Four teams – the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins and Houston Astros – returned from the All-Star break on pace to win 100-plus games, which should it happen would be a Major League Baseball record for a single season.
And then there are the more modest prospects for teams in the National League Central, where the leader at the break, the Chicago Cubs, began post-All Star Game play on pace to win 85.
The mind races to take in this dichotomy. Four 100-win teams in the same season would be historic. There have been three 100-win teams in a single season just seven times in MLB history.
But two of those times have come the past two seasons, and only one time, the 1942 season, predates the expansion to the current 162-game schedule from 154 games, which took place in 1961 for the American League and 1962 for the National League.
NL Central teams this season can chase even more select history should the division produce a winner that finishes the regular season under .500. It’s unlikely, but if it happens, it would be historic in the extreme.
During this past week’s All-Star broadcast on Fox, analyst John Smoltz, the Hall of Fame pitcher, was singing the praises of the NL Central’s balance as typified by each team having been in first place at least one day this season and the current spread from first to last being just four and one-half games.
Smoltz saw this as indicative of competitiveness. Play-by-play man Joe Buck suggested it was mediocrity.
If somehow that mediocrity could continue to a slightly greater degree as the season unfolds, it could produce a division champion for the ages.
The 1981 Kansas City Royals have the distinction of being the only team in MLB history to win a division with a season record under .500. But this comes with a considerable asterisk having to do with that season being shortened by a players’ strike.
The overall record for the Royals was 50-53, which in a traditional season would have brought them home in fourth place in the AL West. But the 1981 season was split into the pre-strike first half and post-strike second half, with each half’s division winner making the playoffs.
The Royals were 20-30 and fifth place in the first half. However, they went 30-23 and finished first in the second half.
Playoff life was brief that season for the Royals, who were swept in a best-of-5 series by the first-half AL West winners, the Oakland Athletics.
That does not mean that a team winning a division with a very modest victory total can’t make noise in baseball’s postseason.
Witness the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals. A combination of injuries and poor play by several key players saw the Cardinals struggle to an 83-78 record. Yet that was good enough to win a weak NL Central.
Gifted with postseason opportunity, the Cardinals went on to win the World Series.
Their .516 regular-season winning percentage is the worst ever for a World Series championship team.
Similarly, the 1987 Minnesota Twins topped the AL West with a modest total of 85 wins, but got hot in the postseason and won the World Series.
To even dream of duplicating those title runs, this season’s NL Central teams, including the Pirates, find themselves in need of pitching help, either among the starting rotation or the bullpen. The Cubs, recognizing as much, already went out and signed free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel.
It will be interesting to see if the Pirates do something ahead of the trade deadline.
Management surprised last year by being willing to deal, most notably getting pitcher Chris Archer from Tampa Bay in exchange for two top prospects in outfielder Austin Meadows and pitcher Tyler Glasnow as well as Shane Baz, the player to be named later in the deal.
This is one time it would have been better for the Pirates to have sat on their hands. Archer has been a huge disappointment, although he did go six shutout innings with 10 strikeouts Friday vs. the Cubs before faltering in the seventh.
Meadows, meanwhile, represented Tampa Bay in the All-Star Game and although Glasnow currently is sidelined with a forearm strain, he has a 6-1 record and 1.86 ERA this season.
The Pirates can’t afford to repeat such a trade deadline fleecing. But if the team stays in the hunt, or even makes a move on the division lead, the pressure is going to be on ownership to do something to aid the cause.