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Does playing in a soft division affect a team's postseason abilities?

The Nationals haven’t had much of a challenge in the NL East. Will that haunt them come October?

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

With one more Miami Marlins loss this season, the NL East will be guaranteed to be home to only one team over .500 for the 2017 season. The Phillies already have 91 losses, the second-most in baseball. The Mets have become the punchline of the sport and are at 85 losses as of Monday’s games. The Braves had high hopes coming into their first season in their new stadium, but they’ve taken an L in 81 games so far. And as noted, despite Giancarlo Stanton’s best efforts, unless the Marlins run off 12 straight victories to end 2017, the club will fail to top .500 for the eighth straight season.

The bottom four teams in the NL East have a combined winning percentage of .436, which comes out to a 71-win season — and that’s the average futility of those four. For comparison’s sake, the second-worst division in baseball this season, the AL Central, has a combined winning percentage of .457 among their bottom four teams. That’s an average of three more wins per team in the next-closest division. The NL East is bad.

As a result of this division futility, the one respectable team in the division, the Washington Nationals, have a 20+ game lead in the division and are the lone team in the Senior Circuit to have already clinched a division title. Seeing as the team still trails the Dodgers by 5.5 games for the top seed, while leading the Cubs by 7.0 games for home field in the first round, there’s not a whole lot pushing the Nats these days.

Old school baseball logic would seem to imply that the Nats might not be at their sharpest come October. There’s also the discussion of whether their win-loss record is potentially inflated due to the 76 games in which they got to square off with one of the four aforementioned turd-umvirate of NL East rivals. Even if their record wasn’t inflated, is it possible that playing against such a low level of competition so often in the regular season might affect how a team is able to handle the top-class opponents of the postseason? After all, iron sharpens iron, right?

Dating back to 1995 (MLB set up the current three-division system in 1994, but the strike cancelled the postseason, making 1995 the perfect year to begin our research), there have been 13 teams who won a division in which no other division rival topped .500. If it’s true that being a soft division has a negative impact come October, there should be a discernible pattern in the postseason results of these 13 teams.

“Soft Division” Winners, Wild Card Era

Year Team Record Seed 2nd place Playoff result
Year Team Record Seed 2nd place Playoff result
2014 Washington Nationals 99-66 1 79-83 Loss to wild card Giants in NLDS
2013 Los Angeles Dodgers 92-70 3 81-81 Loss to top seed Cardinals in NLCS
2011 Detroit Tigers 95-67 3 80-82 Loss to two seed Rangers in ALCS
2010 Texas Rangers 90-72 3 81-81 Loss in World Series
2008 Los Angeles Angels 100-62 1 79-83 Loss to wild card Red Sox in ALDS
2005 San Diego Padres 82-80 3 77-85 Loss to top seed Cardinals in NLDS
2002 Minnesota Twins 96-47 3 81-81 Loss to wild card Angels in ALCS
1999 Cleveland Baseball Team 97-65 2 75-86 Loss to wild card Red Sox in ALDS
1998 Cleveland Baseball Team 89-73 2 80-82 Loss to top seed Yankees in ALCS
1997 Cleveland Baseball Team 86-75 3 80-81 Loss in World Series
1997 Houston Astros 84-78 3 79-83 Loss to top seed Braves in NLDS
1995 Cleveland Baseball Team 100-44 1 70-74 Loss in World Series
1995 Atlanta Braves 90-54 1 69-75 Won World Series

So what does that chart tell us? The results are a bit mixed. Using each team’s playoff seed and how far they got in the playoffs, if we split the 13 teams listed above into three buckets: overachievers, underachievers, and Dennis Green achievers (“They are who we thought they were!”), we get the following breakdown:

“Soft Division” Winners, Bucketed

Overachievers Underachievers Dennis Green achievers
Overachievers Underachievers Dennis Green achievers
2011 Tigers 2014 Nationals 2013 Dodgers
2010 Rangers 2008 Angels 2005 Padres
2002 Twins 1999 Cleveland 1998 Cleveland
1997 Cleveland 1997 Astros
1995 Cleveland
1995 Braves

The three categories are quite even, with the pair of 1995 “soft division” winners Cleveland and Atlanta being the tiebreaker that pushes the “Dennis Green achievers” tier over the edge. The least full bucket is that of the underachievers, which traditional Baseball Logic would have presumed to be the category under which most of these teams would have fallen (before doing the actual research).

The 2011 Tigers, 2010 Rangers, 2002 Twins, and 1997 Cleveland Baseball Team all played in crappy divisions but were able to rise from the rubble and do even better in the postseason than their seeding would have implied.

This is good news for the Nationals. Although they will have spent nearly half of the 2017 season sharpening their postseason weapons against the baseball equivalent of Jell-O, recent history tells us that it likely won’t impact any potential playoff run in a significant manner.

As a final note, it’s interesting to think that this narrative could easily be flipped to some different old school Baseball Logic should the Nats make a run this postseason. (This is perfect since nothing says old school Baseball Logic like having two classic sayings that completely contradict each other.) If the Nationals make a run, keep your eyes peeled for the narrative that being in a soft division actually helped the Nats, since it meant they weren’t run ragged by having to compete against the likes of the Arizona Diamondbacks and New York Yankees over and over again throughout the regular season.

While neither of these classic narratives will likely have any actual impact on the Nats postseason, one thing we’re almost 100 percent guaranteed to hear is Harold Reynolds quote one of these narratives in regards to the Nationals this October. Get excited!

Jim Turvey is a baseball diehard who also writes for DRays Bay. You can follow him on Twitter @BaseballTurv.