Winning 100 games is easy when most MLB teams aren’t trying

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Winning 100 games is an accomplishment, one worth admiring. It’s been pretty common the last few years, though, and in a historic sense. With the Dodgers securing their 100th victory on Sunday, 2017-2019 became the first-ever three-year period where three teams per season won at least 100 games.

The reasons for all of those 100-win teams are less worthy of your admiration. The problem is the flip side of those dominant teams: for the first time since 1912-1913, there have been seven 100-loss teams between 2018-2019, with the newest of those the Royals following a defeat on Sunday. Today’s MLB isn’t just full of dominating 100-win teams that beat up on everyone: the competition itself is lesser, due to the tanking, the lack of trying, and so on, and it has created an environment that spawns teams at the extremes at historic rates.

It’s hard to notice, in some ways, that much of anything is different or off. After all, it looks like there are plenty of healthy, successful teams out there in addition to the 100-win ones. The Rays have 92 wins and are in second in the AL East, for instance. Cleveland is still fighting for the AL Central with a week left in the season, and are tied with Tampa Bay for the second wild card, while the A’s sit at 94 wins, and lead that race. In the NL, there aren’t quite so many 90-win teams, and the Dodgers are the lone 100-win one unless the Braves have a great week. However, the Nats have a wild card spot and 85 victories the Brewers have the other wild card and 86 wins, while the Mets and Cubs are at least mathematically still in those races.

With a week left in the season, it’s not a surprise that we have so few teams fighting for a spot. But the teams fighting now are the ones that have been at it all season, too, most noticeably in the AL. Outside of the Red Sox, who were recently eliminated from postseason eligibility, the rest of the AL has been out of it for months. The Blue Jays have 93 losses, the Orioles 105. The White Sox are in third in the AL Central, and are 23.5 games back of the Twins, with just 68 wins. The two teams below them in the standings both lost 100 games. In the AL West, Texas is in third place and 17 games out, while the Angels have lost 90, and a hot April by the Mariners that did not resemble the rest of their season is the lone reason they aren’t going to make it eight 100-loss teams in two years.

Even the quality of some of the successful teams is in question. The Rays are 92-64, but they’ve gone just 35-35 against teams with better than a .500 record. However, they’ve managed a 24-11 record against the Jays and O’s, and have three games left against the former before 2019 ends, and their record is buoyed because of it. The Red Sox, too, went just 28-44 against winning teams. The Twins are under .500 against .500-and-better teams, but they might win 100 games, anyway, somehow. Cleveland is 25-36 against such clubs. The Yankees, Astros, and A’s, at least, all performed well against other teams that saw success, but you can call into question just how good the rest are.

Especially when it comes to the Central’s teams. The Twins, at least, posted a .593 winning percentage against teams outside of the AL Central, a pace that would mean 96 wins over 162 games. Cleveland, though, has gone 47-26 (.644) against divisional opponents, and 45-38 (.542) against everyone else. This the year after they won the AL Central despite going 42-44 against teams from outside of the division, too. Is the AL Central bad because its top teams beat up on it, or are they the top teams because they beat up on a bad division? Neither of Minnesota nor Cleveland are Actually Bad, necessarily, it’s just that their win totals are inflated, and making the AL look more balanced than it is. In reality, it’s a league with three 100-loss teams that easily could have had four, and the Jays might get closer to 100 Ls than to 90 by the time this week is over, too. Those on top look better than they are because they get to play the rest of the league. At least in the NL, the middle is a bit stronger, with fewer extremes at the top and bottom of the league, but they aren’t totally free from these issues, either.

So, why have we spent 700-plus words this morning talking about these records? Mostly because they aren’t an accident. The outcome might not be intentional, but the design is, and it comes from teams at the top stopping their spending push (Yankees, Dodgers, Nationals, soon to be joined by the Red Sox) at the same time the middle teams, those that should be investing to try to climb to that next level, instead deciding they are not going to do that. And the clubs at the bottom are as bad as they’ve ever been in MLB history, if not worse because there are more of them, and it’s all because they’re losing on purpose in order to win later. Or, more accurately, to tell you the plan is to win later, when in reality it’s to preach about the importance of financial flexibility teams don’t intend to use, or how now is not a good time to try, not yet, even when it seems like the not trying is at its end.

The teams that do try, even if it’s not as much as they could, are at the top or near it. The vast majority of the league wasn’t making even that kind of asterisk-laced effort, though, and they are just where you’d expect those spinning their wheels to be: caught between the ones who tried and the ones that used all of their effort to erase any chance of success. There are long-term questions about attendance and the health of the sport that arise from all of this tanking and not trying, but hey, at least we’ve got some round-numbered win totals to admire in the present.

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