I’d be remiss not to record today’s AL Wild Card standings for posterity, as I’m not sure we’ll ever see anything like them again:
Indians 46-43, 1/2 game back
Orioles 46-43, 1/2 game back
Athletics 46-43, 1/2 game back
Red Sox 46-44, 1 game back
Rays 46-44, 1 game back
Blue Jays 45-45, 2 games back
We’ll never see this again for a few reasons. The Orioles are still nominally in the hunt, though it’s likely they’ve begun the free fall that will see them in the basement in the next few weeks. The offensively dismal A’s may be making a brief cameo on the good side of .500. And we may not see the Tigers on this page again once they’ve vanquished the White Sox and taken their rightful place atop the Central.
More fun, though, is the fact that six teams are separated by one game for the second Wild Card, and a seventh team is just two games back. If anything like this keeps up for the next few months, the newly-minted second Wild Card will have immediately achieved one of its intended effects- maintaining playoff race drama late into the season.
Looking a little closer, we may also see why the second Wild Card is a little ridiculous as long as the two leagues are divided into three divisions. By total WAR (per fangraphs), the best teams in the AL so far are the:
Red Sox 26.4
White Sox 23.4
Blue Jays 18.7
Clearly, the Rangers, Yankees, and Angels are the class of the league. The Red Sox, despite a horrific run of injuries, are in the fourth spot, and the Rays are in the middle of the pack despite missing Evan Longoria for most of the season. The Blue Jays have put up 18.7 WAR playing most of their games against AL East teams and many of them with minor league pitchers.
The AL Central has no team among the league’s four best. Yet they’re in a position to put two teams in the playoffs.
Let’s look at the seven teams fighting for the second Wild Card and try to assess the likelihood that they make the playoffs. The A’s play the Rangers and Angels 17 more times, and have 29 more against the AL East. They’ve also scored the fewest runs in the American League and show no signs of scoring more. The Orioles are a bad team with a good bullpen, a good manager, and an incredible streak of luck slowly fading back to Earth. They won’t continue to beat AL East teams enough to contend for a playoff spot. The Blue Jays just put Jose Bautista on the DL. With four starters disabled as well, it’s hard to imagine them making a run.
That leaves The Red Sox, Rays, Tigers, and Indians. Or, with the Tigers now 2 1/2 games behind Chicago and clicking on both sides of the ball, perhaps the White Sox and Indians will represent the Central in this race.
Between the Red Sox offense, which may put its intended opening day lineup on the field for the first time by the end of this month, and the Rays rotation, which may be the most formidable in the AL when healthy, those two teams clearly have better personnel than any team in the Central. What they don’t have are 36 games against the Royals and Twins to pad their records.
The Indians have scored 398 runs and given up 430. Their pitching is third-worst, by WAR, in the American League, and while their hitting is a tick above average, their fielding is the second-worst in the league. Yet they sit a half game ahead of a Red Sox team that’s outscored tougher opponents by 51 runs and a Rays team expected by many to run away with the AL East this year.
Between the unbalanced schedule and the fact that the division is open for the taking, each of these Central teams has a better chance of making the playoffs than the Red Sox or Rays. If that happens because two Central teams go on late-season tears, or because injuries keep the Red Sox and Rays from fulfilling their potential, it’s good for baseball, which needs new blood in the postseason.
But it’s very possible the Rays and Red Sox right their respective ships and win close to 90 games, while the Tigers and White Sox each bully the patsies in their division to 90 wins. In that case, we may see the White Sox play the Angels in a one-game playoff, while the Tigers play the Rangers or Yankees in the NLDS, and two superior teams watch the whole thing from home.
As long as baseball is separated into divisions, with teams playing unbalanced schedules, it’s foolish for the league to compare their won-lost records to each other and reward the “better” team with a postseason appearance. The second Wild Card will add intrigue to the playoff races, and that’s good for baseball.
Let’s just hope the five teams still playing in October got there by beating good teams.