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August 30, 2013

Overthinking It

Baseball's Year Without Suspense

by Ben Lindbergh

This will be painful for some of you, but cast your mind back, if you can, to the baseball standings as they looked a year ago today. Behold: a wondrous world where the White Sox are in first place, the Giants are 16 games over .500, the Nationals are the best team in baseball, and the Orioles are a half-game up on the Rays for the second AL Wild Card spot (like that will last). The names of some of the teams at the top look strange, in light of what’s transpired this season, but I spy something even stranger: pennant races. Pennant races, as far as the eye can see.

On the morning of August 30, 2012, five of the six divisions had separations of five games or fewer between first and second place. Only in the NL Central, where the Reds had an eight-game lead over St. Louis and a nine-game cushion over the collapsing Pirates, was the division title all but awarded. According to our Playoff Odds Report for that day, there were four teams with playoff percentages of over 95 percent: the Reds, the Nats, the Rangers, and the Yankees. But there were a few tiers of lesser, but still strong contenders below that: the Braves and White Sox (oops) over 80 percent; the Cardinals, at just over 60 percent; the Tigers, Rays, and A’s between 50 and 60; the Angels, Pirates, and Dodgers clustered right around 30. And the odds weren’t buying the run differential-defying Orioles, whom PECOTA gave a 20 percent chance to claim the Wild Card they eventually won. In other words, there was an awful lot still at stake.

Now check out today’s standings, a sad spectacle presented by the Ghost of Pennant Race Present. Only three divisions have first-second gaps of five games or fewer, and in the three that do, the trailer is in line for a Wild Card slot, not at risk of being cut out of October altogether (which also means that we can’t construct a truly chaotic tiebreak scenario). According to today’s Playoff Odds Reports, eight teams have playoff percentages over 95 percent, with the Rays just a smidge under 90 and the A’s in the mid-80s. Outside of those top 10, every team except the Indians (17.2) and Orioles (13.7) is in single digits. It’s not even September, and already almost every team can be classified as either a lock or a loser. Talk about the decline of the middle class.

We can quantify the amount of uncertainty about playoff teams this year compared to the same point last season by simulating the rest of the schedule thousands of times and looking at how often each playoff alignment occurs. We did that, and we found that the odds that at least one team in line for a playoff spot at this time in 2012 would miss the playoffs were 90.4 percent. It was extremely likely that a frontrunner would settle for also-ran status in September, and one did when the White Sox watched the Tigers blow by them on September 26th.

We did the same thing for this season, and the chances of one of the current playoff frontrunners finishing out of the money are only 40.8 percent. If you can subtract from 100, you know what that means: there’s a 59.2 percent chance that none of them will. It’s much more likely than not that every team that would make the playoffs if the season ended today will make the playoffs when it’s actually over.

Now, there's no need to panic about competitive balance or make a drastic change to the system, because there probably isn't any underlying, lasting significance to this single-season decrease in uncertainty. Nothing about the current structure suggests that pennant races are a thing of the past—after all, we had plenty of excitement last season with the same arrangement. And as Colin Wyers showed two years ago, the addition of the second Wild Card has little effect on end-of-season uncertainty. There are more playoff teams now, but at least theoretically, no more or less suspense at the end of the season about which teams will make it. As Sam Miller just said to me, you could make things much more interesting with a slight redistribution of wins. Take four wins away from the Pirates and divide them equally between the Orioles and Indians, and baby, you’ve got a stew going.

That said, we’re stuck with this situation for now. So why watch? Well, because baseball is fun, for one thing, but that might not be enough incentive for the casual fan who doesn’t enjoy it as much as you do. The better reason is that the competitive landscape isn’t quite as lifeless as I’ve made it sound so far. Looking at playoff percentage alone omits a big part of the picture. The second Wild Card makes winning division titles much more important, which is why we include a Playoff Pct (Adj) column on the Odds Report that displays each team’s probability of reaching the Division Series. There are three divisions in which first place is up for grabs, and while those races aren’t do-or-die, they are do-or-become-twice-as-likely-to-die. It’s worth tuning in to see whether the Cardinals, Red Sox, and Rangers can protect their slim leads.

Still, you have to wonder whether the lack of truly riveting races will have an impact on September attendance. Unless the Nationals can sustain their recent hot streak, the Pirates suffer an even more agonizing end to their season than they have in each of the last two years, or one of the long shot Wild Card contenders goes on a Los Angeles-like run, we’re in for a lot of low-stakes action over the next four weeks.

Thanks to Colin Wyers for research assistance.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Playoff Odds,  Standings,  Pennant Races

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