I got tired of hearing how the A's are in first place only because it's in a weak division, or the A's should give up because even taking the division doesn't mean it'll win in post-season. So I decided to take a closer look to see what this means.
The first meaning for "weak division" is that the teams in the division are just bad. The numbers show that AL West is 39-35 against AL East, 45-50 against AL Central, and 36-36 in inter-league play. That means it's 120-121 overall, very average. AL East is 38-31 against AL Central and 55-35 inter-league, for an overall 128-105. AL Central is 63-27 inter-league, for an overall 144-110. 20 of AL East's 23 games above .500 comes from inter-league wins, and AL Central would be under .500 if not for inter-league wins.
In other words, the AL divisions are pretty evenly matched if you put their performance together. Ignoring inter-league and intra-division play, AL West is 84-85, AL East is 73-70, and AL Central is 81-83. This meaning of "weak division" is simply not supported by the numbers. The ability of AL Central leaders to severely beat up on NL teams and the rest of AL Central has for some reason not been indicative of their ability to beat other AL division teams.
The second meaning of "weak division" is simply that there is no super strong team in the division. The Red Sox, Yankees, Blue Jays, Tigers, and White Sox have pulled away from their division rivals, since everybody else is at least 10 games behind. However, Toronto has already played 41 intra-division games; Boston, 36, Chicago, 34; Detroit, 33; and New York, 26. In contrast, the A's have played 25; Texas, 22, Seattle, 28; and LA, 23. If the A's manage to keep their .640 win percentage within the division, they'll be 23-13 by the time they have 36 games, which is not shabby at all.
More tellingly, the top three AL East teams have only played a combined 42 games against AL Central (against whom they are just .524), and the top two AL Central teams have only played 40 games against AL East (against whom they are just .550). In contrast, the AL East leaders are .586 within the division, and the AL Central leaders are a whopping .657 within the division! So, if we simply project this forward, their numbers will drop down somewhat, and the A's numbers will improve somewhat.
Look at where the wins are coming from. Detroit is 29 games over .500, but eight of those wins come from clobbering Kansas City and 12 come from inter-league. It has not been hurting anybody else by nearly as much. Boston is 19 games over .500, but seven of those come against Baltimore, and 14 come from inter-league. Take those away and they're not even .500!
Of course, you can't take away somebody else's wins, and beating up on a bad team is just as good a win as narrowly beating a good one in extra innings. It should be clear that the A's would have a much harder time taking any other division than AL West, but the picture is not nearly as bleak as the numbers initially look, particularly if you look towards post-season play.
The A's have played 15 games against AL East, 26 games against AL Central, 25 games against AL West, and 18 games inter-league. They've had a fairly even sampling of the other divisions, and seem to fight most teams to a tie, as indicated by their ridiculous numbers of 1-run games. Boston, on the other hand, has already played 44 games against AL East, but only 9 AL Central and 12 AL West games. Detroit has had 33 AL Central games, but only 16 AL East and 18 AL West games. There's no doubt that these are excellent teams, but their numbers don't come from an even sampling of games yet.
More importantly, other than the White Sox's 14-6 record, nobody can claim to be dominating AL West. The Yankees even have a losing record against AL West! At this point, I don't think there's enough data to even guess how the A's would do in post-season if it does go on to take AL West.
Anyway, it seems to me that this second meaning is probably true, but not nearly to the degree that the current standings seem to indicate.
Thanks for making it this far. I've been lurking a while, and this is my first diary entry. Your comments are most welcome.