This year a .500 team could win the World Series

Scott Cunningham

The major-league standings are collapsing in on themselves, though with baseball's expanded playoffs it may not matter.

The first year of baseball's expanded playoffs was rough. There was a field littered with aluminum beer cans and bottles in the wake of a badly botched infield fly call that sent the Braves home before their October even got started, but the play-in round endures. Debating whether or not the expanded postseason, which allows for a one-game play in between two wild-card teams, devalues the regular season or is good for baseball in general is pointless considering that the changes went into effect two seasons ago and change in baseball is glacial. You could waste your time on a strongly worded letter to Bud Selig, but it's probably best to sit back and accept that now one-third of the teams in the league will enter the playoffs each season, if only just for one day.

The wild-card expansion has some ardent supporters (most of whom live in Kansas City, Seattle, and Toronto), but even they might concede that allowing more teams could lead to problems. This baseball season has been messy enough thus far that it might finally yield the undesired outcome that people have feared since baseball adopted the wild card in the first place: a really bad team makes the playoffs, or worse, even wins the World Series.

I don't mean to suggest that this is an issue tantamount to the end of days, but this season seems the ingredients needed to produce an average winner. The playoffs have expanded, which will give more teams an opportunity. The game is riddled with injuries to key players, with the supposed Tommy John epidemic lurking behind every team's pitcher's mound. A once dominant division, the AL East, has imploded, leaving perennial contenders (including the reigning World Series Champions) crumbling under the stress of age and missing offense. Even the Blue Jays, who seemed to be on the verge of putting together a run that stood to break their 20-year playoff drought, had gone 4-11 over 15 games heading into Monday night's action. This pushed them down to an 88-win pace, and with recent injuries to Brett Lawrie and Jose Bautista (who is expected back relatively soon, but hamstring injuries have a tendency to linger), they might not get back to winning consistently any time soon -- unless they end up with more games like Monday night's against the Yankees, where they get to face a guy who is, on paper, a team's eighth starter.

It's undoubtedly hard to quantify how big of an effect these factors will have on final win totals, but it's an issue further complicated by expanded interleague play, which has handicapped some teams in terms of strength of schedule. In some cases, standings adjusted for strength of schedule reveal a dramatic reordering of the teams.

Even the earlier two- and three-tiered playoff system didn't provide full insulation against bad teams sneaking through to the final round; there have been some lame pennant and World Series winners in the past. Still, judging by current performance we may be on the verge of the lamest season yet. The A's, playing at a 100-win pace and sporting a run differential that nearly triples the next-closest team (+135 entering Tuesday versus the Giants' +46), may prove to be the closest thing we have to a great team this year. Everyone else inspires distrust -- distrust that they might just carry through the playoffs and get lucky. Historically we have seen weak teams enter the postseason atop softer divisions (and others as wild cards) and if they get hot at just the right moment, they have been able to pick off better teams to win the World Series. The weakest World Series Champions in history by regular-season winning percentage:

YEAR

PCT

W

L

1

Cardinals

2006

.516

83

78

2

Twins

1987

.525

85

77

3

Yankees

2000

.540

87

74

T4

A's

1974

.556

90

72

T4

Cardinals

2011

.556

90

72

T6

Marlins

2003

.562

91

71

T6

Phillies

1980

.562

91

71

T6

Reds

1990

.562

91

71

T6

Royals

1985

.562

91

71

10

Dodgers

1959

.564

88

68

The reaction to these weak winners, the perception of whether or not they deserved their success, has traditionally been in the eye of the beholder. It's hard to dispute the greatness of teams like the 1975 or 1976 Reds (108 and 102 wins in the regular season, respectively) or the 1984 Tigers (104), but teams like the 1987 Twins have stuck their place in history by being characterized as being scrappy underdogs who made the most of their limited resources to find postseason success. The 1990 Reds had both the Nasty Boys and the Nasty Owner that people loved to hate (the Boys for their pitching, the owner for her racism, anti-Semitism, and odd habit of rubbing dog hair on manager Lou Piniella's bare chest). The most recent lackluster champs, the 2006 Cardinals, were seen as undeserving given the 85-77 Phillies were left out of the postseason altogether despite having a better record (something that also happened to the 1981 Reds, who had the best record in baseball but didn't make the playoffs due to that seasons bifurcated format -- they had the best record overall, but not the best record in either half). This, ironically, left some people clamoring for an expansion or revision of the Wild Card, which could potentially breed even weaker winners.

Lou_piniella_1990_medium

Lou Piniella: "But if I lose this argument, she'll make me wear a dog home!" (Getty Images)

The environment in the league this season might suggest it could happen more often, so a hypothetical for you: A team with 81 wins (or fewer) picks up the second wild card. A combination of good luck and timely good pitching washes them into the World Series. They then take it all, knocking off a team that actually managed a winning record. The simple question, of course, is "Are you going to be okay with that?" Personally, I'm more of a traditionalist and the prospect bothers the hell out of me.

The hypothetical 81-81 to make the playoffs suggested here may be unrealistically low, but then again, perhaps it's not. There has never been an 81-win team toting a trophy, but the aforementioned 2006 Cardinals came close with a .516 record, or 83 wins, and they weren't even a Wild Card team-they won the National League Central outright. The 1973 Mets had 82 wins and a .509 win percentage, riding a 19-8 September into the playoffs. They didn't win the Series, but along with the aforementioned Cardinals, 1987 Twins, and 1997 Indians, they are one of four pennant winners with a sub .540 win percentage. Recall also the division-winning 2005 San Diego Padres, who with less than a week to go in the regular season held a four-game lead and a 77-79 record. It took winning five of their last six games for them to finish at 82-80. Though they were quickly knocked out of the playoffs by the Cardinals, it's easy to envision an alternate reality in which they went further, riding a random Khalil Greene hot streak to the top.

We did not have to confront this issue last season since all four wild card teams had north of a .556 win percentage, but this season win percentages have dipped by comparison. If the postseason started today, the Angels (.554 or a 90-win pace) and Orioles (.533, 86 wins) or Mariners (.532. 86 wins) would be in for the American League. In the National League, the Cardinals (.545, 88 wins) and Dodgers (.538, 87 wins) would make it. In contrast, if we use this point in time as a cut off for last season, the Wild Card teams would have been the Athletics (.564), Yankees (.547), Reds (.584), and Braves (.571).

Note that there's not much room for slippage on the part of the leaders for this prophecy of mediocrity to come true: teams like the Royals (.526, 85-win pace), Yankees (.520, 84 wins), Braves (.507, 82 wins) and Reds (also .507) are not far behind.

We're about a week away from the season's halfway point, so there is still time for teams to improve, but  we might be forced to lower our expectations of how many wins it takes to reach the postseason. For example, the old reality was that it took an average of 95 wins to capture the AL East over the past 10 seasons; going forward, until such time as the teams in the division fully rebuild, maybe it takes a fewer wins. The AL East has been down before; the difference is that we haven't seen a corresponding rise elsewhere.

The obvious question here isn't about fairness, but whether or not any of it really matters. The answer is sorta -- no World Series outcome will ever create universal happiness. When there's only a three-percent chance that the team you support will be victorious there will always be room for quibbling, but as a collective we have mostly accepted that the team that wins the Series doesn't necessarily need to have the best record in the regular season. What we have a harder time accepting, however, is what I'll call the Bobby Cox Phenomenon, in which teams that dominated the regular season are eliminated by weaker ones that barely snuck into the postseason in the first place. On its face it seems unjust, a cheat at the end of the marathon. It's unclear just how often that disparity might be felt with the expanded playoffs creating the possibility of more teams with winning percentages hovering in the low .500s earning playoff spots.

We're told to prepare for the unexpected, sure, but there's enough history and human nature to suggest that disappointment is inevitable, particularly when something unique -- or in this case, literally average -- happens.

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