Handicapping NL's Hotly Contested Wild-Card Race with 1 Month Left

Martin GandyFeatured ColumnistAugust 25, 2014

Pittsburgh Pirates' Andrew McCutchen hits a home run during the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers, Sunday, Aug. 24, 2014, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Morry Gash/Associated Press

The National League wild-card race is shaping up to be one of the best playoff races in all of baseball. While the Nationals and Dodgers seem to have their respective divisions in hand, the scrum in the Central, and the best of the rest, are conspiring to turn the wild-card race into a five-team battle.

As of the end of play Sunday, the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants were leading the race for two wild-card berths. The Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates are merely a couple of games out, and the Miami Marlins are still in it, trailing by four games.

 

Wild-card standings (through the games of August 24)

TeamWinsLossesWild Card Games Behind
Brewers7258+3.5
Cardinals7059+2
Giants6861-
Braves68631.0
Pirates67631.5
Marlins64654.0

 

We’ll begin our examination of the wild-card race by looking at what these teams have done in the past month to see if their hitting and pitching are rising to the occasion of a playoff chase. The National League average OPS is .695, and the average ERA is 3.67.

 

Team30-Day Record30-Day ERASeason ERA30-Day OPSSeason OPS
Brewers13-133.323.66.692.724
Cardinals16-114.483.61.726.697
Giants11-153.633.38.677.688
Braves13-153.263.31.682.682
Pirates13-154.093.77.742.727
Marlins16-113.183.82.709.700

 

The Brewers have used better pitching in the past 30 days to maintain first place in the NL Central, even while their offense has slumped just a bit. The Cardinals have used an offensive surge to narrow the Milwaukee lead. While the Cards’ ERA in the last 30 days is almost a run higher, that could be attributed to several blowouts in which the St. Louis staff allowed double-digit runs.

The Pirates have seen their pitching staff slip just a bit, while their offense has ticked up a notch. One of these three teams—Milwaukee, St. Louis or Pittsburgh—will win the NL Central, while the other two will be competitive for two wild-card spots.

The Giants offense and pitching have been a tad worse over the past month, and that’s seen them slip out of the NL West lead. With the Dodgers putting up a good run, they've opened up some daylight in their division lead, leaving San Francisco holding onto a wild-card berth.

The story of the past month in the NL East is that of the Nationals running away and leaving the rest of the division behind. That has the Braves scrambling to grab a wild-card spot. The good news for Atlanta is that neither its pitching nor its hitting is slumping, but no part of the team has seen an aggregate improvement either.

The Marlins have won a small victory for their young team by hovering around .500, and they've done so with better pitching than any of the other wild-card contenders. But the Fish are about to get fried in the final stretch run.

 

What’s left to play?

Now that we've taken a look at what these teams have done over the past 30 days, what will they face in the final five weeks of the season? Let's examine what’s left for these teams by looking at home and road games left to play, the average record of the teams they will play and how many games they’ll play against playoff teams.

 

TeamHome Games LeftRoad Games LeftHome RecordRoad RecordAverage Opp. RecordH2H v. PO Teams
Brewers141835-3036-2763-6423
Cardinals161739-2630-3261-6720
Giants171532-3236-2761-6612
Braves161537-2831-3362-6516
Pirates151740-2626-3662-6519
Marlins132037-3127-3266-6121

 

The Marlins' tough road ahead can be seen not only in their lack of home games, but also as the only wild-card contender whose remaining opponents have a winning record.

The Giants seem to have the easiest road ahead, with the most home games remaining and the fewest games versus playoff-contending teams. That should work in their favor, but their home record so far is worse than their road record.

No one else on this list seems to have an extra advantage (or disadvantage) in their remaining games. The Brewers play the most games against playoff-contending teams and play a majority of them on the road, but they’ve been a good road team this year.

 

Welcome back

One of the biggest advantages down the stretch is getting players back from the disabled list, especially if those players are MVP-caliber. The biggest boost to any of the wild-card contenders was received by the Pirates, who recently welcomed Andrew McCutchen back to the lineup and Gerrit Cole back to the starting rotation.

Jul 7, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina (4) walks off the field as rain falls  during the first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals could also see their perennial MVP candidate return from injury as Yadier Molina tries to claw his way back from injuring his right thumb in early July. Molina is on target for a mid-September return. St. Louis could also get starting pitcher Michael Wacha back in September, though the team was able to add to its rotation at the trade deadline by acquiring Justin Masterson and John Lackey.

The Brewers are expected to get starting pitcher Matt Garza back in early September, and Kyle Lohse was able to avoid the disabled list while nursing a minor ankle injury.

While Miami may get some minor pieces back over the next few weeks, both the Marlins and the Braves will not be receiving any major additions off the DL. Though, Mike Minor's return to top-of-the-rotation form for Atlanta over his past two starts will be a big upgrade.

 

An extra advantage?

The manner of victory can sometimes propel an average team to bigger things. The Nationals have been riding a hot streak, fueled in part by a handful of walk-off wins. The Marlins have also taken advantage of the walk-off win of late, and for the season they have the best record in the National League in one-run games—an amazing 32-19 record.

MIAMI, FL - AUGUST 02: Christian Yelich #21 of the Miami Marlins reacts with teammates after hitting a walk-off single to win the game against the Cincinnati Reds in ten innings at Marlins Park on August 02, 2014 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Rob Foldy/Ge
Rob Foldy/Getty Images

That high number of close ballgames may have the Marlins acting more like pretenders than actual contenders in the wild-card race, but that kind of success in close games can give a team a psychological advantage over its opponent.

As I pointed out earlier, the Marlins will play the toughest schedule among the wild-card-contending teams. But that also means they have a lot of opportunities to go head-to-head against teams in front of them, giving them a chance to pick up games quickly.

Taking all of these factors into account, none of these wild-card teams seem to have a distinct advantage. Nearly all of the teams are playing similar schedules that are moderately easy for the remainder of the year, and none of them have any extra home-field advantage.

No team has taken control of the wild-card race like the Dodgers and Nationals have taken control of their division races. The Cardinals are currently in the driver’s seat and playing good baseball of late, but their lead is still just a few games.

With all of these teams so close to each other and so evenly matched, the final five weeks of the season will see plenty of lead changes in the most hotly contested playoff race in baseball—the National League wild-card race.

 

All stats and records are through the games of August 23 and are taken from FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com. Wild-card standings are through the games of August 24.