Of course, there are many ways to define success. How many world titles or pennants has a division won? How good are they from top to bottom? How consistent are they? So, I went about collecting all the data I could think of to answer this question. If you want to see the raw data I worked with, click here.
Going into it, I assumed I would come out thinking the American League East would be my answer. And there certainly is a very good argument to have there. The Yankees and Red Sox account for eight of the 19 World Series Champions in the wild card era. This division has also lost another three World Series, with would be 11 appearances over 19 attempts. Another area strengthening that position is wild card berths. If your division has the wild card,* that would certainly seem to suggest that it was the strongest in that league that year. And the AL East has had a whopping 15 wild card berths since 1995. Compare that to the AL Central’s 2 and the AL West’s 4.
*Yeah, there are now two wild cards, which dilutes this argument a bit going forward. But it’s not been long enough yet to really take that into too much consideration.
Here’s my issue: the AL East’s success almost entirely rides on two teams during this time period: the Yankees and the Red Sox. Beyond what has already been covered, those two teams have combined for 16 of the 19 division crowns* in this time period. If you take those two teams out of the equation, you now have no World Series champions, just a single appearance from the Rays, and only four wild card berths split between the Rays and the Orioles. All but one of those appearances happened from 2008 on. The AL East is also home to one of the two teams who have never made an appearance in the playoffs since the three division format: the Toronto Blue Jays.** So, sure, the AL East is ridiculously strong at the top, but the bottom half is failing it here. Is that enough to call it the strongest division?
*Granted, this is 13 for the Yankees and three for the Red Sox, but the point still stands.
**The Kansas City Royals are the other team. We’ll get into that more in a minute.
Let’s take a good look around the other divisions. You can pretty well dismiss the two Central divisions out of hand. The AL Central has only one World Title to it’s name, and it was a bit of a miracle run out of the White Sox in 2005. They’ve not really come close to duplicating that success before or since. They can boast a few more appearances with the Indians in the mid-90’s and the Tigers here as of late, but those teams have all lost series in which they were favored.* The Royals have never made the playoffs under the current format. They also have the lowest average number of wins from 1995-2013. 81 wins would, obviously, be completely average. The AL Central is the lowest at 77.9. Over four games under .500. Suffice to say, nobody is going to regard this division as murderer's row.
*The Tigers in particular have lost pretty badly. The first Indians loss to the Braves was probably expected, but the second to the Marlins was pretty bad, even if it was a seven game series.
The NL Central has been almost as bad. Their average wins over that same stretch is only slightly better at 78.6. All of their World Series appearances except one are by the Cardinals, and that lone other appearance was an Astros team that was swept and just all around dominated by the aforementioned White Sox. The only argument the NL Central has going for it is has nine wild card berths, most in the National League. They are pretty well spread out, too. All six teams have captured at least one, and none more than three. Still, it seems to be a pretty weak argument if you do nothing with those berths, which would seem to be the case. Paired with a failing average win total, I would consider the midwestern teams the worst collection in the league. Sadly enough.
So we’ve covered the middle of the country and the AL East. Let’s finish off the AL, then, shall we? This division has had only four teams, and it has been a much stronger division than you might think. It certainly surprised me. This division has the highest average win total, sitting at 82.8 over this span. This included two consecutive years (2001-2) of average win totals over 90, the only division to do so. It has also been a remarkably balanced division. Each of the four teams* have captured the wild card once. They’ve also very fairly shared the division crown: The A’s have six, the Angels and Rangers each have five, and the Mariners have three. It would seem a slam dunk to name this the best regular season division in baseball since 1995. The problem is the playoffs. This division falls here, and it falls hard. Only one championship to its name, coming with the Angels back in 2002. In fact, that would be the only appearance if not for the Rangers losing in both 2010 and 2011, both in series in which the Rangers were favored. You know who certainly didn’t make any World Series appearances during this time? The A’s and Mariners during this stretch when they were routinely winning 100+ games. This kind of track record in the playoffs would seem to eliminate the AL West from this running.
*We’re not counting the Astros for these purposes.
Let’s switch our focus back to the National League, and we might as well start out East again, as we did with the American League. At first glance, this would seem to be a strong contender. Their average win total is a respectable 81.1. They have six wild card berths, which isn’t bad, and fairly split between the Braves, Marlins, and Mets, all with two each. They’ve also done well in the World Series, winning four titles with three different teams: Braves, Phillies, and two with the Marlins. As much as I would like to discount the two Marlins wins because of the immediate fire sales afterwards, that doesn’t take away the fact that they happened. You can also add another two appearances from the Braves, another trip out of the Phillies, and one for the Mets as well, bringing their total appearances to eight. The only problem, it seems, with this division is it is so top heavy. The Braves have won 12 of the 19 division crowns over the time period. The Braves are also seen as quite the disappointment only to win one World Series with the kind of pitching staff it boasted in the 90’s. Even so, it’s a very strong contender, and still seems more evenly spread than the AL East. In fact, right at this moment, I think I would give it the nod, thanks to similar numbers but more even results.
That leaves us with the NL West. Like it’s American counterparts, this division surprised me. My first memory of this division was of the season when it looked like it wouldn’t produce a winning record. But, surprisingly, they checked in at almost exactly 81 average wins, so that apparently was an uncharacteristic swoon. They have also produced more World Series teams than you might remember. This division has been to the final round six times and won half of them. The Giants have won two lately, and the Diamondbacks upset the Yankees back in 2001. You probably remember the Giants run to the World Series with Barry Bonds in 2002, and there’s a chance you remember the magical year of the Rockies in 2007. You might have forgotten about the 1998 San Diego Padres, though. It was a quick series, and the Padres were thoroughly overmatched by the Yankees that year. But they made it, by God. This division has also captured a respectable six wild card berths and, also like the AL West, have been awfully democratic about the division crown: five each for the Giants, Dodgers, and Diamondbacks, and four for the Padres.*
*Sorry, Rockies, but you were left out of this one. But you were the first NL Wild Card, and have the most wild card berths in the division with three.
So, who is the winner here? Based on how evenly things are spread with some very good post-season results, I wanted to give this crown to the NL West. I really did. But, even if it is more spread out, they still would have to double their appearances to beat the AL East. I just couldn’t get over the hurdle. That would seem to leave us with the the two Eastern divisions. And, well, I gave the NL East the edge a moment ago, and I’m going to stick with that. There are a few numbers in the AL East’s favor, but those numbers are just simply far too top-heavy for me. The NL East certainly has its flagship in the Braves, but the rest of the division has their moments, far more than the AL East has had until the last couple years.
I don’t know that it means a lot to those fans, but congratulations, National League East. You have officially been crowned the best division in baseball in the Wild Card Era by this blog. I’ll be sure to send along a certificate or something.