Breaking down the American League playoff contenders
Last week I examined the relatively clear National League playoff picture, noting the long odds of a team from outside the five currently in position for playoff spots crashing the October party. With a bit less than seven weeks to go in the regular season, the American League situation is considerably more fluid.
According to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds -- which use a Monte Carlo simulation to account for run differential, strength of schedule, expected distribution of playing time and performance (via PECOTA projections) in estimating a team's chances at winning a division or wild-card race -- five teams have at least an 83.3 percent chance at reaching the postseason via one route or another. Four more teams combine to have roughly a 50 percent chance of making the cut — about four times as great as the NL had of an interloper beyond the five leaders at that writing.
The current AL picture hasn't changed drastically from the situation at the All-Star break, when five teams had at least a 73.2 percent chance at making the playoffs and the rest of the field was around 56 percent. Here's a look at how things have shaken out, and where they're headed.
Spurred by the return of David Price from the disabled list and the emergence of rookies Chris Archer and Wil Myers, the Rays were the hottest team in the league for a period of just over six weeks, going 26-6 from June 23 through July 30; in doing so, they climbed from fourth in the division, five games out, to in first place by half a game. Alas, Tampa Bay has gone just 3-7 since then, including an 0-5 against skid the Diamondbacks and Dodgers on the road. The Rays are now 66-50 and three games back in the division race, with a 25.8 percent chance of overcoming the Red Sox and the rest of the field and a 57.6 percent chance at holding onto the wild-card spot that they currently occupy. The big separator between them and Boston is that the Rays are 33-39 against teams at or above .500, while the Sox are 36-32, including 10-6 against Tampa Bay.
At the All-Star break, Boston (then 58-39) had a 2 1/2 game lead on the Rays and a 90.4 percent chance at making the playoffs; its lead had been as high as 5 1/2 games as of July 5, but Tampa Bay's hard charge closed the gap. The Red Sox (now 71-49) haven't exactly outrun the field in the second half, going 5-5 within the division but 8-5 outside it, and at the moment, they're on very solid ground with a 94.2 percent chance at making the playoffs and a 69.2 percent chance at winning the division.
Meanwhile, the Orioles (65-53) have been unable to gain an inch in the second half; by going 12-10 since the break, they've lost half a game in each race to fall five back in the division and two back in the wild-card race. Going just 7-5 against a relatively easy slate of the Astros, Mariners, Padres, Giants and Diamondbacks hasn't helped; their current odds (4.9 percent for the division, 22.1 percent chance for a wild-card spot) are virtually unchanged from the break (5.1 percent and 21.8 percent, respectively). The bad news is that according to the Baseball-Reference Expanded Standings, they have the toughest remaining schedule of any contender, with an average record of 61-56. Oh, and so much for that vaunted Oriole magic; after setting an all-time record with a .763 winning percentage in one-run games last year by going 29-9, they're at .424 (14-19) this year.
The league's most dramatic fade since the break has been by the Yankees, who have gone just 9-13 to fall to 60-57, 9 1/2 back in the AL East and 6 1/2 back in the wild card. For all of the hype regarding the impending return of the cavalry -- Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, even Alex Rodriguez -- they've scored just 3.14 runs per game in the second half. Meanwhile, CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes have been tarred for a 7.09 ERA in 14 second-half starts. At the break New York held a 4.1 percent chance at the division title and an 18.5 percent chance at a wild-card. Those odds are now down to 0.1 and 2.5 percent, respectively, for an AL-high 20-point drop. Increasingly, it's looking like the Bronx could be playoff free for just the second time since the 1994 players' strike.
You may have heard a bit about this division. Detroit, Cleveland and Kansas City have all reeled off substantial winning streaks lately, with the former neutralizing those of the latter with regards to the division route. The Tigers led the Indians by just 1 1/2 games at the break, but since then, they've gone 17-6, a stretch that included a 12-game winning streak and a 16-1 run that came mostly against some bad teams (White Sox, Phillies, Nationals) but also including a four-game sweep of the Indians in Cleveland. Detroit enters play on Tuesday with a 69-48 record and a seven-game division lead with a 98.3 percent chance of maintaining it, and a 99.2 percent chance of reaching the postseason overall.
The Indians have ridden a rollercoaster for most of the season, with contiguous runs of 26-17, 4-16 and 21-11 taking them through the first half. At that point they were 1 1/2 games behind the Tigers, with a 15.4 percent chance of overcoming them, and three back in the wild-card race, with a 16.7 percent chance of climbing into a spot. Since then, Cleveland is just 12-12, with an eight-game winning streak and 10-1 run offset by a six-game losing streak that included the aforementioned sweep by Detroit. Now seven games back in the division, the Tribe's chances of recovering are at just 0.9 percent, and while their wild-card hopes are still at 13.0 percent, the overall hit they've taken since the break — 18.2 percentage points — is second only to the Yankees' 20-point drop among AL teams.
After so much winter commotion and talk of contention, the Royals appeared dead in the water at the end of a 43-49 first half, with just a 0.7 percent chance at making the playoffs by either route. Since then, they've put together the league's best record at 19-5, winning a total of seven straight series from the Tigers, Orioles, White Sox, Twins (twice), Mets and Red Sox. That stretch includes a nine-game winning streak, and perhaps even more remarkably, they haven't lost back-to-back games since July 21-22. While that torrid streak has only gained them a game and a half in the division race (they're now 6 1/2 out), they've whittled their wild-card deficit from 9 1/2 to four, upping their odds to 7.8 percent. Kansas City is still a dark horse, but for a team in search of its first playoff berth since 1985 and just its second winning season since 1994, it will do.
To a far greater extent than last year, when the division title came down to the regular season's final day, the Rangers and A's have jockeyed back and forth atop the AL West, each one unable to shake the other. As of mid-May, the Rangers led by as many as seven games, but they frittered that lead away by going 25-29 in June and July, including a ghastly 3-12 stretch from July 10 through July 28 against the Orioles, Tigers, Yankees and Indians that knocked them six games back. Since then, they've won 13 of 14 over the Angels, A's and Astros to reclaim the lead.
At 69-50, Texas is currently one up in the division race, with a 64.2 percent chance of holding on, and a 26.8 percent chance at winning a wild-card spot. That overall 91.0 percent chance represents a net gain of 17.8 percentage points since the All-Star break, the league's largest improvement. Factored into that is the AL's easiest remaining schedule, with an average opponent record of 55-61.
Inevitably, some of that has come at the expense of the A's, who led the division by two games at the break. After going 8-4 in their first 12 games of the second half against the Angels, Astros and Blue Jays, Oakland lost six of seven before taking a four-game series from the Blue Jays. At 67-50, the A's are now one game back in the division race, with a 35.8 percent chance of snatching it back; meanwhile, they're atop the wild-card standings, and have a 44.3 percent chance of holding on. Again, a big point of separation in this race is the two teams' records against clubs at or above .500; the Rangers are 34-28 against such teams and Oakland is 26-29, including 5-8 against Texas.