20 September 2007

Yankees Only 1.5 Back…Who Cares?

There are probably things less important than whether or not the Yankees manage to wrest first place in the AL East from the clutches of the Boston Red Sox, but right now, I can't think of any.

I predicted back in June that there was no way this could happen, and though I wouldn't mind being proven wrong (it was bound to happen sooner or later) I stil don't expect it.

Don't get me wrong. As a Yankee fan, I would certainly like to see the Yankees continue their impressive streak of Division Titles. This would make ten in a row, if they can pull it off. The Atlanta Braves supposedly have a MLB record 14 in a row, from 1991 to 2005, but in reality, it's only 11 in a row, as they were decidedly not leading anything when the strike hit in 1994. MLB curiously did not name division winners for that year, even though all the other awards, batting and ERA titles, Cy Young and MVPs, etc., were named. Probably because if they had, Atlanta would not be on the list. However, that, and the chance to somehow demoralize the Arch Rival Bostons once again, are about the only reason that this division race is of any interest at all.

And why is that?

Because it really doesn't matter.

The Yankees and the Red Sox will both get into the playoffs, somehow or another. Barring some kind of historical collapse by the Yankees, Red Sox, Anaheim Angels of LAnahfornia, or the Cleveland Indians of Cleveland, there is no way that the four teams currently leaidng the AL divisional and Wild Card races will not all be in the playoffs this year. The reigning AL Champion Detroit Tigers are 7.5 games behind Cleveland and 5.5 games behind New York, so they've got a tough road ahead to catch anybody. The Seattle Mariners, just one game out in the Wild Card race when they beat the Yankees back on Labor Day, are now 6.5 games behind the Bronx Bombers, and 8.5 back in the AL West. In addition, eight of their remaining 11 games are against Cleveland and LAnahfornia, so they're not going to make it either.

Which leaves the Yankees, Sawx, Tribe and Halos.

"But wait," you say, "isn't there some kind of advantage to winning your division?"


There have been 12 World Series played since the onset of the three-division, Wild Card System. With eight teams in the playoffs each year, the odds of winning a Championship should be roughly one-in-eight, if you assume that winning has more to do with luck than skill, once you get into the playoffs (and after the patently mediocre, 83-78 St. Louis Cardinals managed to win it all last year, how can we assume anything else?).

Wild Card teams have made up eight of the 24 teams to play in the Series, including at least one each of the last five years running, and have actually won the Series in 1997, 2002, 2003 and 2004. That's 4-for-12, or 33%, almost three times the natural odds. So it would seem that there's no particular disadvantage to going into the playoffs as the Wild Card. If anything, there's a notable advantage to it, though it would have to be admitted that 12 years is a pretty small sample size.

So, if anything, the Yankees should hope not to win the division. Think about it: Four of the last 12 world championships have been won by Wild Card teams, and four of them have been won by the Yankees. If the Yanks falter a bit, and let Boston keep the division title, they would then be BOTH the Yankees and the Wild Card! That gives them something like a 67% chance of winning it all, right?

Maybe not.

Either way, all this made up melodrama about whether or not the Red Sox will cough up the division seems pretty pointless, especially when there are legitimate races for every single division AND the Wild Card over in the NL. San Diego is only one game behind Arizona in the NL West division, and leads the Wild Card by just 2.5 over the Phillies, whoe are just as close to the Mets in the East. In the central, The Cubs lead by a mere game over the Brewers. That's six teams within striking distance of only four playoff spots. Something's gotta give.

Incidentally, for you Rockies fans who think you can still make up that 4.5 game spread in the Wild Card race...think again. All 10 of your remaining games come against division rivals with winning records (LA, San Diego, and Arizona), and six of those 10 are on the road, where the Rox are 33-42. Not gonna happen.

The Cubs remaining games all come against the soft underbelly of the National League, the Pirates, Marlins and Reds, while the Brew Crew must play Atlanta and San Diego, in addition to St. Louis, who are not completely awful, so the Cubs should hold onto that division. Then again, these are the Cubs.

The Padres have a lot of road games left, where they haven't been great, but they should be able to handle San Francisco (especially if Barry doesn't make it back), Colorado and Milwaukee. Arizona's got the Dodgers, Bucs and Rockies, and their record is almost entirely due to how well they've played in 1-run games (32-18) which has a way of being kind of fickle. Their luck could change at any moment. Don't be too surprised if the Padres take the division from them and they miss the playoffs, with Philly picking up the Wild Card.

Seven of the Phils' remaining 10 games come against the Nationals, and while they don't look like they've got the pitching to get into the playoffs, the Nats don't have the pitching (or offense) to stop them either. They're not likely to catch the Mets though, as New York has no games left against teams that don't suck. They've got 7 left against last-place Florida, with the worst record in the Senior Circuit. They've also got three against Washington and a makeup game against the Cardinals, who, while they don't really suck, are not particularly good either. The Mets also play their last seven games at home, which should help.

So there you have it: If you want to get excited about the pennant races, the National League is the place to look. As for the Junior Circuit? That race was over a week ago, and only an unprecedented collapse by one or more teams will make it any different.

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