Sunday, August 4, 2013


No truth to the rumor that the remains of "Cactus Jack" Garner
are buried under the remnants of this ramshackle "debating hall,"
but many Hall of Fame "discussions" now originate from this location...
The facts are incontrovertible.

The more divisions MLB creates, the fewer interesting races occur within those divisions.

Is the trade-off--surrogate races for what might prove to be an ever-increasing number of wild-card slots--worth anything more than a bucket full of John Nance Garner Joy Juice?

Many may think so, but (as usual) we look for something different, something more akin to a Platonic ideal--a scenario where not only wild-card races are closely contentious, but each division as well.

But the problem is stated in our second paragraph (which is also our second sentence, as we practice being as pithy as "Cactus Jack," who lived to the ripe but prickly age of 98 by down a bucket full of his notorious libation on a bi-weekly basis...we can only be thankful that Jack Morris wasn't blessed with the same nickname, else he'd already be in Cooperstown by now).

OK, not so pithy. (We'll leave that to some of our swell friends and acquaintances over the years.) But the chances of a division race containing an interesting race (see below for our definition...) is, over the course of the twenty years in which the three-division set-up has been in place, a ten percent scenario.

There have been 120 division races since the advent of three divisions. Over those seasonal races (20 x 3 x 2), there have been a total of 12 that have had three teams within five games or fewer of the division crown at season's end.

The chart at left lists all of the "games behind" data for third-place teams in all 120 division races (including the current status of those divisional races in 2013). As you'll see, in only three seasons (1994, 2007, and 2012) have we had two divisional races where the third-place team is within five games or fewer of first place.

This has occurred most often in the AL West (including two times in a row at the very beginning of three-divisional play, but the 1994 data is tainted both by the strike of that year and the fact that none of these teams was managing to play .500 ball at the point in which the season had its plug pulled).

But when we expand our list to count the number of times that the third-place team has finished ten or fewer games out of first, we see that the AL West is not quite so closely-fought. They have only five such occurrences, tied for lowest with the NL East.

Of course, there's no rhyme or reason (not to mention warp or woof) in these figures as they break out by division. As you can see, the "10-" row at the bottom of the chart shows that third-place teams finish within ten games of the division leader only a bit more than a third of the time.

In the current year (2013), we have three divisional races (the AL East, where the O's are trying to stay in the hunt; the AL Central, where the surging Royals are trying to gain ground on the Tigers and Indians, who've been equally hot; and the NL Central, where the Reds are scuffling to stay within striking distance of the Pirates and the Cardinals) that have a chance to crack into the "close divisional race" scenario.

One question you may be asking yourself--did conventional pennant races produce a higher percentage of outcomes where third-place teams were within five or few games of first place than has been the case in our current three-division set-up?

The answer: conventional pennant races did indeed do so. They did it at nearly twice the rate of frequency. Not counting the two incredibly tight pennant races that occurred in the two years that the
Federal League operated (1914-15), conventional pennant races (1901-1968) produced third-place teams within five games of the lead in 26 instances, or 19% of the time. 15 occurred in the National League, 11 in the American League.