Heading into play on August 23, there were just 6.5 games that separate the National League’s 8th place Dodgers and their first place Cubs. Most of the teams in the NL are in MLB playoffs contention. How does this year’s remarkable NL race stack up against some of the closest in MLB history? Have over half the teams in a league ever really been in contention this late in the season before?
In order to contextualize this conversation, it is important to understand the history of the MLB playoffs. Essentially, the number of teams alive at the end of the regular season has been steadily increasing throughout the league’s history. Prior to the first World Series in 1903, there was no postseason. There was merely a team that finished in first place.
From 1903-1968, there was only a World Series. Only the two teams who ‘won the pennant’ in their respective leagues advanced to the Series. In 1968, each league divided into East and West divisions and the ‘MLB playoffs’ were born. In 1995, the league introduced the Central divisions and the Wild Card and thus, the Divisional Series round of the MLB playoffs.
The most recent expansion to the MLB playoffs is still fresh in all our minds. The Wild Card Game, first played in 2012, brought the total number of postseason teams to where it stands now: 10.
Although they were almost all in response to the arrival of new teams arriving in the league, each of these expansions of the postseason resulted in it becoming considerably easier to reach the playoffs. The New York Giants, 5th place and 6 GB of the league-leading Boston Braves on August 23, 1948, were in a much more dire situation than the Dodgers are in today.
There were some pretty tight, multi-team pennant races prior to 1968 (particularly 1965, 1948, 1928,1915, 1907, and 1904). But with only one playoff slot for the taking the teams in 5th and 6th place, although less than 6GB in each of these cases, really had no shot. There were too many teams they needed to pass.
MLB playoffs races of note
In the East/West divisions era, there are two races that stick out. On August 23, 1977, the 7th place (of 14) Texas Rangers were just 3 GB of the league-leading Yankees. This is the closest bunch of teams that an August 23rd has ever seen. But, despite going 25-14 for the remainder of their games, the Rangers still ended up 6 games short of the AL East champion Yankees. Had there been a Central Division or a Wild Card they likely would have made it in.
On August 23, 1980, the 7th place (of 12!) San Francisco Giants were 7.5 GB of the Astros. They ended up folding and falling to 5th in the NL West. Presumably, they wisely sensed they had no shot. With only two playoff spots available to each league, it would have been a stretch to consider the Giants in contention.
The only race to ever feature an 8th place team closer to first than the Dodgers are this year was during the classic 2001 season. On 8/23/01, the 8th place (of 16) Phillies were just 5GB of the eventual champion D-backs. With the Wild Card and the NL East title both in their grasp, this team was most certainly in contention. Sadly, they fell short of both .
Recent history gives this year’s race its best competition for craziest of all time. On this day in 2007, the 8th place Brewers were also 6.5 GB of the first place D-backs. But the contenders didn’t end at 8. The 9th place, 64-63 Rockies were 7.5 GB, and as history tells us, still very much in contention. They won 35 of their next 45 games including an all-time classic Wild Card play-in game and playoff sweeps of the Phillies and the Diamondbacks.
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So, how special is this season? It is one of two seasons since the introduction of Divisions where more than half the teams in a given league are within 6.5 games of the league leader on 8/23. The 2001 season had a closer 8th place team but that NL had 16 teams. The 1977 season was more closely bunched, but only half the teams (7/14) were involved in the race.
It seems that only 2007 can compete. That race involved 9 of the NL’s 16 teams and proved to be one of the most exciting in MLB history. It feels like this year is shaping up to be just as dramatic. The Dodgers are about where the Rockies were on this date 11 years ago.
The good news for Dodgers fans? The ’07 Rockies made it all the way to the WS. The bad? It took an unbelievable hot streak and an outrageous 13-inning controversial WC play in game win to do so.
After their game on August 22, Bill Plaschke of the LA Times said that for the Dodgers, “It’s time for panic baseball.” Can the team that made the league’s biggest trade deadline acquisition pull of an all-time great late-season run? It happened the last time (the only other time) things were this weird and bunched up.
Things are certainly lining up for a very fun MLB playoffs race in the National League!