# Not Much of a Chase

The end of August is supposed to signal the start of the pennant chase in baseball. It is the stretch drive toward division championships and Wild Card berths to accord entry into the playoffs where then a pathetically small number of games will determine for most people what team was the best for that season. If this year’s crop of contending races seems a bit lacking in drama that is not entirely the product of your imagination.

Starting with 1995, the first full year of the Wild Card, I went through and to the best of my ability and attention span, picked out the teams within five games of a playoff berth coming into play on August 29 of each season. This season is all but wrapped up barring some miracle run. The only questions left are the division winners in the western divisions and neither race is particularly nail biting there either. Nominally then, there are 10 teams within the five-game shouting distance of a playoff berth before games began today. That represents the lowest comparable total.

There are caveats of course. Five games out and August 29 are completely arbitrary cutoffs. Seasons start at different days and so the number of games played and remaining as of that date isn’t held stable. I picked August 29 for an obvious reason (it’s today) and the five games out because it represents to me what, at this point in the season, would be what I think would still be graspable hope. Curious to see how that reflected with a more mathematical model, I turned to CoolStandings.com and their past season standings and using their “smart” method (i.e. Pythag records), re-did the same graph with a playoff odds cutoff instead of games back.

The number for 2011 did not change, but it is joined by both 1997 and 1999 as the lowest. Both of those years though had actually more compelling races for the last remaining playoff berths. At least when it comes to who will still be playing in October, 2011 – at this time – ranks as probably the least interesting season since the Wild Card was born.

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Matthew Carruth is a software engineer who has been fascinated with baseball statistics since age five. When not dissecting baseball, he is watching hockey or playing soccer.

Guest
4 years 10 months ago

Nice post. You’ve confirmed with reference to history what I think most of us would have suspected. This season’s playoff races just, well, don’t exist.

Guest
Gigante
4 years 10 months ago

I’ve seen the sentiment that there are too few playoff games on Fangraphs a couple of times. I understand that the playoff system does not do a good job at determining which team is the best.

However, I disagree with the sentiment that this is a bad thing. I like that the playoffs allow for an upset team to win the World Series. I think that makes it much more exciting to watch. I like that the Giants were able to win the World Series last year despite not being the best team in baseball, even in the National League. Assuming they don’t make the playoffs this year, I’d love to see the Brewers or the Tigers make a serious run at a title.

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marcello
4 years 10 months ago

I imagine most of the ire comes from the fact that the winner is declared (by many people) the best team in baseball that season. So you get people saying things like, “the best team in 2006 was the Cards,” which is clearly nuts.

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Gigante
4 years 10 months ago

That I can certainly understand. Not that the Giants weren’t the best team in baseball last year. :)

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CircleChange11
4 years 10 months ago

Mandatory Statement:

The 2006 Cardinals were essentially the same team as the 2005 and 2004 version (both of which won 100+ games).

The 2006 Cardinals experienced numerous injuries to key players, and due to being in the NLC were able to make the playoffs.

They were healthy in the playoffs, and some kid named Wainwright replaced Izzy, and Jeff Weaver replaced injured Mark Mulder.

Anyway, the 2006 Cardinals could have been the best team in baseball, but not because they won the WS. StL was the best team in baseball from 2004-2006.

Mandatory comment over.

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jim
4 years 10 months ago

playoffs need to be 7/7/9.

now THAT would be some good TV!

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E
4 years 10 months ago

I would like this personally. Kinda silly that the 1st series is a best out of 5. A team could have 110 wins and easily get ousted in the DS.

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MikeS
4 years 10 months ago

Great. Except that the world series would be vying with football for Thanksgiving veiwership.

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jim
4 years 10 months ago

this scenario also involves starting the playoffs before mid-october

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brett
4 years 10 months ago

Shorter Matthew Carruth: A pathetically small number of teams remain in contention to play a pathetically small number of games that will determine for most people what team was the best for that season.

(To be fair, it was an interesting article. I just feel that second sentence had no place in it.)

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TheBigDawg
4 years 10 months ago

Why don’t they play the playoffs like they do the regular season: with games every day and not taking every third day off? Why shouldn’t the fourth and fifth starters matter in the playoffs like they do the regular season? You could get in a 7/7/9 and still be done by Halloween if you don’t use all the extra “travel days” which are nonsense in a day and age of jet travel.

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JR
4 years 10 months ago

Too much travel. I like 7/7/9 better than the current format, but 9/9/9 would be better (although probably unrealistic). The 9 game series could go 3-4-2, which would make them like actual regular season series, and 9 games could be played in 10 or 11 days depending on how far the teams are from another geographically; about as long as the current 7 gamers last. I think we can all agree that more games increase the odds of the better team prevailing. Start the playoffs a week early (maybe cut the regular season back to 154 games. Five games is kinda nuts for the first round. Anything can happen.

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Mr Punch
4 years 10 months ago

Baseball’s problem is that it relies on the regular season to support the teams individually and for the postseason to bring the national TV dollars. Expanding the postseason has meant devaluing the regular season. This is a trend that prevails everywhere in American sports – big-time college sports now tends to much more about the polls and playoffs/bowls than about leagues; in the NHL, the President’s Cup (regular season championship) has almost disappeared.

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CircleChange11
4 years 10 months ago

[1] The regular season is too long.

[2] The playoffs start too late.

[3] There’s too many days in between the playoff games.

Baseball’s most important games are played during the start of the season for America’s most popular sport.

Baseball wants it both ways. It wants a long, valuable season, and it wants to have a meaningful, expanded, exciting playoff format. You can’t have both. Baseball is just not an exciting enough viewing experience, nor do people have 3 hours a night to follow their team.

I’d much rather see a 144-g (or so) schedule with 2 leagues (no divisions), and then an expanded playoff format featuring the top 6-8 teams. Seriously, there are only a handful of teams that take a lot of pride in winning the division.

The NFL is popular, in part, to the fact that it only requires a-hour committment once a week on the “layingest “on the couch day of the week. You can see every minute of your team’s action.

Right now there are a lot of MLB teams simply going through the motions and/or using September as a pre-spring training to evaluate the kids.

The season could end right about now, and an expanded playoff system could start and play some games that mean something and that people want to see. That’s weird for me to say because I’m a “regular season guy”, but that was back in the day when 2 teams per league went to the playoffs, 1 team per league before that.

People desperately wanted football to be played. When the news announced that the NBA lockout might result in a shortened NBA seasons, people were glad. Long regular seasons and longer playoffs don’t mix.

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gonfalon
4 years 10 months ago