Welcome to Team Entropy: Creating MLB's mass-tie playoff scenario
The expanded wild-card format has both its critics and its flaws, but since its introduction in 2012, it's helped produce plenty of down-to-the-wire suspense, with the full playoff picture not coming into focus until the season's final day—or in the case of 2013, until a Game 163 tiebreaker could be played. Even before that, the single-wild-card format granted plenty of thrills and chills, including tiebreaker games in three straight years (2007 to '09) and the total mayhem of the end of the '11 season, in which the Rays and Cardinals snatched spots away from the collapsing Red Sox and Braves, respectively, on the season's final day.
Amid that late-2011 drama, I coined the phrase "Team Entropy"—taking a page from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that all systems tend toward disorder—to describe the phenomenon of rooting for scenarios that produced end-of-season chaos. If you're a die-hard fan of a team trying to secure (or avoid blowing) a playoff spot, flag-waving for your squad of choice generally takes precedence. But if you've embraced the modern day's maximalist menu of options that allow one not just to watch scoreboards but also to view multiple games on multiple gadgets, you want MORE BASEBALL in the form of down-to-the-wire division and wild-card races, extra innings and tiebreaker scenarios. You want the MLB schedule-makers to contemplate entering the Federal Witness Protection Program instead of untangling once far-fetched scenarios. You want to go quad screen with MLB.tv and make sure your phone and tablet are charged as well. Welcome to Team Entropy, friends.
As September dawns, the last trading deadline has passed, and while there are still 34 days worth of games until the season ends, it's worth a look at the landscape to appreciate the possibilities in play—some of which admittedly seem slightly more unrealistic the morning after four of the six division leaders expanded their margins. At this point, there's far more fun to be had in the Junior Circuit, where the Royals have socked away the AL Central thanks to a 13-game lead but where every other invitation to the October dance remains in play.
I'll continue to update the Team Entropy outlook on a weekly basis until mid-month, with further updates as chaos dictates.
Five weeks ago, the division race looked all but done: The Yankees had opened up a seven-game lead over the Orioles, the Rays were half a game back and the Blue Jays were not only half a game behind them but also a game below .500 at 50–51. That night, Toronto completed a stunning trade for Troy Tulowitzki, and since then, the Jays have gone a jaw-dropping 24–6 and more than doubled their opponents in the runs column, outscoring them 190–93; meanwhile, the other three teams have played sub-.500 ball to the point that Baltimore (63–68) and Boston (61–70) are just two games apart in the race for the cellar.
At 74–57, Toronto now leads New York (72–58) by 1 1/2 games, but the Yankees have the advantage in home games remaining, 18 to 14, including four of the seven between the two teams. Via the Baseball-Reference Expanded Standings, the Jays have the easier remaining schedule by about two wins, with their average opponents at 64–66; New York's remaining opponents are at 66–64. The Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds give Toronto a 70.9% chance of bringing home its first division title since 1993, but the possibility of a tie remains very much in play.
If the Jays play to their overall .566 clip—a performance that would seem like a letdown given their current pace, but regression is inevitable at some point—and get to 92 wins by going a mere 18–15, the Yankees could catch them by going 20–14. The Yanks' best record over a 34-game stretch this year is 22–12, so if one assumes that they're incapable of 23–11 and that 94 wins is their max, it would take a 21–10 run from Toronto to seal the deal. If the two teams do wind up tied, it's more than likely that the loser of a tiebreaker game would still qualify for the Wild-Card Game, more on which below.
Thanks to Houston's win over Seattle and Texas' loss in San Diego on Monday, the Astros (73–59) own a four-game lead over the Rangers (68–62) but just a three-game lead in the loss column. The Angels (65–66), who are 7 1/2 back, are still technically alive here, but after a 10–19 August, their chances at the division title are at 1.2%; merely to get to Houston's extrapolated 90-win pace (via a .553 winning percentage) would require them to go 25–6, something the Halos have done only once in their 55 seasons—from Aug. 12 to Sept. 13 of last year, to be exact. So we're saying there's a chance…
In terms of remaining schedule strength between the other two teams, it's a dead heat, with the Astros' average opponents holding a 63–67 record and the Rangers' at 64–67. Of the two teams, Texas has more home games remaining, 17 to 14, including four of the seven head-to-head games; those are also their only games remaining against a team that currently has a winning record, whereas Houston still hosts three with the Twins. Thanks to the impact of the discrepancy between run differentials (+101 for Houston, -26 for Texas), the BP Odds strongly tilt toward the 'Stros, 91.5% to 7.4%. To get to Houston's projected 90 wins would require Texas to go 22–10, something they did manage to do over a couple of May-to-June stretches—before they had Cole Hamels, Derek Holland, Martin Perez, Mike Napoli, Will Venable and—for parts of both—Adrian Beltre.
AL wild card
Here's where the real fun begins. The Yankees hold a four-game lead for the first spot, and with a 67.2% chance of winning it added to their 29.0% chance at the division, they're near-locks to return to the postseason for the first time since 2012, at 96.1%. The second spot is currently held by the Rangers (36.5% chance), with the Twins (67–63, 19.8%) one game behind, the Rays (11.7%) and Angels (8.5%) both 3 1/2 back, and even the Indians (64–66, 18.9%) just four out thanks to their current six-game winning streak. The BP Odds love the Indians: Not only are they tied for the most home games remaining (18), but their run differential is also right at zero, whereas the other four teams are in the red. It's not so sanguine on the Orioles (63–68, +36 runs but 0.9% odds); even though they too have 18 at home, they're 1 1/2 games behind Cleveland and thus 5 1/2 out. Birds, the word is “cooked.”
Extrapolating from the Rangers' 85-win pace (.523 winning percentage), which would require an 18–15 record the rest of the way, we can get our all-nourishing tiebreaker game with some combination of the Twins going 18–14, the Angels and/or Rays 20–11, the Indians 21–11 and the Orioles 22–9. Neither Cleveland nor Baltimore has gotten more than two wins closer to those records over any similar stretch this year, while Tampa Bay's best is 19–12 back in May/June. Minnesota, on the other hand, has played as well as 23–9 over a 32-game stretch, and that was in April and May B.M.S. (Before Miguel Sano). Likewise for Los Angeles, which owns stretches as strong as 22–9. Suffice to to say that if you could store entropy in cardboard boxes, the AL wild-card warehouse would be well-stocked.
Thanks to another stellar example of bullpen mismanagement on the part of manager Matt Williams—who watched Casey Janssen and Felipe Rivero turn a fresh 5–3 lead over the Cardinals on Monday into an 8–5 deficit without getting Drew Storen or Jonathan Papelbon into the game—the Nationals (66–64) are again 6 1/2 games behind the Mets (73–58) following a season-worst 12–17 month.
The BP odds give Washington a 6.5% chance at rebounding to win the division, and while history in the form of the Mets' 2007 collapse suggests it's possible, merely to match New York's current 90-win pace would require the Nats to go 24–8, two games better than their best stretch of the season. The '12 and '13 editions of the Nationals did summon 24–8 records, but unless Davey Johnson is heading back to the dugout, that ain’t happening here. That goes doubly so given that New York's remaining schedule is the easiest in the majors, with an average opponent record of 57–73, two games worse than those of Washington. The Nationals and Yankees are New York's only remaining opponents with winning records, and the Nats still have two to play in St. Louis in addition to the six games remaining with the Mets, including the final three games of the regular season in Queens in early October.
At 85–46, the Cardinals own the best record in baseball, but the Pirates (79–50) have the league's second-best record and are just four back in the loss column. They do have the tougher schedule, with three games against the Dodgers in Los Angeles on the docket in addition to six with the Cardinals, three of which will be at home to kick off the season's final week. The BP Odds give the Redbirds an 89.3% to 10.3% edge; to match their 105-win pace (!) would require the Bucs to go 26–7, something the franchise hasn't done since 1978. On the other hand, to match the Pirates' 99-win pace, the Cardinals only have to go 14–16.
Thanks to their 14th-inning walkoff win over the Giants on Monday night, the Dodgers (73–57) now own a 4 1/2-game lead, their largest since the All-Star break, and they've now won two in a row against their arch-rivals, who beat them nine times in their first 11 head-to-head games this season. Hamstrung by injuries to Yasiel Puig, Howie Kendrick and Kiké Hernandez and with a battered back of the rotation and a shaky bullpen, they're still arguably in better shape than the Giants, who are without Angel Pagan, Joe Panik and Hunter Pence, not to mention three-fifths of their projected rotation—though the work of Matt Cain, Tim Hudson and Tim Lincecum hasn't been up to their past standards.
San Francisco has the easier remaining schedule by a 2 1/2-win margin (61–68 versus 64–66), which comes down to the difference between their hosting the Reds and visiting the A's versus the Dodgers hosting the Pirates and visiting the Angels, but the BP Odds nonetheless give Los Angeles a sizable edge, 91.1% to 8.8%. To match the Dodgers' 91-win pace would require the Giants to go 22–9 the rest of the way. They sustained such a clip in April and May even without Pence and Jake Peavy, but the odds of a repeat seem slim, and anyway, it’s an odd-numbered year.
NL wild card
Consider this party rather pooped. The Pirates hold a 5 1/2-game lead over the Cubs (74–56) for the first spot and thus an 11-game cushion over the Giants; including their 89.5% odds at a wild-card spot, they're at 99.8% overall. Chicago owns a 92.6% chance at a wild-card spot, though the team does have the tougher remaining schedule; the Cubs have an average opponent record of 66–63, with a makeup game against the Royals and 13 against the Cards and Bucs accounting for nearly half of their remaining games. The Giants are down to a mere 4.5%, and the Nationals, who are eight games behind the Cubs, are at 1.6%. If the Cubs continue their .569 pace to 92 wins, the Giants would need to go 23–10, the Nationals 26–6. Don't wait up.