On June 15, the Minnesota Twins were 11 games ahead of the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central. At the moment of this writing, that lead has shrunk to 4 games. As expected, this has caused a wee bit of consternation around these parts, what with sky-is-falling proclamations and general negativity even causing the ban-hammer to come out from admins. Dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria, etc.
What the shrinking cushion in the AL Central got me pondering is whether the size of a division championship margin is at all predictive of playoff success. I decided to run some numbers on this issue, and here is what I discovered…
I used 1998 as my starting point, as it provided a decent sample size and constituted the basic assemblage of teams that still comprise MLB. I defined “comfortable division victory” as anything above a four-game margin. Somewhat arbitrary, for sure, but instinctively a 5+ game division lead seemed secure in a way that 4 or less games did.
Since ’98, there have been 42 league champions (21 NL, 21 AL) out of a pool of 182 total playoff teams (division winners and wild cards). Of those 182 squads…
-76 (42%) won their division by 5+ games
-50 (27%) won their division by 4 or fewer games
-56 (32%) qualified for the playoffs as a wild card team
Narrowing down the data even further…
-Of the 76 comfortable division-winning teams, 20 secured a World Series berth.
-Of the 50 nail-biter division winners, 11 went on to compete in the Fall Classic.
-Of the 50 wild card entrees, 11 rose from that lowest slot to reach the World Series.
Ultimately, the data point I was trying to tease out ended up illustrating this:
-Teams with large (5+ games) division victories since 1998 made the World Series 48% of the time.
-Teams with small (4 or less games) division victories since 1998 made the World Series 26% of the time.
-Teams entering the playoffs on a wild card berth since 1998 made the World Series 26% of the time.
So, does the size of a division victory have any bearing on postseason success? I would say that it does, although not mind-blowingly so. Basically, teams that handily won a division for the past 20 years had a coin-flip’s chance of reaching the Big Dance. Teams that snuck in or were a wild card had a ¼ chance. Even adding the slim division winners and wild cards together produced just a 52% chance at a WS berth despite the number of overall teams in that mix being 106 (compared to 76 at 5+ GA). Essentially, the odds of reaching the World Series as a comfortable division winner were about the same as any other path despite being a smaller cohort group. While I am not sure what classifies as “statistically significant” (I never took Stats in college), there is indeed a correlation between winning a division by 5+ games and a better chance of making the World Series.
Of course, I also realize the implicit imbalance of this study. Prior to 2012, the only real playoff disadvantage a wild card team had was starting every series on the road. Those wild card teams, in some cases, may have had better records than the division-winners, or won their own races by significant margins. I did not factor those components into my analysis.
Overall, though, I feel like Twins fans have cause to feel a little antsy. A team will never turn down a playoff slot of any kind (you have to “get in it to win it”), but there does seem to be an indication that division-winning strength may correlate with postseason glory. As such, here’s to hoping the AL Central margin starts ticking the other direction (the good one…up!) again soon.