Let me be clear: This is in no way a knock on the baseball team that plays in Cobb County, GA. They overcame injuries (one to one of the best players in baseball), the manager and GM both had very good seasons, and they went 11-5 against three very good teams in the postseason. Congratulations to them on a job well done.
My post today is a reminder that randomness and luck have an enormous impact on teams’ success (or failures). Because if the Braves didn’t play in a historically bad division, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today because the Braves wouldn’t have been in the postseason.
On June 16th of this season, the Braves were 30-35 and 8 games out of first place in the NL East. They were also 9.5 games out of a Wild Card spot, behind seven other teams.
After winning 14 of their next 24, they still finished action on July 11th 4.5 games out of first in the NL East with an 8% chance of making the postseason and a 0.4% chance of winning the World Series (according to FanGraphs). Here’s where they would have stood on that date had they played in the other divisions:
AL East – 9 games out of first.
AL Central – 10 out.
AL West – 9 out.
AL WC – 6.5 out, with 6 teams in front of them.
NL Central – 7 out
NL West – 13 out
NL WC – 7 out with four teams in front of them.
Keep in mind, those numbers don’t consider that had they played in another division, they would have had a tougher schedule and their record would have been even worse. Had they been in any other division, GM Alex Anthopoulos would have put for sale signs on pretty much every player on the team in mid-July – but they didn’t, they played in the AA National League East.
Instead of a fire sale, some good trades were made, they started hitting the ball over the wall like crazy, they started defensive shifting more than any team in baseball, and they had a great two and one-half months of baseball.
Yet again, 55 of their last 79 games were against sub .500 teams. (That’s not counting the seven games against the 82-80 Phillies who had a 79-83 Pythagorean record.) In spite of the good fortune, they still finished with the 12th best record in MLB.
To be clear, I’m not even sure if this is a problem for MLB. And if it is, it certainly isn’t anywhere near the top of the list of their problems, and I’m not sure if I’d have a suggestion on how to fix it.
Just let this post serve as a reminder that a great way to increase your team’s chances of success is to choose the division in which you play wisely. Tony LaRussa has been doing that for four decades at this point and it’s working out pretty well for him.