Predicting Outcome of 2014's Tightest MLB Playoff Battles
Parity has reigned in the MLB this season, and that should make for a terrific final month as the push for the postseason heats up around the league.
Four of the six divisions are led by less than five games, and the only two teams that look to have a stronghold on their division races are the Baltimore Orioles with an 8.5-game lead in the AL East and the Washington Nationals with a six-game lead in the NL East.
The wild-card races also features six teams in each league that are five games or less out of a playoff spot, though one of the AL wild-card spots figures to be sewn up by whoever doesn't win the AL West.
That gives us six compelling races to follow in September, and my predictions for each lie ahead.
Recent performance and remaining schedule, specifically games against non-division teams, were the two biggest factors in picking a predicted winner. In the end, though, gut feeling and personal opinion certainly played a role as well.
|Kansas City Royals||70-55||-|
Let me start off by saying that the Cleveland Indians do not have the starting pitching behind Corey Kluber to make a serious run at passing the two teams ahead of them, so this is essentially a two-team race between the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers.
The two teams have six more games head-to-head, three home and three away.
There is no clear-cut advantage from a schedule standpoint, though the Tigers do have 11 games left with a Minnesota Twins team that they are 4-4 against so far this season.
Recent play is really the difference-maker here, as the Tigers are 14-18 since the All-Star break, while the Royals have been the hottest team in baseball at 22-9 over that same span.
"We're capitalizing on just about every opportunity we get right now. It's fun to watch," manager Ned Yost told Dick Kaegel of MLB.com after the team took over first place.
Their starting pitching has been terrific all season, their bullpen features the devastating trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland and their offense has finally shown signs of life and should only improve once Eric Hosmer returns.
It's going to come down to the wire, and their three-game series head-to-head Sept. 19-21 in Kansas City should be a great one.
Kansas City Royals win the division by three games.
AL West/AL Wild Card No. 1
|Los Angeles Angels||74-50||-|
The Seattle Mariners have been playing fantastic baseball over the past month or so, and there will be more on them in a minute. But at this point, it still looks like a two-team race for the AL West title between the Los Angeles Angels and the Oakland Athletics.
The A's lead the season series 6-3, and the two teams have 10 games remaining head-to-head, with six in Oakland and four in Los Angeles.
Each team has three out-of-division series remaining. The A's have a slight advantage there, as they face the New York Mets, Chicago White Sox and Philadelphia Phillies, while the Angels play the Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins and a contending Miami Marlins team.
As for recent play, the A's have crashed back to earth a bit after dominating the league for months, and they are just 8-10 here in August. That has allowed the Angels, who are 10-7 for the month, to climb into first place.
It will come down to whether the A's bats can heat back up and whether the Angels' starting rotation can hold it together over the final month.
Both teams are essentially locks to reach the playoffs at this point, but there is no question that having to play in the one-game Wild Card Round is a significant disadvantage.
With so many games left head-to-head and the two teams sporting the two best records in baseball, this could be the most compelling race to watch over the final month.
Oakland Athletics win the division by four games.
AL Wild Card No. 2
|New York Yankees||63-60||4.0|
|Toronto Blue Jays||64-62||4.5|
Let's assume at this point that whoever loses the AL West will be hosting the Wild Card Round game, but the second wild-card spot is still very much up for grabs.
Despite their solid play of late, the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians still don't have the plus starting pitching it takes to put together a strong late-season push, and while both will hang around, they are still on the outside looking in.
Meanwhile, the Toronto Blue Jays looked like they had taken a big step forward on the pitching side of things, but the recent struggles of Marcus Stroman and Drew Hutchison leave them in a similar position to the aforementioned duo.
That leaves the two teams currently tied for the second spot to battle it out the rest of the way. While the Detroit Tigers certainly have experience on their side, the Seattle Mariners are clearly the hotter team right now.
A month ago, it looked like the Tigers were going to run away with the AL Central, as their lead was as many as 7.5 games as of July 12, but the Royals have chipped away, and the Tigers have gone just 14-18 in the second half.
The Mariners, on the other hand, are 17-13 since the All-Star break, including an impressive 12-5 here in August. One thing working against them is the 13 games they have left against the Angels and A's, but it's worth noting that they are a combined 14-11 against those two on the year.
Both teams have great starting pitching, with the Tigers holding the advantage on offense and the Mariners featuring the better bullpen.
This has all the makings of a wire-to-wire battle, and if the always-exciting Game 163 is to come into play again this year, these may very well be the two teams playing in it.
Seattle Mariners win Game 163 against the Detroit Tigers to claim second WC spot.
|St. Louis Cardinals||68-57||2.5|
Despite the fact that they have lost seven straight, the Pittsburgh Pirates are still contenders in the NL Central, and the return of reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen certainly gives them a boost.
However, it's hard to pin their recent struggles on the loss of McCutchen, as the team ranks 22nd in the MLB with a 4.04 ERA in August. The Pirates' patchwork rotation has far exceeded expectations, but the injury to Charlie Morton and the bullpen's recent struggles are enough to view them more as a wild-card contender than a legitimate threat to win the division.
That leaves the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals to battle it out for the NL Central title.
The Brewers have had at least a share of the division lead since April 4, and they have led by as many as 6.5 games as recently as July 1, but a stumble going into the All-Star break essentially erased that advantage and they have been clinging to their lead since.
The Cardinals hold a slight 7-5 advantage in the season series, and the two teams have seven games left head-to-head.
The biggest factor could be the non-division series remaining, as the Cardinals hold a significant advantage with games against the Philadelphia Phillies, Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks, while the Brewers take on the San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants and Miami Marlins.
The Cardinals pitching is also looking very strong of late, with John Lackey and Justin Masterson settling in after rocky starts to their time in St. Louis and Michael Wacha eyeing a September return. Will that be enough to offset their below-average offensive attack, though?
St. Louis Cardinals win the division by two games.
|Los Angeles Dodgers||71-56||-|
|San Francisco Giants||65-59||4.5|
The San Diego Padres have made a nice second-half push, going 17-12 since the break, but they are still 11.5 games back in the division and eight games under .500, so it's hard to call them contenders.
That leaves the rival Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants to duke it out for the NL West title.
There was a time when the Giants looked like the best team in baseball. They stood at 42-21 and had a 9.5-game lead in the division June 8, but they have gone just 23-38 since and the Dodgers have taken control.
To the Giants' credit, they have not let the Dodgers' lead grow to more than six games despite their struggles, and that has kept them in striking distance heading into September.
The Giants hold a slight 7-6 advantage in the season series so far, with each team still set to host a three-game series before the season is over.
The Dodgers face the Mets, Nationals and Cubs in their three remaining non-division series, while the Giants have as tough a draw as anyone in that department and take on the Nationals, Brewers and Tigers.
If Hanley Ramirez and Hyun-Jin Ryu can get healthy and the recently acquired duo of Roberto Hernandez and Kevin Correia can hold down the back end of the rotation, this looks like the Dodgers' division to lose.
Los Angeles Dodgers win the division by seven games.
NL Wild Card No. 1 and No. 2
|San Francisco Giants||67-56||-|
*The Brewers currently lead their division, but they were included here in place of the St. Louis Cardinals after St. Louis was predicted to win the NL Central.
Similar to the AL wild-card picture, it looks like whoever doesn't win the NL Central division has a great chance of at least securing one of the wild-card spots. With the St. Louis Cardinals predicted to win the division, that leaves the Milwaukee Brewers firmly entrenched in the No. 1 spot.
The No. 2 spot, however, may be the most wide-open race of any, with four teams separated by 2.5 games in the standings and the Cincinnati Reds lurking on the periphery.
The Reds and Pirates have both struggled of late, and they have the disadvantage of playing in a division that features four legitimate contenders that are set to beat up on each other over the final month, so making up ground in the wild-card race could be tough.
That's reason enough for me to think the other three teams vying for that second slot have a better chance, as the San Francisco Giants, Atlanta Braves and surprise Miami Marlins will battle it out for a playoff spot.
The Marlins have been by far the hottest team of that group, going 19-12 since the All-Star break and 10-7 this month.
"What once seemed so far fetched is now clearly possible. And that's a dangerous thing for every other NL team contending for a postseason berth," wrote Richard Justice of MLB.com. "The Marlins believe now. That is, they believe in a way they almost certainly couldn't have before."
Meanwhile, the Giants (13-16, 7-9) and Braves (14-17, 8-9) have both lost ground in their respective division races during that same span, leaving them fighting to reach October.
The Marlins still have series with the Los Angeles Angels and Milwaukee Brewers, as well as eight games with the Washington Nationals and three head-to-head with the Atlanta Braves. The Braves also take on the Pirates and Reds and have six games left with the Nationals.
As mentioned on the NL West slide, the Giants have a harsh non-division draw, with series against the Nationals, Brewers and Tigers, as well as six games left against the Dodgers.
While the Marlins have been hot, the Braves have won five straight, including a sweep of the Athletics. They seem to have the most favorable remaining schedule of the three and look like front-runners for the No. 2 spot right now.
Milwaukee Brewers host Atlanta Braves in the NL Wild Card Round.