Don’t look now, but the 2015 MLB regular season is roughly 90% percent completed, with roughly three weeks left before we head into the playoffs. There is still a lot to be said about fantasy leagues, individual awards, and playoff seeding, but unfortunately this year goes down as one of the few instances in which we will not see any compelling races towards the playoffs. Using Fangraphs’ playoff odds, all six current division leaders have at least a 90% chance of making the playoffs, but even that undersells the lack of competition. In fact, only the Astros (with 90.6% odds) have odds below 99.6% among division leaders, all but assuring that the Blue Jays, Royals, Mets, Cardinals, and Dodgers will be part of the playoffs either way.
While there is still some drama concerning the AL East, AL West, and NL Central races, the only playoff spot with multiple teams battling for it will take place in the American League, where the second wild card is still up for grabs. While the National League is all but settled, as the Cubs will visit either Pittsburgh or St. Louis for the right to play in the NLDS, the Junior Circuit faces a very different scenario.
Aside from the current wild card holders, New York and Texas, there are five other teams within six games of the second wild card. Even as some of them might still be long shots with so few games left on the calendar, we have seen in previous years how playoff races are decided all the way to the end, making it hard to discount anybody from this point on.
With this in mind, today we take a look at the AL playoff situation and how it could play out during these final three weeks. For this, we take into account each team’s projected playoff odds, its remaining strength of schedule, and how their roster is shaped to make a playoff run. Teams are listed in ascending order from least likely to most likely among this diverse bunch.
Rays and Orioles
The longest of long shots come from the AL East, where both the Rays and Orioles haven’t been able to patch together many long stretches of success, and instead will be battling to finish the season above the .500 mark. Unless a series of unfortunate events happen to all the teams they are trying to leapfrog, the Rays and Orioles instead have the chance of becoming a spoiler down the stretch.
Tampa, who has gone 8-5 versus Toronto, has six games left versus the Blue Jays, including the final series of the year. They also host the Yankees for three games. Baltimore, who has gone 13-18 against the East’s top teams, closes its season with 7 games against them. On the other hand, the Rays and Orioles will meet in Tampa for a 4-game set on September 17-20, with the loser bound to become all but eliminated.
The Indians were listed as the preseason favorites to win the AL Central, only to disappoint behind a porous defense and an offense that never really got things going. And yet, a 21-12 run has propelled them to at least make things interesting as the season comes to a close. The injury to Corey Kluber has left the Indians’ rotation a bit thin, but the roster that was upgraded at mid-season has the potential to deliver a close finish.
With 14 games left against the Twins and Royals, Cleveland’s calendar promises to be one of the toughest in the league. Making it tougher is the fact that the Indians have gone 5-7 against each of these AL Central contenders. However, the Indians have 14 of their remaining games at home, though the Tribe has been significantly worse at home (31-35), than on the road (39-36). In the end, the Indians need strong play and a ton of help to enter the final week with a chance, though a good finish could at least serve as a nice springboard towards better things in 2016.
By Pythagorean expected record, the Twins should be 70-72. By BaseRuns, they should be 63-79 (worst in the AL Central). And yet, Minnesota has found ways to beat its underlying numbers all year long, and have a good chance to earn a precocious playoff berth. Even as 2015 will be considered a huge win in Minnesota regardless of the end result, the possibility of making the playoffs is real for the Twins, who have to work their magic only for 20 more games.
The problem with these 20 upcoming games is that they mostly come against tough opponents. The Twins, who have gone 42-26 at Target Field, get to host 13 of these games, but their slate includes 14 contests versus potential contenders and only six against the lousy Tigers. Four games against the Angels, seven against the Indians, and three versus the Royals put the Twins in a tough spot going forward, especially considering they have gone a combined 15-16 versus these clubs.
In terms of pure roster quality, Minnesota is probably the thinnest among the AL contenders, and that is bound to show up in this final stretch. Even as they stand only a game out of the second wild card, I don’t see the Twins having a chance.
Quietly, and in an underrated way, the Rangers have put together an impressive season in what was supposed to be a down year after the devastating injury to ace Yu Darvish. And yet, the Rangers hold the second wild card and stand only 1.5 games behind the Astros for the AL West’s top spot. Texas, who is also severely outperforming its expected wins (by 7 games), has a chance to become one of 2015’s biggest surprises. Can they hold on?
The mid-season addition of Cole Hamels has made the Rangers one of the most complete squads in baseball, and that will all be put to the test over their final 20 games. Texas has 14 home games left, which may not be a blessing considering that they are only 34-33 at Arlington. The Rangers will get 3-game sets against eliminated teams in Oakland, Detroit, and Seattle (a combined 14-21 against them), 7 versus the Astros, and a brutal 4-game finishing series against the Angels.
While Texas has managed to go 8-4 against Houston, it has also lost 10 of 15 versus the Angels, which could be the deciding factor. Like the Twins, the Rangers have to consider 2015 as a huge success in spite of how it ends, but I’m seeing them fall a bit short of a playoff spot.
As it seems to be the theme among these fringe AL contenders, the Angels are also probably a lucky 72-70, with a negative run differential and BaseRuns sequencing suggesting that they should be a few wins off their record. And yet, there is no way to deny that the Angels have the talent to make the playoffs and become a dangerous team. It will all depend on these final 20 games.
The difference between the Angels and the teams above them is that the Angels only have six remaining games at home, where they have been a superb 44-31. On the other hand, they have gone 28-39 on the road, where they have 14 of their remaining 20 games. This includes stops at Minnesota, Houston, and Texas, though there are also 6 favorable contests against the Mariners, and 3 versus Oakland.
With the Angels having a 1-in-4 chance of making the postseason, it looks bleak for the fans at Anaheim, but this is more a reflection on the other contenders. The Angels entered the season projected to be near the top, and at only 3 games back of the second wild card, they still have a good chance to salvage the season. I’m seeing a final showdown with the Rangers with the final spot up for grabs, and the Angels should come out on top.
Houston’s 3-7 September has seen them regress towards the pack and are currently at risk of losing the AL West crown, but they still have really good chances of holding it or at least make the playoffs as a wild card. That would be the ultimate prize for the upstart Astros, who have some of the strongest underlying numbers in baseball.
The final stretch for the Astros includes 7 games against Texas and 3 against the Angels, but it gets softened with a 3-game set versus Oakland, and a closing six-game road stretch in Seattle and Arizona, which should be enough to push the Astros over the top.
In a similar spot, the Yankees stand 3.5 games behind the Blue Jays in the AL East, but also hold a 4-game lead over the second wild card. Even as it would be nice for the Yanks to overcome Toronto, the easier path goes through the wild card game, where they are the favorites to host the contest.
The Yankees have a tricky schedule down the stretch, but only six games remaining against teams with winning records (including a 9-game road trip that goes through Tampa, the Mets, and Toronto). Even with the injury to Mark Teixeira and the wear and tear of the season starting to hurt New York’s veteran roster, they shouldn’t have a problem holding on to the postseason.
Division Winners: Blue Jays, Royals, Astros
Wild Card #1: Yankees
Wild Card #2: Angels