Saturday, July 07, 2007

The NL "Comedy" Central?

If you follow Major League Baseball, you've probably heard the NL Central referred to as "the worst division in baseball." It's a commonly held view, and in fact, I've never heard anyone challenge the notion. To the contrary, I've even heard people say it's "the worst division in all of sports."

Granted, the NL Central hasn't always been considered the worst in baseball, but I'd say this view began shortly after McGwire retired in 2001. (Previously, the NL Central had been fondly known as "Home Run Central" with Sosa, McGwire, and Griffey.)

So why the fall from glory? How could one division in baseball go from being considered the crown jewel of MLB entertainment to the laughingstock that gets no respect? Is the NL Central really the worst division in baseball? Well, let's take a closer look...

Right off the bat, when judging the quality of any division in any sport, I would take a look at how its representative(s) perform in the league-wide playoffs at season's end. After all, this is when the best teams compete under the most pressure for the ultimate prize. When applying this standard to the MLB's NL Central, we quickly find that this division actually produced the MLB's grand champion last year--The St. Louis Cardinals.

Obviously, everyone knows the Cardinals won the World Series last year; and just because they did well doesn't mean the NL Central isn't the worst division in baseball. After all, a division should be judged in total by the performance of each of its teams, right?

Well, one curious fact about the NL Central is that it's the only division in baseball with 6 teams, which is more than any other division. Most divisions only have 5, and the AL West only has 4. In the MLB, any team that wins its division gets into the playoffs, so statistically speaking, it stands to reason that it's tougher to win a 6-team division than a 4-team division. Sure, it depends on the quality of teams too, but over the long haul you'd rather be competing against 3 teams than 5.

But what else can we deduce from a 6-team division? Well, with that many teams it's more likely that you'll have at least one that's really good or one that's really bad. It also increases the likelihood that you'll have two that are really good--or two that are really bad, which I think brings us to the problem.

Last year, while the Cardinals won the World Series, two other members of the NL Central, the Cubs and Pirates, had the 3rd and 4th worst records in baseball respectively. Go back to 2005, the Pirates tied for 2nd worst record in baseball. In 2004, the Brewers tied for 4th worst in baseball. In 2003, the Brewers tied for 5th worst and the Reds for 6th worst. In 2002, the Brewers had the 2nd worst record in baseball.

However, over the same 5-year span, 2002-2006, let's look at how the NL Central performed in the playoffs:

2006 - Cards win World Series.
2005 - Astros top Cards in NLCS, but lose in World Series.
2004 - Cards top Astros in NLCS, but lose in World Series.
2003 - Cubs lose to Marlins in NLCS.
2002 - Cards lose to Giants in NLCS.

Over the last 5 years, the NL Central has had 7 teams make the NLCS, 3 teams make the World Series, and 1 team win it all. For comparison, here are the numbers for all 6 divisions in baseball based on LCS appearances/WS appearances/WS championships:

AL East - 4/2/1
AL Central - 3/2/1
AL West - 3/1/1

NL East - 2/1/1
NL Central - 7/3/1
NL West - 1/1/0

You'll notice that over the past five years, the NL Central has sent more teams to the League Championship Series and World Series than any other division in baseball. Furthermore, the NL Central's one World Series championship is as many as any other division in baseball since 2001. (Interestingly, over the past 6 years, each division in baseball has won the World Series exactly once.)

So my only point is that, based on the numbers I've seen, the NL Central seems to hold its own with the other divisions (especially in the playoffs); and I wouldn't be surprised if yet another NL Central team advances to the NLCS this year. I guess we'll have to wait and see. Time will tell if the NL "Comedy" Central gets the last laugh (again).

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