Potential story of '16: All things being even

Difference between top, bottom of standings could be historically close

February 18th, 2016

FanGraphs' projections for the 2016 season come to a remarkable conclusion. We're not here to argue about it.
FanGraphs has become an increasingly useful site for the metric-friendly followers of baseball. Its 2016 projections include no team achieving a .600 winning percentage and no team having a winning percentage lower than .400.
That combination has occurred just twice in the past 70 years. There was a time when it was virtually impossible because every season contained some clearly defined haves and some just as starkly drawn have-nots.
Now, it is not only possible, but a reputable operation such as FanGraphs is predicting that it will occur. This is testimony in open court on behalf of the notion that competitive balance in the game is greater than ever before. Here, the numbers coincide nicely with the widespread notion that the game is headed in the direction of greater parity.

The two seasons in which no team played .600-or-above baseball and no team was worse than .400 were 2000 and '07.
In 2000, the Giants narrowly missed on the high side (97-65, .599) and the Phillies and Cubs just made the low-end threshold (both finishing at 65-97, .401).
That breakthrough season, the first of its kind since World War II, did not immediately bring forth a new trend. In 2001, the Mariners had their record-setting 116-victory season, finishing with a .716 winning percentage. The A's, in the same American League West, had 102 victories and a .630 winning percentage. At the other end of the spectrum, the Orioles, Devil Rays and Pirates all finished under .400.
In 2002, the Yankees, A's, Angels, Braves and D-backs all finished above .600, while the Devil Rays, Royals, Tigers and Brewers all finished below .400. So apparently the parity of 2000 was a bit premature.
The 2007 campaign was more of genuine indicator of the future possibilities. That year, the Red Sox and Indians had the best records in the game at 96-66 (.593). The Devil Rays had the worst record at 66-96, which gave them a .407 winning percentage.

Since then, the seasons have had relatively few teams above .600 or below .400. The past two years are reasonable examples. In 2014, the only team above .600 was the Angels, while the only team below .400 was the D-backs. In 2015, the Cardinals and Pirates were both above .600, while the Phillies and Reds were below .400.
This is in contrast to an earlier era, when predicting that the Yankees were going to win 60 percent of their games or more was a very workable notion, from the late 1940s all the way through the early '60s.
Even when the Yankees didn't win, they won. The Yanks had their streak of World Series championships stopped at five in 1954, but they still went 103-51 for a .669 winning percentage. It's just that the Indians went 111-43 (.721). The White Sox had a .610 winning percentage that year, and for their efforts, they finished the season 17 games out of first place. The Orioles, Philadelphia Athletics and Pirates all checked in at well below .400 that year.
There were seasons in which expansion teams appeared, initially in the role of victims. Most notably, there were the 1962 Mets, historically bad at 40-120 (.250), finishing 60 1/2 games behind the Giants, who were, of course, above .600. But it ought to be pointed out that just seven years later, the Miracle Mets were a .600 team, and eventually, World Series champions as well.
In contemporary baseball, the extremes have been reduced, if not eliminated. As Spring Training 2016 opens, all 15 AL teams consider themselves a contender, and there aren't a lot of accusations of overstatement on the other side of the question.

So FanGraphs reflects this reality, by projecting only three clubs to win more than 90 games -- the Cubs at 94, the Dodgers at 92 and the Red Sox at 91. The Cubs' projected 94-68 record would give them a .582 winning percentage.
In addition to those three teams, FanGraphs projects the Astros, the Nationals and Indians to be division winners. Talk about parity: In the AL Central, the Indians are projected to win with an 84-78 record. The fifth-place projection is for the Twins to finish at 78-84. That's competitive balance. For me, the defending champion Royals are undervalued at 79-83. The Royals have a recent history of defying formulaic analysis. We'll see.
The worst record projected by FanGraphs is the Phillies at 66-96 (.409). If these projections hold up, we're in for a season of rare competitive balance, just the third of its kind in 71 seasons. And even if the projected best and worst records are exceeded, all of this underscores the reasonable expectation for compelling competition.