Team Entropy update: AL East, West, wild card offer best hope for chaos
"There is one word in America that says it all, and that one word is, 'Youneverknow.'"—Joaquin Andujar (1952–2015)
Last week, I kicked off our annual playoff-race chaos watch, a phenomenon I coined as "Team Entropy" years ago. To refresh your memory: If you're a die-hard fan of a team trying to secure (or avoid blowing) a playoff spot, rooting for that team generally takes precedence, but if you've embraced the modern day's maximalist menu of options—not just scoreboard-watching but multi-screen viewing 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 cry "Uncle!' instead of untangling once far-fetched scenarios. Climb aboard the Team Entropy bandwagon.
With 27 days worth of games still remaining, the possibilities for season-ending multi-team pileups have dwindled somewhat, though the only one that's truly off the board is the AL Central, where the Royals' 11-game lead remains virtually insurmountable. All references to the postseason odds refer to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds, and all references to schedule strength draw upon those from the Baseball-Reference Expanded Standings' National League and American League flavors.
It was a good week for chaos in this division, in that the Yankees (77–59) gained a game on the Blue Jays (78–59), trimming the latter's division lead to half a game; the two teams are tied in the loss column. Recall that the Bronx Bombers held a seven-game lead as of July 28, when the Jays were 50–51, but that date marked the acquisition of Troy Tulowitzki, with that of David Price to follow a couple of days later. Even with Tulo fumbling along (.225/.311/.373), Toronto's mighty offense and upgraded rotation have powered the Jays to a 28–8 record since then, while the Yankees have gone a mere 20–17. New York hasn't tasted first place since Aug. 24, but the two teams haven't been separated by more than two full games in the standings since Aug. 8. But even with an 8–2 run in their last 10 games, the Yankees have only gained 1 1/2 games in the standings.
Looking forward, the Jays have just nine home games remaining, compared to 16 games on the road; for the Yankees, the split is 14–12. The two teams kick off a four-game series in the Bronx on Thursday, then will meet again for three in Toronto from Sept. 21 to 23. Even with that in mind, the Yankees have the tougher schedule ahead of them, with an average opponent record of 70–66 compared to 67–69 for the Jays; the three-game gap owes largely to New York's three with the Mets in Queens (Sept. 18–20) and Toronto's three against the Braves in Atlanta (Sept. 15–17). The BP Odds put this at 71.2% for Toronto—a gain of 0.3% from a week ago—versus 28.8% for the Yankees. Note that whichever team winds up on the short end is still likely to end up with a wild-card berth, more on which below.
Chaos gained even more ground here, as the Rangers (72–64) and Angels (69–68) each gained two games on the Astros (75–63), who hold a two-game division lead overall but just one game in the loss column. Despite the additions of Carlos Correa, Carlos Gomez, Scott Kazmir, Lance McCullers et al, Houston is still living off its 18–7 start, having gone just 57–56 since, albeit with a +66 run differential. That said, the revamped rotation has been strong of late, with a 2.75 ERA and 3.37 FIP since the All-Star break, compared to 4.02 and 3.77 before; on the other hand, the bullpen has been tattooed for 19 runs (17 earned) in 18 1/3 innings this month.
Perhaps the best news for the Astros is the return of George Springer from a two-month absence due to a right wrist fracture. Though he's just 2-for-12 with a double in three games thus far, his 122 OPS+ (on a .260/.362/.448 line) is second among the team's regulars behind Correa (133). His defense was a negative factor in Saturday's 3–2 loss to the Twins, however, as Eddie Rosario's ninth-inning bloop deflected off his glove and turned into a two-run triple.
As for the Rangers, their two-game deficit is as close as they've been to first since June 13. The return of Derek Holland (2.37 ERA in five starts) has been key for an offense that has scuffled lately; the team has scored just 3.57 runs per game over its last 21, exceeding five runs just three times in that span, yet Texas has gone 14–7. The Angels have shaken off a 10–19 August during which they were outscored by 72 runs (158–86) to go 4–2 thus far this month, pushing their noses back above .500 and nearly tripling their chances at winning the division from 1.2% to 3.0%.
Still, to catch the Astros' extrapolated 88-win pace (.543 winning percentage), the Angels would have to go 19–6 against a schedule that includes two more against the Dodgers, seven against Houston (this Friday to Sunday at home, then Sept. 21–23 on the road) and four to wrap up the season in Arlington. But if Los Angeles can manage that while the Rangers go 16–10 and the Astros 13–11, we'll get quite a tie to break, one that would begin with head-to-head records among the three teams. There's no reason to be bashful in asking for the sun, moon and stars, so note that the Angels are 15–13 against the other two, while the Astros are 12–13, and the Rangers 13–14.
Schedule-wise, the Rangers have the easiest of the trio, with an average record of 66–70, a game lighter than that of the Astros and three lighter than that of the Halos; outside the division, they play host to three games with the Tigers. The Angels have four in Minnesota, with Houston's three in Arizona falling somewhere in between. The Rangers also have 17 of their remaining 26 games at home, though they're just 32–32 there. The BP odds give Texas just an 11.8% chance at the division, with the Astros—who have the better overall run differential by 132 runs (+103 versus -29)—owning an 85.0% chance. Still, that's 6.5 points lower than a week ago.
AL wild card
With a five-game lead for the first spot and a 70.3% chance at a wild-card berth, the Yankees' chances at reaching the postseason rose three percentage points over the past week, to 99.1%. But from there the picture is murkier, particularly because the only team among the next 10 in the standings that owns a positive run differential, the Orioles (+24), have lost 15 of 18, with their odds down to 0.3%. Bye-bye, Birdies.
Still in the drivers' seat are the Rangers, who own a 1 1/2-game cushion over the Twins (71–66, 16.9%) for the second spot; Texas is at 40.3% for the wild card, a gain of nearly four points, and coupled with their chances at the division, the Rangers are at 52.1% overall. The Angels, who are now 3 1/2 back, also gained about four points, to 12.7%, while the Rays (67–69, 5 1/2 back, 6.0%) and Indians (66–69, five back, 11.0%) took significant kicks in the teeth. Meanwhile, you can put aside that microscope and get out the magnifying glass, because the Mariners have climbed off the mats via a five-game winning streak over Houston and Oakland to climb to 1.8%.
Schedule-wise, the extremes here belong to the Indians (18 of 26 remaining games at home) and Angels (11 of 25 at home) in terms of home/road splits, though it's worth noting that the Astros (who have an 11.2% chance of settling for the wild-card spot) play just nine of their final 25 at home as well.
Dreaming on the Rangers' extrapolated 86-win pace (.529 wining percentage) for a massive tiebreaker scenario, we'd need some combination of the Blue Jays going 8–18, the Yankees 9–17, the Astros 11–14, the Rangers 14–12, the Twins 15–10, the Angels 17–8, the Indians 19–7, the Rays 19–6 and the Mariners 20–4. Seattle hasn't done that well across a 24-game stretch since 2001, when the M's rolled to a record 116 wins, but Tampa Bay has gone 19–6 or better over stretches in each of the past two seasons and four of the past five; Cleveland pulled off similarly torrid 26-game stretches in '13. The Yankees last went 9–17 in mid-2013, while the Jays hit an 8–18 sour note last year. The Angels have won 18 or 19 out of 25 across several stretches from late June to late July earlier this season, so perhaps Mike Scioscia has enough exasperating bullpen moves stored up in his cheeks to stave off winter.
On Sunday, this division may have reached peak Entropy, as the Mets' lead had shrunk to four games—their smallest margin since Aug. 20—and the firestorm over Matt Harvey's remaining innings was raging. Harvey's statement in the Players' Tribune did less to clear up the situation than did his team's comeback win over the Nationals in Washington on Monday afternoon, because now New York (76–61) holds a five-game lead over the Nats (71–66).
The two teams still have two more games in D.C. and then three to end the season in Queens; Washington has one more home game remaining than New York (13–12) and also a one-game advantage in terms of cupcake schedule, with an average opponent record of 60–77. In fact, the Mets are the only team above .500 that they'll face the rest of the way, while a Subway Series still looms for the two Big Apple teams. The BP Odds decisively favor the Mets, 84.5% to 15.5%, a swing of nearly six points in Washington's favor relative to last week. Still, if the Mets play to their 90-win pace (.555), the Nationals would have to go 19–6 to catch them. They did that or better back across a few stretches from late April to late May, when their lineup was a mess but Max Scherzer was firing on all cylinders, something that's clearly not the case these days.
Despite losing four out of their last five, the Cardinals (87–50) still own the best record in baseball as well as a 5 1/2-game lead over the Pirates (81–55), who took two out of three from them at home this week. The schedules are something of a toss-up, with the Redbirds owning just nine remaining home games to the Bucs' 14, including three games between the two teams at PNC Park from Sept. 28 to 30. On the other hand, St. Louis' average opponent record of 65–71 is the easiest of any NL contender apart from the Mets and Nationals, while that of Pittsburgh is 69–67. The big difference is the Pirates' three games against the Dodgers in Los Angeles compared to the Cardinals' three games against the Braves in Atlanta.
The Cubs (79-57), who are 7 1/2 back, have the toughest schedule of them all, with just 11 remaining home games and an average opponent record of 70–66; their odds of winning the division are at just 0.9%, compared to 7.8% for the Pirates and 91.2% for the Cardinals—about two points higher than they were last week despite their pace falling from 105 wins to 103 (.635). To get to 103 wins would require the Pirates to go 22–4 (last done by the franchise in 1978), the Cubs 24–2 (last done in 1935). Move along.
Thanks to a three-game sweep of the Giants (71–67) in Los Angeles, the Dodgers (79–58) now own an 8 1/2-game lead; they eked out a 14-inning win last Monday, then handed their drowning rivals a pair of anvils labeled "Greinke" and "Kershaw." Though still hamstrung by multiple injuries, the Dodgers have been rejuvenated by the play of Chase Utley and the recent debut of top prospect Corey Seager and have won 12 out of 14. Their odds are up to 98.7%—a gain of over seven points from last week—with the Giants down to 1.3%. To match LA's 93-win pace (.577), San Francisco would have to go 22–5, something the franchise last did in 1954. Say hey, it may be time to Panik, but that won't be enough.
NL wild card
Meh. Given the Cubs' 8 1/2-game lead over the Nationals and nine-game lead over the Giants, the intrigue here comes down to which team will have home field advantage for the Wild-Card Game. That's not nothing, considering that Chicago and Pittsburgh are now just two games apart, down from 5 1/2 games a week ago, and that while the Pirates are 25 games above .500 at home, they're just one above on the road; the Cubs are a more evenly-balanced 15 and seven above, respectively.
The BP odds show the Pirates at 99.8% for a playoff berth overall and 92.0% for the wild card; the Cubs are at 97.7% and 96.8%, respectively. You can barely see the chances of the Giants (1.1%) or the Nationals (0.9%) with the aforementioned magnifying glass. To get to Chicago's 94-win pace for maximum pileup would require Pittsburgh to go 13–13, Washington 23–2 and San Francisco 23–1. Good luck with that.