Say whatever you would like about the last half-decade of human history, but one thing is definitely true: It has been a golden age of 100-win teams in Major League Baseball.
Here are the number of 100-win teams in the past several decades:
Then, from 2010 until '14, there was … one (the 2011 Phillies, who won 102 games and remain the most recent Philly team to reach the playoffs). It looked like the spigot had been shut off. In 2015, there was the first 100-win team since those Phillies, the St. Louis Cardinals, who finished with exactly 100. And that opened the floodgates. There was one in 2016 (those championship Cubs), three in '17 (Dodgers, Cleveland, Astros), three in '18 (Red Sox, Astros, Yankees) and a whopping four in '19 (Astros, Dodgers, Yankees, Twins).
There were as many 100-win teams from 2017-19 as there were in the entire decade of the ‘90s or the ‘60s, and three more than in the ‘80s. And while the 2020 season was obviously an aberration, it’s worth noting that three teams (Dodgers, Rays, Padres) were at a 100-win pace when the season ended after 60 games. The Dodgers were on pace for a stunning 116 wins. The boom times continued!
Except for 2021. This year, the first full 162-game season since the breakthrough four-teams-with-100-wins 2019 season, there is only one team on pace for a 100-win season … and it is, of all teams, the Giants. They will need to go 29-21, which sounds doable, but remember that the .580 winning percentage required to get there is higher than all but five teams in baseball. (It’s better than what the Red Sox, A’s, Padres, Yankees, Blue Jays, Reds and the first-place Phillies have all done so far.) It is certainly possible that we’re going to have the first season since 2014 without a 100-win team.
What’s going on? What’s the deal? Here are five theories as to why 2021 may be weaning us off the age of the 100-win team.
1. Fewer teams are playing for next year
Logically, when you had an increase in 100-win teams, you had an increase in 100-loss teams. Most notably, there were four in 2019: the Royals, Orioles, Tigers and Marlins. The Royals, amazingly, lost 103 games in 2019 and only had the fourth-worst record in baseball; they were somehow 11 games above the Tigers.
But it wasn’t just that. There were also seven other teams that lost 89 games or more, which means more than a third of the teams in baseball finished at least 17 games under .500. That’s not happening this year. While there are four teams currently on 100-loss paces (the Orioles, Rangers, Pirates and D-backs), there are more teams in MLB above .500 than under. Fewer teams have given up hope on this year in anticipation of next. Which leads to …
2. More teams think they’re in the race
There are currently 16 teams who theoretically are still in the playoff chase. That’s a lot of teams still trying, which leads to much fewer “easy” wins for teams to pad their records. The Giants might be on a 100-win pace, but they still have two teams in their division who are going to fight them tooth and nail down the stretch. (For that matter, the Rockies have essentially the same record as the Cubs and Nationals.) The team with the best record in the AL, the Rays, has three other teams in its division trying to make the playoffs. No one’s rolling over for anybody.
3. There’s no medal for getting to 100 wins
Actually, take a look at those Rays who, again, have the best record in the AL. Let’s say they get hot and go 29-18 to head into the season’s final weekend at 97-62. If they sweep, they’re a 100-win team. But why would they care? They will have already won the AL and secured home field in the playoffs at that point. What more does 100 wins mean to them? That’s just a waste of resources. Given the unique nature of the schedule (more on that below), you can see why teams would want to rest everyone for October and won’t sweat a couple extra wins in the season’s final days.
4. The Dodgers have had a ton of injuries
The Dodgers were widely, almost universally, considered the best team in baseball heading into this season. After a 13-2 start, some observers (myself included) even wondered if they’d have a chance to break the all-time win record. That hasn’t happened, largely because whole swaths of the Dodgers' rotation and lineup have missed big chunks of time. The Dodgers are still a playoff team, because they’re so good that even their floor is “playoff team.” But the team in the best position to win 100 games has had just about everything go wrong for them this year: It’s worth remembering.
5. There’s a pandemic
This season was always going to be a scramble for every team, not just because of the difficulties of playing baseball during a pandemic but also the difficulties of playing 162-games after playing only 60 the year before (without a Minor League season). Expecting any team to truly thrive under these conditions was probably always unreasonable. To win 100 games is to achieve a top-shelf level of excellence. And that might not be possible for anyone in 2021. Maybe the Giants hang on and win 100 games. If they do, it might be even more impressive than it appears at first glance. Because if you were to draw up a season where it’d be incredibly difficult to win 100 games … it’d probably look a lot like this one.