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How safe is the Reds' 8-game lead in the NL Central?

Does this answer your question?
Does this answer your question?

The epic unraveling of the Red Sox and Braves was just a twinkle in Josh Beckett's eye this time last year. The Braves led the Cardinals in the NL Wild Card by 9 on September 1, while the Red Sox would lead the by Rays 9.5 games in the AL by Sept. 3. Happening as it did last year, this "double-painbow" of collapse is still fresh in our minds.

But it's also a singular, insane event in baseball history and, therefore, incredibly unlikely. Both teams, at their peak in September, had a fraction of a percentage point between them and a playoff certainty.

The Reds are currently enjoying an 8.0 game lead on August 23, with 37 games to play. Baseball Prospectus gives them a 99.8% playoff shot, while Cool Standing is slightly lower at 98.1%. They're every bit as likely to make the playoffs as Boston and Atlanta were last season.

It's somewhat subjective - depending on how far back from the end of he regular season and how many games out - but collapses even approaching 2011 levels happen roughly less than once a decade. Given the advantage the Reds have on the verge of September, letting it slip away would put them in a rarefied, stench-filled space.

Though they played in different eras (with different divison alignments and season lengths) the following teams were in a similar spot to the Reds in late August. All of them missed the playoffs:

The one that jumps out is the '93 Giants, who were also led by Dusty Baker. They were caught by a team that, like the Cardinals, had the best run differential in the NL. The Braves ripped off several blow-out wins down the stretch and caught the Bonds' Men. But they also had the best starting rotation ever assembled.

The picture could change in a week or two and the Reds could become more similar to another handful of teams. But I think the point is: it's just a handful. Slyde wrote a similar article to the one you're reading back in 2010, when the Reds led by 6 games with 25 to play. He found just seven teams that were able to overcome similar leads at that stage of the season.

Even if the Reds let their lead slip a few games in early September, they're still on very solid footing.

We could also think about who's trailing the Reds this season, even though I'd prefer not to. It's two teams this time, rather than your standard one. Depending on what you think of the strength and weaknesses of the Pirates and Cardinals, that makes an 8 game lead a little less secure. Only one of those two has to get hot if the Reds go cold.

The Cardinals - with the best run differential in the NL, best offense in the NL and, now, a lead on the Pirates - can't be taken lightly, even if they can be mocked constantly. In 1995, the defenses and offenses of the Mariners and Angels were pretty evenly-matched, but the Mariners posted their best two months at the plate in August and September.

While the Reds' have a better pitching staff, it's not leaps and bounds better. The Cards have a bigger advantage offensively. They also have the opportunity to play the Reds six times over the remainder of the season.

Still, even if the Reds went 18-19 the rest of the way, the Cardinals would have to go 27-12 just to tie the division. That would put the Reds at 94 wins, a total that's been good enough to make the playoffs the last 5 years and win the Central twice in that span. With the Reds facing what appears to be a slightly easier schedule than the Cards, this outcome is unlikely (and deplorable).

Actually, I'll just say "impossible" so that, either way, this is more fun to read after the season.

There are some other important differences that set off the 2012 Reds apart:

  • They should get their best player back at some point next month, Baseball God-willing.
  • The Reds are leading a division, not a wild-card race. They have farther to fall out of the playoff picture and, arguably, a better team than at least several of the collapsers above. The Reds are on pace for 98 wins.
  • There's another Wild Card this season. The current pace for that spot is 88 wins. The Reds would have to go just 12-25 over their final 37 games to make it there.

37 to go.