Trends of a World Series Champion, Volume III

For the last two Octobers, I’ve looked at the trends of past World Series champions, and how each team in that year’s MLB postseason field compared to the trends that a typical World Series-winning team fits.

(2015: Trends of a World Series Champion)
(2016: Trends of a World Series Champion, Revisited)

As we enter the 2017 postseason, starting with the AL Wild Card game tonight, let’s look at the 10 teams in this year’s postseason and how they stack up to the trends of a World Series champion.

 

Trend:  Team batting average of .250 or better
Within the trend:  Astros (.282), Rockies (.273), Nationals (.266), Indians (.263), Yankees (.262), Twins (.260), Red Sox (.258), Cubs (.255), Diamondbacks (.254)
Outside the trend:  Dodgers (.249)

Trend:  Number of offensive starters hitting .290 or better (min. 50 games)
Within the trend:  Astros (5), Rockies (5), Nationals (4), Indians (3), Diamondbacks (3), Dodgers (2), Cubs (2), Red Sox (2), Twins (2)
Outside the trend:  Yankees (1)

Trend:  Team ERA of 4.00 or better
Within the trend:  Indians (3.30), Dodgers (3.38), Diamondbacks (3.66), Red Sox (3.70), Yankees (3.72), Nationals (3.88), Cubs (3.95)
Outside the trend:  Astros (4.12), Rockies (4.51), Twins (4.57)

Trend:  Starting rotation ERA of 4.25 or better
Within the trend:  Dodgers (3.39), Indians (3.52), Diamondbacks (3.61), Nationals (3.63), Yankees (3.98), Astros (4.03), Cubs (4.05), Red Sox (4.06)
Outside the trend:  Rockies (4.59), Twins (4.73)

Trend:  Bullpen ERA of 3.92 or better
Within the trend:  Indians (2.89), Red Sox (3.15), Dodgers (3.38), Yankees (3.44), Diamondbacks (3.78), Cubs (3.80)
Outside the trend:  Astros (4.27), Rockies (4.40), Twins (4.40), Nationals (4.41)

Trend:  Home winning percentage of .550 or better
Within the trend:  Dodgers (.704), Diamondbacks (.642), Yankees (.630), Indians (.605), Astros (.593), Cubs (.593), Red Sox (.593), Nationals (.580), Rockies (.568)
Outside the trend:  Twins (.506)

Trend:  Away winning percentage of .520 or better
Within the trend:  Indians (.654), Astros (.654), Nationals (.617), Dodgers (.580), Red Sox (.556), Cubs (.543), Twins (.543)
Outside the trend:  Diamondbacks (.506), Rockies (.506), Twins (.494)

Trend:  Win percentage after Sept. 1 of .500 or better
Within the trend:  Indians (.867), Astros (.724), Yankees (.690), Cubs (.655), Red Sox (.607), Diamondbacks (.607), Nationals (.552), Rockies (.517), Twins (.517)
Outside the trend:  Dodgers (.433)

Trend:  Win percentage in one-run games
Within the trend:  Cubs (.605), Rockies (.600), Astros (.594), Nationals (.588), Indians (.571), Dodgers (.568), Diamondbacks (.558), Red Sox (.537)
Outside the trend:  Twins (.455), Yankees (.409)

Trend:  Baseball-Reference.com Simple Rating System of 0.2 or better
Within the trend:  Indians (1.5), Yankees (1.3), Astros (1.2), Dodgers (0.9), Red Sox (0.8), Diamondbacks (0.8), Nationals (0.6), Cubs (0.6), Rockies (0.3), Twins (0.2)
Outside the trend:  none

 

Here are how many trends of a World Series champion each playoff team fit:

Indians 10
Cubs 10
Red Sox 10
Nationals 9
Diamondbacks 9
Dodgers 8
Astros 8
Yankees 7
Rockies 6
Twins 5

By this analysis, the Indians, Cubs and Red Sox would be World Series co-favorites, and each certainly have a very strong team with a great chance at hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy.

But only eight of the 22 World Series winners in the Wild Card era (since 1995) have fit all 10 criteria, so those who have missed in a category or two still have a great statistical shot at winning the World Series.

18 of the last 22 champions have fit eight or more criteria, and 21 of those 22 have fit at least seven (the 2006 Cardinals, with just three, are the huge outlier.)

More recently, the 10 champions since that 2006 Cardinals team have all fit eight or more criteria, and four of the last seven have fit all 10.

That said, seven of the 10 playoff teams, including all six that have already advanced to the League Division Series, fit eight or more criteria and fit the trend to win the World Series.

Though the shoe fits some better than others, the race is absolutely wide open as the playoffs begin.

 

 

Using these trends (and homefield to break ties where applicable), here is how the playoffs would play out–with the very World Series matchup and outcome I predicted in March:

AL Wild Card: Yankees def. Twins
NL Wild Card: Diamondbacks def. Rockies
AL Division Series: Indians def. Yankees, Red Sox def. Astros
NL Division Series: Diamondbacks def. Dodgers, Cubs def. Nationals
AL Championship Series: Indians def. Red Sox
NL Championship Series: Cubs def. Diamondbacks
World Series: Indians def. Cubs

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Fast Five: Greatest Games at Turner Field

Turner Field in Atlanta will host its final game on Sunday after 20 seasons as the home of the Atlanta Braves.

The ballpark, named for Atlanta media tycoon Ted Turner, was originally built as Centennial Olympic Stadium for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and was retrofitted into a baseball stadium, opening on April 4, 1997 with a 5-4 win over the Chicago Cubs.  Its final game is Sunday against the Detroit Tigers, before the Braves move to SunTrust Park in northern Atlanta for the 2017 season.

Turner Field has hosted 39 playoff games, including two games in the 1999 World Series, and the first ever National League Wild Card Game in 2012.  The 2000 MLB All-Star Game was at Turner Field, as was Braves manager Bobby Cox’s 2000th win in 2004, pitcher John Smoltz’s 3000th strikeout in 2008, and three no-hitters (in 2004, 2010, and 2014, all by visiting teams).

Greatest Games at Turner Field

Some games at “The Ted” are more memorable than others.  Here are the five greatest games at Turner Field, listed in chronological order:

Oct. 19, 1999: Braves 10, New York Mets 9 (11 inn.), NL Championship Series, Game 6
The Braves and division-rival Mets met in the 1999 National League Championship Series, and after the Braves won the first three games, the Mets won the next two to bring the series back to Atlanta, including a 15-inning thriller in Game 5 that ended on Robin Ventura’s “Grand Slam Single.”  The Braves, looking to clinch the series, led 5-0 after an inning, and 7-3 after six, but Mets C Mike Piazza capped off a four-run seventh with a game-tying homer to make it 7-7.

The Mets scored again in the eighth and 10th innings, but the Braves answered in each bottom half, taking the game to the 11th at 9-9.  In the bottom of the 11th, starter Kenny Rogers came on in relief for New York, and after Gerald Williams led off with a double and was bunted to third, Rogers intentionally walked the bases loaded to face Andruw Jones.  Jones drew a walk-off walk, winning the game, 10-9, and the series, 4-2.

With the win, Braves were in the World Series for the fifth time in nine seasons, but this season was the only World Series appearance for the Braves in the Turner Field era.  The Braves were swept by the Yankees in the World Series.

May 18, 2004:  Arizona Diamondbacks 2, Braves 0
Sorry, Braves fans, for including a loss, but when something happens that has only been done 23 times in the long history of baseball, it qualifies for this list.  The Braves entered this game having struck out 18 times against Ben Sheets in a May 16 loss in Milwaukee, and after a day off returned home to face Randy Johnson and the Diamondbacks.  Johnson, whose 4,875 career strikeouts are second all-time, was already well on his way to the Hall of Fame, but “The Big Unit” added to his legend on this night.

Johnson retired all 27 men he faced, throwing the 17th perfect game in MLB history (there have now been 23).  Johnson, the tall left-hander, struck out 13 Braves (including Chipper Jones in all three of his at-bats), throwing 87 of his 117 pitches for strikes.  The Diamondbacks got a run in the second on an Alex Cintron RBI double, and another in the seventh on a Chad Tracy RBI single, and the two runs were more than enough for Johnson on this night.  Pinch-hitter Eddie Perez (now the Braves first base coach) struck out for the historic final out.

Johnson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015, becoming the sixth Hall of Famer to have thrown a perfect game, and at 40 years old is the oldest pitcher to throw a perfect game.  Johnson’s perfect game is the only perfect game the Braves have been involved in, and the 2004 Braves are the second-winningest team to be the victim of a perfect game.

Oct. 3, 2010:  Braves 8, Philadelphia Phillies 7
Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox was in his final season, and a sold out crowd packed Turner Field for his final regular season game, with the Braves entered the day tied with the San Diego Padres for the NL Wild Card (back when only one Wild Card team qualified for the playoffs).  The test in the finale was not easy, as the Phillies had won the NL East, and was the two-time defending National League champions.

The Braves fell behind 2-0 in the top of the third, but took an 8-2 lead through six innings, using 2 RBI each from Omar Infante and Brooks Conrad, and an RBI from starting pitcher Tim Hudson.  Jayson Werth hit a two-run homer in the seventh to make it 8-4, and in the eighth, an RBI single by Wilson Valdez and a two-RBI double by Ben Francisco cut the Braves’ lead to 8-7.  But in the ninth, Braves closer Billy Wagner, who had allowed both RBI hits in the eighth, struck out all three batters looking to seal the Braves 91st win of the season, and ensure they would not be eliminated from playoff contention. My dad was more excited after the final out of this game than any other I can remember (although I do not remember the 1995 World Series championship).  When the Padres lost in San Francisco, the Braves won the NL Wild Card for the first time in their history, and in celebration the players carried Cox off the field on their shoulders.

The Phillies were in another historic game three days later, when pitcher Roy Halladay threw the second postseason no-hitter in their playoff opener against the Reds, before eventually falling in the NLCS to the Giants.  The Giants had defeated the Braves in four games in the NLDS, with each game of the series decided by one run.  The series clincher, and Cox’s final game, also came at Turner Field on Oct. 11, and in one of the classiest moves in baseball history, the Giants stopped their celebration on the field to applaud Cox as he took his final curtain call.


July 26-27, 2011:  Braves 4, Pittsburgh Pirates 3 (19 inn.)
The Braves (entered at 59-44) and Pirates (53-47) both entered this game in the midst of pennant races in their respective divisions, and while the Braves had been to the playoff the season before, the Pirates were looking for their first winning record since 1992 (the year of “Sid’s Slide” in the NLCS at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium).  Even with the playoff races, this game looked pedestrian on the surface, but it became one of the craziest games in baseball history.

Pittsburgh scored two in the first on RBIs by Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez, before Michael McKenry homered in the second to give the Pirates a 3-0 lead.  The Braves answered in the third, with an RBI single by Dan Uggla and a two-RBI single by Jason Heyward, and after that, the run of zeros in the line score began.  Neither team scored for 15 consecutive innings (although for the game the teams combined to leave 39 men on base), and Tuesday night turned to Wednesday morning.  In the bottom of the 19th, Julio Lugo walked and Jordan Schafer singled him to third, before relief pitcher Scott Proctor, whose only two at-bats of the season were in this marathon, grounded to third, and Pedro Alvarez appeared to throw Lugo out at the plate easily–but umpire Jerry Meals called Lugo safe, and the Braves won 4-3.

In 2011, instant replay in MLB only entailed reviewing boundary home run calls, meaning this play was not reviewable.  The six hour, 39 minute game was the longest for the Braves since moving to Atlanta, and the two teams combined used 15 pitchers and 41 total players.  The Braves collapsed in September to miss the playoffs by one game at 89-73, while the Pirates’ loss in this game began a 1-12 stretch that doomed their playoff hopes, and they finished 72-90 before finally getting the elusive winning record (and playoff berth) in 2013.

Sept. 2, 2012:  Braves 8, Philadelphia Phillies 7
2012 was the final season in the career of legendary Braves 3B Chipper Jones, and leading into this game on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, the Braves were 6.5 games behind Washington for the division lead, but 3.5 games clear in the Wild Card race.  The Phillies had won the division the previous five seasons, but entered this game 64-69 on their way to a third-place finish in the NL East.

The Phillies jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the first, with a two-RBI double by Ryan Howard, and a three-RBI double by Erik Kratz, and after the Braves scored on a Reed Johnson RBI double in the second, the Phillies made it 7-1 when pitcher Cole Hamels had a two-RBI double of his own.  Johnson added two more RBI on a single in the sixth to make it 7-3, and the score remained there until the ninth, Johnson singled, and Paul Janish and Michael Bourn walked to load the bases.  An error by Phillies 3B Kevin Frandsen scored two, making it 7-5, before Chipper Jones came up to face Jonathan Papelbon.  Jones launched a long walk-off homer, giving the Braves a wild, come-from-behind 8-7 victory.

The game-winning homer by Jones would be the last of his 468 career home runs, and was his second walk-off homer of his final season, both against Philadelphia.  The Braves won the first NL Wild Card, clinching the title when Freddie Freeman got a walk-off homer of his own, and hosted the first ever NL Wild Card Game on Oct. 5, in a game that became known as the “Infield Fly Game” in Atlanta, as the Braves lost 6-3 to the St. Louis Cardinals, ending Jones’s career.

Honarable Mentions:
May 20, 2010:  Braves 10, Cincinnati Reds 9
After the Braves trailed 9-3 entering the ninth, four singles, a walk, and an error set the stage for Brooks Conrad’s pinch-hit, walk-off grand slam to win 10-9.  The homer bounced off the glove of Reds LF Laynce Nix into the stands (and Conrad thought he caught it), and after the wild finish, Braves broadcaster Joe Simpson said, “I’ve been to two rodeos and three goat ropings, but I’ve never seen anything like that!”

April 6, 2013:  Braves 6, Chicago Cubs 5
Melvin and Justin Upton, both new Braves in 2013, hit game-tying and walk-off homers in the ninth, finishing a Braves rally to win after trailing the Cubs 5-1 after the seventh.  The Uptons became the first brothers to hit game-tying and walk-off home runs in the same inning in MLB history.  This game was part of a 12-1 start, and the second of a 10-game winning streak, as the Braves never looked back and went on to win the NL East.

Greatest Games I Witnessed at Turner Field

While I can’t say that I was in the ballpark for any of the moments listed above (although I will be for the park’s historic final game on Sunday), I was at Turner Field for these games, the five greatest I saw at the venue:

June 15, 2001:  Boston Red Sox 9, Atlanta Braves 5 (10 inn.)
This was my first game at Turner Field, but I was 6 years old so I don’t remember much.  I do remember that we got to see Hall of Famer Greg Maddux pitch for the Braves.  I thought Red Sox RF Trot Nixon must have been the son or grandson of Richard Nixon (again, I was 6).  We sat through a rain delay, then once the game resumed, those of us way up in the upper deck near the lights sat through the pummeling of a swarm of moths.  I thought I remembered the crowd groaning after a Chipper Jones strikeout, but according to the box score, he never struck out in the game (and, if you’re wondering, Andruw Jones did not either, so this wasn’t just a name confusion).

As it turns out, Boston scored three in the first, but the Braves pulled to within 3-2 in the third, and took a 5-3 lead in the seventh on an Andruw Jones RBI single.  The Red Sox scored a run each in the eighth and ninth (with the aforementioned Nixon responsible for the latter) to tie it at 5-5, before scoring four runs (three unearned) in the tenth to win 9-5.  Due to the rain and the extra innings, the game ended after midnight, which gave us problems getting back to our camping site at Stone Mountain State Park.

July 4, 2005:  Atlanta Braves 4, Chicago Cubs 0
My family vacationed at Stone Mountain again in 2005, and saw the Braves beat the Angels, 3-2, on July 7.  Less than a month later, friends of ours won four tickets about 25 rows up behind home plate for the Braves’ July 4 game with the Chicago Cubs.  Me, my parents, and our friend Marcia drove over six hours from Kernersville, N.C. to Atlanta that afternoon.  The always-attract-a-crowd Cubs, in addition to the holiday, made this a big crowd–the 52,274 in attendance set a regular season attendance record for a game at Turner Field at the time.  Every fan in attendance was given a dark blue, patriotic Braves cap, leading to a comical moment when my mom called my grandfather on the phone and he asked “What color hat is Christopher wearing?”

Cubs star Kerry Wood was on the mound against Kyle Davies, one of the “Baby Braves” who came up from the minors in 2005 and had such a big impact on that year’s division-winning team.  Wood struggled early, allowing an Andruw Jones RBI single and an Adam LaRoche 2-run homer in the first, making it 3-0 Braves.  No one scored again until the eighth, when LaRoche hit his second homer of the game, a solo shot to make it 4-0 (this is one of two major league multi-homer games I have seen in person).  This game was simply an excellently-pitched game by Davies, John Foster, Blaine Boyer (another of the “Baby Braves”), and Chris Reitsma.

One trivial note is that this is the same series when Jeff Francoeur made his Braves debut, which included a homer as his first MLB hit.  That game was three nights later.  Since no YouTube highlights exist of the July 4 game, here if Francoeur’s homer on July 7, another one of the great moments at Turner Field:

Sept. 28, 2013:  Philadelphia Phillies 5, Atlanta Braves 4
Student Activities at Anderson University, which I attend, sponsored a trip to a Braves game in the fall of my freshman year.  I had actually considered going to watch the Wake Forest-Clemson game (Clemson is about 30 minutes away), so this saved me seeing that 42-13 drubbing.  We carpooled, and the van I was in (me and six ladies!) got to Turner Field about an hour before first pitch, for my first game at Turner Field in eight years.  The Braves had clinched the NL East six days earlier, and were playing for playoff seeding.

Cesar Hernandez got a bunt hit on the first pitch, and Jimmy Rollins doubled on the second pitch, putting men at second and third after two quick pitches.  Mike Minor almost escaped the jam, but with two outs, Cameron Rupp singled to score both runners, making it 2-0, before a Freddie Freeman sacrifice fly in the bottom half made it 2-1.  It stayed that way until the seventh, as Mike Minor was solid for the Braves, while “Johnny Wholestaff” was strong for the Phillies.  The Phillies added two in the seventh and one in the eighth on RBIs by Rollins, Dominic Brown, and Chase Utley, making it 5-1, at which point one of the other cars of AU students actually left the game.

They were nearly embarrassed by leaving before the ninth, as the Braves made a valiant comeback.  After two singles, Justin Upton homered to make it 5-4.  Even from my seat in right field (the ball was hit to left), I knew the ball was gone on contact and leaped in the air to celebrate–before it actually just barely cleared the wall (had it been two feet shorter, I would have looked like an idiot).  After Freeman singled and Evan Gattis walked, Chris Johnson was robbed of a hit by an excellent play by Rollins at shortstop.  Just over a week later, the Braves lost in the NLDS to the Dodgers, three games to one.

Apr. 10, 2015:  Atlanta Braves 5, New York Mets 3
This is another game I got tickets to from AU Student Activities, and this game was the home opener of the Braves’ 50th season in Atlanta.  Once me and friends Ryan and Brady got out of class, we drove right into the infamous Atlanta rush hour, joined Ryan’s sister at her apartment, and rode MARTA to the stadium.  Pregame ceremonies included appearances by Chipper Jones, Bobby Cox, and Hank Aaron.  The game was delayed by rain, which seemed to make the crowd even more excited once the game finally began.

After a perfect top of the first by Eric Stults, Cameron Maybin, making his Braves home debut, led off the bottom half with a homer, before a Jonny Gomes single later in the inning made it 2-0, and an unearned run in the third made it 3-0.  In the fourth, the Mets tied it 3-3 on back-to-back pitches, with homers by David Wright (2-run homer) and John Mayberry (solo).  The score remained tied until the eighth, when Phil Gosselin came through with a two-out, two-run single to give the Braves a 5-3 lead (likely the biggest hit of the utility man’s career).  This was the first Braves home game after the trade of closer Craig Kimbrel, so we were all curious what the entry would be like for new closer Jason Grilli going to the ninth; “Fire Up The Grilli” became a catchphrase in Atlanta as he came through the bullpen gate, and the veteran slammed the door on the Mets for the 5-3 win.

This game also included the greatest defensive play I’ve ever seen live, as Andrelton Simmons threw out Travis d’Arnaud from deep shortstop on a jump throw with all of his momentum going the opposite direction (see below).  Simmons got a well-deserved prolonged standing ovation after the phenomenal play.

This game was part of a 5-0 start for the 2015 team, which included another 5-3 win over the Mets the following night, which the four of us also attended.  The 2015 Braves were 67-95, but won all five games I saw that year, which also included Aug. 24 over the Rockies (also 5-3), and a season-ending double-header sweep of the Cardinals on Oct. 4.  This Mets team, who did not look very good in April, slowly improved all season, and eventually became the only team to date I have seen in person who played in the World Series the same season.


Apr. 4, 2016:  Washington Nationals 4, Atlanta Braves 3 (10 inn.)
This was also an AU Student Activities ticket, but I would not have gone to this game were it not Opening Day and, for that matter, the last Opening Day at Turner Field.  With first pitch at 4:10 pm, Ryan, our friend Danny, and I left Anderson (on a good day, two hours northeast of Atlanta) at 1:15 when Ryan got out of class.  We got caught in bad Atlanta traffic before we were even around the stadium, and then once we got to Turner Field, parking was sold out, and we eventually had to park for $20 in someone’s driveway about three blocks south of the stadium.  The neighborhood around Turner Field isn’t exactly Beverly Hills, and to be honest we, jokingly, wondered if the car or its contents would still be there when we got back.

The game got underway as we stood in line at the gate, and I was listening to the game on the MLB At Bat app on my phone, although we heard cheers (which we figured, in the top of the first, were outs) and boos (which we absolutely knew meant Bryce Harper was coming to bat) before the delayed broadcast could tell us what was going on.  Harper, the defending NL MVP, homered on his first swing of the year, and we heard that reaction too.

We reached our seats, in the upper deck down the right field line, a couple batters after Harper, and saw Julio Teheran get the final out of the top of the first.  In the bottom half, Freddie Freeman hit a solo homer of his own to tie the score at 1-1.  In the fourth, the pattern repeated, as Daniel Murphy homered for Washington and Adonis Garcia answered with a homer for Atlanta, making it 2-2.

With the same score in the bottom of the eighth, Jeff Francoeur, the beloved outfielder and Atlanta native who had been traded away in 2009, came to the plate to pinch-hit.  “Frenchy” received a standing ovation, and the crowd stood for the whole at-bat, which ended in a walk.  After Felipe Rivero loaded the bases, Shawn Kelley walked Garcia, scoring Francoeur and giving the Braves a 3-2 lead.

Washington tied the game, 3-3, in the ninth on a sacrifice fly by Michael A. Taylor, although CF Ender Inciarte nearly threw Jayson Werth out at home plate (live, I thought he had, but C A.J. Pierzynski dropped the ball).  The game went extra innings, and in the 10th, defensive replacement Gordon Beckham made an error, and Murphy capitalized with an RBI double, giving the Nationals a 4-3 lead.  The sight of Nationals closer Jonathan Papelbon riled up the crowd one more time (he is not one of MLB’s most popular players), but the Braves went down in order.

Traffic was just as congested on the way out, but we eventually made it out of the Turner Field area, and then made it back to Anderson in time to watch the final 10 minutes of the classic Villanova-North Carolina NCAA Tournament title game on TV.


 

 

***Editor’s note:  This post would not be possible without the help of baseball-reference.com, which helped me turn my memories (quite vague ones in some cases) into more detailed accounts.

Dodgers Clinch West, While Other Races Heat Up

With a 7-6 win this afternoon over the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Los Angeles Dodgers mathematically clinched the NL West Division Title.  The title is the first for the Dodgers since back-to-back titles in 2008-09.  Both of those titles resulted in 4-1 losses to the Phillies in the NLCS.  Since then, they’ve been trending toward this division title, finishing 4th in 2010, 3rd in 2011, and 2nd last year to the World Champion Giants.  Don Mattingly’s first playoff berth as a manager came a little more quickly than his first as a player, which came in his final season as a Yankee in 1995.  The Dodgers were 30-42 on June 21, 9.5 games behind the Diamondbacks.  Since, they are 58-23 and have gone from 9.5 games behind to 13.5 games ahead on September 3 and 10.5 games ahead today.  Dodger fans have caught the fever; the team leads the NL in attendance.

Other teams, like the Red Sox, Braves, Tigers, and Athletics are also closing in on clinching their respective divisions.  The Red Sox magic number* to clinch the AL East is at 1, while the best the chasing Rays can mathematically hope for is a tie.  Boston clinched at least a Wild Card berth with their win tonight, but winning the division is very important, given the Wild Card format (just ask last year’s Braves and Rangers).  Boston lost 93 games a year ago, but have turned it around to have the best record in baseball and their first playoff berth since 2009.  The Braves hold the best record in the NL by one game, and their magic number to clinch the NL East over the Nationals is down to 2 as they head to Wrigley Field to play the Cubs this weekend.  They will have the opportunity to clinch their first division title in 8 years on some hallowed grounds of baseball.  The Tigers and Athletics both have magic numbers of 5, with the Tigers trying to clinch the AL Central over the Indians and Royals, and the Athletics trying to clinch the AL West over the Rangers, playing as we speak out West.

For all intents and purposes, these division races are realistically over.  I know they aren’t mathematically over, but I say this for a couple of reasons.  First, every one of the chasing teams in these division races are in the Wild Card race as well, so they aren’t really focused on trying to pull the mega-miracle of winning the division since they’re worried about they’re Wild Card chances.  Secondly, these teams would have to go on long losing streaks (more than just a couple here and there), and I don’t see any of these teams having that happen (in fact, most of them have pretty weak schedules the rest of the way).

I’ve mentioned 5 of MLB’s 6 divisions.  I’ve probably saved the best for last.  The NL Central has been the tightest race all year long, between the Cardinals, the Pirates, and the Reds.  Here’s how tight the race is now:  The Cardinals hold a 1 game lead over the Pirates, and a 2 game lead over the Reds.  Here’s how tight it has been all year:  The Cardinals biggest lead is 4 games, and their biggest deficit is 4 games.  The Pirates have the same numbers.  The Reds biggest lead is 2 games and biggest deficit is 6.5 games.

While only one team can win the NL Central, not all will be lost for the two who don’t.  As they stand, the Pirates and Reds hold the two Wild Card spots in the National League.  The only real pursuer of them is the Nationals, who sit 5 games behind.  The Diamondbacks haven’t yet been mathematically eliminated, but they are 9.5 games back and realistically out of the race.  Of course, the Nationals playoff prognosis at this point is pretty grim too.  The biggest objective of the NL Wild Card race now is really to see who is the first Wild Card team, and who is the second Wild Card team, since the first Wild Card team will host the NL Wild Card game on October 2.  (The same applies to the AL Wild Card game on October 3.)

The Wild Card race in the AL is the best Wild Card race in years; perhaps the best ever.  The Rays and Rangers are tied for the two Wild Card spots, but there are 4 teams hot on their heels.  The Indians are a half game back, with the Orioles 2 games back, the Royals 3 games back, and the Yankees 3.5 games back.  (The Angels are mathematically alive, but their “elimination number,” the opposite of the magic number, is 2).  These 6 teams have been back and forth and all around the standings over the last month or so, as this race has really tightened up.  It’s a shame only two of these teams can make the playoffs, particularly because the Rays struggled more so much of their history before a turn-around year in 2008,  the Orioles also struggled for so long before their run to the playoffs last year, the Indians have only one playoff berth since 2001, and haven’t won a World Series since 1948, and the Royals haven’t had a winning season since 2003 or a playoff berth since their World Series title in 1985.  I’m wondering about the possibility of there being a tie of anywhere from 2 to 6 teams for these Wild Card berths and adding tiebreaker games to the already scheduled one-game “series” between the top 2 Wild Card teams.

This is the ultimate time of year for any baseball fan.  Every game is so meaningful, as teams try to clinch or keep their hopes alive.  And besides, October baseball is just around the corner!

*(Note: The magic number is a stat used by players and fans alike to count down to a team’s mathematical clinching of a division title or playoff berth.  It is calculated by adding 1 to the number of games played (162+1=163) and then subtracting the wins of the team trying to clinch and the losses of the team chasing.  Any win by the team that is ahead or any loss by the team that is behind will make the magic number go down.  When it hits 0, the team chasing is mathematically eliminated.)