Sometimes, it seems like the best teams in a given sport will remain that way forever -- just ask anyone who's not a fan of the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Lakers or New England Patriots. But when that status quo changes, it can change quite dramatically.
That's what appears to be happening in MLB's 2023 season, already one where pitch clocks have altered the way the game is played. Great empires have been toppled, underdogs now seem unstoppable and anything seems possible.
Don't believe us? Just check out these numbers:
Yankees and Cardinals in last place
Just ask any fan whose team is in the AL East or NL Central: The road to win either division often goes through the Yankees or St. Louis Cardinals. They're both iconic franchises with big payrolls and attractive destinations to any player wanting a big payday or a chance at a World Series title. Last year, both squads finished first in their respective divisions, with Aaron Judge hitting 62 home runs for New York and the one-two punch of Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt giving pitchers fits for St. Louis.
All that changed this year. Judge's injury and a Cardinals pitching collapse have both squads languishing in last place. It's the first time the Yankees have been in last in August since 1992, and the first time the same thing has happened for the Cardinals since 1998. You have to go back to 1990 to find a time when both teams were in their respective divisional basements. It's only the fourth time for the Yankees and the seventh for the Cardinals that they've been in last place this late in a season since divisions were introduced in 1969.
The two squads' struggles aren't completely comparable, however. The Cardinals were 48-61 entering Thursday's contest against the Minnesota Twins, with a vanishingly small chance of even competing for a wild-card spot. The Yankees, on the other hand, are 56-52 -- certainly not great, but not bad at all. So, what gives?
Beasts of the AL East
It's because the American League East, usually a pretty tough division, is an absolute juggernaut. Every team in it is above .500. How rare is that? It's only the second time in the divisional era that every team in a division has a winning record entering August (the only other time was the NL East in 2005), and it's the first time ever that each squad is multiple games over .500. The Tampa Bay Rays, currently in second place in the division, would be in first in every other division save for the NL East, where the Braves have the best record in baseball. The Toronto Blue Jays, third in the division, would be in first in the NL or AL Central, and the Yankees and Boston Red Sox would be the best teams in the AL Central.
The Baltimore Orioles have a precarious grip on first in the AL East. It's the first time they've had a share of first entering August since 2016.
They're doing this with a payroll more than $200 million less than the Yankees are spending.
Speaking of payrolls ...
Mo' money, mo' problems
The New York Mets, Yankees, San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies have the top four payrolls in baseball. None of those teams are in playoff position, and the Mets and Padres both have losing records. Only one time in the wild-card era (since 1995) have the teams with the top three payrolls all missed the playoffs (2008). If these teams continue their current trajectories, it'll be the first time the top four have all been denied a playoff spot.
Welcome to the new age
In all this chaos, some teams have returned to the top of the standings for the first time in quite a while. Aside from the Orioles, the Cincinnati Reds have a share of first place in August for just the second time in the past 25 years and the first since 2012. The Texas Rangers haven't had to wait quite as long, but they haven't had a share of first place in August since 2016.
And even with Mike Trout out with an injury, the Los Angeles Angels (due in large part to Shohei Ohtani making a case for being one of the greatest players of all time) are only three games out of a playoff spot. It's the first time they've been this close to a playoff berth since September 2017.
Statistics from ESPN Stats & Information were used in this article.