Welcome to the 2017 division series, where every team is elite and every series has the realistic potential to go five games. Both the talent and team depth on display this October is staggering.
Cleveland has maybe the best pitching staff ever. Houston has maybe the best offense since the Ruth-Gehrig Yankees. The Dodgers looked like maybe the best team ever until September. The Cubs return almost every contributing member of last year’s team, which was one of the best ever.
And their opponents, while less historic at their hyperbolic bests, are no slouches either. The Yankees have 2017’s WAR leader and represent the latest point in bullpens’ evolutionary curve. Boston beat those Yankees in a division race. Arizona won its regular-season series against the maybe-best-team-ever. The Nationals have the best top-end talent of any team in the majors.
Writing for FanGraphs this week, Jeff Sullivan found that twice as many playoff rosters reached 50 WAR as a year ago. “I don’t know the last time there was such a clear distinction between the haves and have-nots,” Sullivan wrote of the playoff teams versus the rest of the league. “I don’t know the last time there were so many haves.”
The answer is at least a decade ago, and perhaps never before in the wild-card era, depending on the analytical measure in question. The eight teams remaining won an average of 96.6 games, the highest of any division series octet in 15 years. That year’s Angels-Giants World Series was the first finals matchup of two wild-card teams, in part because they were atypically just as strong as the division winners and thereby raised the field’s average wins total.
But in 2002, the best teams were also the luckiest. Six of eight playoff teams that year outperformed their Pythagorean record—some by upward of half a dozen wins—which estimates what a team’s record “should have” been based on run differential and is a better gauge of team strength than pure win-loss record. In 2017, conversely, no playoff team beat its Pythagorean record by more than two games, and teams like the Indians (minus-six) and Yankees (minus-nine) vastly underperformed their estimated wins totals.
By run differential, this year’s crop of division series teams is by far the most dominant since the inception of that playoff round, with an average Pythagorean record of 98-64.
Even in the pre-wild-card era, playoff teams didn’t usually exhibit such concentrated strength. The Pythagorean average this year is the highest among any playoff cluster since 1977—which is especially surprising given that from 1977 through 1993, only four teams reached the postseason each year, making it easier for the very best teams to skew an “average” computation.
In 2017, it’s not just that the very best teams—Cleveland and the Dodgers—would be the best in most years; it’s that the second-tier squads behind them would also be the best in most years. As reflected in the Pythagorean average, there are no October flukes like last year’s Rangers, who won an unsustainable percentage of close games and predictably fell to a superior, if lower seeded, Toronto squad in the ALDS.
By more granular measures, too, it’s clear that the “haves,” as Sullivan put it, have everything worth having for a baseball team. Folding in wild-card losers Minnesota and Colorado, the top eight lineups in runs scored made the playoffs, as did the top nine in team OPS; so did the top seven pitching staffs in both ERA and FIP and the top eight in strikeouts. And with both New York and Arizona defeating Minnesota and Colorado, respectively, in the wild-card round, the two home—read: better—wild-card teams advanced for the first time under the current format, increasing the division series competition even further.
This concentration of “haves” might well prove a one-year blip, and next season might return to typical average win totals and the presence of a fluky playoff entrant or two. But the most compelling factor behind this year’s bunching of the best teams is that they engaged in a talent arms race, with one team’s All-Star addition spurring a competitor’s move in turn.
Both the Astros and Yankees traded for their ALDS Game 1 starters this summer, while the Dodgers nabbed Yu Darvish, the Nationals remade their entire bullpen, the Diamondbacks acquired their cleanup hitter, and the Cubs added their best starting pitcher of the second half. Throw in Boston’s Chris Sale blockbuster and Cleveland’s Edwin Encarnación signing from the offseason, and all eight division series teams made significant upgrades in the past year. (And that rundown omits secondary transactions from certain teams, like the Yankees, who also boosted their bullpen in July, and the Diamondbacks, who traded for their NLDS Game 1 likely starter and starting shortstop last winter.)
For many of those teams, a place in October was already secure, and the win-now trades—like Cleveland’s and Chicago’s for Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman, respectively, last season—were designed solely with the playoffs in mind. There is no secret formula to winning in the postseason, so a team’s best bet is just to make itself as good as possible overall.
A downside to the predominance of teams at that comfortable, forward-looking level at the trade deadline was the lack of September drama. By the Saturday after the All-Star Game, the Cubs surpassed 75 percent playoff odds, and for the remaining 11 weeks of the season, only the Yankees among this group ever dipped below that confidence level. In other words, for seven of the eight division series teams, the entire second half was an exercise in fortifying rosters for October, but not ever worrying about actually missing the postseason. (For the Yankees, only the last six weeks were like that; they must have been so comparatively stressed.)
Notice, too, on this graph that the six division winners all started the season with better than 75 percent playoff odds. The favorites all played like the favorites, which makes for an uneventful regular season—but also yields an October bracket full of favorites, and therefore matchups between juggernauts.
The 2017 regular season entertained with shining individual performances rather than playoff races, but now, just a few playoff games in, the sport is already doling out a high dosage of October excitement. Both wild-card games were an Aaron Judge–quality blast, and the fun should only escalate as the rounds progress and the superlative-laden teams engage in the drama of an extended playoff series.