September 6, 2009
A Race Without Kicks?
It's a strange weekend for baseball, in that there are no series matching post-season contenders. The closest would be the Tigers/Rays and Red Sox/White Sox matchups, but you had to stretch the definition of "contender" to get either of Rays or White Sox in there. The Rays were six games out of the wild-card slot behind two teams when the weekend began, while the White Sox were seven games behind the Tigers, in third place in the AL Central. That series at the Tropicana Dome was actually the only one over the weekend that matched up two teams above .500.
This dead time, more suitable to the opening days of college football than the start of baseball's pennant chase, serves as a reminder that drama cannot be scripted, that no matter how you structure a league, a playoff system, a schedule, you're not guaranteed anything. A look at the weekend's slate reveals matchups that were supposed to be high-octane, such as that battle of hosiery, or the Twins/Indians series that could well have been for AL Central supremacy, or the Cubs/Mets series that, five months ago, would have looked like a battle for the title of best team in the NL. The Phillies and Astros have played a number of dramatic, season-relevant games in September over the past decade; this weekend's tilts lacked that edge.
Moving from two post-season teams per league to four in 1994 was less about creating pennant races and more about creating a third tier of playoff games to sell to television. As it turned out, while the Division Series created some memorable moments, it wasn't terribly attractive as a television property. We had the broadcasts regionalized for a couple of seasons, then shunted to secondary and tertiary cable networks for a few years thereafter. The opening round has found its level now, and is likely a permanent part of the baseball landscape.
The effect on the regular season has been a mixed bag. In theory, lowering the threshold for a post-season berth by allowing four teams in instead of two, should put more teams in the chase for those spots. Records in a league are distributed normally over time, so as you get closer to the middle of the pack, you have more teams clustered around the cut line. We have seen that in a lot of seasons, especially in recent NL campaigns, where the league's lowered level of competition has yielded a clutch of teams playing .540 or so baseball, all with a viable shot at their league's wild card and/or the championship of their division deep into September. These races have been entertaining, certainly exciting for fans of the teams involved, and if the impact of attendance and ratings isn't quite as significant as hoped, it still makes for an interesting stretch drive.
But what we're seeing this season is also a possibility. I'm not comparing the 2009 races to a fictional world in which we have just two divisions in each league and four playoff teams; that's not the point. The point is that the quality of races in a league that plays 162 games isn't something you can determine just by setting a structure. The distribution of wins is determined on the field, and sometimes, things just fall a certain way. The best teams play better than expected, the next tier down falls off a bit, and you get the following (from the PECOTA-adjusted Playoff Odds Report):
Team Playoff Chance Yankees 99.9% Cardinals 99.8% Dodgers 98.0% Phillies 96.3% Red Sox 90.0% Angels 89.6% Tigers 82.1% Rockies 66.7% Giants 26.5% Everyone Else ~52.0%
Four teams have basically clinched, and seven have at least a four-in-five chance to advance. The single race of note is the National League's wild-card battle, and even in that, the Rockies have established themselves as a substantial favorite. The eight teams in playoff position today, with four weeks and a day to go, are a favorite to be the eight teams in playoff position on October 4. That hasn't been the case in some time, and it heralds a fairly dull month of baseball.
(This may be ungenerous to the Rangers at 18.6%, yet only two games behind the Red Sox with 27 to play, but the PECOTA-adjusted standings are picking up on the true margin between the teams, as well as adjusting for the gap in the two teams' third-order records. We will see if the Rangers' terrific defense can keep pushing them towards a playoff berth in October.)
It's just math. When you play 162 games, there's a chance that the "gaps" will fall in just the right spots to create a lack of races. That's happened this season, where the closest second-place teams find themselves 4½ games behind the leaders, and just two teams are within 3½ games of the wild-card leaders, one in each circuit. The clusters this year are high-five teams between .597 and .578, safely in the postseason, then below the wild-card line-six teams from .515 to .481-and lower still: seven from .459 to .437. These figures aren't "random," but they are certainly not predictable.
Think about the NFL. Teams in that league play 16 games a season, and there's only so much separation you're going to get in that time. When you get to this spot in an NFL season, with about 15 percent of the year to go, you find that almost everyone is a two-game winning streak from glory. Or looking at it from another angle, any 16-game slice of the MLB season would put a different set of teams into the playoffs. Over the longer season, you get greater separation, and in 2009, that separation hasn't produced high-quality races.
This doesn't make football better than baseball. It doesn't even make the 1969-1993 structure better than the current one-the argument for that is the potential for elimination races between truly great teams. No, the lesson here is that there's only so much planning you can do; sometimes, the vagaries of wins and losses, good teams and bad, and in-season storylines conspire, and they leave baseball fans cold. That's what we might be in for this month; the Rockies and Giants, and perhaps the Rangers, and the tiny chance that a division leader will stumble or that a second-place team will go 2007 Rockies or 2007 Phillies on the league.
I wrote last year that "September is a gift." I stand by that, but I suppose I should have acknowledged the chance that sometimes it's tube socks.