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Ranking the best playoff races in MLB's final month of play

Ranking the best playoff races in MLB's final month of play Photo:

As we begin the final month of the 2014 regular season, five of the eight playoff races (six divisions and two wild card races) have a challenger within 2 1/2 games of the top team entering Monday’s action. Here are those eight races, ranked by level of interest heading into the home stretch, with a preview of the coming month’s decisive action.

Note: Odds are percentages from Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds Report.

AL Central

team w-l pct. gb odds
Royals 74-61 .548 36.7
Tigers 74-62 .544 1/2 51.2
Indians 70-64 .533 3 1/2 12.1

The AL Central is the most compelling race in baseball right now, pitting the Royals, the team with the longest active playoff drought in the game, against the Tigers, the team for whom a division title was supposed to be a given. The Tigers have won the Central each of the last three years and were in first place for all but three days this season until the Royals passed them on Aug. 11. The Royals extended their lead to three full games on Aug. 23, but the Tigers have since tied things back up (though the Royals officially have a half-game lead Monday morning; they were three outs from losing to Cleveland on Sunday night before that game was suspended).

Baseball Prospectus' odds favor the Tigers, but the remaining schedule favors Kansas City. Outside of their six remaining head-to-head games with Detroit, the Royals have just six other remaining games against teams currently sporting winning records: Three in New York against the Yankees this weekend and three in Cleveland against the Indians in the penultimate series of the season. The Tigers, meanwhile, play four games in Cleveland starting Monday afternoon followed by three at home against the Giants, then, after hosting the Royals to start next week, will welcome the Indians to Detroit. That’s a stretch of 13 straight games against playoff contenders that doesn’t include their three games in Kansas City on the season’s penultimate weekend. And while the Tigers are playing the surging Indians, the Royals will take on the Rangers and Red Sox, two last-place teams whose rosters have been stripped by injury and trades.

The key to the race, then, is for the Royals to build up a lead during those next two weeks. If the Tigers can keep things close during that stretch, however, Detroit could well be on its way to a fourth straight division title, particularly given its head-to-head success against Kansas City thus far this season (they are 9-4 with wins in three of their four head-to-head series thus far).

Meanwhile, don’t count Cleveland out completely. They have ten games remaining against the Tigers and Royals, winning records against both teams on the season (7-5 against Detroit, 8-7 against Kansas City with that ninth win pending), and had the second-best record in baseball in August (behind the Orioles) thanks to the incredibly stingy, though likely somewhat fluky, performance of their pitching staff.

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NL Central

team w-l pct. gb odds
Brewers 73-63 .537 36.2
Cardinals 73-63 .537 50.7
Pirates 71-65 .522 2 12.9

The NL Central race looks a lot like its AL counterpart, but with the roles switched. Here, it's the underdog Brewers who have been in first place since Apr. 5 and the defending and presumptive division champion Cardinals who have rallied to tie things up. In both cases, however, it’s the defending champion who is favored by the odds, and in this case the schedules agree. The two teams have seven head-to-head games remaining, and both have three games remaining against the Pirates and two series against the Reds (the Cardinals have seven games in those two series, the Brewers six).

The Brewers' remaining schedule contains six games against the Cubs and four against the Marlins, two would-be patsies who are proving better than expected and could be dangerous down the stretch, particularly with the Cubs’ influx of young hitting talent. The Cardinals have three games against the Cubs, but their other six games will come against the Rockies and Diamondbacks, two of the worst teams in baseball, against whom the Cardinals are 5-1 this season (by way of comparison, the Brewers are just 7-6 against the Cubs).

This is a close and compelling race, but it’s not as impressive a race as last year’s NL Central competition. The Brewers have had a winning record in just two months this season, April and June. The Cardinals have been .500 or better every month but have been outscored by their opponents in each of the last three months despite improving their winning percentage in each of those months. In June and July, the Cardinals couldn’t score. In August, despite adding John Lackey and Justin Masterson prior to the non-waiver trading deadline, they allowed 4.7 runs per game. Both pitchers have been disappointments thus far, with Masterson being an outright disaster (7.90 ERA).

The Brewers, meanwhile, scored just 3.8 runs per game in July and August, with Jean Segura losing his grip on the starting shortstop job and deadline addition Gerardo Parra having thus far been a replacement-level player. That would seem to leave room for the Pirates to make a move, but Pittsburgh has played .422 ball on the road this season and will play 17 of its last 26 games on the road, starting with a three-game set in St. Louis on Monday afternoon.

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NL Wild Card

team w-l pct. gb odds
Giants 74-62 .544 +1 62.4
Cardinals/Brewers 73-63 .537 25.9*
Braves 72-65 .526 1 1/2 45.5
Pirates 71-65 .522 2 20

There are only four teams in this race (the Marlins are the next team in the standings, 6 1/2 games out with a record three games below .500), but both wild-card spots are up for grabs, meaning we could get any combination of two teams from the above four.

That said, the Giants are more of a lock than the above would suggest. Baseball Prospectus gives them an 89.7 percent chance of making the playoffs, be it by claiming a wild card or upsetting the Dodgers in the NL West. If they were to do the latter, the Dodgers would most likely be one of the two wild-card teams (L.A. has a 98.9 percent chance of making the playoffs per BP). Outside of six head-to-head games with the Dodgers and three in Detroit this weekend, the Giants have a soft remaining schedule made up of NL West patsies (Padres seven times, Diamondbacks six times, Rockies thrice). The X-factor there could be the Padres, who posted a .593 winning percentage in August and are 6-6 against the Giants on the season.

The Braves have played .500 ball over the last two months, but also have a fairly soft schedule. Outside of six games against the NL East-leading Nationals, they have four against the Pirates, three against the Marlins, and 12 against teams trailing Miami in the standings (the Phillies six times and Mets and Rangers three each). Still, the Pirates are facing that tough slate of road games, and the Brewers are scuffling, so opportunity remains for Atlanta, as their odds suggest.

*These are the Brewers’ odds; the Cardinals’ are lower because they are given a greater chance of winning the NL Central.

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AL Wild Card

team w-l pct. gb odds
Athletics 78-58 .574 +4 91.1
Tigers 74-62 .544 17.9
Mariners 73-62 .541 1/2 42.5
Indians 70-64 .522 3 13.6
Yankees 70-65 .519 3 1/2 5.3
Blue Jays 69-67 .507 5 1.4

It seems fairly clear that the second-place team in the AL West is going to host the AL Wild Card Game this year. What’s compelling here is the race for that second spot. Given what I wrote above about the AL Central race, the Tigers are a stand-in here for both Detroit and Kansas City, and BP's odds suggest strongly that whatever team loses the race for that division will also lose the wild-card race to the Mariners.

Seattle's remaining schedule contains 13 games against the A's and Angels, but it also contains ten games against the Astros and Rangers and four against the Blue Jays. Despite getting Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind back from the disabled list, Toronto scored just 3.3 runs in August and posted a .346 winning percentage on the month, largely eliminating itself from the playoff races.

Things appear too crowded here for the Yankees, a team that has arguably been playing above its head all season. The Indians again remain a dark horse, however. Remember, last year they went 21-6 in September to come out of nowhere to host the Wild Card Game. This year, they’ve already begun their stretch-run surge.

NL West

team w-l pct. gb odds
Dodgers 77-60 .562 72.7
Giants 74-62 .544 2 1/2 27.3

The odds suggest this race isn’t as close as it seems, and with the loser of this race likely to claim a wild-card spot, there’s less on the line here than in the races above. Still, after the two central divisions, this is the most compelling divisional race in baseball, and with the Wild Card Game format, there’s a huge difference between winning a division and claiming a wild-card berth.

The Dodgers’ remaining schedule greatly resembles that of the Giants, substituting the Nationals at home for the Tigers on the road and four games against the dangerous Cubs for four games against the surging Padres. That makes the six remaining head-to-head games between these two teams all the more important, and also underlines the significance of the Dodgers holding a two-game lead in the loss column. Also significant is the fact that the Dodgers just got Hanley Ramirez off the disabled list a week ago and can add top outfield prospect Joc Pedersen with rosters having expanded.

Thus far, the Giants have won seven of the 13 head-to-head matchups between the two teams this season, but the Dodgers have outscored San Francisco by four runs in those games. Most likely the division will still be in play when they meet for the final time in Chavez Ravine in the penultimate series of the season.

AL West

team w-l pct. gb odds
Angels 83-53 .610 92.2
A's 78-58 .574 5 7.7

This was supposed to be a must-watch race between two of the best teams in baseball, but the Angels' four-game sweep of Oakland over the weekend appears to have put it to bed early. Both teams play mostly patsies the rest of the way, outside of three remaining head-to-head games in Oakland in the penultimate series of the season and home-and-away series against the Mariners (who own the missing 0.1 percent chance of winning the division).

It’s still possible that the Angels' pitching losses (Garrett Richards to a torn patellar tendon, Tyler Skaggs to Tommy John surgery, both season-ending) and the Athletics' reinforcements (Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel, Sam Fuld, Jonny Gomes, and now Adam Dunn) will tip the race back toward Oakland. But with just 26 games remaining, this looks surprisingly over.

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NL East

team w-l pct. gb odds
Nationals 78-58 .570 95.9
Braves 72-65 .526 6 4.0

The Nationals have the best record in the National League and have played .617 ball since June 1. The Braves have played .500 ball over the last two months and are below .500 since the end of April. There's nothing to see here, folks. The most compelling race the Nationals are involved in is for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They currently have a two-game lead in the loss column over the Dodgers for that privilege.

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AL East

team w-l pct. gb odds
Orioles 79-56 .585 99.1
Yankees 70-65 .519 9 0.8

The Orioles have a nine-game lead with 27 to play, and the two teams chasing them (the Blue Jays are 10 1/2 games back in third place) have negative run differentials. The Orioles are 3 1/2 games behind the Angels for the best record in baseball and won’t face any teams currently above the Yankees in the overall standings in their remaining 27 games. In fact, after completing their series against the Twins on Monday afternoon and playing three against the Reds at home this week, Baltimore won’t play out of its division again until October.

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