Monday, August 17, 2009

Pennant Sniffles

As of the end of play on August 15, 2009, this many games separated the leader from the #2 team in the divisions/wildcard race:

AL East: 7.5
AL Central: 2.5
AL West: 4.5
AL Wildcard: 0.5

NL East: 4.0
NL Central: 4.5
NL West: 4.5
NL Wildcard: 1.0

Only one of the races is essentially over (thuh-uh-uh-uh-uh Yankees win the East), but none of them are particularly close, either. I think the odds are very good that the teams in playoff positions as of August 15 (Yanks, Tigers, Angels, Red Sox, Phillies, Cardinals, Dodgers, Rockies) are the same eight teams that make the playoffs. Maybe swap in the Rays and Giants for Sox and Rox, but it's hard to see a lot of movement outside of that.

And it seemed to me that that is unusual. Isn't there usually at least one really great (non-wildcard) race going on right about now?

Well, I decided to check. The average distance between the first and second place teams (not counting the wildcard here) is 4.6, the median is 4.5, and the closest single race is 2.5. How does that compare with the rest of the last ten seasons? Average/median/closest on August 15:

2009: 4.6/4.5/2.5
2008: 4.3/2.25/0
2007: 2.67/3.0/0
2006: 5.67/4.5/2.5
2005: 5.92/4.25/2
2004: 6.83/8.5/2
2003: 5.5/4.5/0.5
2002: 8.58/7/1.5
2001: 5.33/2.75/1
2000: 4.33/4.5/1

Averages: 5.37/4.58/1.3

I think what's leaving me with the impression that the races are less interesting than most (other than the fact that my Twins right now are worse than they've been through August 15 in any of those seasons) is that last column -- no division closer than 2.5 games. The two years before this one, we've had a tie on August 15 (the Dodgers and D'Backs in '08, Cleveland and the Tigers in '07), and 8 of the 9 seasons before this one had a team closer than 2.5.

On the other hand, the greatest difference between any division leader and the #2 is 7.5 games, which is what keeps the average and median from looking out of line. Normally by this time, at least one team would have a lead of 10 or 12 (or 14 or 19.5) games. The fact that nobody's totally running away with it yet is probably even more unusual than the fact that nobody's closer than two and a half.

So that's what it is about this year, I guess: there are no extremes. None of the races are all that close (even the wildcard race seems less wide-open than in years past), but none are complete embarrassments yet, either. Also, the races in 2007 and 2008 were unusually tight by this date, so if you're just thinking of the last year or two (as I probably was) you've been spoiled.

So of those last ten years (well, nine, since 2009 isn't done happening), how many of those August 15 leaders ended up in the playoffs?

2008: 7/8
2007: 5/8
2006: 6/8
2005: 8/8
2004: 6/8
2003: 5/8
2002: 6/8
2001: 5/8
2000: 8/8

No correlation, really, is there? 2000 was one of the closer years by my dumb little average/median/closest measure, and yet all the teams at the top of the standings stayed there (there wasn't even a division leader swapping places with a wildcard, as there were in some of the others). 2008 was probably the closest season, and yet the only ones to swap places were the Sox and Twins (and it took a 163rd game for that to happen).

So if all this tells you anything, it's that the standings right now don't really tell you much. Yet, I can't shake the feeling that there isn't all that much that's likely to change. I think the Rays might overtake the Red Sox for the wildcard, and I suppose it's possible that the White Sox make up the 2.5 games on the Tigers, but it just seems like the safe bet is everything staying the way it is. Maybe it's just that the teams that are in place right now seem like they're acutally the best teams. In 2003, the Royals(!) were leading the AL Central by 2 games on August 15, and I bet even they were pretty sure that wasn't gonna last. I don't see anything like that here; if you're leading your division right now, you really do look like the best team in that division.

But then, is it just dumb to call anything a "safe bet"? At this point in 2006, the Twins were .500 and 8.5 games behind the Tigers (and 6.5 behind the White Sox), but won the division. In 2007, the Rockies were 5 games back, falling to 6.5 before winning 14 of their last 15 games and the NL West. So maybe it's dumb to write anybody off (within reason; sorry Nats and Royals). But I just don't think all that much is going to change this year...I promise I'll make fun of this later when the Braves have gone 40-5 and coasted to the playoffs.


  1. On Aug 15, 2006, the Twins were at .585

  2.'re totally right, of course. I had slipped into 2007 (60-60). They were 8.5 games back, though (guess I must've just known that part by memory).
    Thanks for the catch.