Are We Headed for the Most Boring NL Playoff Race in Baseball History?

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Are We Headed for the Most Boring NL Playoff Race in Baseball History?
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Major League Baseball will go through phases where all the playoff races are so tantalizing that you can't tear yourself away from the television for fear of missing something incredible. This season is not going to fall in that territory, at least on the National League side. 

The American League playoff race is incredibly tight and fun to watch. Detroit looks like the only sure-fire division winner with a 6.5-game lead over Cleveland in the Central through Sunday's games. Boston and Texas are clinging to their positions atop the East and West, respectively, while Cleveland, Baltimore and New York are all within 3.5 games of Oakland for the second wild-card spot. 

Over in the National League, meanwhile, thanks to an incredible lack of depth, we can already write in ink the five teams that will be battling for the right to play in the World Series. The only thing left to fight over is positioning, which can be fun for fans of a specific franchise, but boring when you think of the stakes. 

Whenever there is a feeling of inevitability, you can't help but be a little disinterested. Now, because I, like so many of you, love baseball, we are still going to watch and pay attention to what happens. For all we know, there could be a historic collapse on the horizon. 

But when you can see the writing on the wall, it is hard to give your complete attention to something because the outcome is not in doubt.

If the Braves go on a three-game losing streak, is it going to hurt their playoff chances? No. It might put a small dent in their quest for home-field advantage, but the bigger picture doesn't change because of a bad week. 

Atlanta holds a 13-game lead over Washington in the NL East. Los Angeles has a 9.5-game edge over Arizona out West. Pittsburgh and St. Louis are tied atop the Central, with Cincinnati 2.5 games back. 

The Central Division race would, in most years, be something worth paying attention to. Prior to last year, three teams would be battling for two playoff spots. Being within 2.5 games of each other, that could make for a special race we would remember forever. 

Carlos Beltran can try to put on another historic postseason performance in 2013. Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media

However, in Bud Selig's infinite wisdom, the postseason was expanded last year to include an extra Wild Card team in both leagues. Therefore, we have three teams battling it out for three spots. 

Riveting. 

To be fair, it is not the fault of the teams currently in the playoffs. There has just been a lot of mediocrity in the NL this season.

Washington was supposed to be the next great team after leading all of baseball with 98 wins in 2012, but a rash of injuries and poor performances pushed the Nationals back to the .500 mark this year.

David Banks/Getty Images
Stephen Strasburg's strong, albeit inconsistent, 2013 is one reason the Nationals have fallen back to the pack.

Arizona built a solid team, even if it was one we all made fun of for being full of grit and grind, though it isn't one that exactly stands out as a major player. 

In order to have compelling races, there has to be depth. Right now the NL is a wasteland once you get past the top five teams. I would even argue that the Pirates are at least one rung below the four other playoff teams, but at least they have managed to hide their deficiencies long enough to remain a serious contender. 

And lest you think Pittsburgh, St. Louis and/or Cincinnati are in danger of losing a playoff spot, the Pirates and Cardinals are 9.5 games up in the wild-card race and Cincinnati is seven games ahead of Arizona. 

If those three teams play .500 the rest of the year—equating to approximately a 16-16 record—Arizona would have to go 24-9 in its final 33 games just to force a one-game playoff with Cincinnati. 

Even Pirates fans, who are conditioned to expect this team to fall apart in the second half, can start printing playoff tickets right now. That's how confident I am about where they are, and how soft the NL is, entering September. 

According to ESPN Playoff Odds, which factors in a number of variables ranging from talent on a roster to remaining schedule, the worst odds among the top five NL playoff contenders is 91.2 percent for Cincinnati. 

To put those numbers in perspective, only two AL teams (Detroit, Boston) have greater odds to make the playoffs than the Reds.

Which current NL playoff team is most likely to collapse in September?

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On this date last year, the biggest lead in any division was six games by Cincinnati over St. Louis. Four of the six division races had the top two teams within five games of each other. 

Think of an MLB season as a six-month movie, or perhaps a better analogy would be thinking of it as serialized television show. You want to experience the twists and turns it provides because it can be thrilling and captivating along the way before the big boom at the end of the year. 

But if you are able to see the way the wheels are turning and can predict the exact ending, down to the smallest details, then the storytellers have done a bad job, because that element of surprise is what keeps us watching. 

When I watch Breaking Bad, even if I know that Walter White isn't going to make it through the entire series, I am enthralled by watching us get to that destination because I have no idea how it's going to happen. 

That's what we want from an MLB season. Think back to the end of 2011 when the Red Sox and Braves fell apart only to see the Rays and Cardinals steal their playoff spots. That final day was the greatest in baseball history because there was so much at stake. 

There isn't going to be anything like that in the NL this year, sadly. It will allow the five teams to line up their rotations for the postseason but doesn't provide much for us to talk about in the meantime. 

Dating back 10 years to the 2003 season, 32 teams have held a division lead of at least five games entering September 1. Not once have those teams missed the postseason. 

The last time we had a race like this in the NL was 2011, when all three division leaders had a lead of at least six games and Atlanta led the wild-card race by 8.5 games on September 1. Things turned out well that year thanks to the Braves' aforementioned collapse. But those are extremely rare and require a lot of dominoes falling into place. 

This year, Atlanta will have the East wrapped up in the middle of September. St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Los Angeles won't be far behind. 

If ever there was to be a motto for this year's NL postseason race, it has to be "Biding Time." Atlanta, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles are all riding out the end of the regular season in anticipation of what will happen in October. 

Is it the worst race in baseball history? No. Prior to the implementation of the Wild Cards in both leagues, you could find division races that were essentially over before September started. 

We can't say with 100 percent certainty that these races are over because weird things do happen in this game on a month-to-month, day-to-day basis. But thanks in large part to the addition of the second Wild Card, all of the drama in the NL appears to be gone. 

 

If you want to talk about the MLB playoff race, or anything else baseball related, feel free to hit me up on Twitter with questions or comments. 

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