Pennant race breakdown (cont.)
As Tom Verducci reported back in April, for the Braves to rebound from last year's collapse and reach the postseason this year would be unprecedented, but they seem well on their way to doing just that with an 86 percent chance of making the playoffs per Davenport's system. Even more impressive, they have a legitimate chance to flip the script on the Nationals, who currently have a 99.7 percent chance of reaching the postseason thanks to the double wild-card safety net. Still, outside of the Tigers, the Braves are the second-place team with the highest odds of finishing in first.
There are two reasons for that. One is strength of schedule, or lack thereof. Outside of their three remaining head-to-head games with the Nationals on the weekend of Sept. 14, the Braves have just three other games left on their schedule against a team with a winning record, those being their final three games of the season against the Pirates in Pittsburgh. The Nats, meanwhile, have three games against the Dodgers, who are just a half-game behind the Pirates in the overall standings, as well as six games against the Cardinals, who have gone 31-22 (.585) since July 1 (of course, the Nationals did crush the Cardinals 8-1 on Thursday in the first game of their seven-game season series).
The second reason is that the Nationals vaunted rotation just might be running out of gas. You might have heard about this Stephen Strasburg guy and his innings limit. Well, Washington manager Davey Johnson told the press on Thursday that Strasburg has "two or three" starts left before the team shuts him down. With Strasburg scheduled to start Sunday in the series final against St. Louis, three more turns on regular rest would mean his last start would come on Sept. 12 and he wouldn't pitch at all in the team's remaining series against the Braves, Dodgers or Cardinals.
Meanwhile, Jordan Zimmermann, who has been one of the most effective starters in the game this year and entered August with a 2.28 ERA and a minimum of six innings pitched in all 21 of his starts, has posted a 4.39 ERA in August and completed six innings just once in five turns. Zimmermann, it should be noted, has now pitched almost exactly as much as he did all of last year -- 26 starts, 161 innings (minus one extra out he recorded a year ago) -- before he was shut down by the team.
The Reds have the largest division lead in baseball, but they don't have the best odds of winning their division (the Rangers do) because the second-place Cardinals have the best run differential in the majors this year. The Cards are thus the anti-Orioles. Any mathematical projection is going to favor them. Third-order wins, which use the components of run scoring (hits, walks, steals, outs, etc., on both sides of the ball) to calculate how many runs a team should have scored and allowed and then calculates a winning percentage from that, have the Cardinals as three games better than the Reds to this point in the season (and the Orioles in last place in the AL East).
That the Reds are hoping to have Joey Votto back from the disabled list when rosters expand on Saturday while the Cardinals may have just lost Rafael Furcal for the season to Tommy John surgery would seem to undermine St. Louis' potential for another big September surge, but it's worth noting that the Reds went 30-14 (.682) without Votto, whose return will push a hot bat out of the lineup, be it Todd Frazier's, Ryan Ludwick's or Scott Rolen's, while Furcal had hit just .219/.278/.280 in 363 plate appearances since May 17.
All of that said, the Reds have an 8½ game lead and a 97 percent chance of winning the division with 30 games left to play. They've closed the door on this race, they just haven't locked it yet.
Desperate for offense after scoring just 3.5 runs per game in June and July, the Dodgers traded for Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino and Adrian Gonzalez in the last 35 days. Adding those three to the post-All-Star break returns from Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier has helped the Dodgers increase their scoring rate to 4.5 runs per game in August, a pace that would rank fifth in the National League over the entire season.
However, the Giants, who themselves scored just four runs per game in June and July and added only Marco Scutaro and a slumping Hunter Pence prior to the trading deadline and have since lost Melky Cabrera to 50-game performance-enhancing-drug suspension, have scored 5.5 runs in August. The driving forces behind that offensive explosion have been Buster Posey and Angel Pagan, who have hit .349/.463/.628 and .342/.413/.595, respectively, on the month, the former thrusting his name into the NL MVP conversation in the process.
Suddenly what had been shaping up as a race to rival the AL Central is tilting heavily toward the Giants. The 4½ game lead San Francisco holds in the division entering Friday's action is its largest of the year and the Dodgers may have just lost Chad Billingsley for the season to an elbow injury and will be without closer Kenley Jansen indefinitely due to a reoccurrence of the irregular heartbeat that sidelined him for most of last August. That's on top of having just lost valuable utility man Jerry Hairston Jr. for the season due to a hip surgery.
Los Angeles also has the tougher remaining schedule. The only interdivision games the Giants have left are their three games against the Cubs in Chicago this weekend. The Dodgers, meanwhile, have a pair of three-game sets against the teams with the two best records in baseball, the Nationals and Reds, as well as a four-game set against the team with the best run differential in baseball, the Cardinals. While the Dodgers have those 10 games against three of the best teams in the NL, the Giants will face the Cubs, Rockies and Diamondbacks.
This should be a bit cleaner than the AL wild card race. First, there's one less team in contention. Second, the Braves have a big lead and an easy schedule with just six games left against winning teams. Third, the Dodgers have the tough schedule (16 of 30 games left against winning teams) and the pitching losses mentioned above which could combine to push them out of this race as quickly as they seem to be falling out of contention in their division. That boils this down to a race between the Pirates and Cardinals, two teams who are tied in the loss column, for the non-Braves wild card spot.
One reason those two teams are tied in the loss column is that the Pirates have taken four of six head-to-head games from St. Louis over the last two weeks, capping that performance by outscoring the Cardinals 14-0 on Tuesday and Wednesday combined. However, the Bucs are just 7-12 against other competition this month, and while they looked like a legitimate contender in June and July as they were proving equally adept at scoring and preventing runs, one has to wonder whether their August performance was just a rough patch from a team that had a winning record in each of the previous three months, or a more permanent course correction from a team that has now been outscored in three of the season's five months.
Pittsburgh has the easier remaining schedule, with just nine games against winning teams and 13 against the sub-.400 Cubs and Astros, while St. Louis flips those numbers with 13 games against winning teams and just nine against the lowly Cubs and 'Stros. Still, it's hard not to see the Cardinals as the better team right now.
This race may still go down to the wire, in part because just three of the Pirates' nine remaining games against winning teams come prior to September 28. The Pirates then host the Reds for three games on the season's final weekend and finish with three at home against the Braves. The Cardinals don't have it any easier, finishing at home with three against the Nationals followed by three against the Reds.