MLB Handicapping: Ranking the Divisions
by Robert Ferringo - 05/28/2009
While each Major League Baseball team is a separate entity it can sometimes be helpful to take a wider view of them as members of tribe: their division. You can then get some idea of the relative strength of teams and divisions by comparing how they do against opposing tribes. And in the long run you can pinpoint some inflated and underrated clubs based solely on how they fare outside of the clubs in their own division.
For instance, the Los Angeles Dodgers have by far the best record in baseball right now. Now, I'm not debating that they have played the best baseball. But the fact is that they are absolutely hammering their division, going 23-8 in their first 31 games against National League West rivals. Against the rest of baseball the Dodgers are just a decent 10-7 club. So, when the Dodgers travel to face teams outside of their own tribe I think it's safe to say that there is going to be some good value betting against inflated money lines based on a somewhat misleading record.
Conversely, a team like the Pittsburgh Pirates is generally looked at as a pathetic patch of road kill on the oligarchic highway that is Major League Baseball. And their fifth-place standing and 21-26 record would seem to back up that view. However, Pittsburgh has gotten abused by the clubs in their division, going just 8-17 against National League Central teams. But what some people might not realize is that the N.L. Central has been the second strongest division in baseball in terms of non-divisional winning percentage. And what most people might not realize is that the Pirates are an outstanding 13-9 against teams that don't play in the Central. Since the Bucs are usually always underdogs that is a very profitable mark indeed.
Here is a ranking of the divisions in Major League baseball based on their performance against teams outside of their own division:
1. American League East - 73-63
(43-28 vs. A.L. Central, 24-26 vs. West, 6-9 vs. Interleague)
The East has three teams over .500 and within a couple games of first place with Boston, the Yankees, and Toronto all off to strong starts. But the main source of the East's power has been its ability to punish teams in the American League Central. The East is an outstanding 43-28 against the weaker sister division.
Toronto is the perfect example of how a steady diet of Central clubs can boost your profile. The Jays are 16-8 against teams from the Central but just 4-11 against the teams in the A.L. and N.L. East. All nine games in their recent losing skid have been against teams from those two divisions.
So far there are only two profitable teams in the East: Boston (+200) and Toronto (+200). However, the Yankees (-120) and Baltimore (-270) are right there while the Rays have been one of the biggest busts in baseball. These clubs should continue to be solid wagers in interdivisional games throughout the year because, as we mentioned, they simply have more talent.
National League Central - 60-51
(30-22 vs. N.L. East, 25-19 vs. N.L. West, 5-10 vs. Interleague)
The Central has the most teams in the league over .500 (four) and has turned the most net profit of any division in baseball (+830). And right now the strength of this division can best be summarized by the fact that the Chicago Cubs, everyone's preseason pick as the runaway winner of this group, is presently in fourth place.
The main reason that the Central has been so good this year has been stellar pitching. This division has five of the Top 16 ERAs in the Majors and three of the top six staff ERAs in the National League. St. Louis currently leads the Majors with a team ERA of just 3.58 while Cincy (3.97), Milwaukee (4.07), Pittsburgh (4.27) and Chicago (4.45) are right behind them.
What is most impressive about the play of the Central this year is that none of the teams have been at full strength yet. The Cardinals have been without Rich Ankiel, Chris Carpenter and Ryan Ludwick for prolonged stretches. Derek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Zambrano have been beat up for Chicago. Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Ed Volquez have missed time for Cincinnati, and J.J. Hardy, Rickie Weeks and Ben Sheets have all been out for Milwaukee. So look for each of these teams to actually improve as the season progresses.
National League West - 52-50
(27-19 vs. N.L. East, 19-25 vs. N.L. Central, 6-6 vs. Interleague)
It's easy to say that the West has earned the No. 3 slot on this list simply by having the best team in baseball, the Los Angeles Dodgers, running roughshod through the National League. But even without the Dodgers' 10-7 mark in play outside of the division the West has been better than most.
The Dodgers are the best team in the league and are going to be dominating all season. The Diamondbacks and Rockies have been a drain on this division all season and won't factor into the West race. But even these bottom feeders managed to win their Interleague series over the weekend. And even though the Padres and the Giants have both been very streaky so far this season both are at or above .500.
These West teams are usually tricky for non-divisional opponents early in the season because these teams play a rather unique style. West teams are all about "small ball", with solid pitching, spacious ballparks, and low-scoring games testing the early discipline of their foes. But as the season wears on I expect that novelty to wear off.
American League West - 55-57
(26-24 vs. A.L. East, 21-29 vs. A.L. Central, 8-4 vs. Interleague)
The group of clubs on the Left Coast have been nearly as effective as their N.L. counterparts. The A.L. West was the best division in the first round of Interleague play, with three of the four teams winning their series and taking eight of their 12 games overall.
The West has been one of the trickier divisions to handicap this year. Clearly the Rangers are for real and they have been one of the best teams in baseball through the month of May. But beyond that it's difficult to pinpoint whom their challenger will be or if one will even emerge.
No team has been hit harder by injuries this year than the Angels. The team that has dominated this division for the past decade is just now starting to put things together and should be a strong wager in the second half of the year. Should be. But it appears that Oakland and Seattle may end up being "sellers" in the time leading up to the trade deadline and that should leave them as lame duck clubs though the summer.
American League Central - 65-71
(28-43 vs. A.L. East, 29-21 vs. A.L. West, 8-7 in Interleague)
It's easy to look at this division as a muddled mess of sloppy team, poor pitching, and shaky lineups. And I'm not really saying that you'd be wrong about that. However, besides getting their asses slapped by the A.L. East the Central has actually taken care of business against the rest of the teams that it has faced.
Throughout the summer this is going to be The Division No One Wants To Win. There is not one team that really stands out above the rest and I wouldn't be surprised if this is still a four-horse race in late August.
I really like the Twins to emerge from this grouping. But they have one of the worst bullpens in the league and that's a huge Achilles Heel. Kansas City has exceptional starting pitching and a good mojo, but they can't score. Detroit and Cleveland can both put up a lot of runs and have some aces at the top of the rotation, but their 3-5 starters and their bullpens are both horrifying. And the White Sox - who were aggressive in trying to bring in Jake Peavy - are the X-Factor. I look for this group to continue to improve in interdivisional games while cannibalizing one another in divisional play.
National League East - 50-63 overall
(22-30 vs. N.L. Central, 19-27 vs. N.L. West, 9-6 vs. Interleague)
Baseball is clearly and oligarchy. But money does not always equal might in the MLB and the N.L. East is the perfect example. The East has three teams - the Mets (No. 2), the Phillies (No. 7) and the Braves (No. 11) - that are in the Top 11 in payroll entering this season but overall the East has the worst record against clubs from other divisions.
Now, the Marlins do have the lowest payroll in the league and the Nationals the fourth lowest. And those two teams have combined to go just 15-29 against teams outside of the East. And interestingly enough, Florida is a solid 15-8 against divisional opponents but just 7-18 against the rest of the league, while Washington is a stunningly bad 5-22 within the East and a respectable (for them) 8-11 against everyone else.
As for the teams at the top, the Mets, Phillies and Braves have been solid so far this year. All three are at .500 or better and all three should be involved in the playoff hunt into the fall. But to this point in the year I would say that none of them has played up to the respect they are given by the oddsmakers. And heading into last weekend all five teams in this division had failed to turn a profit.