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The AL And NL Playoff Races Are Diverging

The introduction of the second Wild Card in Major League Baseball was not without controversy. Much of the hullabaloo has died down since the new playoff system was implemented in 2012, as those who argued it diluted the game and lowered the standard of entry in the baseball’s postseason have mostly accepted the wackiness of a one-game playoff. The system was purported to ensure high drama at the conclusion of every regular season, and in increasing the number of postseason qualifiers, pennant races would be more fun with more teams theoretically involved.

In some ways, that’s been true. Last season’s NL Wild Card race and 2015’s AL Wild Card race spring to mind as examples of races that came down to the wire, with several teams competing for the pair of Wild Card slots. Other times, however, the second Wild Card has severely limited the late season drama.

Juxtaposing Playoff Races

This year’s iterations of the AL and NL serve as a nice juxtaposition of the different ways the Wild Card races can unfold. In the AL, we have a seemingly unprecedented level of chaos developing, with everyone and their dog still playing games with potential playoff implications. In the NL, the playoff race looks to be drying up faster than the climate of the current occupiers of the second Wild Card slot, the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The playing field in the AL is almost staggeringly even. The only divisional race that appears decided is the AL West, where the Astros have put an essentially insurmountable gap between themselves and the competition. Every other race is questionable. In the AL East, the Yankees and Red Sox look primed for a year-long dogfight, with dark horses like the Rays and Blue Jays not to be discounted. The Indians are clear favorites in the AL Central despite a relatively narrow lead over the second-place Twins, but the race is at least closer than the 12.5-game gap we see in the West.

A Muddled AL Wild Card Picture

The Wild Card races are much more muddled. Every single team is within 5.5 games of a playoff spot at the moment. The Royals, who started this year so dismally? They’re just two games out. The White Sox, considered by many to be the worst team in the AL entering the year? Just four games back. The Twins won 61 games last year and currently occupy the Wild Card position, as do the Rays, who have also quietly rebounded from a sub-70 win 2016.

This leaves us with a race where no team can be entirely ignored. Turning to Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections, BP estimates that every team in the AL has at least a 2.3% chance at the playoffs. That may not seem like much, but compare that to the NL, where the Giants, Padres, Reds, Phillies, and Braves all have playoff odds of essentially nil.

Indeed, the NL race is a stark contrast to the wacky one that is unfolding in the AL. Of course, it’s only June, and nothing has been decided, but you would be forgiven for feeling otherwise. Even at this still early point, the playoffs feel like they’re starting to set in the Senior Circuit.

Lack of Suspense in the NL

Two and a half months in and the Wild Card race in the NL has been robbed almost entirely of suspense. At time of writing, the Dodgers hold the first Wild Card (though they are still favorites to take the NL West), and are 1.5 games ahead of the Diamondbacks. Between Arizona and the next closest team, the defending champion Cubs, lies a 7.5 game gulf. With Chicago very much expected to put aside their early-season woes and take control of the NL Central from the over-performing Brewers, that essentially leaves 11 games between the Diamondbacks and the next closest teams for which there were expectations of Wild Card contention: the Cardinals and Pirates.

The five NL playoff teams appear likely to be the Nationals, the Cubs, the Dodgers, the Rockies, and the Diamondbacks, barring something unforeseen. Something unforeseen could still occur, but at this point, the main suspense lies in who will escape the Wild Card game and advance straight to the NLDS by means of winning the NL West.

Why Such Disparity?

Is there something causing this? Is there something about the construction of the NL and its teams that has led it to generally be more stratified than the AL? In the two-Wild Card era, the AL has simply been the more egalitarian, unpredictable league. Virtually every team has had success in recent memory: the Orioles have won the most games in the AL since 2012, the Royals won a World Series, the Twins had a winning season in 2015, and even the A’s and Angels won 96+ games just a few years ago. There are teams with notable playoff droughts (the Mariners and White Sox), but there hasn’t been a single team to go through a prolonged stretch where playoff contention wasn’t totally possible.

The NL on the other hand, has seen quite the opposite. The Phillies and Braves have each been mired in long rebuilds. The Marlins are the Marlins. The Reds have lost their way after winning the NL Central five years ago, and the Padres are tanking. Teams like the Rockies and Diamondbacks have at least shown this year that also-rans can spring surprising seasons and spare us from another postseason of Giants vs. Cardinals games, but the top of the NL has consisted of the Dodgers, Cubs and Nationals for years now. The NL is just more stratified at the moment.

Could there be something about the NL teams that makes them more likely to undergo drastic rebuilding projects? Are there are a larger number of elite front offices, and a larger number of the worst front offices, in the NL, helping lead to franchises with far more disparate fortunes? It’s hard to envision such a scenario, given how much more even the league has become in recent years when it comes to the forward-thinking analysis and progressive tactics.

Maybe there’s something about the NL teams leading to this, but more likely, this is just noise, a cycle that will turn in a different direction in the future. But for now, the Leagues are highly disparate, with one featuring a topsy-turvy race in which anyone could prevail, and one where the lines have already been clearly drawn, and five teams have emerged as quite likely to reach October. This is will come as a disappointment for anyone who hoped to see interesting pennant races down the stretch in both Leagues, but with any luck, the highly stratified structure of the NL will soon begin to reverse itself.

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Jake Devin fell in love with the game of baseball as a child, watching the Yankees of the late nineties and early aughts dominate the league. The Yankees don't dominate anymore, but Jake's passion for the game is as strong as ever, with exciting new ways to view and analyze the game popping up seemingly all the time. Jake recently graduated from Binghamton University where he completed a degree in mathematics and economics, as well as a four-year track and field career.

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