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September 12, 2013

Skewed Left

Three Narratives About the NL Central's Crowded Playoff Picture

by Zachary Levine

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At the start of the season, we had a simple narrative to explain how three teams from the same division might make the postseason in 2013.

The Angels would avoid the terrible start that left one of the best teams in baseball out of the playoffs last year, bulk up with Josh Hamilton, and join the Athletics and Rangers in the postseason. Of course, they would get plenty of help from the addition of the Astros and their 19 easy matchups to the division, and the continued haplessness of the Mariners, too.

Of course, that didn’t happen. But with 2 ½ weeks to go in the season, it looks close to a sure thing that the division that the Astros vacated will be the first in baseball history (or the two years in which it’s been possible) to get three playoff teams. The Cardinals and Pirates are comfortably clear, while even the third-place Reds have a six-game lead on the technically still pursuing Nationals with 15 to play.

According to Colin Wyers, 98.4 percent of the simulations used to compute BP’s playoff odds on Wednesday ended with the Cardinals, Pirates, and Reds all in playoff position. (That percentage almost surely would have gone up with Wednesday’s results.)

The Astros have indeed been awful and have indeed helped contribute to some of the separation in the AL West. The first-place Athletics have gone 14-5 against the Astros, while the Rangers have gone 14-2 despite a season-opening loss. The Angels failed to live up to their portion of the bargain in part because of their performance against the Astros. They were swept in a four-game series at home in late May/early June and overall have gone 7-9 against Houston with three meaningless games to play.

The Reds will be the last of the NL Central teams to see their old friends in interleague, which should help them push even closer to a clincher and a dismissal of the Astros portion of the narrative. But with that one gone, let’s look at some other narratives that could be in play as soon as the NL Central makes the first playoff-bound trio from the same division official.

Potential Narrative 1: The NL Central has become the best division in baseball.
Yeah, so stop talking about the AL East so much. All we heard about going into the season was how good the AL East was. Now Toronto’s a disaster, the Yankees are a contract graveyard, and the Rays are freefalling while the Indians have the schedule to make a run and the Royals are rolling.

So how about we get off the usual media darlings for a minute and give a little credit to the best division in baseball, which is…

Still the AL East. And it’s not really all that close.

By total games over .500 (stats as of Wednesday)

AL East: +52
NL Central: +25

AL Central: -7
NL West: -12
NL East: -28
AL West: -30

Focusing on run differential makes the NL Central look a little better, since the two losing teams (particularly the Cubs) haven’t been outscored by as much as their records would suggest.

AL East: +201
NL Central: +175

AL Central: +54
NL West: -116
AL West: -151
NL East: -163

However, the fact that the American League is still the superior circuit—15 wins better than the NLin interleague play—only exacerbates that lead in both areas.

The NL Central will presumably get three teams in, and the AL East might end up with only one, but don’t let anybody talk you into believing that the former is the best division out there.

Potential Narrative 2: You don’t need a terrible team in your division to do it.
The 2013 NL Central not only doesn’t have the Astros anymore, but it doesn’t have any of the three teams that have separated themselves as the worst teams in baseball—the Astros, the Marlins, and the White Sox—which could make this being the division to have three playoff teams a bit surprising.

But it turns out that the impact of having one awful team to beat up on is a little bit overblown.

Eight times under the current unbalanced schedule format (more on that later) there would have been two wild cards from the same division had the extra wild card been in place. In none of those cases did that division also include the worst team in its own league.

You could say “Yeah, but the NL Central has two bad teams to beat up on.” In reality, though, among the six two-team pairs at the bottoms of divisions, the Cubs-Brewers pair has the third-best record.

This narrative is definitely one to go on. While the presence of one awful team might help a division get three teams into October, it’s hardly a requirement, and not something we should keep focusing on as we did with the Astros.

Narrative 3: Even with the unbalanced schedule, this isn’t actually that hard to do.
Four years after the birth of the East-Central-West format and two years after the first non-strike season played with that format, the 1998 New York Yankees set an American League record with 114 victories. Had the current playoff structure with the second wild card existed then, the AL East would have received three playoff spots despite the Yankees winning more than 70 percent of their games, with the Red Sox winning 92 and the Blue Jays winning 88.

That was different, though, because the schedule was more balanced. That trio still played AL East teams more times than teams from the other divisions, but the gap was much closer at 12 to an average of 10.9.

The unbalanced schedule came along in 2001, which intuitively should have reduced the likelihood of this scenario happening, since one good team can now bring down the rest of the division with so many head-to-head games.

Yet here are all the years since then in which three teams would have made the playoffs from the same division. It’s a phenomenon that would have occurred in one league or the other in each of the final six seasons under the old single-wild-card format.

2002 NL West (Diamondbacks, Giants, Dodgers)
2002 AL West (Athletics, Angels, Mariners in a playoff with Red Sox)
2006 AL Central (Twins, Tigers, White Sox)
2007 NL West (Diamondbacks, Rockies, Padres)
2008 AL East (Rays, Red Sox, Yankees)
2009 NL West (Dodgers, Rockies, Giants)
2010 AL East (Rays, Yankees, Red Sox)
2011 AL East (Yankees, Rays, Red Sox)

Over a 12-year period from 2001 until the third team was actually allowed, there would have been seven sure things and one more shot at getting this wild card playoff game to be a division matchup.

Despite playing 19 games against each of your divisional opponents, the effect of “beating each other up” in the standings that we always hear about tough divisions appears as well to be exaggerated. It’s cool to be surprised in isolation by the fact that the Pirates have made it this far—I sure was—or that the Cardinals continue to do it year after year with so many previously unproven players. But don’t be surprised that the division can hog playoff teams like this. It doesn’t really take all that much.

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

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