At times, it can feel like certain teams in a sport will always dominate. Mention the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Lakers, or New England Patriots, and you’ll immediately conjure images of championships and legendary players. However, every once in a while, the tides shift, and the established order is upended. The 2023 MLB season has been a prime example of this phenomenon, with unexpected outcomes and underdogs rising to the occasion. As pitch clocks alter the pace of the game, great empires have crumbled, and nothing seems impossible anymore.
Yankees and Cardinals: From First to Last
Traditionally, the road to winning the AL East or NL Central goes through the New York Yankees or the St. Louis Cardinals. These iconic franchises boast large payrolls and attractive destinations for players seeking both hefty contracts and a shot at a World Series title. Just last year, both teams finished at the top of their divisions, with Aaron Judge smashing 62 home runs for the Yankees and the formidable duo of Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt causing havoc for St. Louis pitchers.
However, this year brought unprecedented reversals of fortune for both teams. A combination of Judge’s injury and a Cardinals pitching collapse have resulted in both squads languishing in last place. The Yankees find themselves in this position for the first time since 1992, while the Cardinals last experienced such a slump in 1998. To find an instance where both teams were in the basement of their respective divisions this late in the season, you have to go all the way back to 1990 for the Yankees and 1993 for the Cardinals. It’s a stunning fall from grace.
The Diverging Paths of Struggle
While the Yankees and Cardinals are both enduring challenging seasons, their circumstances differ in some crucial aspects. The Cardinals, with a record of 48-61, have negligible chances of securing a wild-card spot. On the other hand, the Yankees, despite their struggles, boast a more respectable 56-52 record, far from being disastrous. So, what’s the reason behind their contrasting fortunes?
It all comes down to the formidable quality of the American League East. Typically a tough division, this year, every team in the AL East boasts a winning record, an exceedingly rare occurrence. The last time every team in a division had a winning record in August was in 2005, with the NL East. Even more impressively, this is the first time in history that all the teams in a division have maintained a winning record by multiple games. The Tampa Bay Rays, currently occupying second place, would lead almost any other division except the NL East, where the dominant Atlanta Braves hold the best record in baseball. The Toronto Blue Jays, in third place, would be at the top of the standings in both the NL and AL Central divisions, while the Yankees and Boston Red Sox would lead the AL Central.
The Baltimore Orioles, surprisingly, have managed to maintain a precarious grip on the top spot in the AL East. This is the first time they’ve held a share of first place in August since 2016. Even more astonishing is the fact that the Orioles are achieving this with a payroll significantly smaller than the Yankees, illustrating that money doesn’t always guarantee success.
Payrolls Don’t Predict Success
The correlation between high payrolls and playoff success has often been assumed in baseball. However, the 2023 season has proven that big spending doesn’t always yield positive results. The New York Mets, Yankees, San Diego Padres, and Philadelphia Phillies hold the top four payrolls in the league. Surprisingly, none of these teams currently occupy a playoff position, with the Mets and Padres even sporting losing records. The last time the top three payrolls all missed the playoffs was in 2008. If the current trends continue, it will be the first time that the top four spenders have all failed to secure a playoff spot.
Resurgence and Redemption
Amidst the chaos and unpredictability, several teams have experienced a renaissance, reclaiming their positions at the top of the standings after extended periods of mediocrity. Besides the Baltimore Orioles, the Cincinnati Reds find themselves tied for first place in August for only the second time in the past 25 years, marking their first occurrence since 2012. Similarly, the Texas Rangers, while having a relatively shorter wait, have not held a share of first place in August since 2016. These teams are defying expectations and proving that nothing lasts forever in the world of sports.
Additionally, the Los Angeles Angels, missing their star player Mike Trout due to injury, are making a strong playoff push, thanks in large part to Shohei Ohtani’s incredible performances. The Angels find themselves a mere three games out of a playoff spot, the closest they’ve been since September 2017. Ohtani’s exceptional ability and contributions are even igniting discussions about his place among the greatest players of all time.
Embrace the Unpredictable
The 2023 MLB season will surely be remembered as a watershed moment when the established order of powerhouses was disrupted. The game is changing, and no team can rest on its laurels or reputation. With pitch clocks altering gameplay and underdogs rising, the landscape of baseball is evolving, offering hope and excitement to fans across the league. The 2023 season has shown that anything is possible, and even the most dominant franchises can stumble. So, buckle up and prepare for a wild ride, because in baseball, as in life, change is inevitable, and only the adaptable can thrive.