Friday September 19th, 2014

Thanks in part to the expanded wild card format, the past three years have produced no shortage of down-to-the-wire mayhem, with the full playoff picture not coming into focus until the season's final day — or in the case of last year, the day after, via a Game 163 tiebreaker. Amid the late September drama in 2011 that pushed the Red Sox and Braves out of the playoffs in favor of the Rays and Cardinals, I coined the phrase "Team Entropy" — taking a page from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that all systems tend toward disorder — and have since revisited the concept each year.

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To explain it more fully: If you're a die-hard fan of a team trying to secure (or avoid blowing) a playoff spot, rooting for your team generally takes precedence. But if you have no rooting interest, or if you're simply willing to embrace the modern day's maximalist menu of options, MORE BASEBALL — the sheer volume of meaningful action — is the priority. You want as many close division and wild card races as possible. You want to go quad-screen with your plan and keep your tablets and smartphones at hand so you can see it all. You want chaos.

If that describes you, then welcome to Team Entropy, my friends.

While this may not be Team Entropy's peak season, with 10 days left on the schedule, both leagues still have a reasonable amount of unfinished business in order to clear up the playoff picture. Three division titles are still up for grabs and all four wild card spots are still in play.

A quick look at the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds shows that seven teams in each league remain alive for postseason berths. Two AL clubs -- the Yankees and Blue Jays -- have less than a one percent chance. The same is true in the NL for the Braves. That leaves five AL teams with postseason chances between 8.5 and 95.7 percent; two of those teams will wind up on the outside looking in, while a third will be bumped to the do-or-die Wild-Card Game. Of the other four NL clubs, only one -- the Brewers, at 9.2 percent -- has less than 90 percent odds to reach the playoffs. 

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The centerpiece of this year's entropic offerings is the AL Central. At this writing, the Tigers (84-68) are clinging to a half-game lead over the Royals (83-68) as the two teams head into a three-game weekend series in Kansas City, their final head-to-head matchup of the regular season. Thanks in part to taking two out of three at Comerica Park last week, Detroit holds an 11-5 series edge. According to current tiebreaker rules, if the two teams wind up with the same records through 162 games, the Tigers would host for a Game 163 tiebreaker due to that head-to-head advantage.

Detroit is 6-1 at Kauffman Stadium, though the last time the two teams faced off in front of the fountains, Anibal Sanchez was still in the team's rotation and Austin Jackson was its centerfielder. The Tigers left town with a 6 1/2-game lead. All of that is to say that things have changed considerably via injuries and trades. Still, based on remaining schedules, run differentials and expected playing time (the ingredients that go into BP's odds calculations), Detroit has an estimated 95.7 percent chance of reaching the postseason (74.7 percent division, 21.0 percent wild card).

But if you're looking for evidence that the Tigers have an additional edge by dint of having reached the playoffs in each of the past three years — compared to the Royals having not done so since 1985 — you'll have to rely on clichés instead of data. Baseball Prospectus' Russell Carleton did a good job of debunking that myth earlier this week via some fancypants number-crunching:

If previous pennant race experience makes a difference, then we should see hitters with more previous experience getting more hits than we would expect based on the batter-pitcher matchup and pitchers fanning more hitters. The coefficient in the regression equation for that variable would be a significant predictor of success.

Except that it wasn’t. At all. For anything or anyone. There was no impact of previous pennant-race experience on what happened on the field. Hitters hit pretty much like we would expect given their overall talent and pitchers pitched like it. As un-Hollywood as it sounds, the team was merely the sum of its parts. That sum was good enough to be in the hunt for a playoff spot in September, so it was probably a pretty good sum. But there is no magical edge conferred by previous experience (or lack of experience) in winning “games that count.” Neither the young Royals nor the battle-tested Tigers have an edge going into this year’s AL Central race. Sorry guys. You’ll actually have to win it on the basis of silly things like talent.

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That aside, don't forget that the Royals have another potential loss hanging over their heads because of a suspended Aug. 31 game with the Indians; they trailed 4-2 heading into the bottom of the 10th inning before rain prevented the final three outs (or more) from playing out. That game will be completed on Monday, Sept. 22 in Cleveland (not Kansas City) before the start of a three-game series between the two teams; for what it's worth, the Indians hold a 9-6 season series edge. Without including the incomplete game in its calculations, the BP odds slightly overestimate the Royals' chances of winning the division (24.9 percent) or a wild card spot (48.8 percent).

Which means that BP also underestimates Cleveland's chances; at 79-73, it has just a 0.4 percent shot at the division and 8.1 percent for the wild card. The Indians are just 9-9 this month after an 18-9 August, but they'll face the DOA Twins in Minnesota this weekend, against whom they hold a 9-7 season series edge. With Phil Hughes starting Friday night's opener at Target Field, a sweep will be tough for Cleveland to pull off, but it's a necessity for a team that faces a four-game deficit in the wild-card standings with 10 to play. If you're rooting for entropy, save a spot in your heart — or at least in your browser window — for the Indians.

Elsewhere in the AL, it takes a high-powered microscope to see the wild-card chances of the Yankees (78-74, 0.3 percent) and Blue Jays (77-75, 0.1 percent); either team more or less needs to run the table while hoping for multiple collapses, and they can all but eliminate each other during the rest of their weekend series in the Bronx that continues on Friday night.

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Of much more interest are the Athletics (83-69, 88.2 percent) and Mariners (82-70, 33.7 percent). Oakland, of course, spent nearly five months playing like the best team in baseball. But since maxing out at 28 games above .500 (72-44) with a four-game AL West lead over the Angels on Aug. 9, the A's are a horrendous 11-25, including 4-11 in one-run games. That tally that doesn't even include indignities such as the blown 1-0 lead to the Rangers in the ninth inning of Wednesday's 6-1 loss. Quite simply, Oakland is a one-team entropy factory, and not far off from joining the annals of infamous collapses.

The A's face the Phillies, Angels and Rangers the rest of the way, and while that looks slightly easier on paper than Seattle's slate (Astros, Blue Jays and Angels, with the first two of those series on the road), you can toss that out given that they were just swept by Texas' would-be minor leaguers in Oakland. That said, the Mariners did lose two out of three to the Astros in Seattle last week, which didn't help their cause.

If we assume that the Indians will fall by the wayside and that the Tigers will hold onto the AL Central, the big storyline over the next 10 days is which team from among the A's, Royals and Mariners miss out on a wild card spot. If the Central is still in play on that final day, so much the better for Team Entropy.

I’ll spare you the tiebreaker scenarios for now, but if you want maximum entropy, consider the possibility of five teams winding up with the same number of wins. If the Indians go 8-4, the Mariners 7-5, the A's 6-6, the Royals 6-7 and the Tigers 5-7, each club will finish with 89 wins. Toss in the Yankees at 11-1 or the Blue Jays at 12-0 and the size of the party increases.

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Over in the Senior Circuit, the NL Central is the focal point of the remaining drama. The Cardinals (85-68) enjoy a 2 1/2-game division lead after taking two of three from the Brewers, including Thursday night's 13-inning marathon. They have a cupcake schedule the rest of the way, facing the Reds, Cubs and Diamondbacks, all of whom are playing out the string; their odds round up to 100.0 percent, though officially, their magic number to clinch a playoff berth is four, and to clinch the division is eight.

With its loss on Thursday night, Milwaukee (79-74) is in rough shape. Since Aug. 19, when it was 71-55 with a 2 1/2-game division lead, it has gone a major league-worst 8-19, with a winning percentage (.296) that's just one point off its Pythagorean percentage — but then what do you expect for a team that lost 13 out of 14 as August turned into September? The fizzling Brewers are now six games out of first, and while their elimination number in that race is officially four, their odds via that route don't even round up to 0.1 percent. Their estimated chance at a wild-card berth is just 9.2 percent; they have to make up 3 1/2 games on the Pirates (82-70), who occupy the second spot.

Luckily for the Brew Crew, it will get its chance this weekend via a three-game series in Pittsburgh. Milwaukee does have the edge in the season series (11-5) and is 5-2 at PNC Park, but the last time the two teams faced each other there was back on June 8, when the Brewers' sluggers still packed a punch. Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez, Aramis Ramirez and Mark Reynolds have combined for three homers and a .387 slugging percentage this month, and nobody’s picking up the slack.

The road has been a particularly cruel place for Milwaukee over the past month; since sweeping the Dodgers in L.A. from Aug. 15-17, the Brewers are just 2-10 away from Miller Park. The bad news is that after a trip to Pittsburgh, they have to go to Cincinnati for a three-game set before returning home to close out against the Cubs. If you're rooting for entropy, you have to hope that they can sweep the Pirates or at least take two out of three.

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The Bucs aren't dead yet in the division race, but with a 2 1/2-game deficit and no head-to-head matchups with the Cardinals, they're dependent upon other teams to help them make up ground; their odds via that route are just 8.8 percent. On the other hand, their wild-card odds are a robust 81.3 percent, and they're closer to having the upper hand on the Giants (84-68) for homefield advantage in that coin-flip game than they are to being passed by Milwaukee. After hosting the Brewers, the Bucs travel to Atlanta (76-76) and Cincinnati (71-82); the Braves are technically alive at 0.9 percent, but they need to run the table and hope for help. It's no cakewalk for Pittsburgh, but after missing the postseason for 20 straight years, extending its streak of playoff appearances to two counts for a lot.

Despite losing two of three to the Dodgers (87-66) last weekend in San Francisco, the Giants refuse to go quietly in the NL West race; they trail by 2 1/2 games and have a three-game set in Los Angeles from Monday through Wednesday. They're a level 8-8 in the season series and have gone 5-2 in Chavez Ravine. The balance of San Francisco's schedule is seven games against the Padres, though it is just 6-6 against them. In all, the BP odds give the Giants a still-considerable 14.4 percent chance of snatching the NL West flag from the Dodgers and an 85.2 percent chance of holding onto a wild-card spot. That adds up to 99.6 percent, meaning about a 1-in-250 chance of things going completely pear-shaped.

As for Los Angeles, its postseason odds round up to 100 percent (85.6/14.4); it is closer to having the league's best record (Washington is 1 1/2 games better at 88-64) than to being caught by San Francisco. That said, with Hyun-Jin Ryu on the shelf and Roberto Hernandez, Kevin Correia and Carlos Frias producing disasterpieces in the rotation this month, the Dodgers are capable of causing their fans to chew their fingernails. On the heels of back-to-back blowouts by the Rockies, they needed to come back from a three-run deficit against the Cubs late on Thursday night. They play three more at Wrigley before hosting the Giants and finishing at home against the Rockies.

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For maximum chaos in the NL, the sweet spot is 88 wins. Getting there would mean the Brewers go 9-0, the Pirates 6-4, the Giants 4-6, the Cardinals 3-6 and the Dodgers 1-8. Any higher than that leaves the Brewers by the wayside, though things would still be messy.

In the end, we may not get as much final-week or final-day excitement as we did in 2011, '12 or '13, but it’s not too late for Team Entropy to make a comeback. I’ll continue to keep a close eye on the chaos here and on Twitter; check for the #TeamEntropy hashtag, and make sure your smartphone is charged.

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