It’s a ridiculously quiet and overcast Fourth of July, and in baseball tradition the adage “The team’s that’s in first place on the Fourth will win the pennant” comes to mind.
Well, tradition isn’t always spot on, especially these days. Incredibly, the team perhaps most identified with patriotic symbolism, not the mention the first Old Timers’ Day that produced the famous Lou Gehrig “luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech, the New York Yankees, actually have an off day today. Joey Chestnut competed in New York City this year, but neither the Yankees nor Mets did.
So as the playoff field expands yet again, and in theory the chances for a team to make it to a Series becomes tougher as more playoff layers are added, it led me to ponder–is that old adage, steeped in the days when there were no divisions and July 4 doubleheaders, still true or not?
In the last two normal seasons, both eventual champions, the ’21 Braves and the ’19 Nationals, were not in first on the fourth. But going back to 1995, the first year of the current three-division set up, 17 of the 26 eventual world champions were in first place in their division. All of the remaining teams were at least in second place.
So, statistically, there’s roughly a two in three chance that the 2022 champion will be from among the Yankees, Mets, Twins, Astros, Dodgers or Brewers. Effectively making the other six teams baseball’s version of March Madness–second-tier teams that make it to the dance, but don’t quite advance to the biggest stage.
Now true purists may think that by adding more divisions, and therefore more first place teams, to the mix this dramatically improved the accuracy of the adage. Well, technically, it did, but statistically significantly? Not necessarily.
That 65.4% figure for the eventual champion in the three-division era is well in line with the percentages of division or league leaders that won their division or league title over the course of the 120-ish major league seasons to date. Even more intriguingly: the most recent structure actually restored the percentage of eventual winners to roughly the level of the ONE-leader era that existed prior to 1969:
1901-1968 (2 leagues; 2 divisions): 62.7%
1969-1993 (2 leagues; 4 divisions): 56.4%
1995-2021 (2 leagues; 6 divisions): 61.9%
So there’s some degree of truth to this, regardless of era. And anyone who may be apopleptic about the previous and impending changes to the playoff structure should take some solace that when all is said and done the ultimate outcomes don’t seem to be at risk.
And bear this in mind, too: since a truly successful batter succeeds at hitting a ball safely at roughly the reciprocal success rate as mid-season leaders win, there’s still an awful lot of unpredictability in the process.
There’s an awful lot about the game I don’t like these days. I despise the ghost runner rule, the universal DH is far less exciting to me in an era of a growing amount of three true outcome hitters who tend to wind up in that role, and some of the City Edition uniforms are downright hideous (that means you, Boston Blue Sox.
But as long as there’s a respectable chance for surprise, it’s still worth the ride. I guess that’s true about life as well as baseball.
I hope your 4th is more exciting than mine.