Coming into the 2013 season, The National League East was supposed to be a competitive division. The Nationals won 98 games last year, the Braves won 94 and added two Upton brothers to their outfield, and while the Phillies had disappointed in 2012, it was possible to hope that a bounceback year from Roy Halladay would anchor a rotation that could hang with anybody. Instead, the Braves are 57-44 (a 91-win pace) and every other team in the division is under .500. As a matter of fact, it is extremely historically rare for so many teams in a division to finish the season below .500.
For the purposes of this article, I am defining a “Weak” division as one in which 75% of teams finish below .500. I am defining a “Semi-Weak” division as one in which 60% of teams finish below .500. By the same token, a “Strong” division is one in which 75% of teams finish at or above .500, and Semi-Strong is one in which 60% of teams finish at or above .500.
(For a Weak Division, since 1969, every team but one would have to finish below .500. In previous years, when divisions had eight or ten teams, that meant at least six out of eight, or eight out of ten, would finish below .500. A Semi-Weak division is one in which at least three of five, four of six, five of seven, five of eight, or seven of ten finish below .500. The same proportions hold for Strong and Semi-Strong.)
There have been a lot more weak divisions lately than there used to be, as you might imagine. There are more divisions, and unbalanced schedules widen the win-loss gap between the haves and the have-nots. In the first 19 years of the three-division era — 1994-2012 — there were 114 division-years (19 * 3 divisions * 2 leagues), yielding 11 Weak Divisions, and 46 Semi-Weak Divisions. That includes the shortened seasons in 1994 and 1995. In the 17 162-game seasons from 1996-2012, there were just seven Weak Divisions and 38 Semi-Weak divisions.
Interestingly, in absolute terms, there have been a lot more Strong divisions than Weak divisions.
Why is that? Maybe it’s because of competition: almost all teams try to win, so strong divisions occur when those teams succeed in their goals, while weak divisions only occur when nearly every team gets snakebit. I did say “almost”; one of the reasons that the NL East is a Weak division this year is that the Marlins play in it.
Maybe the weakest division in recent memory is the 2005 NL West, which the San Diego Padres won with an 82-80 record, finishing five games ahead of the second-place 77-85 Diamondbacks. (The following year, the Cardinals won their division with an 83-78 record, but it was a much closer pennant race, as the Astros finished 82-80, so it was only a Semi-Weak division.)
Conventionally, the AL East is often thought of as the strongest division in baseball, and it was strong in 2008, 2010, and 2011, which is remarkable. But the AL West has actually been more competitively difficult by this analysis: it was a strong division in 1995, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2009, and 2012.
Here’s the complete list:
|2012 AL West||2011 AL Central|
|2011 AL East||2008 AL West|
|2010 AL East||2005 NL West|
|2009 AL West||1999 AL Central|
|2008 AL East||1998 AL Central|
|2008 NL Central||1997 NL Central|
|2007 NL West||1997 AL Central|
|2005 NL East||1995 NL East|
|2004 AL West||1995 AL Central|
|2003 NL East||1994 NL West|
|2002 AL West||1994 AL West|
|2000 AL West||1984 NL West|
|2000 NL West||1983 AL West|
|1997 NL West|
|1996 NL West|
|1995 AL West|
|1991 AL West|
|1988 NL West|
|1981 AL East|
|1979 AL East|
|1969 NL West|
(Data obtained from baseball-reference.com.)
The relatively high number of Strong divisions in recent years provides a good argument in favor of expanding the Wild Card. Strong divisions make for compelling pennant races, but they also highlight the unfair nature of the game: it’s hard for the Rays to compete with the Red Sox, Yankees, and Blue Jays, all of whom have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the last few offseasons, as they all compete for the same flag.
On the other hand, Weak divisions really are embarrassing for the game. There were no weak divisions before the 1980s, so they are a relatively recent phenomenon. One reason for weak divisions could be non-competitive owners. But another could be poverty. The American League Central is one of the weakest divisions in baseball this year; it often is. One reason is simple economics, as wealth in America is concentrated on the coasts, not in the Midwest.
Another is that it doesn’t take much to win the division, so there is little upward pressure forcing all of the teams to innovate or die. Just to illustrate that point, the Cleveland Indians won three straight division titles from 1997 to 1999, and over that entire timespan, they were the only team from their division to finish over .500.
Next year, the NL East will probably be reasonably competitive again. By average age, the Braves and Nationals are two of the youngest teams in the league, so they’re likely to continue scrapping no matter what happens to the Phillies, Mets, and Marlins. So this analysis has little predictive use. But it’s interesting to think about.
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