With the trade deadline almost upon us, the excitement of baseball's pennant races is growing. How much excitement are we talking about here? Certainly a ton -- but is it a long ton, a short ton, a portly ton, or a metric ton? And which one of those terms did I make up? We here at Sports on Earth recognize the difficulty in quantifying this, but we wanted to determine the exact "excitement level" for each division, costs be damned. So, with a crack team of scientists (not a team of scientists with crack), we set out to do just that.
Here's a discussion of the competitiveness in each division and a precise grade to go along with it. Remember, this is science, so there is no disputing our findings -- but, if you are the sort that disputes the undisputable, drop some grades in the comments.
We'll order this from least to most exciting. Try and contain your excitement. (All the stats listed are as of July 24.)
6. AL Central
Where It Stands Now:
- Two teams are seven games or less out of first place.
- Two teams are 10 games back or worse.
All season long this was the Tigers division. One team equals boooooring. Then, we collectively sneezed and the Royals were in first place. We reached for a tissue, wiped our noses, looked back up… and the Tigers were back in first place. Weird. We must've been seeing things.
Despite that momentary hallucination, the AL Central is the least exciting division in baseball because there is, at least when it comes to the top, one team in it. Sure, the Royals could go on another run, but they already went on their run of goodness and then went on an off-setting run of badness immediately afterwards. The Royals haven't hit much this season and considering the market for big bats along with Kansas City's payroll constraints it's tough to see that changing. There is probably a greater chance Cleveland can make a push, and indeed there are rumors the Indians will make a play for a big name pitcher like David Price. That would make the chasm between them and Detroit smaller, but it would still be a chasm, just a smaller one. Cleveland has scored fewer runs than Detroit has and allowed more, so unless they're going to add David Price and a great hitter, then Cleveland winning far more games than they lose remains improbable. So, it's Detroit, which is like that scene in Wayne's World where they go to Delaware. Huh. Detroit. Just Detroit. Yeah.
Grade: As exciting as an ad campaign for Delaware. Come to Delaware: Where it's always free to leave! (Eat that, New Jersey!)
5. NL East
Where It Stands Now:
- One team is within two games of first place.
- Three teams are eight games out of first place or worse.
The Braves and Nationals are both good baseball teams, but constant thrill rides they are not. Atlanta's only superstar candidate is Jason Heyward and he's been mediocre offensively this season (though excellent defensively). The Nats' big star is Bryce Harper who has been not that great and hurt most of the year. Stephen Strasburg has been great, though a bit unlucky, and thus the excitement levels have been dialed down during his starts. In the end, this division will be won by one of two relatively unexciting teams, and that just isn't that exciting.
Grade: As exciting as getting a new coaster at a restaurant. Sure, the old one was a bit beat up, and this one is nice and clean, but it's a drink coaster -- and who cares?
4. AL West
Where It Stands Now:
- One team is within 2 games of first place.
- Three teams are 9.5 games out of first place or worse.
There are three legitimately good teams in this division and that's usually exciting. But the reality is the divisional race is only between two teams -- as the Mariners have looked good, but don't have the offense to compete in the class with the Angels or A's (they'll still be in the wild card mix).
For their part, the Angels are what we thought they'd be, which is an excellent run scoring team (thanks, Mike Trout!), a good defensive team (thanks, Mike Trout!), and a mediocre pitching team (thanks, Mike Trout!). But when you're as good at scoring runs as the Angels are, being roughly average at the rest of it makes the total package quite good.
Normally that package would be good enough to lead the division, but the A's are as good at scoring runs as the Angels (maybe even a bit better) and better at pitching and defense. It's sad for the Angels (though not bending over to pick up a quarter and getting squashed by a piano sad) because in any other division they'd be the best team. It should make for a great sprint to the finish by these teams, but we know the winner is going to be one of them while the loser will likely make the postseason anyway, and that makes things a bit less compelling.
Grade: The same excitement level as buying Chinese food and getting a fortune cookie with two fortunes in it, but one of them says something vaguely cruel, like "Betting is unwise, and especially with your intellect." Well I… wait, huh?
3. NL West
Where It Stands Now:
- One team is within two games of first place
- Three teams are 12.5 games out of first place or worse.
Now, I know what you're going to say (because I'm totally psychic): "This is another division with just two teams in contention for the division title, as the Padres, Rockies, and Diamondbacks are all vying for higher slots in next year's draft. That's… not exciting." But a Giants/Dodgers struggle is! We love Giants/Dodgers struggles. They're historic! Bobby Thompson, Gil Hodges, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax. It's quite a list. Did you know Jackie Robinson retired rather than play for the Giants? Now that's a rivalry!*
*That story is probably apocryphal but even so, it's so good!
The Giants probably look like the team you'd identify after someone sings the "One of these things doesn't belong here" song, but they've stuck with the Dodgers long enough to expose some of LA's flaws and long enough to make improving at the deadline worth it. That plus they're the ones actually in first place. The Dodgers probably won't stand for that and will try to acquire another $20-million-a-year outfielder to bolster the team. The moves and counter moves at the deadline will be interesting to say the least, but the next two-plus months of what promises to be back-and-forth baseball between two very good teams should be nothing less than must-watch material.
Grade: As exciting as getting promoted at work from co-assistant manager to assistant manager. "Hey buddy, get the heck outta my new parking space! Yeah!"
2. AL East
Where It Stands Now:
- Two teams are within three games of first place.
- Two teams are seven games out of first place or worse.
This ranking is less about quality than quantity. It's the jumbo bag of nacho cheez-flavored corn chips division -- not any good by itself, but when you eat an entire one pound bag, oddly satisfying. Often the home of the best or one of the best teams in baseball, this season's AL East doesn't feature even one particularly good team, at least not as things stand now. The Orioles and Blue Jays have both spent significant time in first place this season more as placeholders than anything else, and the Yankees won't ever be allowed to give up no matter how bad they really are. Picture a holographic 3D George Steinbrenner repeatedly screaming, "DON'T EVER GIVE UP!" at Yankee staffers as they glumly file past on their way to the cafeteria and you'll get the idea.
Beyond that, the hottest teams in the division right now are the Red Sox and the Rays, both presumed sellers who are making noises about standing pat or even adding players to bolster a run. Considering both Tampa and Boston were expected to contend for the division at the beginning of the year and that, given their competition, neither is really all that far away from a playoff berth, this division could get really exciting in a hurry.
One thing that could ruin some of that drama is next week's trade deadline. Both the Red Sox and Rays have been exploring trading their ace pitchers; if either David Price or Jon Lester is dealt, the chances of a worst-to-first run in the division are lessened. True though it may be, I expect both to remain with their teams through the deadline. Price won't be traded because the Rays won't be offered enough (Tampa were offered Addison Russell by the A's and turned it down!) and Lester reportedly wants to stay in Boston, a fact the Red Sox will seize on to justify keeping him even if their record says they should do otherwise. It should be a big and jumbly mush to the finish this season in this division. That might not be great baseball -- but it should be entertaining. And that's what this list is all about!
Grade: The excitement level of a 10-minute shopping spree at a local toy store for 100 lucky kids. This is exciting! Someone will get some serious loot! Someone's going to break their leg! What will happen? I can't look away!
1. NL Central
Where It Stands Now:
- Two teams are within 2.5 games of first place.
- One team is 5.5 games out of first place.
- Then there are the Cubs.
The NL Central is the closest-knit division with the highest concentration of quality teams. The Cardinals went to the World Series last year and are widely considered to be one of the best (if not the best) organizations in baseball, and somehow they've been looking up at the Brewers all season. But as good as the Cardinals and Brewers are, the Pirates are now hot on their tails! Who outside of Pittsburgh is talking about the Pirates making the playoffs? Nobody, but with a small run of wins they sure could do a lot of damage. Picture Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco in an actual playoff series! Then there are the Reds, who lost Shin-Soo Choo last off-season, and Joey Votto during this season, yet Billy Hamilton has a bit of power (and projects to steal almost 70 bases), and Johnny Cueto can pitch, and Devin Mesoraco and Todd Frazier are having breakout years. That's fairly promising for a team in fourth place.
A division widely assumed to belong to the Cardinals as much as the AL Central belonged to the Tigers is wide open. The winner could be any one of those aforementioned teams, and the finish could be in any order you can imagine, with the wild card spots up for grabs as well. Everyone in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Milwaukee will be checking the standings over coffee each morning for the rest of the summer and into the fall.
Grade: As exciting as a four team pennant race. You can't beat that. You can't ever beat that.