Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Hope Springs Eternal, Even When It Probably Shouldn't

Before the season started, both Baseball Prospectus and ESPN predicted this order of finish in the American League East:
1. Tampa Bay
2. Boston
3. New York
4. Toronto
5. Baltimore

Here are the standings, as of this morning:
1. Baltimore
2. Toronto
    New York
4. Boston
5. Tampa Bay

(Technically, New York's ahead of Toronto on percentage points, but they're both four games out of first.)

I'm not picking on BP or ESPN, I'm just showing that the AL East has been a wild division this year. Generally considered the best division in baseball entering the season, its first place team has the worst record of the six divisional leaders, and all of the teams have glaring flaws.

Those flaws, it would seem, create an opportunity for the two worst teams in the division, Boston and Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay's won five in a row and are 16-5 over their last 21 games. The Red Sox are also on a five-game winning streak and have won nine of their last ten. The Rays are 47-53, eight games behind the Orioles. The Red Sox are 47-52, 7.5 games out. The two teams were generally thought to be the best in the division before the season. Is there time for the cream to rise?

Probably not. We're at about the 100 game mark for the 2014 season. I looked for teams with records below .500 after 100 games that also made the playoffs. It's an awfully short list:
  • The 1973 New York Mets are the only team to make the postseason with a record worse than Boston's and Tampa Bay's. They were 44-56 after 100 games, then rallied to win a weak NL Eastern division with an 82-79 record. They were the only team above .500. They beat the Reds 3-2 in the NLCS and fell to Oakland in a tight World Series, 4 games to 3.
  • A year later, the Pittsburgh Pirates were 48-52 after 100 games. They won the NL East with an 88-74 record but fell to the Dodgers in the NLCS, 3-1.
  • The 1981 Kansas City Royals were 49-51 after 100 games and made the playoffs but it doesn't count, because 1981 was a strike-shortened season (Kansas City played only 103 games) and baseball employed a split-season method to determine the playoffs. The Royals made the postseason on the strength of a 30-23 record in the second half of the season.
  • Three years later, the Royals were 48-52 after 100 games but won the AL West with an 84-78 record. They were swept in the ALCS by the eventual world champion Detroit Tigers.
  • The next team to make the postseason despite a losing record after 100 games was the 2003 Minnesota Twins, who were 49-51. They went on a 41-21 tear the rest of the way to win the AL Central by four games, but were bounced out of the playoffs by the New York Yankees, 3-1.
  • The 2006 Los Angeles Dodgers had the same record as the Rays after 100 games, 47-53. They ended the year 88-74, the same record as the San Diego Padres and the best in the NL West. The Padres won the season series, nine games to five, so they were the division champions. The Dodgers were the wild card team, and the New York Mets swept them in three games in the Divisional Series.
  • Finally, the 2008 Dodgers, 49-51 after 100, won the NL West with an 84-78 record. They swept the Chicago Cubs in the divisional series and lost to the eventual world champion Philadelphia Phillies in the NLCS, four games to one.
Before the leagues split into divisions, no team with a losing record over the first 100 games made the postseason, which then was only the World Series. In the 45 years since, only six teams below .500 have made the playoffs. Of them, two lost in the Divisional Series, three lost their league's Championship Series, and only one--the 1973 Mets--made the World Series, which they lost. 

This isn't to say that Boston or Tampa Bay can't rally and win everything. If they make the postseason, it'll be against extremely long odds, and if they win the World Series, it'll be unprecedented. I'd be thinking of next year were I they.

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