The best 3-team races in recent history

October 1st, 2023

It's fun when two good teams are battling for supremacy within a division, but adding a third certainly doesn't hurt.

Only five times in the Wild Card Era (since 1995) has a division finished the year with three teams having a winning percentage of at least .560 (which works out to at least 91 wins over 162 games).

Here’s a look at how those five previous three-way races played out.

2021 AL East: Rays .617, Red Sox .568, Yankees .568, Blue Jays .562

The NL West (Dodgers, Giants, Padres) was supposed to be the three-team race to watch in 2021, but then San Diego fell apart late in the season. Instead, the AL East wound up with not three but four teams winning at least 91 games. (Relatedly, the fifth-place Orioles won 52).

In this case, it was actually the Wild Card race that carried most of the drama. The Rays took over first place for good on July 31 and won the division by eight games, but the Yankees and Red Sox didn't clinch playoff berths until the final day, while the Blue Jays fell an excruciating one game short.

2020 AL Central: Twins .600, Indians .583, White Sox .583

It’s worth noting that these teams compiled these records in a 60-game season, and that there was an expanded postseason format, so all three made the playoffs. All three teams lost in the Wild Card round, too, despite Minnesota and Cleveland each getting to host series.

Each team spent at least 15 days of the season in first place, including ties. The Twins, who won the division, led the way in total days in first, too, with 40.

2015 NL Central: Cardinals .617, Pirates .605, Cubs .599

All three of the teams in this division won at least 97 games, the only time we’ve seen that happen in the three-division format. Thanks to the Wild Card Game, we saw the Cubs defeat the Pirates, then advance to face the Cardinals in the NLDS -- the first-ever postseason meeting between those clubs. Despite the Cardinals’ regular-season dominance, it was the Cubs who won the NLDS in four games, taking down the 100-win Cards.

Despite the historic nature of the three outstanding teams in one division, the Cardinals’ lead was evident most of the season. St. Louis spent 175 days in first place that season. The Pirates didn’t spend a single day in first, despite finishing in second, and the Cubs spent three days, all in early April.

2002 AL West: A’s .636, Angels .611, Mariners .574

This was before there were two Wild Card spots per league, so this Mariners team missed out on October (as did the Red Sox, with an identical record). The Mariners actually spent the most time in first place that season, doing so on 137 days of the season. But they were tied for the division lead after games of Aug. 22, and did not lead again. In related news, you may have heard of the A’s 20-game winning streak that summer, from Aug. 13 through Sept. 4. The A’s spent 49 days in first, including being there at the end of the season.

The Angels spent just 13 days in first -- but they were the team to win it all in October, becoming the second Wild Card team to do so.

2002 NL West: D-backs .605, Giants .590, Dodgers .568

In this '02 division, it was the Dodgers on the outside looking in, the highest winning percentage of any NL team to miss the playoffs that year. The D-backs had the second-best record in the NL but were swept out of the playoffs in the NLDS by the Cardinals. The Giants made it to the World Series, losing to the aforementioned Angels.

The D-backs spent 132 days in first place, the most of any team in the division that year. The Giants spent 34 days, but none after mid-May, and the Dodgers spent 30, but none after mid-July.