Team Entropy update: NL Central back in play, AL West race gets tighter
With 21 days worth of games still on the docket, the playoff picture is still taking shape, and so we head into week three of our annual playoff chaos race 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 that allow you not just to watch scoreboards but also to view multiple games on multiple gadgets, then you want MORE BASEBALL in the form of down-to-the-wire division and wild-card races, extra innings and tiebreaker scenarios. You want MLB schedule-makers crying "Uncle!' while you go quad screen with MLB.tv. Welcome to Team Entropy, friends.
Through the first two rounds of updates, the only race that was off the boards was the American League Central, where the Royals have maintained a double-digit lead (now 10 games) and a 100% chance of winning the division, but at this point, we can call another race and move one more into the candlelight vigil stage. 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' NL and AL flavors.
With a three-game sweep of the Nationals in Washington and then a four-game trouncing of Atlanta—both of which featured no shortage of heroics by Yoenis Cespedes, as well as several late-inning comebacks—the Mets have essentially buried the Nats. New York now owns a 9 1/2-game lead, a magic number of 11 (same as the Royals) and a 99.8% chance at the postseason. Washington is down to a 0.2% chance at the division title and a 0.1% shot at a wild-card berth (they're 10 out there). There's more likelihood of Teddy Roosevelt rising from the dead to run again on the Bull Moose Party ticket in 2016 than there is of postseason baseball in D.C.
NL Central/wild card
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a bona fide race! With a rotation that's been tattooed for a 6.03 ERA this month, the seemingly unbeatable Cardinals have dropped eight of their last 11 games, including series to the Pirates, Cubs and Reds. Though they still own the majors' best record, their lead over the Bucs has shrunk from six games to a mere 2 1/2 in that span; their 10 1/2-game margin over the Cubs is down to 6 1/2. Odds-wise, St. Louis' chances of winning the division have plummeted from 93.9% to 73.9%, with Pittsburgh owning a 24.9% chance and Chicago a 1.2% chance. Although the Cardinals have by far the easiest schedule of the three, with an average opponent record of 67–75 compared to 75–67 for the other two, they do play 12 of their final 19 games on the road, including three-gamers at both Wrigley Field (this Friday to Sunday) and PNC Park (Sept. 28–30).
To match the Cards' 101-win pace—recall that it was a 105-win pace just a couple of weeks ago—would still require the Bucs to go 15–5, something they've done at a few points this year, but the degree of difficulty here would be high, as they'd have to do so against a schedule that includes seven games against the Cubs plus three against the Cardinals and three against the Dodgers in Los Angeles. For the Cubs to get to 101 wins would require a 19–1 run against a similarly daunting docket, with a makeup game against the Royals as well as the aforementioned 10 games against the other two contenders. Chicago's chances of reeling off such a 1935-like streak are still slightly higher than those of Ronald Reagan rising from the dead to rejoin the broadcast booth. For the Cubs to catch up with the Pirates' 98-win pace would require a 16–4 sprint, something they've done across several stretches from late July into August earlier this season.
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As for the wild card, the Pirates own a four-game lead for the top spot and a 75.0% shot at a berth; their BP odds round off to 100%. The Cubs have a 7 1/2-game cushion over the Giants, and including their 97.9% odds at a wild-card berth, they're at 99.1% overall.
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Although the Dodgers took two out of three from both the Angels and the Diamondbacks over the past week—and have now won 15 of 19—this one's not quite off the boards, as the Giants have won six of their last eight. Even so, the Dodgers still own a 7 1/2-game lead, and their odds of winning the division are up to 99.3%. San Francisco trails the Cubs by 7 1/2 for the second wild-card spot and has just a 0.8% chance there. To match Chicago's 93-win pace (.577 winning percentage), the Giants would have to go 18–1, a clip that they last managed in 1936, when slugger Mel Ott was in his age-27 season and screwballer Carl Hubbell was the staff ace. Odds are that the next time we check in, both options for San Francisco will be gone.
By taking three out of four from the Yankees in the Bronx, the Blue Jays have expanded their division lead to 3 1/2 games and boosted their odds of winning the division to 91.2%, up 20 points from our last check-in. But along the way, they suffered a blow by losing Troy Tulowitzki to a fractured scapula. Though the ex-Rockies star hasn't hit much since joining Toronto (.232/.314/.368 in 175 PA), he's still a better bat/glove combo than Ryan Goins, Cliff Pennington or the freshly-acquired Darwin Barney, and given his reputation as a slow healer, there's no guarantee he'll return before the end of the regular season. With their overall odds rounding to 100%, the Jays can let him take his time, at least.
Meanwhile, the Yankees have added injuries to the insult of a three-game drop in the standings, as an MRI finally revealed that Mark Teixeira did indeed suffer a fracture of his right shin, so his season is done. Additionally, Nathan Eovaldi is battling elbow inflammation and is unlikely to return before the end of the regular season, and the return of CC Sabathia last Wednesday—4 1/3 innings, three runs (one earned), three walks, five strikeouts—was nothing to write home about. Thanks to a Subway Series with the Mets this coming weekend, they have the tougher schedule than the Jays, with an average opponent record of 72–79 versus 68–74, and their next nine games are on the road, capped by three in Toronto. New York's odds of winning the division are down to 8.8%; to match the Jays' 93-win clip (.573) would take a 15–5 run, something the Bombers managed back in July when their roster, and particularly their rotation, were in better shape.
The Astros were one strike away from being swept by the Angels when Preston Tucker homered off Huston Street to kick off a five-run ninth capped by Jed Lowrie's pinch-hit–three-run homer. Still, they've lost nine out of 15, with just one series win out of their last five, and their lead is down to 1 1/2 games over the Rangers. Where Houston's odds of winning the division were as high as 93.1% as of Aug. 26, they're down to 77.3% now. If there's good news, it's that of the Astros' 10 remaining games against the Rangers and Angels, only four are on the road, where they have just a .408 winning percentage. Those four kick off on Monday night in Arlington.
The Rangers went 4–3 for the week, but they're still on a 20–10 run over the past month, and their odds of winning the division, which were as low as 3.7% on Aug. 26, are up to 20.6%. Of their remaining 11 games against the two AL West rivals, only a three-game series in Houston (Sept. 25–27) is on the road, and they get to host both the Mariners and Tigers for three-game sets as well. As for the Angels, Sunday's loss snapped a three-game winning streak, and they're now 4 1/2 games behind the Astros. While they've still won seven out of their last 11, their odds of winning the division are down to 2.1%; to match Houston's 87-win pace would require them to go 15–5. Los Angeles has been as hot as 17–3 over 20-game stretches crossing from late June to late July, but the team plays its next 10 and 14 of its final 20 on the road, where the Angels have posted just a .418 winning percentage.
AL wild card
While you can basically write off the Orioles and Rays (both 69–73, with 0.3 and 1.0% chances, respectively), that still leaves three teams within 4 1/2 games of the Rangers, and thus six teams besides the Blue Jays whose chances can still be seen with the naked eye: the Yankees (87.8%, for a 96.6% chance overall), Rangers (34.6%, for a 55.3% chance overall), Twins (31.1%), Astros (15.0%, for a 92.3% chance overall), Indians (11.8%) and Angels (9.2%). Of those teams, the Yanks have a three-game lead for the top spot and a four-game cushion overall. Cleveland has the toughest row to hoe, as 14 of its remaining 21 games come against the Royals and Twins, via a pair of four-game series at home and three-game series on the road. The Indians' average opponent record is 75–66, compared to 71–70 for the Twins, 71–71 for the Angels, and 70–72 for the Rangers and Astros.
To match the Rangers' 86-win pace would require the Indians to go 16–5, something they haven't done since 2013. For the Angels to do so would require a 14–6 run; for the Twins, 12–6. It's worth noting that Minnesota plays 14 of its final 20 at Target Field, where the Twins own a .618 winning percentage, the league's fourth-highest. It ain't over.