How To Win Your Division

The goal of a baseball team during the regular season is to win their division. It’s been that way for quite some time, and now with a playoff format that includes a one-game playoff between two wild card teams, it is even more important to win the division and avoid elimination on game 163. So, what is the best way for a team to win their division? Why, that’s simple, win more games than anyone else in the division! Case closed, problem solved, what a silly question this author posed. Move along, reader. 

Or, slow down speed racer, and let’s think about an old baseball idiom and test if it is actually true. It is often said that in baseball, all you have to do is play .500 ball against the rest of the league, and then beat your division opponents in head-to-head matchups. That gets you in the playoffs. It also puts a greater priority on beating your rivals than the rest of the league, which seems both true and misleading at the same time. It seems true because those in-division games result in a full game change in the standings. It’s misleading, because every game is just one of 162, none being more valuable than the others. So which is it?

Looking back on the last eight years of baseball results (2004-2011), we can start to paint the picture.

The average division winner over that stretch of time had a .580 win percentage, good enough for a 94-win season. The average 2nd place team in that same time span had a .544 win percentage, which would translate to an 88-win season. This means the average gap between division winners and runner-ups was six games over those eight years.

Digging deeper, we can see one deciding factor between the division winners, and the runner-ups: their record within their own division. Runner-up teams from 2004-2011 had a .544 win percentage overall, and a .548 win percentage in their division. This is essentially no change, or over the course of a 162-game season would be worth one extra win. However, the division winners had a .580 win percentage overall, but they kicked that up to a .596 win percentage inside their own division. That bump in win percentage would be an addition three wins over a 162-game season.

On the flip side are the team’s records outside of their own division. Runner-ups played .541 ball outside of their division, which is really no different from the .548 in their division. Division winners, though, played .567 ball outside of their division, a drop-off of almost 30 points from their in-division .596 win percentage. Although division winners still played better outside of their division (.567 vs. .541), they were able to distance themselves from the competition by beating up on the competition inside their own division.

As was mentioned earlier, the average margin of victory for division winners was a six-win difference. Based on these results, four of those six wins were gained based only on the games played within the team’s division.

So far, in 2012, the Texas Rangers are 8-7 against the rest of the AL West. In 2011, the Rangers posted a mind-boggling 40-17 record against their division opponents. They were 23 games above .500 against the Angels, Mariners, and Athletics, and just 7 games above .500 against the other 15 teams they played in 2011. While their current 5.5 game lead is rather cozy for the Rangers, compared to 2011 it could certainly be improved upon with better performance against their division foes.

There is more than one way to skin a cat. In 2010 the Rangers gained most of their competitive advantage by going 14-4 in interleague play. However, history certainly has shown that division winners have displayed a trend of winning at an even better clip against their own division on their way to a pennant. After a couple of lackluster performances against the Mariners so far this year, it would be encouraging to see the Rangers add some cushion to their intra-division record (and their first-place lead) this weekend against the Angels.

Peter Ellwood is a Senior Staff Writer for Shutdown Inning. You can email him at Peter.Ellwood@shutdowninning.com or reach him on Twitter @Peter_Ellwood
Peter Ellwood

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