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Are 2017’s first half standings less balanced than usual?

Why two divisional runaways don’t demonstrate a lack of parity in MLB.

New York Yankees v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Although the All Star break is the unofficial mid-point of the MLB season, the July Fourth Independence Day holiday is a much better midway point, since most teams are at or close to 81 games played. July 4th is a fair time to evaluate whether a team will be in position to buy or sell at the trade deadline in a few weeks, and can give a real indication as to whether or not they can be competitive in their own division or in a hunt for a wildcard spot.

This season has been a little stranger than seasons past. There are currently two divisions that, for all intents and purposes, look to be decided already, with the Astros and Nationals possessing commanding leads over their divisional rivals. If you looked at the AL West and NL East, it would seem there is a wide gap between the “haves” and “have nots” in baseball today.

The Astros are the only team in their division with a winning record, and they possess the best winning percentage in baseball. It is much the same with the Nationals; although they have not been as dominant as the Astros, they too had a double-digit divisional lead on the fourth, with the pretender Braves with a losing record in second place.

The strangeness of 2017 is that, in the past, even when there is one division that a team is running away with (the most recent being the 2007 Red Sox over the Yankees), the rest are usually fairly close. This is the first time since 1998 that two division leaders had double-digit leads going into July 4th; in ‘98 there were actually three teams running away with the division (the Yankees were up by 10 games, with the Indians and Braves leading their own divisions by 10.5 games). With the lack of divisional drama in that season overshadowed by the home run chase, it’s not surprising few people remember how lacking in competitiveness that season was.

Even going back to 2001, when the Mariners started the year 61-21, and held a commanding 21 game lead over Oakland on July 4th, no other division leader led by more than 4.5 games and second-place teams were within one game of the divisional leader.

The “Haves”

Division Leaders +5 Games Division Leaders +10 games Teams over .500 Teams over .500 +5 Teams over .500 +10
Division Leaders +5 Games Division Leaders +10 games Teams over .500 Teams over .500 +5 Teams over .500 +10
2017 2 2 12 9 6
2016 5 0 17 15 6
2015 2 0 17 4 1
2014 2 0 15 13 6
2013 1 0 13 12 8
2012 2 0 17 13 3
2011 0 0 15 10 6
2010 0 0 17 14 7
2009 1 0 18 13 3
2008 1 0 15 10 6
2007 2 1 14 10 8

Another quirky thing to point out is that, despite talk of a loss of parity this season, last year we actually had five of the six division leaders up by five or more games at the midway point. Four of the five teams would hold on to keep their first place status, most winning pretty handily. Only the Dodgers made an interesting comeback, coming back from down five games to the Giants and overtaking them to win the division.

In eight out of the most recent ten seasons, we saw at least six teams sit ten or more games over .500 at the halfway mark, and 2017 fits that bill. In the equitable world, 15 teams would be above .500 and 15 below; this season bucks the recent trend with only 12 teams over .500, including two divisions where only the leading team has a winning record.

All of this is to say that, no, baseball does not have a parity problem, or at least no more than it has for the last two decades. This is anecdotal more than anything else, but the recent past demonstrates that we’re not that far off from the normal distribution of wins. There are some very good teams in the league this year just as there were last year. Instead of the Cubs running away with their division, they’re actually in one of the most competitive spots, despite being under .500.

Baseball is quirky and baseball is fun. The league still has a ton of parity; we can’t forget that the Brewers are still in first place in early July and the World Champion Cubs still look… well, bad.

*All statistics and records based on those going into games on the Fourth of July

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Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano