The Division races are boring, but that’s OK

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Yesterday we talked about the possibility of the NL Wild Card race ending up in a three-way tie when the season ends. It probably won’t, but it could, and that’s exciting! Last night ESPN’s Jayson Stark doubled up on that madness and talked about the possibility of a six-way tie in the AL Wild Card. Even more unlikely, but again, excitement!

The obvious reason we’re focusing on these implausible scenarios? There’s nothing else to really get excited about when it comes to this year’s pennant races.

As we woke up this morning, here are your division leaders with the number of games by which they lead:

  • AL EAST: Red Sox: 5.5
  • AL CENTRL: Indians: 7
  • AL WEST: Rangers: 9
  • NL EAST: Nationals: 8.5
  • NL CENTRAL Cubs: 17
  • NL WEST: Dodgers: 6

The AL East had been entertaining until recently, but the Sox’ recent winning streak put an end to that drama. The NL West had some potential to be a race if the Giants had decided to wake up but they’ve decided to stay asleep until September ends, it seems. The Cubs, of course, have already clinched. All of these races are over and most of them have been over for some time. Which kind of stinks. Playoff drama is good and playoff drama between good teams is even better, and all we have now is drama between the 4th through 7th or 8th teams in each league.

But it’s also the case that division races are often sort of anti-climatic. As Jay Jaffe at Sports Illustrated noted a week ago, in the three-division era, this year’s average spread between first and second place is a bit large, but (a) it’s buoyed in large part by the Cubs’ large lead; and (b) isn’t THAT much larger than many years in the past.

I’ll go further and note that, back when we only had two divisions and no Wild Card, close division races weren’t terribly common either. Indeed, during the four division era — 1969 through 1993, taking out 1981 because the playoff qualifying rules were messed up by the strike — the average division-winning margin was 6.37 games. Sure, we remember the 1993 NL West race between the Braves and Giants and the 1987 AL East race between the Tigers and Blue Jays because they were great. But they were also exceptions, not the rule. Don’t even get me started about the pre-divsional era, when a lot of pennant races were effectively over before September even began thanks to dynasties and the lack of free agency and many teams simply mailing it in for years at a time.

So, no, we’re not going to get a ton of drama in the last week of the season as far as division races are concerned. But we should be thankful for the Wild Card being around to give us something.