As of this morning, teams have 11 to 14 games left to play before the first-ever one-game Wild Card showdowns. At this point, I think we know who’s going to the playoffs.
The Reds and Nationals became the first teams to clinch a playoff spot yesterday. Neither has wrapped up its division, but common sense tells us they’ll both avoid the play-in game, as Cincinnati leads St. Louis by 11 games with 12 to play and Washington leads Atlanta by 5 1/2 with 12 and 13 to go, respectively. Despite Stephen Strasburg’s shutdown, there are no signs of Washington choking down the stretch like the Braves did last year.
San Francisco has quietly built a ten-game lead in the NL West, edging closer to their inevitable clinching day. A relatively quiet trade deadline served the Giants well, as the Dodgers failed to gain any traction after adding Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino, Adrian Gonzalez, and others.
The Braves are 8 1/2 games up on anyone who might steal a Wild Card game from them, and are firing on all cylinders with Kris Medlen and Craig Kimbrel putting up historic numbers. The Cardinals have won four straight to deny a push by the resurgent Brewers, who still sit 2 1/2 games out of the playoff picture. St. Louis gets to feast on the Cubs and Astros over the next week, then gets Washington and Cincinnati teams who will likely be resting players and reshuffling their rotations for the playoffs. As well as Milwaukee has been playing, it’s hard to imagine them catching the Cards at this point. Likewise, the Dodgers and Phillies are within four games of St. Louis, but unless the Cards collapse, they’ll have to wait until next year.
In the American League, all three division races are relatively close, but that doesn’t mean we don’t know who’s going to the playoffs. The Rangers lead Oakland by four out west, but are 8 1/2 games clear of missing the playoffs, and are so good in all facets of the game that it’s hard to imagine them ceding the division title. The A’s lead the Angels by 4 1/2, which may have seemed surmountable right after the trade deadline, when the Angels looked like perhaps the most formidable team in baseball, but with CJ Wilson looking lost and Ernesto Frieri blowing saves, I think the A’s are in.
Back east, the days when the Yankees looked vulnerable are over, as the Rays can’t seem to win a game without help from the Red Sox bullpen. Baltimore will try to spin a little more Oriole magic to steal the division (which they currently trail by one game), but both teams will almost certainly be in the playoffs.
That leaves us with one spot left to decide. The White Sox lead the Tigers by two games in the AL Central. Chicago has two tough series coming up, one starting tonight against the Angels, and next weekend’s four-gamer with the possibly-still-motivated Rays. The Tigers, on the other hand, play no one but the Royals and Twins for the rest of the year. Despite that advantage for Detroit, two games is probably a more daunting margin than you think. coolstandings.com gives Detroit a 25.2 percent chance of taking the division using their “smart” model, which accounts for strength of schedule and run differential. The “dumb” model drops Detroit’s chances to 22 percent, and will all the unpredictability in baseball, sometimes the dumb model is the one to use.
Let’s say the White Sox stumble down the stretch and go 6-7 over their last 13 games. Detroit would still need to finish 9-4 to win the division outright and 8-5 to force a playoff. The last stretch over which the Tigers went 9-4 was from July 13 to July 24, immediately after the All-Star break. It could happen, but it isn’t likely.
Had the second Wild Card not been introduced, we’d have quite a race for the AL Wild Card, with Baltimore and Oakland still fighting for their divisions and tied with each other. There would also be a real chance of the Yankees missing the playoffs, as they lead the Orioles and A’s by one game.
In the National League, the second Wild Card is the only thing worth paying attention to, as the Braves would be in the process of locking up the only Wild Card if not for this offseason’s changes. We could look at this two ways: (1) the second Wild Card gave us a reason to watch NL baseball over these next two weeks, or (2) the four best teams in the NL clearly set themselves apart from the field, but a fifth team with a much weaker record will make the playoffs and has a reasonable chance to win the World Series.
The division races in the American League will make baseball worth watching into early October, and whatever you think of the new play-in game, the playoffs will be spectacular as always.