Most exciting MLB division races
Under these rules, winning your division automatically gives you home-field advantage, which is nice, but there’s more than that. Two of the three division winners get immediate byes into the Division Series, and even the third division champion is guaranteed home games against the Wild Card team with the worst record. Come September and early October, when these races are going down to the wire, the gap between winning your division and finishing second will be massive.
Put it this way: If we had these rules last year, the Giants would have had the No. 1 seed, skipping straight to the NLDS, and the Dodgers — because they finished only one game behind them — would have had a best-of-three series at home against the Cardinals. And even if LA advanced, they would have had to burn through their best starters while the Giants rested theirs. That one game in the standings means more than ever.
Thus, as we approach Memorial Day, it’s not unreasonable to want to check in on how these division races are going… and how exciting they’re going to end up being. Every division race has its own personality: some have five teams all in the race, some have two heavy hitters, some have all five teams trying to figure themselves out. But they’re all absolutely vital, and they’re going to be riveting to watch. Here’s a mid-May ranking of how exciting it looks like each division race is going to be. You’ll want to watch these things all the way to the end.
1. National League West
First place: Dodgers (1 1/2 up on Padres)
How jazzed up about the NL West you are may depend on whether or not you think the Dodgers are going to run away with it. You can see why they might. They’re really haven’t been at their best so far — they’ve got rotation issues, and it’s downright strange to see Justin Turner and Max Muncy hitting like this — and they still have a lead. Recent downturns from the Rockies and D-backs don’t help either; just last week, everyone in this division was over .500. But still, there’s a lot to like here.
The Padres and Giants are both serious contenders, and if the Padres are still within two or three games of the Dodgers when Fernando Tatis Jr. comes back, look out. Again, the Dodgers could turn it on and win this one by 10 games. But if they don’t, the Padres and the Giants, who are pulling off their usual magic, will be waiting to pounce.
2. American League East
First place: Yankees (5 1/2 up on Rays)
The Yankees have the best record in baseball and the second-largest division lead in the sport. How is this a race? Your perception here lies in just how certain you are that the Yankees are a 119-win team, their current pace. I’ll confess I am not entirely sold. Even the slightest downturn will leave them vulnerable. After all, the Rays are on a 98-win pace themselves, and the Blue Jays have had just about everything go wrong and are still over .500 and potentially within striking distance. Now the Red Sox could end up trading off pieces, and that could change the trajectory of this whole division. But I bet this one ends up awfully close in the end.
3. American League West
First place: Astros (1 1/2 up on Angels)
This is tied for the closest division in baseball right now, so putting it this low seems shaky. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that the Astros won’t find a way to pull away at some point. After all, just about everything the Angels could have hoped to have happened to this point has happened: Everyone’s healthy and hitting, and the rotation has had some real pleasant surprises. And they’re still in second place to those darned Astros.
Just because this is the closest division now doesn’t mean it’s going to remain that way all year, that’s what we’re saying. It would be handy if the Mariners (still under .500) would get back in the race like they’re supposed to.
4. National League East
First place: Mets (7 1/2 up on Braves and Phillies)
This probably seems too high if you’re just taking a surface-level look at the standings. After all, the Mets have a seven-game lead, the biggest division lead in all of baseball. But, and forgive me here, that may be ignoring all sorts of recent history here. The Mets have long made the case that no division lead is truly safe, and the fact that neither Max Scherzer nor Jacob deGrom look like they’re going to pitch for the next month-and-a-half is a big flashing warning sign. Add the underachieving Phillies, Marlins and (especially) the Braves — who in particularly feel like they’ve got a big run coming — to that, and it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see the NL East start getting hairy , and maybe soon.
5. National League Central
First place: Brewers (4 up on Cardinals)
Heading into the season, this looked like a two-team race, and it still mostly looks that way. (Though we feel obliged to point out that the Pirates currently have a better record than the Red Sox.)
If that two-team race ends up panning out at this point, you almost have to feel fortunate, because there’s also a chance that the Brewers end up pulling away from the Cardinals, and early. (Watch that four-game series between the teams over Memorial Day weekend for signs.) There are signs that the two teams are more evenly matched than the standings might make them look: The Brewers are 13-5 against those bottom three teams, and the Cardinals are only 4-2; the Cardinals have a better run differential than the Brewers do right now. But a four-game lead is a four-game lead. The Cardinals need to get it going to make this division any sort of race at all.
6. American League Central
First place: Twins (3 1/2 up on White Sox)
Like the National League East, there’s only one team over .500 in the AL Central right now. In the NL East, though, I can see some of those under-.500 teams making a run. Can you see that in this division right now? The White Sox had everything go wrong so far and are at least still in the race, but the real disappointment here has been from the Tigers, a team many thought could be a legitimate contender this year. It’s possible they (and maybe even the Royals) find themselves, and the Twins fall back, and we get a tight, deep race. But right now? This division race appears to be the least compelling.