We hear quite a bit that the Tigers record last year and their chances at the playoffs this year are due in large part to their fortuitous divisional assignment in the soft AL Central. No doubt, relative to Detroit or any other team in any other division in baseball – a team such as the Baltimore Orioles has an uphill climb. If we look at the Tigers’ record last year within and without the AL Central, they finished a whopping 28 games over .500 within the division and exactly .500 against all other teams. So the case can be made – and we have heard it made – that the Tigers are basically a .500 team lucky enough to play the 4 worst teams in the league 18 times apiece.
So I set out to see what the American League would look like with one giant division, no more unbalanced schedule. Well, only unbalanced in the sense that a powerhouse team cannot be forced to play itself and that interleague opponents are and were by no means of equal quality. The methodology here was fairly simple: First of all, I didn’t touch interleague records. Of the remaining 144 games in the schedule, games were allocated to ‘division’ opponents in such a way as to be equivalent to 11 games against each opponent. That left 1 game unassigned, and for simplicity’s sake I simply allocated that to the team’s current division. So: the Tigers would have played 55 games against the AL East, 45 against the AL Central and 44 against the AL West. An East team would have played 45 games against other East teams, 55 against the Central and 44 against the West. A West team would have played 55 games against both the East and Central and only 34 against other West teams.
Here’s what the resulting division standings would have looked like:
Obviously, location within the AL Central is an advantage for a team looking to make the playoffs. The AL East IS a meat grinder: 4 of 5 teams in the division would have won more games with a balanced schedule. The Red Sox could plausibly blame their failure to make the playoffs in 2011 on their struggles in their many games against AL East opponents. But with one big division, the team Boston would have robbed of the playoff spot was divisional opponent Tampa Bay – a team that did relatively well within the AL East.
The Tigers and the Rangers were the two teams with the best within-division winning percentages, and those two teams saw the biggest drops with the “1 division” system with four fewer wins apiece. BUT… both the Detroit and Texas would still have finished in the top 4 of the big division and still would have wound up with “playoff spots”. In the big division, the Tigers become a 91 win team but they do not become an 81 win team. Those who look at the in-division and out-of-division records alone ignore something critical: teams’ out of division records are already highly unbalanced. If nobody got to play any games in division at all, the Yankees might win 103 games and the Tigers only 81 – but that assumes that only the Tigers have to play Boston and Tampa Bay while only the Yankees play Minnesota.
It might not even be the case that the AL Central is the weakest division in the AL in the near future (though the AL East will, no doubt, continue to be the strongest). The Kansas City Royals, ever the punching bag of the AL Central, are set for a Rays-like low-budget rebirth. Meanwhile, the AL West wil get it’s fifth team at long last – an Astros team currently a strong contender for worst in the NL and one without any reasonable expectation of near-term roster improvement. The Rangers won 70% of their games against the West last year, with Houston in the mix that number could even rise.