Jockeying for position: AL edition
Through the first 158 games of the season, no American League team managed to clinch a playoff spot. With the final out of Sunday night's Angels loss to the Rangers in Game 159, three teams — the Rangers, Yankees and Orioles — all secured postseason berths. On Monday night, the Tigers (who beat the Royals) and A's (who beat the Rangers) both clinched spots, with the latter result eliminating both the Rays and Angels. But even with all five spots wrapped up, the only certainty is that the Tigers — who at 87-73 are guaranteed to be the only AL participant with less than 90 wins —will be the number three seed. As with the NL, the rest of the teams are still jockeying for position over the final two days, leaving a dizzying number of permutations in play as far as first-round matchups are concerned.
For starters, the league's best record and the right to play the winner of the wild-card game is up in the air. The Rangers and Yankees are both 93-67; if they each win their two remaining games (against the A's and Red Sox, respectively), the nod would go to the New Yorkers by dint of a 4-3 season series advantage. The Yankees would await the winner of the wild-card game between the Orioles and A's, both currently 92-68; if they finish with the same record, the game would be played in Oakland, because the A's took five out of nine games from the O's this season. The Rangers would therefore face the Tigers, whom they beat in seven of 10 meetings this year, and whom they ousted in the American League Championship Series last fall.
On the other hand, it's still possible for the Yankees and Rangers to wind up in the wild-card game themselves in the Bronx if New York drops its remaining two games against Boston (you can stop laughing now) and Texas falls to Oakland in their remaining two games. That scenario would also require the Orioles to win twice, either over the now-eliminated Rays, or once against the Rays and once against the Yankees in a Game 163 tiebreaker to determine who wins the AL East and who wins the wild-card. That game would be held in Baltimore, because while the two teams split their season series 9-9, the Orioles have the better intradivisional record (42-28, .600 compared to 38-32, .543).
Meanwhile, the only possibility that appears to be completely off the table is the need for the A's and Rangers to play a tiebreaker, since the two teams are just one win apart with two to play. No matter how you slice it, one team will reach at least 94 wins, while the other will finish with 93 at most. Beyond that, every pairing from among the five teams is a possibility either in the wild-card game or Division Series. Full-blown analyses of each aren't possible within this space, but here's a quick flyby, working west to east by division in deference to the two-time defending AL champion Rangers, and with small-sample caveats always in mind.
Texas could win the AL West and secure the league's best record, in which case they would play the winner of the wild-card game between the A's and Yankees or Orioles. They're just 8-9 against the A's with two games still to play, and 3-4 against the Yankees, but they're 5-2 against the Orioles. Despite that losing record against the A's, the two starters who put up double-digit ERAs against them (Scott Feldman and Martin Perez, in a grand total of six starts) aren't likely to be part of Texas' postseason rotation. Neither is the starter with the most success against Oakland, Colby Lewis, who is done for the year due to elbow surgery. Ryan Dempster didn't face the A's all season, while Matt Harison and Yu Darvish posted ERAs in the 4.00s, and Derek Holland was hit hard, allowing four homers in 8 1/3 innings.
Dempster, Holland and Harrison all pitched well against the Orioles, while Darvish didn't face them. Darvish shut out the Yankees for 8 1/3 innings, striking out 10, and Harrison fared well, but Dempster and Holland were roundly thumped. If Texas doesn't secure the league's best record, they'll face the Tigers, whom they beat in seven out of 10 matchups this year. Darvish struck out 23 in 20 innings against them, and Harrison and Holland both lasted 7 2/3 innings in their lone starts. Should Texas wind up in the wild card game — something that the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds give a 25.6 percent chance of happening — Darvish would get the call. Thanks to improved command, he's been on a roll since mid-August, allowing three or fewer runs in each of his last eight starts, with a 67/15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 57 1/3 innings; his last seven starts have featured no more than two walks apiece, whereas he had four or more in 11 of his first 22 starts.
The A's could still win the AL West, in which case they might wind up facing either the wild card winner between the Rangers and Yankees or Orioles, or they could wind up with the second-best record and face the Tigers, the only one of those teams against whom they have a losing record (3-4) this season. Among their current starters, both Brett Anderson (who is making a good enough recovery from a Sept. 19 oblique strain that he's still a playoff possibility) and A.J. Griffin were chased early by the Tigers amid disaster starts (more runs than innings pitched), but Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker fared somewhat better despite high walk rates. That said, Milone's seven-inning effort on May 11 was the only one of the three starts between the two that qualified as a quality start.
The A's went 5-4 against the Orioles and 5-5 against the Yankees. Parker, Dan Straily and Travis Blackley were all roughed up by the O's, while Anderson didn't face them; Milone's 6 1/3-inning, two-run effort featured just two strikeouts against two walks. Milone and Parker were strong against the Yankees, yielding just four runs in 29 2/3 combined innings against them, but Blackley was chased after just two innings, and Griffin was knocked out after 4 1/3 in his Sept. 23 start, a step down from a strong six-inning effort back on July 19. In a wild-card game, Anderson would be manager Bob Melvin's first choice provided the A's like what they see in Wednesday's bullpen session; Milone, the only A's starter to make it through the entire season in the rotation, is the fallback.
The Tigers, as the number three seed, at least know that they'll open their series in Detroit on Saturday instead of having to travel, and they won't have to expend ace Justin Verlander — the top starter from any postseason AL team, hands down — in a one-game playoff. They could face any of the other four in the Division Series; they have losing records against the two teams they faced in last year's postseason, the Rangers (3-7) and Yankees (4-6), but a level record with the O's (3-3) and a winning record against the A's (4-3). Verlander dominated the Rangers and A's, allowing one run in 13 innings against each, and faring well against the Orioles and Yankees, but the Tigers will need more than a one-man band to play through. There's no clear trend among Detroit's other likely playoff starters. Doug Fister held the Yankees and A's in check in his lone start against each, but he was rocked for nine runs in 4 1/3 innings by the Rangers, and hit for eight runs in 10 2/3 innings over two starts by the Orioles. Max Scherzer was strong against the A's and Rangers, but chased early by the O's and Yankees, lasting a total of 9 2/3 innings in the latter two starts. Deadline acquisition Anibal Sanchez was thumped by the Yankees and A's, but didn't face either the Rangers or Orioles.
The Orioles have even records against the Yankees (9-9) and Tigers (3-3), but losing records against the A's (4-5) and Rangers (2-5). Like the A's, their rotation appears to be in flux due to injury; Jason Hammel, their most effective starter before a torn meniscus required surgery in mid-July, made just two starts in September before being sidelined by further knee discomfort. He threw five innings in an instructional league game on Monday, lining him up for a Division Series start but probably bumping him from wild-card consideration. Joe Saunders would be on turn to start Friday's wild-card game, but Chris Tillman is beleived to be Buck Showalter's preference based upon his 14-start, 2.78 ERA work since returning from the minors in July. Tillman didn't face the A's or the Tigers this year, but he pitched well in his lone start against the Rangers; he lasted just eight innings over two starts against the Yankees. Of the other teams in the playoffs, Hammel faced only the Tigers (one three-inning start just prior to surgery) and Yankees (three starts, two of them good, though the Sept. 6 one — his first since returning — lasted just five innings). Wei-Yin Chen made strong starts against the Rangers and A's but was rocked for six homers in 24 innings over four starts (one quality start) against the Yankees; he had one good and one bad start against the Tigers. Saunders made quality starts for both the Diamondbacks and Orioles against the A's; he wobbled through a start against the Yankees, but didn't face either the Tigers or Rangers. Miguel Gonzalez, who's also in the mix, struggled in starts against the Rangers and Tigers, and had one lousy and one good start against the Yankees; he struck out nine in seven scoreless innings against them on Aug. 31.
New York Yankees
Because manager Joe Girardi let CC Sabathia throw eight innings and 103 pitches in Monday night's rout of the Red Sox — which was well in hand after the team erupted for nine runs in the second inning — the big man may be less likely to return on three days' rest for a potential wild-card game, though he's hardly been ruled out. Of the four potential opponents, Sabathia struggled most against the Orioles (6.38 ERA in 18 1/3 innings), but dominated the A's (2.05 ERA in 22 innings), fared well against the Tigers and outlasted the Rangers (eight innings, four runs). Hiroki Kuroda put up ERAs under 3.00 against all four potential opponents, with a combined 2.52 ERA and six quality starts out of eight. Andy Pettitte made just 12 starts this year, none of them against potential postseason opponents; he's still building up his pitch count after missing nearly three months due to a fractured fibula, but he's the all-time leader in postseason innings at 263, and the Yankees have little worry about him in October. Incidentally, he's lined up to pitch a potential tiebreaker on Thursday. Fourth starter Phil Hughes was knocked out by the Rangers after 2 2/3 innings, but fared well against the A's and Tigers; he had two good starts against the Orioles and two not-so-good ones.In all, it's a bewildering array of possibilities, and the likelihood of rain in the Bronx on Tuesday night — which could force the Yankees and Red Sox into a Wednesday doubleheader — only increases the potential for mayhem. The bottom line is that even with all five spots sewn up, there's plenty to pay attention to over the next two days.