How NL West could be greatest tight race

Last month, after the Padres acquired Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, and Ha-seong Kim — but before they’d traded for Joe Musgrove, or the Dodgers added Trevor Bauer, or the Rockies dealt away Nolan Arenado for little return — FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski ran his ZiPS projection system and came away with dual 98-64 projections for the two behemoths out West, noting at the time that “this is the best divisional race ZiPS has ever projected, going on two decades of prognostications.”

Best ever? Before those extra moves? Consider us intrigued.

We haven’t seen the updated numbers yet, which would now include Musgrove, Bauer and a weakened Colorado team that will face the Padres and Dodgers a combined 38 times, but we’d guess they’re better. Maybe “pair of 100-win teams” better, even. Maybe it doesn’t matter; “100” sounds nice, but it’s not really functionally different from 99.

But what we do know is this: The NL West has, at worst, two of the three best teams in baseball, and they can’t both win the division. Since it’s likely we’re not going to have an expanded postseason in 2021, there’s a far greater emphasis on getting to first place and avoiding that one-game Wild Card Game. Getting first place matters a lot. There’s two great teams looking to get it. You can see where this is going. We’re not going to decide today who is going to actually win the West, though we’re definitely circling “Padres at Dodgers, Sept. 28 through 30” in the next-to-last series of the year on our schedule.

We’re more interested in this: Could this be the greatest 1-2 divisional race, even further back than Szymborski alluded to? We’ll have to use outcomes, not projections, but let’s say these two teams play as well as they’re expected to. What would happen if a 101-win Dodger team beats out a 100-win Padre team, or vice-versa? Is only the outcome important, or what happens along the way?

How … do you even measure that?

We can’t, first, overstate the value of winning the division, waiting at home and resting your arms, as opposed to coming in second. It’s not that a Wild Card team can’t or doesn’t ever win the World Series; the Nationals did it as recently as 2019. It’s just that it’s a lot harder. Since the Wild Card was first introduced in 1995 (it was a single team per league through 2011, then two from 2012-’19), there have been 66 Wild Card teams prior to 2020. Just seven have won the World Series. There’s a great deal of value in avoiding that one-game coin flip, and the likelihood of that playoff system as compared to the 2020 expanded field might have motivated the Dodgers to keep adding to a great team in the first place.

They might not be done, either. They still don’t really have a third baseman. Maybe that’s the return of long-time star Justin Turner, still a free agent. Maybe that’s a trade of Dustin May or Tony Gonsolin for Matt Chapman, or someone like him. Regardless: They’ll be great if they don’t make a move, and great if they do. So will the Padres. It’s going to be an incredibly entertaining race. What might it look like, historically?

Let’s begin here. There have been 10 teams in Major League history to win 100 games and not finish in first. That would seem to be a decent starting point.

2018 Yankees (100-62, 8 games behind Red Sox)
2001 A’s (102-60, 14 games behind Mariners)
1993 Giants (103-59, 1 game behind Braves)
1980 Orioles (100-62, 3 games behind Yankees)
1962 Dodgers* (102-63, 1 game behind Giants)
1961 Tigers (101-61, 8 games behind Yankees)
1954 Yankees (103-51, 8 games behind Indians)
1942 Dodgers (104-50, 2 games behind Cardinals)
1915 Tigers (100-54, 1 game behind Red Sox)
1909 Cubs (104-49, 6 games behind Pirates)

“Being tied with 101 wins after 162 games, requiring a playoff” as those ’62 Giants and Dodgers were, seems like a pretty spectacular pennant race. But do all of these really count as exciting races? For example: The 2001 A’s and Mariners were both excellent. But finishing 14 games out, as the A’s did, hardly seems like an exciting race. At the beginning of August, when they were 20 games out, it wasn’t even a race at all.

Maybe we need to look at something more specific to ‘great races.’ Let’s look only at races where multiple teams in contention with one another had a .600 winning percentage, which is a 97-win pace over 162 games and 92 wins over the old 154-game schedule. Dating back to 1945, there were 27 such races, and we’ll knock out the five that ended up being decided by more than five games. We’re left with 22 great races.

But that’s just end of the season. We’re greedy. We want excitement for six months, because neither the Padres nor Dodgers are out-of-nowhere teams; they’re each expected to be great from start to end. Surely there must be extra credit given for a great race between great teams that plays out over the entire season. Right?

To that end, let’s sort those races by how many of their games they ended within five games of one another. That is, the 2001 A’s and Mariners were within 5 games of each other at the end of only 10 games — all coming to start the season — which isn’t much of a race. (Seattle got up to a 10-game lead on April 25 and spent every day the rest of the season with a double-digit lead.) The 1962 Dodgers and Giants spent 160 games no further than five games apart, which is incredible.

Basically, we’re not looking for this:

So we looked through each of those races to find the ones that were the closest all year long. That excluded some of history’s best comebacks, like that ’93 Braves/Giants race (San Francisco blew a 10-game lead) and the ’51 “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” Giants/Dodgers race (Brooklyn blew a 13-game lead).

We found many that weren’t that right at all. We found a handful — like two different Yankees/Indians races in the 1950s — with just a few days of being more than 5 games apart. The ’62 Dodgers/Giants race had two days, and only ever so slightly; the Dodgers were up by 5.5 games for two days in early August. We found three that had 0 such days.

1948 AL (Yankees / Red Sox / Indians)
1950 AL (Yankees / Red Sox / Tigers)
1977 AL East (Yankees / Red Sox / Orioles)

Interestingly, all three were three-team races, all came in the American League, and all — shocker! — featured the Yankees and Red Sox. That ’77 three-teamer looked like this, in case you’re wondering how tight that was. At the end, the Yankees (100 wins) beat the Red Sox and Orioles (97 wins) by 2.5 games. (Yet still didn’t have the best record in the league, since Kansas City won 102 games.)

While we actually really like what the rebuilding Giants are doing right now, they’re clearly not in the same league as the Dodgers and Padres are, so if you’re into great three-team pennant races, you won’t find that in the National League West in 2021.

Either way, two of those three took place decades before the concept of divisional play. If you’re looking for the greatest 1-2 full-season tight race between two great teams, we might put our money on that ’62 Dodgers-Giants race, given that it did end in a tie. But if you’re looking for something in the divisional era, the closest we can point you to is 1985, when the Cardinals (98 wins) topped the Mets (97 wins), though with 17 different instances of the teams being more than five games apart. (That 1993 race, again, while viewed as classic, wasn’t always that close until the end.)

So, if the Dodgers and Padres each post a winning percentage of more than .600 — perfectly reasonable on both counts — and if they do in such a way where they’re regularly neck-and-neck, could this be the best 1-2 divisional race?” We’re not prepared to say “ever,” because some pretty classic things happened since 1969. But in the divisional era? It’s got a shot. These teams are that good. They’re that close.

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