Chaos theory: A look at the AL playoff picture
If you're a fan of playoff scenario-related chaos potential — if you're rooting for Team Entropy — the National League has nothing on the American League. For starters, with six days to go in the regular season, all three division titles remain in play, and no team has clinched a playoff spot. The smallest magic number to clinch the division belongs to the Rangers; with a four-game lead over the A's in the AL West and six to play, theirs is three. Four teams (the Yankees, Orioles, Rangers and A's) have a good chance of making the playoffs even if they don't win their division, and eight teams remain alive in some form or another, with the smallest elimination number at five; that belongs to the Rays and Angels.
The Yankees (90-66), Orioles (89-67) and Rays (86-70) all remain alive, with New York holding leads of one and four games over the two teams, respectively. The Yankees are a near-lock to reach the postseason, with a 99.5 percent chance according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds; that breaks down to an 82.5 percent chance at the division and an 17.0 percent chance at the wild card. The Yanks, who lost to the Blue Jays (69-87) on Thursday night, remain in Toronto for three more games, then come home to face the Red Sox (69-87). With any combination of three wins and three Tampa Bay losses, New York can eliminate Tampa Bay from any shot at the division; as it is, the Rays are listed as having a 0.2 percent chance of that. The Orioles have an 84.0 percent chance at the playoffs, including a 17.3 percent chance at winning the AL East; their elimination number for the division title is six. They host the Red Sox for three games starting on Friday, then close the season with three games in Tampa Bay. As for the streaking Rays, who have won eight in a row, their odds more than doubled with a win over the White Sox (82-74) on Thursday, from 9.9 percent to 21.6 percent. They still have a very tough slate, with three more games in Chicago before hosting the Orioles.
As far as tiebreaker scenarios go, if it comes down to a one-game playoff to determine who wins the division and who plays in the wild-card game, the Rays hold a 10-8 advantage over the Yankees in head-to-head competition. New York is an even 9-9 against the Orioles, and actually have the disadvantage in the second tiebreaker, intradivisional winning percentage, with a .545 (36-30) mark while Baltimore is at .591 (39-27). Keep in mind, the remainder of both teams' slates is against AL East rivals. In a tiebreaking scenario between the Orioles and Rays, Baltimore holds a 9-6 series edge with the season-ending series still to play; the Rays are at .565 (39-30) within the division and could still gain the upper hand there.
The Tigers (84-72) hold a two-game lead over the White Sox. The Baseball Prospectus Odds give Detroit an 87.1 percent chance of winning the division, but a 0.0 percent chance at the wild card; BP co-founder Clay Davenport's similarly Monte Carlo simulation-driven methodology gives them an infinitesimal 0.00035 percent chance, just over one in 300,000; their elimination number for the wild-card is three. The Tigers are on the road for the remainder of the regular season, with three apiece at Target Field against the Twins (65-91) and at Kauffman Stadium against the Royals (70-86). Given those dismal records, the Tigers' weighted average opponent record of 68-88 (.456) is the lowest among AL contenders. The White Sox, who have a 12.9 percent chance of winning the division (according to BP) and an 0.00107 percent chance at the wild card (Davenport) — their elimination number is one in that category — have a tougher road ahead, with three more games hosting the Rays, and then three games in Cleveland against the Indians (65-91) for an average opponent record of 73-82. If the two teams are tied at the end of the regular season, the Tigers hold a 12-6 advantage for a one-game playoff, one that's likely to be a true elimination game instead of a potential division/wild-card determinant — just as the division produced in 2008 and 2009.
Three teams remain alive: the Rangers (92-64), A's (88-68) and Angels (86-70), with Texas holding leads of four and six games, respectively, over the other two teams. The Rangers hold a greater than 99.949 percent chance of getting into the dance (BP reports it at 100.0 percent), with a 95.5 percent chance at winning the division. Their magic number to eliminate the Angels from division contention is one, and to eliminate the A's is three; they lowered the latter by two with a win over Oakland on Thursday afternoon. Texas can continue to double its pleasure in all of its remaining games; the Rangers host the Angels for three games this weekend, then travel to Oakland for three. The A's, who have a two-game lead over the Angels and Rays in the wild-card race, are estimated to have a 4.5 percent chance of winning the division and an 81.2 percent chance at a wild-card spot; besides their remaining slate against the Rangers, they host the Mariners (73-83) for three games. As for the Angels, who have a 0.00905 percent chance at the division (according to Davenport) and a 9.2 percent chance at the wild card (BP), they too play the Mariners, but in Seattle instead of at home.
Should the AL West require a tiebreaker for division/wild-card differentiation, the Rangers are a level 8-8 against both the A's and Angels. Texas has just a .509 winning percentage (26-25) within the division, while the other two teams are at .529 (27-24), so they'd hold the second tiebreaker over the Rangers as things stand. The A's hold the tiebreaker over the Angels by dint of a 10-9 head-to-head advantage.
As for potential tiebreakers between teams from different divisions, applicable either to an Oct. 4 Game 163 play-in to determine the Wild Card, or to the Wild Card game itself:
• The Yankees hold a 6-4 advantage over the Tigers, a 5-4 one against the Angels and a 4-3 one against the Rangers. They're just 2-5 against the White Sox, and 5-5 against the A's; they have the lead on the latter in terms of intradivision winning percentage, .545 to .529, though both teams' remaining slates are all within the division.
• The Orioles hold a 6-2 advantage over the White Sox but are 3-3 against the Tigers, with both teams at .591 within their division but all of their remaining games still left to play taking place in that context. They're at a disadvantage against the Rangers (2-5), A's (4-5) and Angels (2-7).
• The Tigers hold a 4-3 advantage over the A's but are 2-7 against the Rangers. They're 5-5 against the Angels, and have a .591-.529 edge in intradivision play.
Space and sanity prevent me from delving into the three- and four-team tiebreaker scenarios at this juncture, though you can find the nuts and bolts at MLB.com. They remain a possibility, however faint. For example, if the Orioles go 1-5, the A's 2-4, the Angels 4-2 and the Rays 6-0, all four would finish at 90-72. The first tiebreaker among the quartet would be head-to-head records among the tied pool, and from there… well, that's a bridge not worth crossing until we come to it.
At the moment, the noncontenders with the best shot at playing the spoiler are the Red Sox, with three games apiece against the Yankees and Orioles, and the Mariners, with three apiece against the Angels and A's. The team on the outside with the highest likelihood of crashing the postseason party is the Rays, who hold a 21.6 percent chance of making it, but they also have the toughest road ahead, with an average opponent record of 86-69 (.555). They're still a longshot, but stranger things have happened — and just one year ago at that. For a look at the playoff picture in the National League, click here.