Assessing the playoff races (or lack thereof) with one month remaining
Only 11 teams started the month with as much as a 10% chance to reach October
The AL East looked like a potential all-time race in March, but the Yanks are rolling
The best race left in baseball is the NL wild card (Colorado vs. San Francisco)
Thank goodness for the wild card.
Once thought of as a gimmick and derided as a detriment to the traditions of the national pastime, the wild card has been both pennant-race savior and pennant-race destroyer in its first decade and a half.
Three previous seasons (1998, 1999, 2007) have needed a one-game wild-card playoff to determine the last playoff spot, but three other times (2001, 2005, 2006) teams have finished tied for first in the division and not needed a playoff because a tiebreaker gave one team the division title and the other the wild card.
Now in its 16th season, the wild card may wind up playing a more vital role this year than ever before. For the first time in the wild-card era, baseball reached Sept. 1 with no easily discernible pennant race on the horizon. In fact, only one divisional race was even as close as 3 1/2 games, the first time that has happened since baseball went to a three-division format. True, the NL Central may be the only race with a double-digit gulf separating first place from second, but none of the six divisions look like they are headed for the type of history-making, down-to-the-wire finish that has electrified so many seasons in the game's long history. In fact, it seems increasingly likely that the only pennant-race drama baseball manages to offer this season will come by way of the wild card, and only in one league at that.
According to Baseball Prospectus' Postseason Odds, only 11 teams started the month with as much as a 10 percent chance to reach the playoffs, and only one team currently outside the playoff setup if the season ended today (the Braves) has even a 1-in-4 chance of getting to October.
Of course, miracles have happened before. In 1995, for example, the Seattle Mariners entered September with only a 1.9 percent chance of reaching the playoffs, according to coolstandings.com, but wound up coming from 7 1/2 games behind to catch the California Angels and force a one-game playoff for the AL West crown, which Seattle won. And in 2007, the Colorado Rockies were in fourth place in the NL West and sixth in the wild card race with just 15 games remaining and had a 3.5 percent chance of making the playoffs, but they went 14-1 the rest of the way, including a win over the Padres in a one-game playoff to win the wild card.
Are there any miracles on hand this season? Herewith, a look at each of the eight races (six divisions and two wild cards); where things stand with roughly one month remaining and where they are likely to wind up.
Current leader: Yankees, 84-48.
Contenders: Red Sox, 77-54, 6 1/2 behind.
What had the potential to be one of the great division races of all time, with three teams capable of winning 95 games, has been, for the most part, a disappointment. The Rays haven't been within three games of first place since the season was two weeks old, and the Yankees sweep of the Red Sox in the Bronx back in early August blew this race wide open.
The Yankees have been surging, posting the best record in baseball since the All-Star break behind the emergence of CC Sabathia and a punishing offense that leads the league in runs, walks, home runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, while the Red Sox have been struggling, dropping 9 1/2 games in the standings in just six weeks. The biggest hindrance to a potential Boston rally is the same problem that's caused them to sink back in the race to begin with: unreliable starting pitching. The failed experiments in John Smoltz and Brad Penny ended with both being cut, and injuries to Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka have left Boston with only two reliable starters -- Josh Beckett and Jon Lester -- to try to make up ground on New York.
Key series: Sept. 25-27, Boston at New York. With only two series left for both teams after this three-game tilt, this last series between the Yankees and Red Sox could very well be Boston's last chance to keep their AL East title hopes alive.
Predicted division winner: Yankees.
Current leader: Detroit Tigers, 70-61.
Contenders: Minnesota Twins, 67-65, 3 1/2 games behind.
A five-game losing streak, the setback to Jake Peavy in his rehab efforts and the trades of Jose Contreras and Jim Thome mean the White Sox are no longer realistic contenders to repeat as AL Central champs. The Twins, meanwhile, are threatening to duplicate their comeback of 2006, when a late-season surge helped them erase a double-digit deficit in early August and overtake the Tigers at the wire to win the division.
Unlike that season, there is no wild card as the consolation prize this year, so the only ticket to the playoffs comes from winning the division. The Twins are putting together another strong finishing kick, having won 10 of 13 to match a season-high at three games over .500. As expected, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer have carried the offense, but the starting pitching has only recently started to hit the level of consistency that manager Ron Gardenhire desires. Is it the sign of a permanent turnaround or merely a mirage? Likely the latter.
The Tigers, meanwhile, have been unable to pull away from what has been a consistently mediocre pack. They've been in first place every day since May 10, but have never led by more than five games in that time, despite boasting a vastly superior pitching staff to the one found in Minnesota. Justin Verlander has been at the forefront of the Cy Young discussion most of the season and has been supported by the emergence of Edwin Jackson and rookie Rick Porcello.
Perhaps no other player in any division race is as important as Jarrod Washburn. When he was acquired from the Mariners at the trade deadline, he was pitching as well as anybody in baseball, but he has mostly been a disaster in Detroit, going 1-2 with a 6.81 ERA in six starts. If he begins to resemble the pitcher he was in Seattle, the Tigers should have too much pitching depth for the Twins to catch them.
Key series: Sept. 18-20, Detroit at Minnesota; Sept. 28-Oct. 1, Minnesota at Detroit. The Twins lead the season series 7-4, and these seven games could well decide the race. The rest of their schedules are nearly identical. Both teams play all but seven games (Toronto and Oakland for the Twins; Toronto and Tampa Bay for the Tigers) against AL Central foes, but the Tigers are 24-13 against the White Sox, Royals and Indians while the Twins are 22-16, only increasing the pressure on Minnesota to win, and perhaps sweep, the two series with Detroit.
Predicted division winner: Tigers.
Current leader: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, 78-53.
Contenders: Texas Rangers, 74-58, 4 1/2 behind.
The Angels have dominated the AL West for so long -- winning the division five times in the past seven years -- that it seems like another championship is preordained. The Rangers are still hanging around, however, thanks largely to the home run, an improved defense and an unheralded pitching staff that has gotten strong seasons from pitchers like Tommy Hunter and Scott Feldman. Is Neftali Feliz this season's Joba Chamberlain/David Price? The rookie righty with the triple-digit fastball has allowed just one run in his first 10 appearances, striking out more than a batter per inning.
While the Rangers dipped into their farm system to give themselves a boost, the Angels did something they rarely do: sacrifice top prospects to add an expensive, established player at midseason. Scott Kazmir has not pitched like the All-Star he has been in the past, but he could stabilize an Angels rotation that has been decimated by injuries and inconsistency all season.
The offense has been the best in the league, topping the AL in batting average and ranking second in OPS. Keeping Vlad Guerrero healthy and hitting like his old self will be important. Vlad has batted .337 with a .625 slugging percentage and nine home runs in 26 games since coming off the DL in early August, compared to .290, .415 and four homers in 46 games before he was sidelined.
Key series: Sept. 18-20, LAA at Texas; Sept. 28-Oct. 1, Texas at LAA. If the Rangers can hang around until the last two weeks, they may have the best chance of any second-place team in the game to vault into first. They've already beaten the Angels nine out of 12 this year, and their seven games against the Halos down the stretch are part of a finishing kick that has them play 20 of their last 23 games against division rivals. The Rangers have fattened up on the AL West this year, going 24-13, compared to just 18-21 for the Angels.
Predicted division winner: Angels.
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