Not long ago, analysts wondered whether the 100-win Major League Baseball team was going extinct. With the postseason expanded to 10 entrants, the thinking went, franchises had little incentive to be anything more than pretty good, meaning more 92-win teams and fewer 102-win teams.
As CBS Sports’ Dayn Perry wrote in 2014 (summing up what many others were saying at the time), “It would be premature to bid adieu to the 100-win team, but perhaps we should prepare ourselves to be visited much less often by what was no so long ago a familiar kind of excellence.”
Fast forward to 2017, and that conventional wisdom appears to have been entirely off-base. The Dodgers, Indians, and Astros all won at least 100 games this season, marking the first season since 2003 in which three teams had reached that mark. In fact, MLB had the same total of triple-digit-win teams in 2017 that it had over the previous six seasons combined. And the three 100-game-winners aren’t the only extremely strong teams in baseball this year. The Nationals won 97 games, despite a rash of injuries. The Red Sox had a lot go wrong and still finished at 93. The Yankees won 91, with the run differential of a 101-win team, while the Diamondbacks won 93 with the run differential of a 97-win team. And the defending champion Cubs went 49-25 after the All-Star Break to wind up with 92 wins.
So what’s with the spike in great teams?
Part of it is surely just random variance, many things going right for a few teams and wrong for other, resulting in a chasm between the haves and the have-nots. Entering the season, the Yankees, Mets, Giants and Diamondbacks all looked like solid, 80-something-win teams. The fact that two of them won 90 while two others lost 90 is a testament to the craziness of any given baseball season.
But it’s also fair to assume some of the return to high win totals owes to MLB’s double-wild-card format. When the 2014 Royals surged all the way from the play-in game to the World Series, the baseball world wondered whether the path to championship glory was to simply win enough to make the playoffs, then cross your fingers from there. Analysts speculated that every lower-division team would strive for 88 wins, resulting in few truly bad teams and few truly great teams.
But five years into the double-wild-card era, those Royals remain the only non-division-winner to reach the Fall Classic. Last year’s World Series, in fact, featured the team with the best record in the NL and the team with the second-best record in the AL. It has proven difficult to go from the wild-card game to the World Series, reinforcing the incentive for teams to win their divisions. That, in turn, has pushed good teams to get better. Cleveland could have won a wild-card spot without Edwin Encarnacion, but maybe the pursuit of a division title pushed the team to sign him last winter. Same for the Dodgers’ choice to bring back both Justin Turner and Kenley Jansen and the Astros’ decision to remake their lineup.
Teams seem to have decided that being OK isn’t good enough. Front offices are trying to be great.
All these high-win teams resulted in a somewhat dull September stretch run, as division winners locked up their playoff spots long before the final weekend, but they should make for a thrilling October. In the first round alone, we’ll get two matchups of 90-win teams (Red Sox-Astros, Cubs-Nationals), with the possibility of two more, pending the results of the wild-card game. Though it’s possible that the 87-win Rockies or (*cringe*) the 85-win Twins could make a run deep into the playoffs, the likelihood is that this postseason will be full of strong, barely-flawed teams duking things out to eventually crown a worthy winner.
Every league strives for parity, which keeps fans across the country engaged with their local teams all season long, and indeed it’s not great that the AL had only five teams over .500 this year. But sometimes a few top-notch teams can be more fun than a bunch of pretty good ones, especially when the postseason rolls around.