Chaos Theory: A look at the NL playoff picture
If you're a die-hard fan of a team trying to secure (or avoid blowing) a playoff spot, your primary interest is in rooting them on. But if you've embraced the modern day's maximalist menu of options, you just want MORE BASEBALL. You want down-to-the-wire division and wild-card races, scoreboard watching and tiebreaker scenarios, with your 19th nervous breakdown an option as well (call it an occupational hazard). You want the MLB schedule-makers to tear their hair out as they contemplate once far-fetched scenarios. You want absolute chaos. Reaching back for that old Second Law of Thermodynamics term that states that all systems tend towards disorder, you're rooting for Team Entropy.
From the standpoint of Team Entropy, with less than a week to go in the regular season, the picture may appear somewhat bleak in the Senior Circuit, as four playoff spots are sewn up by the Nationals, Reds, Giants and Braves. This is no time for despair, however.
For starters, the NL East flag is actually still in play. The Nats (95-61) hold a four-game lead over the Braves (91-65), with six games remaining for both teams, and have a magic number to clinch of three. As well as Washington has played this month (15-10), its lead is now the smallest it's been since Aug. 28, and its remaining schedule is no cakewalk. This weekend, it will play three games in St. Louis against the Cardinals (84-72), who hold a three-game lead for the second wild-card spot with six to play, putting their magic number to clinch at four — a team still with work to do, in other words. That's followed by three games against the Phillies (78-78), who are on the brink of elimination from contention — one more loss or one more St. Louis win will do it — but who have gone 32-21 since the beginning of August and can't simply be ignored.
Meanwhile, the Braves, who are 17-7 this month, have a softer schedule ahead of them: three against the Mets (72-84), and three against the Pirates (76-80) in Pittsburgh. Both have been mathematically eliminated and are simply playing out the string; together, they're a combined 16-33 this month. If the Braves can catch the Nats — say they go 5-1 while Washington goes 1-5 — the two teams would need a one-game playoff to determine who wins the division and who must play the wild card game. That game would take place on Thursday, Oct. 4, in Washington, D.C., because the Nats won the season series 10-8. The loser would have to turn around and play the wild card game the next day. Don't bet the farm on this coming true; the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds give Atlanta just a 2.2 percent chance of winning the division overall.
As for the remaining NL wild card spot, the Cardinals' magic number is three. St. Louis must face the Nationals and Reds (94-62), the two teams playing for the league's best record, so its remaining slate is hardly trivial. The Dodgers (81-75), Brewers (80-76), Diamondbacks and Phillies (both 78-78) all retain a shred of hope, though the odds are increasingly long. BP's odds give the struggling Dodgers (14-20 since Aug. 20, not coincidentally the last day they led the NL West) a 5.6 percent chance; they host the Rockies (62-94) and Giants (91-65) — one dead-in-the-water team, one blood rival that would love to knock them out just to see the look on their faces. Just to get to a tiebreaker game against the Cardinals, the Dodgers would have to go 6-0 while St. Louis goes 3-3, or 5-1 while St. Louis goes 2-4. Or Los Angeles would have to go 4-2 while St. Louis goes 1-5… and so on. The streaking Brew Crew (26-10 since Aug. 20) fell from 4.4 percent to 1.8 percent with Thursday's loss to Cincinnati; they host the Astros (51-105) and Padres (74-82), who are a combined 23-24 this month, and won't simply roll over.
For the Diamondbacks and Phillies, you need an electron microscope to see their chances. Both have elimination numbers of one, and BP reports their odds at 0.0 percent, which because of rounding means it's less than 0.05 percent — less than 1 in 2,000, in other words. For a more precise estimate, we turn to BP co-founder Clay Davenport's system, which the site formerly used and which is similarly based on a Monte Carlo simulation that plays out the rest of the season one million times. Carrying the decimals even further, Davenport reports a 0.00524 percent chance for the Diamondbacks (less than one in 19,000), and a 0.00207 percent chance for the Phillies (less than one in 48,000). Arizona would have to run the table against the Cubs (59-97) and Rockies; while that is the league's easiest remaining schedule according to Baseball-Reference's Expanded Standings, with opponents holding an average record of 60-95 (.387), even that would give them only 84 wins, a number that the Cardinals can easily surpass, and that the Dodgers or Brewers could attain with strong play. Likewise for the Phillies, who would have to run the table against the Nationals and Marlins, with all six games on the road; even then, they too would have to hope nobody surpasses 84 wins.
If two teams tie for a wild card spot, requiring a play-in game, home field advantage would be determined by head-to-head records. The Cardinals would have the upper hand against the Brewers via a 9-6 season series advantage, and the Diamondbacks, against whom they're 5-1. They'd have to travel to face the Dodgers, against whom they went 5-6, or the Phillies, against whom they went 1-5. The Brewers hold a 6-1 advantage over the Dodgers, but are 2-5 against the Phillies, and 3-3 against the Diamondbacks. The next tiebreaker with the latter would be determined by intradivision winning percentage; the Brewers are at .579 (44-32) against the rest of the NL Central, while the Diamondbacks are at .536 (37-32) against the NL West, leaving them the short straw. The Dodgers own a 5-2 advantage over the Phillies, but are just 6-12 against the Diamondbacks. The Phillies own a 4-2 advantage over the Diamondbacks.
Summarizing the various scenarios, the team most likely to cause chaos by crashing the playoff party appears to be the Dodgers. There's no non-contender with two series against contenders remaining and thus a golden opportunity to play spoiler; coming into Thursday, the closest thing was the Padres, who had one game against the Dodgers and three against the Brewers in Milwaukee. The teams closest to elimination are the Diamondbacks and Phillies, both of whom could be done as soon as Friday night with either a loss or a Cardinals win. For a look at the Chaos Theory in the American League, click here.