here are the schedules, in table form:
The most likely outcome is that these teams’ seasons will come down to that final series. TVs throughout the American West, including in the teams’ respective clubhouses, will be tuned in that first weekend in October. If the prospect of this almost perfectly designed playoff race doesn’t get you going, then it’s hard for me to imagine what in baseball would. The structure of the race is complex, prone to rapid swings, and poised to come down to the wire. The teams are each very good, and in different ways. It is here, in a division the wild card will likely leave unsullied, that the great three-way race has blossomed once again.