We who follow baseball tend to drastically overrate and overstate our certainty about its future. It’s just the way of the world. So much data is now available to fans and pundits from every spot on the curves of professionalism and enlightenment that we begin to conflate our abundance of information with powers of analysis and prediction.
Nowhere is this more true than in conversations about the standings. The big deals that are made out of any lead larger than a game or so, and the consensus about momentum and the value of one team catching another, just astound me. It’s as if the whole world has forgotten how fickle the game really is, and what violence variance is really capable of when it comes to our expectations of players and teams.
My rule for these things is that a lead is not real (read: significant, substantial, meaningful) unless it matches or exceeds one-sixth of the games the leading team has left on its schedule. No lead is safe unless and until it reaches a number equal or greater to a third of the remaining games for the leading team.
Yes, that means that very few leads are real and meaningful until August, and that virtually none are safe until after Labor Day. That’s the only rational way to look at baseball’s standings. It isn’t that the games played prior to the trade deadline, or so, are any less valuable. It’s just that, with so much baseball in front of us, too much can still happen for me to ever declare a favorite before right about this time of year, or a prohibitive one before mid-September.
So here’s my swing around the divisional and Wild Card races, where the only safe division lead belongs to the Braves, and only Atlanta and Pittsburgh seem like safe bets to reach October at all.
NL East: Like I said, the Braves are safe. They face a long five weeks of sorting out injury problems and trying to manage the roster so as to have everyone fresh and to avoid rust heading into the playoffs, but they lead the division by 14 games with 36 to play.
The Nationals have been weird lately. They claimed David DeJesus on waivers, then turned around and waived him again. They traded Kurt Suzuki back to Oakland Thursday. It’s hard to tell whether they’re resigned to their fate, or still have some design on the distant (but not unreachable) second Wild Card berth.
NL Central: Although all three of the contenders in the division (Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cincinnati) have better than an even shot at the postseason, none has a clear advantage in the race for the one full playoff spot that comes with the division title.
The Pirates are coming apart at the seams; you just can’t see it yet. They’re 19-15 since the All-Star break and 10-10 since the trade deadline, but those figures understate their struggles. Sixteen of their 34 games since the break have been against the dregs of the NL, the Marlins, Rockies, Padres and Giants. Jeff Locke has a 5.71 ERA in seven starts since the break.
The Cardinals and Reds get six more games apiece with Pittsburgh, and I don’t foresee those going well for Pittsburgh. I don’t want to be too hard on this team; they’re still 12 games clear of the Diamondbacks. They’re going to play at least a single post-season game. Still, it’s hard to ignore the way Clint Hurdle stretched this pitching staff to its breaking point to get this far, and it’s hard to see it ending as well as it began.
The Reds and Cardinals also have seven games left head-to-head. In the world of a single Wild Card (or, to dream a little, none), this would be a breathtaking race to the top. The fact that only a collapse by one of them could leave any out of at least that single-game play-in takes the edge off the drama a bit, but it should still be great fun to watch all those direct confrontations unfold with something at stake.
NL West: The Dodgers haven’t sewn anything up. I’ll say that again: The Dodgers haven’t sewn anything up.
I like the Dodgers, with their deep rotation, Clayton Kershaw and a lineup full of .340 OBPs (although that last bit doesn’t play quite as well as it once did). The DIamondbacks get six more games to close the gap, though. They took seven of the first nine in the season series, before the Dodgers hit their streak and swept them in their last encounter.
Forced to choose, I prefer Los Angeles, but Arizona is a good team, too, and this race is a long way from over. Arizona also still has some shot at the Wild Card, although beating the Reds head-to-head this week would have left them looking a lot better there. One thing the Diamondbacks have going for them as they try to catch up there: They play no good teams, other than the Dodgers, until (and this one is arguable) the final series of the season, against the Nationals. Their schedule is much softer than those of the Reds or Pirates.
AL East: Only the Blue Jays are out of it. This isn’t a momentum thing, keeping the Yankees alive. It’s the fact that they only trail Boston by six games. The Red Sox have played over their heads to this point and their pitching staff’s holes are showing, but they remain completely capable of playing .600 ball the rest of the way. Any of the four could. Like the NL Central, this could be a great race, but will be muted by the existence of a parachute for at least one of the losers. On the other hand, of course, the fact that Wild Card winners are pool-only members of the October Club should make the divisional race more important to all involved.
The Rays are the best team in this group. That doesn’t mean they will win anything, though, over a bit less than a quarter-season. Rays-Yankees will be a crucial series, this weekend, and A’s-Orioles will have major implications for the Wild Card race.
AL Central: Like the Dodgers, the Tigers are a team with loud talent that has stretched its lead out to a fistful of games, and that is therefore being crowned long before the actual decision point.
Justin Verlander gave up six runs again Thursday. The offense gets thin on days when Miguel Cabrera doesn’t rake. It’s not that the Tigers aren’t a top-tier team; they are. It’s just that acting like the five-game margin they have over the Indians is a chokehold seems silly. Cleveland is a team with a great offense but a top-heavy rotation and bullpen, and that sort of club can get hot in a hurry if a random addition to the rotation (like Danny Salazar) takes well to the gig.
The Royals’ trend arrow is carrying them away from the field, both inside the division and in the Wild Card chase. That doesn’t matter that much, though. Just look at how they were playing right before this tailspin. The sheer deficit in the division isn’t quite prohibitive, so even though they’re playing poorly at altogether the wrong time, it’s not quite fair to dismiss Kansas City yet.
AL West: This is the division where I always sense the greatest overreaction to lead changes and fluctuation. The Rangers and A’s are still locked in a tight race, and the fact that Texas has managed to extend its lead to 2.5 games for the first time in three months is no more important than if they extended it that far for the first time in three days. Teams move back and forth past each other. It’s peculiar, as many times as these two have traded streaks over the last 14 months, that so many people place such significance in the number on any given day.
This race is a total coin toss. Neither team has a glaring weakness, but neither has an elite unit, either. (The Rangers’ bullpen comes closest.) The loser will have a long look at a Wild Card spot, but nothing is guaranteed. I’ll pick Texas, for the moment, but the six remaining head-to-head games have a good chance of being the real deciders.Next post: Anthony Rizzo is Still Growing Up
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