In Good Standingsby Dave Studeman
August 02, 2005
This has been one crazy year. In a July 25 ESPN Insider article, ESPN baseball analyst Rob Neyer talked about the number of teams that remain in contention for a postseason berth this year:
At dawn this morning, there are 21 teams within five games of either first place or the wild card. Yes, five games is an arbitrary standard--and just leaves out the Dodgers, who are five-and-a-half games behind the Padres--but hey, one has to draw the line somewhere. And 21 teams are a lot. Last July 25, there were 18 teams within five games of first place in one standing or another … and that was a lot.
From 1996 through 2003, the number of "contenders" on the morning of July 25 was amazingly stable from season to season.1996 -- 16 1997 -- 15 1998 -- 13 1999 -- 14 2000 -- 15 2001 -- 13 2002 -- 13 2003 -- 14
So in all those seasons, roughly half the teams in the majors were close enough on July 25 to think, without drifting into Fantasyland, about postseason glory. But last year it was 60 percent, and this year it's 70 percent.
70 percent of teams are in contention for a playoff spot! Between the six divisions, we're seeing combacks, fades, competition both stellar and terrible. Here are some of the highlights ...
I can't help it. When I look at the divisional standings graph for the American League West, I think of a certain Steven Spielberg movie:
Like an angry shark climbing from the depths of the ocean, the Oakland A's have been surging to the top, and they now have the Angels in their sights. THT writer Aaron Gleeman already did a nice job of deconstructing the Athletics' surge, but it's worth mentioning that there are very few historical precendents for this remarkable run.
Here's a graph of the greatest "miracle" in baseball history, the worst-to-first surge of the 1914 Boston Braves:
The Boston Braves, led by starting pitcher Bill James (36 Win Shares and a 1.90 ERA), among others, leapt from last to first in 37 days starting July 16, and proceeded to sweep the mighty A's (then stationed in Philadelphia) in the World Series. This year's A's can't top that—they were last in last place on June 24, 38 days ago and they only have to pass three teams instead of seven. But if no one stops this juggernaut, it will be one of the greatest bottom-to-top surges ever.
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays are to the American League East what the St. Louis Cardinals are to the National League Central. Only in reverse.
When we analyzed Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique in my Symphony class in college, the professor insisted that we pronounce it correctly, instead of "Fantastic Symphony" or something like that. A little later, when we analyzed Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony, he said "now you know why I insisted on correct pronunciation." I was reminded of this story while scanning the National League West:
According to Frank Vaccaro, of the SABR-L mailing list, the NL West is close to setting a record for the worst division ever. Here is Frank's list of divisions in which all teams were over or under .500, late in the season. The percentages on the left indicate the percent of the schedule that had been played at that particular point in the season.
ENTIRE DIVISION OVER .500 Date, last place team and record shown, AM standings. 93.2% 1991 9/25 CAL 76-75 AL West 77.1% 1986 8/28 MIL 63-62 AL East 63.6% 2005 7/30 NYN 52-51 NL East 53.7% 1974 7/14 NYA, DET 44-43 AL East 52.0% 1981 9/7 TOR 13-12 AL East (2nd half) 46.2% 1996 6/23 SD 38-37 NL West 38.1% 1995 6/24 SF 28-27 NL West 36.4% 2000 6/10 TEX 30-29 AL West 30.2% 2001 5/27 COL, SF 25-24 NL West 27.7% 2004 5/31 PIT 23-22 NL Central ENTIRE DIVISION UNDER .500 Date, first place team and record shown, AM standings. 70.3% 1994 8/12 TEX 52-62 AL West (strike occurred) 66.0% 1994 8/4 LAN 53-54 NL West 64.1% 2005 7/31 SD 51-53 NL West 56.1% 1997 7/13 HOU 45-46 NL Central 51.9% 1981 9/7 KC 13-14 AL West (2nd half) 47.5% 1996 6/24 HOU 38-39 NL Central 26.5% 1989 5/24 CLE 21-22 AL East 19.1% 1973 5/17 MIL 15-16 AL East 9.2% 1999 4/22 TEX 7-8 AL West
In a nutshell, the NL West is eleven days away from a new record of being truly pathetique.
It doesn't make it any easier for Nationals fans, but we all knew this was going to happen, right?
Don't forget that all of these graphs are available and updated daily in our THT Teams section.
References and Resources
The Boston Braves data is courtesy of Retrosheet, the most authoritative source of baseball statistics anywhere!
Thanks to Frank Vaccaro for permission to post his analysis from the SABR-L mailing list.
Dave was called a "national treasure" by Rob Neyer. Seriously. Comments about this article can be sent to him through the miracle of e-mail.