Looking at which teams gained or lost ground in playoff race in August
As August turns into September, it's a great time to keep an eye on the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds — or a terrible time, depending upon your point of view. Based on a Monte Carlo simulation that accounts for run differential, strength of schedule, expected distribution of playing time and performance (PECOTA projections), the BP odds provide a good reality check as to which teams truly have a shot at the playoffs and which are likely doomed to an October filled with hunting and golf.
Thanks to a partnership between BP and MLB.com, the daily standings and odds are archived for each of the past three seasons, with a cool graphic interface that shows you how any division played out over time. Pick a date and you can not only see the estimates of each team winning the division or a Wild Card spot, but also that team’s game story for a given day.
What follows here is a look back at the biggest odds swings in either direction that have taken place since the morning of Aug. 1, which is to say, since the passing of the non-waiver trading deadline. For some perspective going forward, I'll also look back at the most dramatic swings from Sept. 1 until the end of the season.
Biggest gain: Royals, 55 percent
Through July 31, the Royals were just 55-52, having capped their second losing month out of three. Their brief taste of first place in the AL Central — the three days in which they held the advantage on the Tigers from June 16-18 — was roughly six weeks in the rearview mirror. General manager Dayton Moore didn't exactly stand pat at the deadline, but the trade of Danny Valencia to the Blue Jays for Erik Kratz and Liam Hendriks was small potatoes; the former has just 20 plate appearances with K.C., the latter seven strong innings that came in a spot start versus the Twins. At the time, they were four games behind the Tigers and 6 1/2 back in the Wild Card race; the BP odds estimated they had an 18 percent chance at the playoffs, split evenly between the two routes.
Since then, the Royals have put together the majors' best record at 19-7. Their offense has come to life, scoring 4.73 runs per game in August, with Alex Gordon's eight homers and Billy Butler's four each representing just under half of their season totals. Waiver deadline acquisition Josh Willingham has provided some punch as well, hitting .256/.347/.488 in 14 games; that slugging percentage is 31 points higher than the team leader (Gordon). Meanwhile, the rotation has pitched to a 2.94 ERA in August, with all five starters at 3.54 or lower. The odds now say they have a 52 percent chance of winning the division and a 21 percent chance of going the Wild Card route, for a whopping 55-point gain overall.
Biggest loss: Blue Jays, 55 percent
On June 6, the Blue Jays (38-24) were flying high, with a 74 percent chance of winning the division and another 12 percent chance of snagging a Wild Card. Over the next few weeks, the injury bug started biting, with Brett Lawrie, Edwin Encarnacion, and Adam Lind hitting the DL. But while the team stumbled to a 12-15 June, they rebounded via a 15-11 July. Aside from the aforementioned Valencia deal, GM Alex Anthopoulos stood pat at the deadline, and the Jays looked to be in decent shape. At 60-50, they were 1 1/2 out in the AL East, with a three-game edge for the second Wild Card spot; their BP odds stood at 56 percent (33 percent division, 23 percent Wild Card).
August, though... the Jays are 7-16 this month, with an offense that's faded to 3.34 runs per game and a pitching staff tattooed for 5.35 runs per game. Lawrie was activated on Aug. 5 but went back on the DL just two days later with an oblique strain, Lind wasn't activated until Aug. 12, and Encarnacion until the 15th. The rotation's 5.02 ERA for the month points a finger at Anthopoulos' inability to add reinforcement; not a single starter has an August ERA below 4.15, with Drew Hutchison (4.94), Mark Buehrle (5.68) and Marcus Stroman (6.39) getting tarred and feathered. Meanwhile, closer Casey Janssen (7.56 ERA) has gone 1-for-3 in save opportunities, and at 67-66, not only are the team's odds down to 1.3 percent, but the Jays are also in danger of posting their third straight losing season.
Through July 31, the Mariners were just 56-52, not only 10 1/2 out of first in the AL West but also three behind Toronto for the second Wild Card spot. GM Jack Zduriencik was a busy man as the deadline approached, reacquiring Kendrys Morales from the Twins, getting Chris Denorfia from the Padres and using infielder Nick Franklin to secure Austin Jackson from the Tigers in the three-way David Price deal. None of the three has produced an OPS higher than .618 for the M's, but thanks to another lockdown pitching performance — the team's third straight month of allowing 3.0 runs per game or fewer — Seattle's 16-8 August record is the league's second-best; where they had an estimated 21 percent chance (all Wild Card) on Aug. 1, they're up to 43 percent now.
At 60-47, the Orioles clung to just a 1 1/2-game AL East lead through July 31, though their record, run differential and outlook was good enough to give them a 77-percent chance at a postseason spot. Despite having lost Matt Wieters for the season and dealing with a sinkhole at second base and a whole lot of uncertainty in the rotation, GM Dan Duquette's lone deadline move was to acquire lefty reliever Andrew Miller from the Red Sox. Don’t discount it; Miller has excelled (one run and six baserunners in 11 innings) as part of a bullpen that's delivered a 1.80 ERA this month, with starters Chris Tillman (1.26 ERA) and Wei-Yin Chen (3.16 ERA) stepping up as well to help the team to a 16-9 record. Meanwhile, Wieters fill-in Caleb Joseph and Steve Pearce have each bopped five homers and slugged better than .600 in part-time duty, helping to offset Manny Machado's season-ending knee injury. Thanks to their seven-game AL East lead, the team has a 98-percent chance of reaching the postseason.
At 57-50 through July 31, the Cardinals were in the midst of a four-team dogfight in the NL Central, two games behind the Brewers and tied for the second Wild Card spot. Because of that, John Mozeliak was among the game's most aggressive GMs in the final weeks of July. With Yadier Molina on the shelf due to a thumb injury from which he's only now on the cusp of returning, Moz picked up the recently released A.J. Pierzynski, traded a minor league outfielder to the Indians for Justin Masterson, and sent Allen Craig and Joe Kelly to Boston for John Lackey.
None of the those moves has yielded resounding results, though Lackey's 4.50 ERA is colored by one nine-run drubbing; he's yielded two earned runs or fewer in his other four turns. Jon Jay (.391/.494/.516) and Jhonny Peralta (.319/.373/.521) have swung hot bats in August, but it nonetheless rates as a surprise that Redbirds have actually managed to go 14-11 while being outscored by 14 runs, with Lance Lynn (1.99 ERA) the only starter with a better ERA than Lackey. Where the Cards had a 51-percent chance at the postseason (a 30/21 division/WC split) then, they're up to 67 percent (40/27) now.
The Tigers' woes have been well-chronicled here. Despite acquiring Price at the deadline and Joakim Soria (now injured) just prior, they're just 14-13 this month, having shed a four-game division lead and fallen into a tie for the second Wild Card spot. Miguel Cabrera's nagging injuries have led to a .368 slugging percentage this month, Anibal Sanchez could be done for the year due to a setback with his pectoral strain, and Justin Verlander was forced to skip a turn due to shoulder soreness. Where they seemed like a lock for a playoff spot on Aug. 1 (84 percent division, 5 percent Wild Card), they're down to 68 percent today (44/24 split) and even that represents a nearly 10-point swing from Thursday, thanks to Alex Avila's walkoff hit off the Yankees' Shawn Kelly.
At 57-51, the Pirates were just half-a-game behind the Cardinals in the division and Wild Card races, with a slightly better shot at making the postseason thanks to schedule and projections, albeit weighted more toward the Wild Card slot (21.3/30.4). For the second year in a row, GM Neal Huntington sat on his hands as the deadline passed, and this time around he's been unable to pull a (Marlon) Byrd out of his hat during the August waiver period. The Pirates' 12-13 record has wilted their chances to 30 percent, meaning that they've lost more ground than any other NL team.
Though they were seven games over .500 at the All-Star break (51-44), the Reds had just suffered a pair of big blows when Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips both hit the DL in a four-day span. The team lost its first seven games to start the second half, and were 54-54 through July 31, too far out for GM Walt Jocketty to bother making a big move. Since then, an 11-15 month has pushed the Reds below .500. Where they had a 22-percent chance at a playoff spot on Aug. 1, they're down to 1.2 percent today.
At this point, whether the odds are strongly in a team’s favor or stacked against them, the past month can be only so predictive. Last year, the Rangers gained 40 percentage points from the end of July to the end of August, from 56 percent to 96 percent, but a 12-15 September record forced them into a Game 163 playoff with the Rays, and they lost. On the other side of the coin, the Indians plummeted from 48 percent to 15 percent in August, but reeled off a 21-6 record that included a season-ending 10-game winning streak, enough for them to meet the Rays in the Wild Card game. In other words, there’s still a whole lot that can happen.