Just two weeks ago, five of baseball’s six divisions were separated by three or fewer games. Hope abounded, as more than half of the 30 MLB teams were within eight games of a playoff spot with roughly 50 games to play.
Today, playoff races have been all but eliminated, as teams in nearly every division have earned some breathing room. In the AL West, where the Rangers and Angels jockeyed for position throughout much of July and early August, the Rangers (and their new bullpen) have erased any doubt that they’re the class of the division, winning five straight while the Halos have lost their last four. With their six-game cushion, coolstandings.com gives the Rangers a 93.8% chance of holding off the Angels.
In the NL West, the Giants recently looked poised to run away with the division, despite having very little offense and having been outscored essentially all year. In the last week, the Diamondbacks have found a new role as the team to beat out west, winning their last seven while the defending champs have scuffled. Arizona now leads by 3 1/2 games and has a 74% chance to win the division based on how they’ve performed so far and their remaining schedule. It’s hard to imagine the Giants summoning any more of the magic they rode to last year’s title the way their current roster is constructed.
The NL Central has been a four-way race for most of the summer, as the surprising Pirates hung with the perennially tough Cardinals, revamped Brewers, and enigmatic Reds right through the trade deadline. After losing a 19-inning game on a bad call at home plate, the Pirates collapsed, losing ten straight and now sitting closer to fifth place than second. The Reds never made a push either, and the somewhat surprising Cardinals faded as well. After winning 17 of their last 19 games, the Brewers have all but locked up the division, taking a seven-game lead and a 90% chance at playing in October.
The NL East was decided in spring, as the Phillies jumped out to a huge lead behind their historically great pitching, and never looked back. The Braves sewed up the Wild Card weeks ago, now leading the far-inferior Giants by 4 1/2 games.
The two remaining races are both in the American League, but only one is of major consequence. In the East, the Yankees have blown past Boston, winning a ridiculous 72 of the 108 games they’ve played against teams other than the Red Sox, while the Sox split series after series with inferior teams, only showing their true dominance when their rivals are across the field. Both teams are going to the playoffs though, and only home field advantage in two potential rounds of playoffs is at stake.
The best remaining race is in the AL Central, where the Indians have hung on all year despite significant disadvantages in payroll and star power relative to the division’s other contenders. The White Sox have the division’s deepest rotation and a few great bats, and have scraped and clawed their way over .500 for the first time since April, and now stand within half a game of Cleveland and 3 1/2 back of division-leading Detroit. As for the Tigers, they have perhaps the league’s best pitcher in Justin Verlander and perhaps the league’s best hitter in Miguel Cabrera. Without much help, those two have put their team in position to win the division despite a negative run differential. Coolstandings says the Tigers have a 54% chance to win the division, with Cleveland at 28 and Chicago at 18.
The Tigers may be the only division leader feeling serious pressure to last through September, but October will bring new pressure to every contender.
The Red Sox have seen their bats go quiet over the past week, and without Clay Buchholz in the rotation, they have serious pitching questions in the playoffs.
The Yankees are hitting the cover off the ball, and have gotten surprisingly good pitching from Bartolo Colon’s bionic arm, but still have questions behind CC Sabathia in the rotation.
The Tigers need someone to step up beyond the one pitcher and one hitter that have carried them this far, and are trying to fend off one team with a deeper lineup and another with a deeper rotation.
The Rangers have pitching depth, but no front-line ace like Cliff Lee, who carried them through the playoffs last season.
The Phillies have the best rotation in the game, but it’s backed by a young, untested bullpen, and their lineup isn’t what it was a few years ago, sitting just seventh in the NL in runs scored.
The Braves have the best bullpen in the game, but Derek Lowe and Jair Jurrjens have faded of late, and the offense hasn’t hit lefties all season.
The Brewers lack playoff experience, and have gaping holes on the left side of their infield, where they’ve failed to upgrade from Yunieksy Betancourt and Casey McGehee.
The Diamondbacks have very little star power, with nothing resembling an ace starter and no great bats except Justin Upton.
Based on their recent play and current roster construction, I see the Yankees, Rangers, Phillies, and Brewers advancing in the playoffs, but so much can change over the season’s last 40 games that any of those teams could stumble into October and bow out in four or five games.
All of these teams, of course, can take solace in not being the Twins.