Divisional Balance and the historic 2022 AL East

One of the things I like to track year over year is how good each of baseball's divisions are. Given the unbalanced schedule, divisional strength plays a fairly large role in overall records and it can be challenging to compare teams across divisions. I think that looking at overall divisional quality helps us better understand how good teams really are.

The simple metric that I like to use to understand divisional quality is aggregate divisional run differential. If you add up the total run differential of each division, the result will give you the division's overall performance against non-divisional opponents as in-division games automatically wash out in terms of run differential.

Currently, the 2022 AL East is on pace to set a high water mark for divisional quality by this metric. If the division keeps playing at the current rate, they will finish with a run differential in the mid 400's. I can't recall ever seeing a number like this before, so I went through the data for each year since the divisional re-alignment (except for 2020). Here is what I found:

  1. 2015 AL East (304)
  2. 2018 AL West (256)
  3. 2016 AL East (243)
  4. 2021 NL West (229)
  5. 2013 AL East (222)
  6. 2013 NL West (219)
  7. 2021 AL East (214)
  8. 2018 NL West (155)
  9. 2014 NL West (150)
  10. 2019 AL West (143)
  11. 2017 AL East (116)
  12. 2015 NL Central (108)
  13. 2019 NL East (102)
  14. 2016 NL Central (90)
  15. 2018 AL East (88)
  16. 2017 AL West (71)
  17. 2017 NL West (61)
  18. 2019 NL Central (39)
  19. 2017 NL Central (39)
  20. 2018 NL Central (32)
  21. 2019 AL East (36)
  22. 2014 AL East (24)
  23. 2014 NL East (21)
  24. 2019 NL West (18)
  25. 2015 AL West (10)
  26. 2013 AL Central (3)
  27. 2016 AL West (-26)
  28. 2015 NL West (-40)
  29. 2014 NL Central (-50)
  30. 2021 AL West (-61)
  31. 2014 Al Central (-65)
  32. 2016 NL West (-66)
  33. 2014 NL West (-80)
  34. 2017 AL Central (-81)
  35. 2021 NL East (-83)
  36. 2015 AL Central (-85)
  37. 2016 AL Central (-103)
  38. 2018 NL East (-111)
  39. 2021 AL Central (-116)
  40. 2013 AL West (-136)
  41. 2016 NL East (-138)
  42. 2013 NL Central (-141)
  43. 2013 NL East (-167)
  44. 2021 NL Central (-183)
  45. 2017 NL East (-206)
  46. 2015 NL East (-297)
  47. 2019 AL Central (-338)
  48. 2018 AL Central (-420)

So currently the AL East is on pace to exceed the #1 division since 2012 by approximately 50%. That is wild. The only result on the list that is even as close to extreme is the last place 2018 AL Central with it's -420 differential.

I wish I had a better grasp of how to use this information to handicap team performance, but sadly I don't. I am going to take another dive in and look to see how playoff performance might align to divisional quality.

Here are how the divisions rank in the post 2012 period (again, not counting 2020):

  1. AL East: 1247
  2. NL West 496
  3. AL West: 407
  4. NL Central: -66
  5. NL East -879
  6. AL Central: -1205
The AL East is simply far and away the best division in baseball over this time period. They haven't had a single season with a negative run differential in the entire span. Meanwhile, the AL Central is a joke of a division with only one season with a positive run differential (and that was a +3).

Strangely, it seems that, despite the unbalanced schedule, over this span divisional quality hasn't suppressed post-season appearances. The AL East has taken 9 Wild Card slots to the AL West's 4 and AL Central's 3.

It also hasn't seemed to impact post-season success that much. Over the span the AL East is 18-14 in postseason series, the AL Central is 9-10 and the AL West is 9-9. A lot of the difference comes from Wild Card games, in which the AL East is 6-3. Looking only at divisional series and beyond the AL East is 12-11, the AL Central and West are both 8-8. Interestingly the AL Central's success is almost entirely due to the 2014-15 Royals and the AL West's success rests heavily on the 2017-2021 Astros, while the AL East is represented by basically every team with only the Rays lacking any deep runs.

I'm not really sure what to make of all of this and would love to hear your thoughts.
 

jon abbey

Shanghai Warrior
Dope
SoSH Member
Jul 15, 2005
62,236
Nice post, good topic.

It's also worth noting that all of the AL East teams are also building for the future, with the semi-exception of TOR who are trying to build around their core of Bichette/Vlad before they get too pricy and are being very aggressive. The latest Fangraphs farm rankings:

BAL (1)
TB (3)
NYY (8)
BOS (9)
TOR (24)
 

Gdiguy

Member
SoSH Member
Jul 15, 2005
5,409
San Diego, CA
Very interesting... though I think the answer isn't what this board wants to hear :)

If you plot the run differential by team for those top 3 in your list + the 2022 AL East (scaled to 162 games), there's 2 things that are notable:

52568

1) It's pretty uncommon for the 4th best team in the division to be at +45 runs; I'm not going to go figure out exactly how rare that is, but it's certainly pretty impressive (and then the 5th team, while bad, isn't nearly as bad as you'd expect given how good the rest of the division is).

2) Arguably the biggest driver, though, is that the NYY (at a scaled +359 run differential) would be in the top 10 run differentials of all time, and the highest since the 1939 Yankees ( https://www.statmuse.com/mlb/ask/which-mlb-team-had-the-best-run-differential-season ).
 

grimshaw

Member
SoSH Member
May 16, 2007
3,893
Portland
I think until at least the next collective bargaining agreement we are going to start to see more parity than ever for several reasons:

-Extra playoff spots and games = more incentive for marginal teams to try and compete for all that extra revenue.
-Fewer impact trades as a result of the above, the sellers market and the hard 8-1 deadline where the majority of the teams are still in it.
-The luck-based nature of multiple short series with top heavy pitching staffs combined with days off, shorter bench and bigger roster.
-A closer to even schedule for all MLB teams beginning next season.
 

jon abbey

Shanghai Warrior
Dope
SoSH Member
Jul 15, 2005
62,236
I think until at least the next collective bargaining agreement we are going to start to see more parity than ever for several reasons:

-Extra playoff spots and games = more incentive for marginal teams to try and compete for all that extra revenue.
A complicated topic but the 2nd and 3rd wild cards don't get any home playoff games unless they win a series, the three game first round series are entirely at the higher seeds.

Also, maybe you have teams going for the 3rd wild card who wouldn't otherwise, but the more playoff teams there are, the less need there is for the top teams to spend extra money since they are even more likely to make the postseason anyway. The byes for the top two seeds does help here, though.

Right now, with six playoff spots in each league, we have:

AL:

7 teams trying to win and above .500 currently
4 teams trying to win (CHW, LAA, TEX, SEA) and under .500 currently
1 team trying to win and lousy (DET)
3 teams not really trying

NL:

8 teams trying to win and above .500 currently
1 young team maybe trying to win but still under .500 (MIA)
6 teams not really trying

I don't think a sixth spot changes much, and you could even see a scenario where two of the three 'top' AL Central teams fall off, none of the non-HOU West teams put it together, and the six playoff teams are pretty set down the stretch.
 

jon abbey

Shanghai Warrior
Dope
SoSH Member
Jul 15, 2005
62,236
But now I'm confused, are you talking about both the regular season and the postseason here? Because we all know those are very different things.

-The luck-based nature of multiple short series with top heavy pitching staffs combined with days off, shorter bench and bigger roster.
Switching from a 1 game wild card to a 3 game series reduces the luck factor some, and I'm not sure what you mean by 'shorter bench' (there will be more position players on a roster in a 3 game series than in the regular season presumably, because you don't need 13 pitchers to cover 3 games with off days).

Maybe I just need a clarification post from you.
 

wade boggs chicken dinner

Member
SoSH Member
Mar 26, 2005
26,758
I think until at least the next collective bargaining agreement we are going to start to see more parity than ever for several reasons:

* * * *

-A closer to even schedule for all MLB teams beginning next season.
Wouldn't the more balanced schedule create less parity? For example, the Red Sox are going from playing 57 games versus MFY, TB, and TOR to playing 42 games. Those 15 extra games are going to be against (generally) worse teams.
 

grimshaw

Member
SoSH Member
May 16, 2007
3,893
Portland
A complicated topic but the 2nd and 3rd wild cards don't get any home playoff games unless they win a series, the three game first round series are entirely at the higher seeds.

Also, maybe you have teams going for the 3rd wild card who wouldn't otherwise, but the more playoff teams there are, the less need there is for the top teams to spend extra money since they are even more likely to make the postseason anyway. The byes for the top two seeds does help here, though.

Right now, with six playoff spots in each league, we have:

AL:

7 teams trying to win and above .500 currently
4 teams trying to win (CHW, LAA, TEX, SEA) and under .500 currently
1 team trying to win and lousy (DET)
3 teams not really trying

NL:

8 teams trying to win and above .500 currently
1 young team maybe trying to win but still under .500 (MIA)
6 teams not really trying

I don't think a sixth spot changes much, and you could even see a scenario where two of the three 'top' AL Central teams fall off, none of the non-HOU West teams put it together, and the six playoff teams are pretty set down the stretch.
I'm not really counting this season because of how the past off-season went. I just think in general, small market teams will be able to do soft rebuilds instead of spending years hoping everything breaks right with their drafts and competitors windows closing. The Royals, Orioles and Pirates for example have fans that would kill for an 80 win season right now.

The short bench thing was late night blathering that makes no sense to me this AM, which is weird because I don't drink.
 

snowmanny

Member
SoSH Member
Dec 8, 2005
13,770
The increase in wild card teams mitigates this a bit, but there certainly is a competitive advantage to being in certain divisions. That being said, it is crazy that there is a 2000+ run differential between the AL East and NL East. In terms of market advantages, I'd submit that the NY teams should theoretically cancel each other out, same for Boston-Philly, Tampa-Miami, , Atlanta-Toronto, and Baltimore-Washington.. It's all management, especially NYY, Boston, Tampa vs Mets, Phils, Marlins.
 

j-man

Member
Dec 19, 2012
2,658
Arkansas
i am happed shocked about NY this year

and for the red sox fans that post d'ont worry about any long domint ny teams because
1 Judge was likely sit up for a 300 mil deal before the season now its 400 mil will hal pay i have my doubts
2 u have to wonder is some players juied IE the SP'S and rizzo juiced i hope not but it has crossed my mind ducked
 

jon abbey

Shanghai Warrior
Dope
SoSH Member
Jul 15, 2005
62,236
I believe what he means is that they are 152-99 combined in non-division games, which is 98-64 pace.
 

BaseballJones

ivanvamp
SoSH Member
Oct 1, 2015
17,768
But it's not just a division of five mediocre teams. It's a division where three teams are very good (Boston, Toronto, Tampa), the worst team is average (Baltimore), and the best team is otherworldly (New York).

An absolute powerhouse division.
 

jon abbey

Shanghai Warrior
Dope
SoSH Member
Jul 15, 2005
62,236
Latest AL East numbers, via James Smyth:

162-108 outside the division
.600 win%, 97 wins per 162 games

AL East Outside AL East

Yankees 34-15 .694
Red Sox 36-19 .655
Blue Jays 34-25 .576
Orioles 30-25 .545
Rays 28-24 .538