Wednesday, July 23, 2014
The Era of Having a Chance
Starting with the beginning of this season, I decided to grab a subscription to MLB.tv. There were just too many teams and players that I wanted to watch on a regular basis to put it off any longer. It's worked out well, especially as my favorite team, the Texas Rangers, are slogging through a last-place season with what amounts to mostly a Triple A roster.
Just before the All-Star Break, I found myself flipping between various games on that service when it struck me that this is a year where there just aren't that many teams that look very strong.
If I'm a playoff contender or likely playoff team, the only teams I'm especially scared of facing in a series are the A's, Tigers, Angels, and Dodgers. Every other team has a huge glaring weakness or has looked very inconsistent at times. And even though those four teams aren't quite the best four by record in the majors (hi, Giants and Nationals fans), they look the most complete at the moment.
In that select group, the A's look a step above everyone else, having outscored their opponents by an absurd 150 runs as of Tuesday. To put that number in some context, the top team in run differential for the last five seasons has average a +176 number over 162 games. The A's are on pace to run up a +248 margin. That doesn't quite put them in the same class as the 1998 Yankees and 2001 Mariners, but it's close. Even though Oakland is on a 101-win pace, their run differential is indicative of a 107-win club.
And while they've been baseball's best team all season, the A's are finally starting to get recognized as a truly dominant and rare club by traditional national media. Yet, due to the existence of more playoff rounds and just basic luck, there's a 76 percent chance another club takes the World Series in late October. There's even a chance that if Oakland continues to be unlucky, or merely falls off of its torrid pace, that the A's won't even win their own division and will have to play a one-off wild card game.
In other words, the A's are guaranteed absolutely nothing, except a probably a nominal playoff spot. But beyond that, and because of the second wild card, there are so many teams still with an opportunity to make the playoffs. And after that, the structure of the playoffs doesn't care if you've won 82 or 112 games. Just ask the 2006 Cardinals, or any number of teams in the Wild Card era that went all the way with win totals in the low-90s.
You may not believe me about the number of teams who can still say that they have a shot at contending. But to my count, there are really only seven teams who have no shot at making the playoffs: the Astros, Rangers, Phillies, Cubs, Padres, Diamondbacks, and Rockies. Every single other team is within eight games or less of a playoff spot, hardly an impossible ask with over 60 games left for every MLB team.
This is also not a unique phenomenon to 2014. Since the introduction of the second wild card for the 2012 season, an average of a little more than half the teams in each league have been within that eight-game buffer on the Tuesday after the All-Star Break. In the AL in 2012, all but three teams were within 3.5 of holding an "if the season ended today" playoff spot.
This is the era of having a chance.
Not included in my list of seven teams whose chances are completely exterminated are clubs like the Mets, Marlins and Twins. This column might be about the only time those teams' playoff chances have really been mentioned on a national level. And it's not like their fans would exactly be distraught if they each finished with win totals in the 70s. All those teams are multiple years away from being truly competitive.
Yet, if one of those clubs goes on a run like the Royals did last year from 45-51 on July 22, they could somehow be in a wild card game. And unlike the Red Sox, who have been the subject of several "they're not out of it!" stories after a recent winning streak, the Mets have actually outscored their opponents this season.
The fact that 23 teams still have a punchers' chance as we fast approach the trade deadline brings up a larger issue: Is this even a good thing for baseball?
For me, I can't see how it is. Knowing that a mediocre team is likely to make the playoffs in the AL shouldn't exactly be the thing baseball fans want to see.
But what the era of having a chance has done in giving more teams a shot at October effectively keeps more teams' fans engaged in what is inherently a regional sport. In this sense, it's been a good money-making move for baseball. Even though purists, of which I don't consider myself one, must hate it, this era of baseball is going to stay. You should hope that your team is still in the hunt. After all, they probably still are.