Saturday is Sept. 1 and, entering Friday's action, exactly half of Major League Baseball's 30 teams are within 3½ games of a playoff spot. According to the postseason odds calculated by former Baseball Prospectus statistician Clay Davenport, three of those teams, the Rangers, Reds, and Nationals have a better than 99 percent chance of making the playoffs and the Yankees are close behind at just shy of 98 percent. Baseball, though, is a sport that chastens us against certainty.
A year ago, the Braves had a 98.99 percent chance of making the playoffs on Aug. 26, and the Red Sox had a 99.78 percent chance on Sept. 4, yet both were eliminated on the regular season's final day. In 1995, the Angels had a 99.99 percent chance of making the postseason on Aug. 20 and ultimately lost a one-game playoff for the American League West title that made that 0.01 percent chance a reality. Those were three of the four greatest collapses in major league history according to Davenport's method, which simulates the remainder of the season a million times in order to determine each team's chance. We're unlikely to see something like that happen again this year, but it's good to remember that, with a little more than 30 games left on every team's schedule, anything is possible, something that's even more true this year with the two extra wild cards. With that in mind here's a quick look at the races for baseball's 10 playoff spots:
The Yankees have been in first place in the AL East since June 12 and have seen their lead swell to as many as 10 games (on July 18). Given that they were the consensus pre-season pick to win the division, many started to take for granted that they had the division sewn up, but their mounting injuries combined with hot Augusts from the challenging Orioles and Rays have given us a real race. The odds may disagree with that last statement, but the Orioles are coming to the Bronx this weekend for three games, and if they sweep that series, they'll be tied for first place.
The reason the Orioles' odds above are so poor is that, as a team that has been outscored on the season, no statistical model is going to project them to do anything but collapse. However, Baltimore is 17-9 in August, and if it can avoid losing by seven runs on Friday night, it will have outscored its opponents over a calendar month for the first time since April. The Orioles has won eight of their last 11 with all but two of those wins coming against the White Sox (against whom they just took three of four), Tigers, and Rangers and took two of three from the Yankees when they last met as July turned into August.
What's working for the Orioles is their pitching. They've remained in contention this long by winning close games thanks to one of the majors' best bullpens, but in August their rotation is performing as well. Taiwanese rookie Wei-Yin Chen has been a solid innings eater all season, but now Chris Tillman is 7-2 with a 3.26 ERA since being recalled at the beginning of July. Sophomore lefty Zach Britton is 3-0 with a 1.25 ERA over his last three starts. Veteran lefty Joe Saunders was roughed up in his Baltimore debut but he was an excellent waiver-trade addition, and early-season ace Jason Hammel, out since July following knee surgery, could return as soon as next week.
The challenge facing the Rays is that they simply have the toughest schedule of the three, playing the first place Rangers and White Sox while their two rivals play the A's and a last-place team. Those last-place teams are the surprisingly capable Mariners for the O's, and the lowly Twins for the first-place Yankees, giving the team currently leading the division by three games and hoping to get Alex Rodriguez back in the lineup shortly, the easiest remaining schedule.
The Yankees will play their next 10 games and 13 of their next 16 against Baltimore and Tampa Bay, finishing both season series, so we may find out quickly just how much of a race there really will be in this division.
By the odds, this is the best race in baseball, one that's essentially a toss-up despite Chicago's three-game lead. Ironically, this was supposed to be the least-competitive division, with the Tigers a nearly unanimous pick to run away with the division title, but the White Sox have received a slew of unexpected contributions including Cy Young-contending seasons from Jake Peavy and Chris Sale, who combined to make 18 starts for Chicago last year, a power surge at the plate from 35-year-old catcher A.J. Pierzynski, and big rebounds from 2011 black-holes Alex Rios and Adam Dunn. Those performances and Detroit's stars-and-scrubs construction have allowed Chicago to spend all but seven days since May 29 in first place.
The Tigers did well for themselves at the trading deadline, filling their gaping hole at second base with Omar Infante and adding depth to their rotation with Anibal Sanchez. On top of those roster upgrades, the rotation has stabilized behind another Cy Young-quality season from Justin Verlander and hitting stars Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder have been red-hot over the last two months, helping the Tigers go 30-19 (.612) since July 4. Yet, as good as the Tigers have been, the White Sox have managed to stay ahead of them by going 29-21 (.580) over the same span thanks in large part to the additions of Kevin Youkilis, filling a deep hole of their own at a third base, and rotation reinforcements Francisco Liriano and rookie lefty Jose Quintana.
The two teams' remaining schedules are nearly identical, the only difference being that while the White Sox play four games against the Rays, while the Tigers play three against Oakland and one more against the Royals. That might make things a hair easier for Detroit, which only helps explain why the odds see the race as so close. Unfortunately, the head-to-head series will be over by Sept. 13 as the ChiSox will play three in Detroit this weekend then host the Tigers for four a week after the end of that series. Thus far the Tigers hold a 7-4 advantage in the series, having swept the Pale Hose in Detroit the last time the two teams met.
The Rangers lead in the West is only a game larger than those of the Yankees and White Sox in the other two divisions, but if there's a divisional race in the American League that seems safe to call now, it's this one. The A's are overachieving as it is, the Angels, who are 12-15 in August, have dug a huge hole, and the Rangers have the easiest remaining schedule of the three.
In terms of their remaining interdivision opponents, the Rangers have 10 of 13 games against the Indians and Royals, while the A's have nine of 12 games against the Yankees, Tigers and Orioles, and the Angels have six against the Tigers and White Sox. Still, the A's play seven of their final 10 games against the Rangers, hosting them for the final three games of the regular season, so if they can keep things close, anything could happen in the season's final week. As it stands, the season series between the two teams is tied 6-6 with Oakland having outscored the Texas by five runs.
This is where things get crazy. This would be a great race with just one wild card spot available (just add a game to each team's games behind to see how that would look), but this year is the first with a pair of wild-cards in each league, meaning two of these five teams will make the playoffs, yet all they'll be guaranteed is a one-game playoff. The effect is roughly analogous to running a marathon only to have to run a 100-meter sprint against the runner who finished closest to you as soon as you cross the finish line. It should be thrilling to watch, but could prove to be emotionally exhausting to both the loser and winner of that playoff game.
It could also be a major test of each team's rotation depth, as the wild-card team that does ultimately make it to the Division Series could very well have already faced as many as three elimination games immediately prior to that series depending on how close this race remains in the season's final days. On paper, the Angels, who added Zack Greinke to an already talented rotation at the trading deadline, and Rays, who seem to have figured out how to spin golden arms out of straw, are best equipped to run that gauntlet. However, the Angels rotation has struggled mightily in August and in fact has been the primary reason that the Halos have a losing record on the month. They have the talent on both sides of the ball to go on a big run in September, but they have to leapfrog three other teams to claim one of the wild cards.
The Tigers have the easiest schedule of this bunch with 19 of their 32 remaining games coming against teams with losing records. The A's have the toughest, with 23 of their remaining 31 games coming against teams with winning records. The flip side of that is that the A's have the most opportunity to help themselves with seven games remaining against the Angels, and three each against the Orioles and Tigers. Tampa Bay and Detroit, meanwhile, only have six total games remaining against their rivals above. Of the five wild card contenders listed here, the only two who face each other in the season's final days are the Rays and Orioles, who finish the season with three games in Florida.
As Tom Verducci reported back in April, for the Braves to rebound from last year's collapse and reach the postseason this year would be unprecedented, but they seem well on their way to doing just that with an 86 percent chance of making the playoffs per Davenport's system. Even more impressive, they have a legitimate chance to flip the script on the Nationals, who currently have a 99.7 percent chance of reaching the postseason thanks to the double wild-card safety net. Still, outside of the Tigers, the Braves are the second-place team with the highest odds of finishing in first.
There are two reasons for that. One is strength of schedule, or lack thereof. Outside of their three remaining head-to-head games with the Nationals on the weekend of Sept. 14, the Braves have just three other games left on their schedule against a team with a winning record, those being their final three games of the season against the Pirates in Pittsburgh. The Nats, meanwhile, have three games against the Dodgers, who are just a half-game behind the Pirates in the overall standings, as well as six games against the Cardinals, who have gone 31-22 (.585) since July 1 (of course, the Nationals did crush the Cardinals 8-1 on Thursday in the first game of their seven-game season series).
The second reason is that the Nationals vaunted rotation just might be running out of gas. You might have heard about this Stephen Strasburg guy and his innings limit. Well, Washington manager Davey Johnson told the press on Thursday that Strasburg has "two or three" starts left before the team shuts him down. With Strasburg scheduled to start Sunday in the series final against St. Louis, three more turns on regular rest would mean his last start would come on Sept. 12 and he wouldn't pitch at all in the team's remaining series against the Braves, Dodgers or Cardinals.
Meanwhile, Jordan Zimmermann, who has been one of the most effective starters in the game this year and entered August with a 2.28 ERA and a minimum of six innings pitched in all 21 of his starts, has posted a 4.39 ERA in August and completed six innings just once in five turns. Zimmermann, it should be noted, has now pitched almost exactly as much as he did all of last year -- 26 starts, 161 innings (minus one extra out he recorded a year ago) -- before he was shut down by the team.
The Reds have the largest division lead in baseball, but they don't have the best odds of winning their division (the Rangers do) because the second-place Cardinals have the best run differential in the majors this year. The Cards are thus the anti-Orioles. Any mathematical projection is going to favor them. Third-order wins, which use the components of run scoring (hits, walks, steals, outs, etc., on both sides of the ball) to calculate how many runs a team should have scored and allowed and then calculates a winning percentage from that, have the Cardinals as three games better than the Reds to this point in the season (and the Orioles in last place in the AL East).
That the Reds are hoping to have Joey Votto back from the disabled list when rosters expand on Saturday while the Cardinals may have just lost Rafael Furcal for the season to Tommy John surgery would seem to undermine St. Louis' potential for another big September surge, but it's worth noting that the Reds went 30-14 (.682) without Votto, whose return will push a hot bat out of the lineup, be it Todd Frazier's, Ryan Ludwick's or Scott Rolen's, while Furcal had hit just .219/.278/.280 in 363 plate appearances since May 17.
All of that said, the Reds have an 8½ game lead and a 97 percent chance of winning the division with 30 games left to play. They've closed the door on this race, they just haven't locked it yet.
Desperate for offense after scoring just 3.5 runs per game in June and July, the Dodgers traded for Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino and Adrian Gonzalez in the last 35 days. Adding those three to the post-All-Star break returns from Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier has helped the Dodgers increase their scoring rate to 4.5 runs per game in August, a pace that would rank fifth in the National League over the entire season.
However, the Giants, who themselves scored just four runs per game in June and July and added only Marco Scutaro and a slumping Hunter Pence prior to the trading deadline and have since lost Melky Cabrera to 50-game performance-enhancing-drug suspension, have scored 5.5 runs in August. The driving forces behind that offensive explosion have been Buster Posey and Angel Pagan, who have hit .349/.463/.628 and .342/.413/.595, respectively, on the month, the former thrusting his name into the NL MVP conversation in the process.
Suddenly what had been shaping up as a race to rival the AL Central is tilting heavily toward the Giants. The 4½ game lead San Francisco holds in the division entering Friday's action is its largest of the year and the Dodgers may have just lost Chad Billingsley for the season to an elbow injury and will be without closer Kenley Jansen indefinitely due to a reoccurrence of the irregular heartbeat that sidelined him for most of last August. That's on top of having just lost valuable utility man Jerry Hairston Jr. for the season due to a hip surgery.
Los Angeles also has the tougher remaining schedule. The only interdivision games the Giants have left are their three games against the Cubs in Chicago this weekend. The Dodgers, meanwhile, have a pair of three-game sets against the teams with the two best records in baseball, the Nationals and Reds, as well as a four-game set against the team with the best run differential in baseball, the Cardinals. While the Dodgers have those 10 games against three of the best teams in the NL, the Giants will face the Cubs, Rockies and Diamondbacks.
This should be a bit cleaner than the AL wild card race. First, there's one less team in contention. Second, the Braves have a big lead and an easy schedule with just six games left against winning teams. Third, the Dodgers have the tough schedule (16 of 30 games left against winning teams) and the pitching losses mentioned above which could combine to push them out of this race as quickly as they seem to be falling out of contention in their division. That boils this down to a race between the Pirates and Cardinals, two teams who are tied in the loss column, for the non-Braves wild card spot.
One reason those two teams are tied in the loss column is that the Pirates have taken four of six head-to-head games from St. Louis over the last two weeks, capping that performance by outscoring the Cardinals 14-0 on Tuesday and Wednesday combined. However, the Bucs are just 7-12 against other competition this month, and while they looked like a legitimate contender in June and July as they were proving equally adept at scoring and preventing runs, one has to wonder whether their August performance was just a rough patch from a team that had a winning record in each of the previous three months, or a more permanent course correction from a team that has now been outscored in three of the season's five months.
Pittsburgh has the easier remaining schedule, with just nine games against winning teams and 13 against the sub-.400 Cubs and Astros, while St. Louis flips those numbers with 13 games against winning teams and just nine against the lowly Cubs and 'Stros. Still, it's hard not to see the Cardinals as the better team right now.
This race may still go down to the wire, in part because just three of the Pirates' nine remaining games against winning teams come prior to September 28. The Pirates then host the Reds for three games on the season's final weekend and finish with three at home against the Braves. The Cardinals don't have it any easier, finishing at home with three against the Nationals followed by three against the Reds.