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September 16, 2009

Prospectus Today

Pointlessness

by Joe Sheehan

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This week at BP, we've been looking at the teams that have played their way out of contention, kissing the Rays and Cubs goodbye so far. As I wrote last week, we have a dearth of races, and the situation has only gotten worse since that piece. As of this morning, six teams have at least a 96 percent chance of reaching the postseason, and two others are at 76 percent or higher. The Rockies and Tigers are the laggards, and given how the AL Central runners-up have played-and Justin Morneau's decision to shut it down for the year-our only hope for anything interesting over the last two weeks is in the hands of the Giants, who took the first of three games from the Rox last night.

The disappointing thing about this season is just how many teams failed to take advantage of opportunities. If you flash back to the All-Star break, you find nine AL teams within four games of a playoff spot. In the NL, there were nine teams within that margin as well. A couple of others, like the Braves, Mets and Reds, were just outside the line of contention. It looked like we would have exciting, competitive races down the stretch, and what we've ended up with is something out of the NBA, or the 1950s, and that's become incredibly unusual in baseball.

Take the 18 teams inside the line as of July 12. In the AL, only the Rangers made any kind of challenge to the four teams that had playoff spots on that day. The Rays have fallen apart, going 25-31. The Mariners, four games in back of the Angels at the break, have played .500 ball in the second half and drifted away. The AL Central challengers have been particularly disappointing, neither team even able to play breakeven ball (Twins: 28-28; White Sox: 27-30) and put pressure on a Tigers team that has barely been over that mark itself (29-28). Yes, the Yankees and Angels have played very well-the Yankees actually chasing down records for second-half performance-but it's the inability of the middle tier of AL teams to put any kind of run together that has given us this September. The Red Sox have won five of every nine games in the second half, and while they've ceded the AL East to the Yankees, they rest comfortably above the Rangers for the AL wild card. The Rangers, at 32-25, are the only non-playoff team above .500 in the AL in the second half.

The NL middle class has been disappointing as well, though the problem there is that no team was able to put together two good halves. You might be surprised to know that the Braves have played .589 ball since the break-fourth in the NL-behind their superb starting rotation. Unfortunately, the two teams they need to catch, the Rockies (35-23, .603) and Phillies (35-22, .614), have been just a little bit better, causing them to lose ground in the races. If you rated teams solely by their projected performance in October, the Braves would have a case for a postseason berth. A first half spent punting the fifth starter's slot and the minor position of "outfield" was too much to overcome.

The Cubs have actually been all right in the second half, with a 32-25 mark that equates to a 90-win pace. For all the talk about how disappointing the Cubs have been, they're going to win 85-87 games or so, and most NL Central projections had the division being won with about that many victories. The perception of the Cubs' failures has more to do with the Cardinals heading for 97 wins, an unexpected occurrence. The Cardinals' ridiculous second-half run, now 36-19, is one reason why the NL Central teams that were hanging around at the All-Star break have uniformly failed. The Astros are 26-31, the Brewers 24-32, and the Reds 24-34. The division that usually yielded multiple wild-card contenders gave us zero this time around, and that's the biggest reason why the NL race is as limited as it is. Even the Giants, the only real contender left, are 30-27 in the second half, largely because only the Pirates have scored fewer runs than they have.

No team has made a charge-like the Twins in 2008, the Phillies and Rockies in 2007, or the Indians in 2005-to add drama to our campaign. It's just an unusual season. The very best teams played extremely well, and very few other teams did. I don't know that there's an analytical point to be made here, other than to underline the point that you can't script September. You can add a wild-card team, change the league financial structure to penalize success, or funnel hundreds of million dollars to half the franchises, but sometimes things just don't work out, and you don't get a race. This is really the first time it's been this way-maybe 1996 is the other example in the three-division era-and that may be the best argument of all for the modern format.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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