While numerous teams atop the American League have spent the 2018 on record-setting paces, the most notable record of all could come from a team that misses the postseason entirely.
As of the morning of September 20, the Tampa Bay Rays sit at 85-66 -- a .563 winning percentage -- but are firmly outside of an A.L. playoff spot. The New York Yankees are first at 93-58 (.616), while the Oakland Athletics are second at 91-61 (.599), and 5.5 games ahead of Tampa Bay for the final wild card spot.
Teams miss the playoffs with winning records all the time in baseball. But for the Rays, this specific season would be a rarity in the two-wild card era. Since 2012, the best team to miss the playoffs in Major League Baseball was the 2013 Texas Rangers, who finished with a winning percentage of .558. Tampa Bay’s current winning percentage is not only higher than that mark, but also that of every team to miss the playoffs in either league in the last 13 years.
You have to go back to 2005 to find a team to miss the playoffs with a better winning percentage. The Cleveland Indians were left out that season at .574. Two years prior to that, the Seattle Mariners missed with the same mark, and the Mariners and Boston Red Sox missed at .574 in 2002. The best team to miss the playoffs in the wild card era was the 1999 Cincinnati Reds (.589), and even that team finished tied with the New York Mets but lost the winner-take-all tiebreaker game (officially part of the regular season standings, not the postseason).
Add in the 2002 Los Angeles Dodgers (.568) and that’s the entire list of teams that have missed the postseason in the wild card era with better winning percentages than this Rays team possesses. Tampa Bay has won games at a greater clip than any of the last eight A.L. wild card participants (not counting this year’s eventual winners), and six of the last eight in the A.L.
In a sport where some purists bemoaned the addition of another wildcard (and the one-game playoff that came with it), is this year’s postseason too small for all of baseball’s best teams?
Over at FiveThirtyEight, you can find team predictions and ratings for this season, as well as all previous seasons, too. According to Elo ratings, are the seventh-best team of 2018, but the sixth-best A.L. club. Five teams in each league make the playoffs. Four participants in the N.L. would be rated worse than the Rays today.
Perhaps the biggest crime is how ignored this sort of success has been outside of the Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg area. You’ll find local publications like the Tampa Bay Times remarking about how well the team’s playing. But in a division with the Yankees and Red Sox (and a historically bad Baltimore Orioles club), it’s hard to even make a dent in the national narrative this season.
Part of that could be because despite being around .500 for much of the season, Tampa Bay’s surge is also a pretty recent development. The team’s won 14 of 17 since the start of September, including six wins against playoff clubs Cleveland and Oakland. They’re currently on a five-game winning streak -- the third streak of four wins or more for the team this month alone.
Dating back to mid-August, the run looks even more impressive: 23 of 28 since August 19, including an eight-game win streak (the fourth streak of four or more games in the time period). Tampa Bay took four of six from Boston in there, plus a split with the playoff-bound Atlanta Braves and the aforementioned winning records against the A.L.’s top clubs in September.
Plenty of teams have sprinted through the season’s final month before -- perhaps most famously, the 2007 "Rocktober" Colorado Rockies, who won 21 of the last 22 games of the year to make the playoffs, and finished with 90 wins plus the franchise’s only trip to the World Series.
This Tampa Bay club hasn’t needed the same sort of clip to get on a 91-win pace, but they’re still likely to miss the playoffs instead. That, more than the potential record-setting number of 100-win teams could be the most notable part of this year’s pennant race. It’s a shame few outside of the Rays and their fans are likely to remember it, though, once the calendar hits October.
(No, John Cassillo's not a Rays fan -- he's a Mets fans and the managing editor of Syracuse's SB Nation blog, Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician. But the topic was of interest, so he hopes you'll forgive him if the piece comes off talking to a more national audience.)