Last Teams Standing
BY DEB SEYMOUR
“You can’t win a division in April, but you sure can lose one.”
I’ve heard this said many times over the years; but, as adages go, it’s actually a highly suspect one.
Mathematically, given how the standings look in most MLB divisions by the end of the baseball season, you’d have to lose just about every game in April to dig a hole so deep, you can’t dig your way out of it by season’s end.
In fact, one need look no further than last year’s Philadelphia Phillies to realize that a slow start doesn’t guarantee anything by October. The Phillies fired manager Joe Girardi after getting off to a 22-29 start, replaced him with interim manager Rob Thomson, and the team subsequently achieved sufficient wins to take them all the way to the World Series.
Conversely, last year’s New York Yankees’ first half was reminiscent of the season the team had experienced in 1998, the year they’d put up one of the best records by any major league team ever – and yet, though they ultimately won their division, it was a bumpy road in the second half; bumpy enough that it created an opportunity for a couple of other AL East teams to try to take the division from them.
Here’s a fairly recent (since 1995, the beginning of the Wild Card era) short list of teams that have posted unfortunate records through their first 25 games, and yet still went on to win their division:
9-16: 2015 Rangers (finished 88-74)
9-16: 2006 Twins (finished 96-66)
10-15: 2006 Padres (finished 88-74)
10-15: 2005 Yankees (finished 95-67)
In addition, seven division winners have started 11-14 since 1995.
Here’s the list (since 1995, Wild Card era) that covers the division winners with the worst records through their first 50 games:
22-28: 2013 Dodgers (finished 92-70)
22-28: 2012 Athletics (finished 94-68)
22-28: 2007 Cubs (finished 85-77)
22-28: 1996 Cardinals (finished 88-74)
23-27: 2022 Braves (finished 101-61)
23-27: 2018 Dodgers (finished 92-71)*
23-27: 2015 Blue Jays (finished 93-69)
23-27: 2012 Tigers (finished 88-74)*
23-27: 2006 Twins (finished 96-66)
23-27: 2006 Athletics (finished 93-69)
In addition, three division winners have started 24-26 since 1995.
Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera (24) is mobbed by teammates chanting ``MVP, MVP,`` as they celebrated in the clubhouse following their 6-3 win over the Kansas City Royals to clinch the Central Division Title on October 1, 2012, at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. (John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
There are many other pre-Wild Card era examples of last teams left standing whose early seasons were nothing to write home about; but the most impressive of all these was the 1973 Mets, who went 35-46 through their first 81 games and yet finished the season at 82-79, winning the NL East that year.
“No team in history has lost more regular-season games but gone on to win the pennant than this one, which benefited from a thoroughly mediocre NL East. The Yogi Berra-managed Mets went a combined 32-49 from May through July and were as many as 11 1/2 games out of first after getting swept in an Aug. 5 doubleheader. Urged on by Tug McGraw’s “You Gotta Believe” catchphrase, the Mets finished with a 34-19 kick while the rest of the division played sub-.500 ball. The Mets ultimately won the East by 1 1/2 games over the Cardinals and beat the Reds in the NLCS before stretching the A’s to Game 7 of the World Series” (Andrew Simon, October 24, 2022, MLB.com ~ see https://www.mlb.com/news/slowest-starts-by-teams-that-made-playoffs).
1973: Reliever Tug McGraw (L) and Ed Kranepool celebrate with champagne after Mets beat Reds 7-2, to clinch National League pennant.
So much for hand wringing in April, despite injuries and bad losses and challenges with adapting to any rule changes introduced by MLB.
It turns out, the adage “It’s a long season” plays a lot better than “You can’t win a division in April, but you sure can lose one.”
What will be interesting to watch this season, however, and perhaps result in different swings in the standings than the examples presented from previous Wild Card era seasons, is the impact of the balanced schedule.
Prior to the introduction in the 1990s of interleague play, a balanced schedule would basically have meant playing each team in your league (AL or NL) a roughly equal number of times throughout the season. But with interleague play, the goal of the balanced schedule is for each MLB team to play each other MLB team in at least one series this year – and that’s all 29 other teams.
Now, that’s not exactly what’s happening; but the MLB schedule makers (to give them credit) tried to get this season’s algorithm as to close to the “all 29 other teams” goal as possible.
Since 1995, not only were divisions realigned – and first one wild card team introduced, and then two – but interleague play was introduced, as well. These MLB decisions were related to one another at the time; and so was the decision to go to an unbalanced schedule in which each team played each other team in its own division 19 times throughout the season.
It meant a different kind of nightmare for the MLB schedule makers; but MLB wanted to make the wild card competitive, and the unbalanced schedule helped with that. The thinking was also that it would help make divisional rivalries deeper and more meaningful.
St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (46) digs the throw out of the dirt to get Milwaukee Brewers right fielder Hunter Renfroe (12) at first base in a game between the Milwaukee Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals on Sep 14, 2022, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis MO (Photo by Rick Ulreich/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Well, divisional rivalries always remain meaningful; and yet, now with the balanced schedule, we may see some different mathematical effects on the standings over the course of 162 games.
Essentially, what the balanced schedule entails is each team playing each of its divisional rivals, on average, two series fewer this year than during the years of the unbalanced schedule.
It’s not exactly the same for each divisional rivalry – some teams in the same division are playing each other only 10 games this year total, while others are playing each other up to 14 games total – but, on average, we’re looking at three-four series between intra-divisional rivals this season, instead of the usual six series between intra-divisional rivals we’d gotten used to in the Wild Card era.
So, how will all this impact the math of the final regular season standings this year?
Remember, as was the case with the unbalanced schedule, the series against your divisional opponents are still sprinkled into the schedule from the beginning of the season till the end (there just are fewer of them); and so it would seem highly unlikely that the “leveling of the playing field” that’s supposed to happen with a balanced schedule would be observable early in the season.
In fact, it’s highly unlikely we’ll see any valid observable effects before the All-Star break; or perhaps, even till the end of August.
But here are a few of the effects we might begin to see by September:
- Fewer eye-popping differences in the numbers of wins-losses between “tough divisions” versus others;
- Teams that have tended to always finish weakest over the past decade all of a sudden not looking as weak; and the converse
- Teams that have traditionally finished strongest over the past decade all of a sudden not looking as strong
Jack Suwinski #65, Ji Hwan Bae #3 and Connor Joe #2 of the Pittsburgh Pirates celebrate after a 2-0 win over the Cincinnati Reds at PNC Park on April 23, 2023 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Ironically, if you look at the MLB standings right now, at this very moment in April, you’ll already begin to see some of these effects – even though, mathematically, it’s actually way too early to see them as statistically significant.
But my projection is that as insignificant as the current standings are, some of these effects are also going to be observable even by end of season, after 162 games.
Logically, if you’re a team in the AL East or the NL East, two of the strongest divisions over the past decade, and you face your toughest rivals – those teams in your own division – fewer times than you did since 1995, and instead face random teams from other divisions more, that’s going to impact your win probability. But similarly, if you’re a team in the AL Central, a “weaker” division over the past decade, and you face more teams outside your division more often, that’s probably going to randomize your win probability somewhat, as well.
Ultimately, then, will this new scheduling change have the impact of leveling the league’s playing field, or creating new rivalries, or bringing more fans to the stands in the weaker teams’ cities, or whatever its goal was supposed to be? There’s no way of knowing.
But win-loss records will likely, over time, be impacted. And so we should remember: baseball math isn’t just about individual player statistics or team analytics; it’s also about the underlying mathematics of how the entire league performs, and most especially how that affects who gets into the postseason every year.