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

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Handicapping AL's Hotly Contested Wild-Card Race with 1 Month Left
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This is exactly how Bud Selig and Major League Baseball drew it up three years ago.

With the second wild-card spot, the number of viable postseason competitors increases and more teams remain in the hunt for longer. As the summer concludes and October quickly approaches, the drama spikes.

Each team now has 30 games or fewer to do one of a few things: catch their respective division leader and avoid the play-in game, hang on to their wild-card hold or chase down that second and final spot.

In each American League division, less than 10 games separate the top three teams; in the Central and West, two games or less separate the second-place team from the first; in the race for the second wild-card spot alone, six teams are realistically within striking distance at eight games or less.

With the likes of the Angels and Athletics nearly certain to grab the AL West crown and first wild-card spot—barring a Toronto-like meltdown over the next few weeks—we're left with a few burning questions: Is this just a two-horse race for the second spot between the Mariners and Tigers? Can the Indians and Blue Jays, both hanging around, make a run in September? And are we buying or selling the Yankees?

American League Wild-Card Race
W-L GB RD L10 L20 L30 G vs. > .500 G vs. < .500
Oakland Athletics 78-55 +5.5 +164 5-5 9-11 15-15 12 17
Seattle Mariners 72-60 -- +101 6-4 14-6 19-11 20 10
Detroit Tigers 72-60 -- +30 5-5 9-11 14-16 16 14
New York Yankees 69-63 3 -27 7-3 11-9 16-14 18 12
Cleveland Indians 68-64 4 +18 6-4 11-9 16-14 14 16
Toronto Blue Jays 67-66 5.5 -2 4-6 7-13 13-17 17 12

Baseball-Reference

Based on recent performance, statistical trends and strength of the remaining schedules, we'll break down the current wild-card competitors and get into handicapping this exciting—or stressful, depending who you are—final month of baseball. 

 

Secured of a Spot?

*Inflated odds for Athletics reflect likelihood of winning either AL West OR one of two wild-card spots.

Athletics: 1-14

Uncredited/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press
3B Josh Donaldson leads the second-place A's in HRs (25) and RBI (87).

The next three days may dictate the most where the Athletics' odds shift for the final month, though they currently sit on the largest cushion of any team in the wild-card race. They're not a lock to make the postseason, but the odds are in their favor with three conceivable routes in—steal the division, secure the first spot, hang on to the second, at worst.

(FanGraphs, for instance, while setting Detroit's postseason odds at 73.8 percent, places Oakland's at 99.4.)

On Thursday, Oakland dropped the first of a four-game set in Anaheim against the division-leading Angels, who are now two games up after walking off in the 10th. But as it stands entering Friday, the A's still remain more than five games up on Detroit in the first wild-card spot.

Perhaps surprisingly for some, it won't be Oakland's pitching that gets it into October—or that even keeps it there. The story on the A's typically highlights the rotation—especially after Billy Beane came away with Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester prior to the trade deadline. But outside of the third-lowest ERA in the AL this season, Oakland starters haven't been remarkable.

In the AL, the A's have just the sixth-best BB/9, seventh-best K/9 and FIP, 10th HR/9 and 13th WAR. Since the All-Star break, they've actually ranked worse in all the same categories, with only the Red Sox compiling a lower WAR.

Ben Margot/Associated Press/Associated Press
Not all laughter for A's pitching; Samardzija (middle) has seen his ERA and FIP jump from 2.83 and 3.09 with Chicago to 3.86 and 3.91 since joining Oakland. Sonny Gray (right), meanwhile, has gone 13-7 with a 3.03 to lead the staff.

The Oakland offense, on the other hand, trails only the Angels among AL teams in WAR, is second only to the Tigers in OBP, third in wRC+, fourth in wOBA and ISO and sixth in slugging. Only one AL team (Yankees) has a lower SwStr (swinging strike) percentage, and a few batted-ball metrics tell us another interesting facet of this Beane-constructed offense: The A's keep the ball off the ground; they have the lowest ground-ball rate and ground-ball per fly-ball rate in the AL—and the margin is significant.

But do the A's have enough firepower without Yoenis Cespedes? In the month of August (his last game for the A's was July 30), the A's are still top six in the AL in HR, ISO and WAR. But here's the sign the A's could slip: This month, in which they've gone just 12-14, their average is an AL-worst .231 (.251 in the first half; .249 on the year), and their ranks of 10th and 11th in wOBA and slugging are significantly off the full season, over which they rank fourth and sixth in those categories.

If there's one auspicious takeaway for Oakland this final month, it's that it plays the greatest number of games against sub-.500 teams of any wild-card competitors; on the season, the A's have beaten up on such teams. Only the Angels' 46-14 record against sub-.500 clubs is better than Oakland's 38-20.

 

Race for the Second Wild Card

*Odds reflect winning a wild-card spot.

Tigers: 3-2

USA TODAY Sports
Recent acquisition David Price (left) with Rick Porcello. The two starters are half of the four-headed monster along with Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.

The AL Central-leading Royals lost in the 10th Thursday night, meaning that the second-place Tigers are now just 1.5 games back and more than capable of stealing the division and avoiding the wild card altogether. They don't get to face the Mariners again—they're behind in head-to-head games at 2-4 against them on the year—though they have six remaining against Kansas City. 

When they visited Yankee Stadium for four games back on August 4, they marched out their marquee men—Max Scherzer, David Price, Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello—yet came away with just one victory. They exhaled and redeemed themselves this week, taking two of three from New York at home, capped off by a walk-off win Thursday.

The doubts of late, if any, center on the pitching staff. Anibal Sanchez has been on the disabled list since August 9 and is worried he may miss the rest of the season, per MLive's James Schmehl (h/t CBSSports.com's Dayn Perry). Since the All-Star break, Verlander's spun his wheels at 3-3 with a 4.58, only totaling 35.1 innings, and Price has faltered around his eight-inning, one-hit performance in Tampa, going 1-2 with a 4.41; he was also roughed up on Wednesday.

As for Detroit's struggles in the win column—going 14-16 in its last 30—its pitching can't be solely to blame. Over that span, Tigers pitching has posted the sixth-highest WAR in the AL, per FanGraphs. And on the year, Tigers starters lead the AL in wins, WAR and fewest home runs per nine. They're also second in FIP and walks per nine and eighth in ERA in 2014.

The offense has held up—if not excelled—all year: Among AL teams, Detroit is still first in average, OBP, slugging and wOBA and second in wRC+ and RBI.

It's definitely not time to worry despite playing .500 ball at the moment, and the best news for the Tigers' final push comes in the final seven days—should it come down to that. They play solely against sub.-500 clubs, with three against the White Sox (60-73) and four against the last-place Twins (59-74).

 

Mariners: 2-1

USA TODAY Sports
Don'tcha know? Robinson Cano moved to the Pacific Northwest, where he's batting .325 on the year and has committed only four errors.

The Mariners haven't reached the postseason since 2001, but they're putting together a memorable season in 2014. After finishing 71-91 last season, Seattle sits at a cool 72-60, tied with Detroit in the win-loss column and ahead on head-to-head games for the final wild-card spot entering play Friday.

Of any of these wild-card contenders, the Mariners have been the hottest of late, winners of 19 of their last 30 and 14 of their last 20. For a reference point of Seattle's tear, the ballclub was just three games over .500 on August 1.

Similarly to Detroit, Seattle's pitching has been there all year long, leading the league in ERA and HR/9, second in WAR and FIP and fifth in K/9, BB/9 and wins. Mariners closer Fernando Rodney's 38 saves are second in the AL only to the Royals' Greg Holland, and Seattle relievers lead the AL in ERA, FIP and WAR.

If there's any noticeable trend that might hurt them in the race with Detroit down the stretch, it's a weaker offense. Obscuring that picture is their red-hot month of August, in which they've been fourth among AL teams in WAR, third in wRC+ and fourth in wOBA.

But even with second baseman Robinson Cano the third-most valuable player in the AL, via WAR, Seattle's offense ranks just 10th of 15 AL teams in WAR, 13th in wRC+ and dead last in wOBA on the year.

It helps that 10 of their final games come against the last-place Rangers (52-81) and lowly Astros (57-78). In short, if the M's can stay hot, nothing is secured for Detroit.

 

Yankees: 5-1

Kathy Willens/Associated Press
Rookie Shane Greene has been nasty, going 4-1 with a 3.09 in nine starts since his call-up.

The Yankees could not be hotter and colder in 2014. They're the living, breathing, baseball image of one step forward, two steps back.

Last week, New York dropped its first two against Houston before Shawn Kelley wore a horse's head and the team went on a five-game winning streak, outscoring opponents 27-11. Heading into the most recent series in Detroit, the Yanks were seven games over .500 and just 2.5 games out of the second wild card. Then they promptly dropped two of three and, save for an outlandish eight-run inning against Price, saw their typical absence of offense.

They enter their final 30 games just three games back of Detroit and Seattle, but they still seem to be doing a little more sputtering than chasing (they also play 12 of those games against two teams you'd imagine would love nothing more than to spoil Derek Jeter's final postseason chase—the Red Sox and Rays). Winning seven of their last 10 is great, but in reality they've been playing right around .500 ball in their last 30 (16-14). 

New York's offense—middling all year—ranks in the bottom half of the AL in the month of August in WAR, wRC+, batting average and slugging. 

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The positives if New York is to make this a three-team battle: Pitching has saved and bailed the Yankees out all year long. Without Ivan Nova, Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia and, until recently, Michael Pineda, the Yanks have hung around on the rebirths of starters like Brandon McCarthy and Chris Capuano—and on the plain births of others, such as that of rookie Shane Greene. Since the break, New York starters rank fourth in the AL in WAR and FIP, fifth in K/9 and first in BB/9. The other tremendous sign comes in the form of Pineda, who is back and looking sharp: 1-0 with a 2.08 in his first three starts since returning August 13.

This month, Yankee pitching is second in BB/9, third in K/9 and WAR and fourth in FIP. The better news: New York's relief corps has been outstanding all year and should continue to factor in a huge way if the Yanks can turn the ball over with a lead (see: Adam Warren, Dellin Betances and David Robertson).

One final piece to consider—especially in the case that Detroit and Seattle begin to extend the distance in the second wild-card spot: Though Baltimore's hold on the AL East lead has seemed all but cemented this summer and has been extended to seven games entering Friday, the Yankees still face the O's eight more times. Anything's possible in New York. 

 

Indians: 9-1

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press/Associated Press
The resilient Indians are hanging around; Michael Brantley (left), having a career year, leads the team in average, OBP, slugging, OPS and RBI.

The Indians really turned things around this past month. Though on July 29, they were two games below .500, they enter the final weekend of August four games over .500 and four games back of the second wild-card spot.

They've excelled in two of the most vital statistical categories on the year: creating runs and getting on base. On the year, their 104 wRC+ is fifth in the AL, and their .318 wOBA is sixth.

The total offense, interestingly, is just 11th in the AL in WAR, eighth in average and seventh in OBP and slugging. But there are a few interesting metrics to consider for illustrating how Cleveland has remained afloat: It's compiled the fifth-best walk rate in the AL to go along with the sixth-most stolen bases. And despite a low power output (seventh in HR, eighth in ISO), the Indians have the AL's best line-drive rate and the third-best GB rate (A's and Tigers).

If they're going to make a run at Detroit and/or Seattle, their pitching will need to continue its recent run of excellence. This month, Indians pitching posted the AL's best ERA and FIP, and only Rays pitching compiled a higher WAR or better K/9. Compare that with just the seventh-best ERA, third-best FIP and sixth-highest WAR for the full season.   

Helping the Indians' cause: The majority of their final 30 games come against sub-.500 opponents, against whom they're 37-26 this season. They're also just four games back of the Tigers and 5.5 back of the Royals, and they begin their final stretch with three in Kansas City (6-7 against) and four hosting Detroit (7-5).

In other words, in the next week alone, they have the potential to both put themselves right in the hunt and take themselves right out of it.

 

Blue Jays: 15-1

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
Rookie Marcus Stroman has kept Toronto in the hunt despite the team's recent slide; he's gone 8-5 with a 3.88 in 16 starts.

Toronto chose the worst time to trend in the wrong direction, dropping 17 of its last 30 and 13 of its last 20. On July 1, the Blue Jays were seven games over .500 and one game clear of Baltimore in the AL East. As of Friday morning, they're one game over .500 and 9.5 games back of first. They can still sniff a wild-card spot at just 5.5 games back with 29 games remaining—but just barely.

In baseball's first half, they ranked among AL teams sixth, fourth and third in average, OBP and slugging, respectively. They led the league in home runs and ISO and were fourth in runs and RBI. Their .330 wOBA was third, their 107 wRC+ was fourth and they had the fifth-best walk rate.

This past month: Dead last in homers, runs, RBI, OBP, wOBA and wRC+; second-to-last in slugging and ISO; 11th of 15 teams in walk rate; 12th in slugging; and the only AL team with a negative WAR.

Toronto's other issue—which separates it from the rest of the wild-card pack—is the lack of a helping hand from the pitching staff. In August, its starters are a meager 12th in the AL in WAR, ERA, FIP and HR/9; they've pitched the fewest innings of any team's starters and have mustered just three wins.

The Blue Jays also see 17 games against teams over .500 of their 29 remaining; on the year, they're just 33-38 against such ballclubs. If there's a bright spot, it's that they're 29-25 against AL East opponents, whom they'll finish up the year battling in 22 games. 

 

Statistics current through game action on August 28, 2014 and courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

Peter F. Richman is a Bleacher Report featured columnist and copy editor. Follow on Twitter:  

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