We often observe the All-Star break as the midpoint of the baseball season, but that's because we're lazy. The truth is, as of Friday morning, 1,218 games have been played; in that sense, we are almost exactly halfway through the regular season.
Suppose you're a fan of, say, the Mariners. Exactly 50 percent through its 2011 schedule, your team sits at 39-42, just shy of .500 and only a few games removed from first place in the A.L. West. This is the sort of scenario that inspires optimism in a baseball fan. The M's managed to survive the first half without getting destroyed in the loss column, and playoff teams are second-half teams, right? All they need to do is win 50 of their last 81 games. That's not so tough, right?
Well, sometimes that happens, and sometimes it doesn't, and whether it happens depends upon (along with many, many other things) which division you're in, and how far out of first you are.
Discounting the two seasons that were cut short of 162 games due to the players' strike, we now have 15 full seasons' worth of baseball under the wild card format. This is what they tell us:
- Of the 120 teams to reach the playoffs over the past 15 years, only 68 of them -- that's 56.6 percent -- led their respective playoff race at July 1st, which we will herein approximate as the midpoint of the baseball season.
- 16 of those 120 playoff teams -- 13.3 percent -- trailed by at least five games on July 1st.
- The largest July 1st deficit ever overcome by a playoff team in the expansion era is 10 games. This was pulled off by the 2006 Minnesota Twins, who were only halfway through their unbelievable 34-8 run on July 1st of that year.
- Of the 15 National League wild card champions, only three (!) have led the race on July 1st. And that's counting all the eventual wild card winners who, on that particular date, weren't printed in the wild card standings on account of their division lead.
Let's take a race-by-race look. Before I proceed, I'd like to give a nod to the awesome BaseballRace.com, which really came in handy while researching this data.
Now that the Rays have joined the Yankees and Red Sox as perennial contenders, the top of the A.L. East is not a friendly place for the claustrophobic. It seems as though the division has been defined by relentless jostling over the last few years. If the season were arbitrarily cut to, I don't know, 137 games, maybe the Rays would come on top. And if it were extended to 195 games, the Red Sox might win out. It almost seems like a lottery wheel at times.
It also seems that if, on a July 1st, you're down in the East standings by more than a couple of games, you had probably better shift your attention to the wild card race.
If the A.L. Central teams keep up the pace they set in the first half of 2011, the Central will have a champion with fewer than 90 wins for the third time in four years. The 2005 White Sox, who won the World Series, were the only Central team to do much of anything in the postseason in the last decade.
This division isn't known for great teams, but Royals aside, it is known for general competence. Four of the five teams could take the title in any given year. This results in a lot of close races, as indicated by the July 1st numbers above.
After eight solid years of the Athletics and Angels exchanging the lead back and forth, the Rangers finally broke through in 2010. In 2002 and '03, the A's made a fun habit of sitting back in the standings and making a run down the stretch.
This is here nor there, but it's always worth noting whenever the 2001 Mariners rear their heads in the ocean of statistics. A 21-game lead on July 1st. Good Lord.
Regarding the A.L. wild card race, I found the relative predictability in recent years rather interesting. A two-game lead in your division is quite a different thing from a two-game lead in a race that's open to the entire league. It doesn't seem like a two-game lead over a half-dozen serious contenders with 81 games to go would be enough, but lately, it has been.
That 2007 bar you see, by the way, comes courtesy of the 94-68 Yankees, who went 56-27 in the second half and took the wild card crown by six games. Wait, do wild card winners get crowns? Burger King crowns, maybe?
In the 2005 and '06 bars here, you can see Bobby Cox wringing every win he could out of a Braves team that didn't quite resemble the powerhouse of the previous decade.
I say this almost certainly because I'm a Braves fan, but the N.L. East might be the most interesting division in baseball. It features a team that looks like the sort of team people would call a "dynasty" (Phillies), a team with a seemingly endless pipeline of terrific young pitching (Braves), a perennial overachiever (Marlins), a team with the two most attention-getting draft picks of their generation (Nationals), and a weird, endlessly sophisticated, dysfunctional masterpiece (Mets).
As has been typical in recent years, the N.L. Central is currently very crowded at the top. Even the Pirates -- who are still looking for their first winning season since 1992 -- are within three games of first.
Have you noticed a trend here? If you're a handful of games -- meaning, like, three games -- out of first on July 1st, historically speaking, you have a good shot. Any more than that, and your objective requires you to radically defy the trends in place.
This is the weirdest chart at all. Look at this dude. When the 2010 Braves won the wild card on the final day of the season, they became the first N.L. wild card champion in 10 years to have led the race on July 1st. The National League is a weird, wonderful, and terrifying place.
Most of the above charts didn't portend anything too radical, but forecasting the N.L. wild card race based on the above data would result in a "He will be born to a virgin in Nazareth"-style prediction. Here it is anyway: THE PITTSBURGH PIRATES, who currently sit 5.5 games out. I am scared.