The Argument Against Every MLB Playoff Hopeful

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterSeptember 12, 2021

The Argument Against Every MLB Playoff Hopeful

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    Or, the latest attempt to doubt a Giants team that has been winning all season.
    Or, the latest attempt to doubt a Giants team that has been winning all season.Associated Press

    With only three weeks left in the 2021 Major League Baseball season, more than half the league's teams are still vying for the playoffs and, by extension, a shot at the World Series.

    Though two of them will make it all the way to the Fall Classic, good arguments exist for why none of them should.

    Or at least, so we think after laying out the case for why each playoff hopeful is doomed to fail in October. For contenders that are deficient in one key area or another, this was easy. As for the special few who don't have clear flaws, we had to dig a little deeper.

    For both the American League and the National League, we'll hit on each of the three division leaders and then the clubs in wild-card contention.

AL East Leader: Tampa Bay Rays

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    Ryan Yarbrough
    Ryan YarbroughMatt Slocum/Associated Press

    Record: 89-53

    Whereas three teams are jockeying for the top record in the National League, the Tampa Bay Rays are sitting pretty in the American League with a 6.5-game lead over the Houston Astros.

    Are these Rays as good as the 2020 club that went to the World Series? By winning percentage, no. But by Pythagorean winning percentage, yes. The Rays' plus-178 run differential is the best in the AL, stemming largely from an offense that leads MLB in scoring, excellent relief pitching and airtight defense.

    And yet, it's also no secret that the Rays' starting pitching is a relative weakness.

    They had Charlie Morton, Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow last October, but the first two are gone, and the latter hasn't pitched since June 14 because of an arm injury that necessitated Tommy John surgery. In Glasnow's absence, Rays starters have put up a 4.97 ERA.

    Shane McClanahan and Drew Rasmussen have been quite good. Yet neither is a traditional workhorse, so even the Rays' deep bullpen will be at risk of running out of gas if the team charges deep into October.

AL Central Leader: Chicago White Sox

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    Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

    Record: 81-61

    The Chicago White Sox look like they should be unbeatable in October.

    Led by Jose Abreu, their lineup is loaded with capable sluggers. Their pitching staff is even better with three aces (Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito and Carlos Rodon) in their rotation and a handful of fireballers (Craig Kimbrel, Liam Hendriks and Michael Kopech) in their bullpen.

    It's thus expected that the White Sox have an 11-game lead and the only positive run differential (plus-133) in the AL Central. But such things also underscore how they've had it easy with the bulk of their schedule. Against winning teams, they're 24-29.

    Further, the White Sox's pitching has taken a turn for the worse since the All-Star break, and the specifics are troubling. Lynn (knee), Giolito (hamstring) and Rodon (shoulder) have each had injury scares in recent weeks. The aforementioned bullpen trio, meanwhile, has a 6.33 ERA since the July 30 trade deadline.

    Altogether, the picture shows a team that's not only untested but also peaked too early and is now in disarray.

AL West Leader: Houston Astros

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Record: 82-59

    From some perspectives, the Astros look like as good a bet to win the World Series as anyone.

    Their plus-176 run differential is only slightly off the Rays' pace. Their offense also nearly has the Rays matched with a 111 OPS+. Their pitching co-leads the AL with a 116 ERA+. Don't overlook Houston's defense, which ranks third in MLB in defensive runs saved and second in outs above average.

    Like the White Sox, however, the Astros aren't marching toward the playoffs with a sense of urgency. They're only four games over .500 since the break and under .500 (18-19) since the trade deadline.

    One issue the Astros have had of late is that they've been playing a number of close games. They haven't done well in those, going 16-16 in contests decided by one run and losing games (3.2 runs) by a much smaller margin than they win games (4.4 runs).

    Basically, any team that can avoid getting blown out by the Astros has a chance to beat them. That bodes well for any good club, and Houston will see nothing but teams of that variety in October.

AL Wild Cards: Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Boston Red Sox

    Record: 81-63

    Because of an ongoing COVID-19 breakout—Chris Sale was the latest to test positive Friday—the Red Sox aren't at full strength. Assuming they can get back to that point, a deep, dangerous offense that is fourth in runs represents their best hope of a long playoff stay.

    Run prevention, though, is a major issue for the Sox. And not just to the extent that their pitching depth is suspect. Their defense is dead last in outs above average and has at times been cartoonishly bad. Barring a miraculous about-face in these departments, Boston doesn't look equipped for the World Series.


    New York Yankees

    Record: 79-62

    Very recently, the Yankees were on top of the baseball world with a 13-game win streak that capped a run of 30 wins in 38 games. But they were having a hard time before all that, and the hard times have returned in the form of a 3-11 slump since Aug. 28.

    For all its sluggers, their offense is only tied for 10th in the AL in runs. While their starting pitching may be underrated, Aroldis Chapman's struggles and Zack Britton's Tommy John surgery have greatly diminished their bullpen. This is an example of a team that's less than the sum of its parts.


    Toronto Blue Jays

    Record: 77-62

    It took a while, but the Blue Jays have found their stride with a 13-2 stretch that began on Aug. 28. Beyond that, an offense that leads MLB in home runs and a rotation headed by Robbie Ray, Hyun Jin Ryu and Jose Berrios cast them as a nightmare matchup in October.

    Yet there are also good reasons why the Blue Jays are only now catching up in the AL playoff race. They've been held back by a subpar defense and by a bullpen that, though better lately, hasn't risen to the level of "reliable." Should they make the playoffs, such things could result in a short stay.

AL Wild Card Contenders: Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Oakland Athletics

    Record: 77-65

    The A's had their Blue Jays moment in the first month of the season, winning 13 in a row between April 9 and April 24. They're a sub-.500 club on either side of that streak, and it's hard to argue that this constitutes an underachievement.

    The A's are missing ace right-hander Chris Bassitt, going 9-13 and pitching to a 5.08 ERA since he was hit in the head by a hard line drive on Aug. 17. Their bullpen has also had issues with a 4.56 ERA since the trade deadline. In conjunction with an offense that has been up and down all year, none of this bodes well.


    Seattle Mariners

    Record: 77-65

    Though far from the best team, the Mariners are the most pleasant surprise in the American League. They've been the little engine that could, winning games despite not being particularly good at fundamental aspects like hitting, pitching and defense.

    This, of course, is also the problem. They've allowed 56 more runs than they've scored and have actually been outscored by three runs even during their 19-11 run since Aug. 8. Much of the hardship traces back to a rotation that has been iffy all year, including a 4.77 ERA in the second half.

NL East Leader: Atlanta

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Record: 75-66

    As recently as the first of August, Atlanta was two games under .500 and 4.5 games out of first place in the NL East.

    Two days later, on Aug. 3, Atlanta began a 23-12 run over 35 games. It leads the NL the majors with 63 home runs in this span. On the other side of the ball, Charlie Morton and Max Fried have prepared themselves for October with a combined 2.25 ERA.

    More recently, though, Brian Snitker's club has hit another wall with a 7-10 record since Aug. 23. The competition has been difficult, a solid reminder that Atlanta has struggled to a 28-36 record against winning teams.

    This alone is reason to doubt Atlanta's chances for a deep postseason run. A few more include Ronald Acuna Jr.'s absence with a torn ACL and a shortage of reliable hurlers outside of Morton, Fried and reliever Richard Rodriguez.

    In other words, it's not an accident that Atlanta would still be under .500 if not for its 16-2 run against mostly weak competition between Aug. 3 and Aug. 22.

NL Central Leader: Milwaukee Brewers

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Record: 88-55

    On the mound, at least, the Milwaukee Brewers are terrifying.

    Their pitchers have a 3.39 ERA, but even that figure undersells how dangerous they could be in October when they let their top arms lead the way. The ace trio of Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta has a 2.46 ERA, while each of their top six relievers boasts an ERA in the 1.00s or 2.00s.

    But will the Brewers hit enough to last long in the postseason?

    This is at best a "maybe" situation. While the Crew has substantially upped its collective OPS from .691 in the first half to .771 in the second half, power remains a weakness. Among NL clubs, their 62 home runs since the break rank 11th out of 15 teams.

    Just in case anyone believes small ball still plays in October, that was perhaps never true and is especially untrue now. In 2020, for example, there was no bigger key to winning in the postseason than outhomering the opposition.

NL West Leader: San Francisco Giants

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Record: 92-50

    The San Francisco Giants weren't supposed to be a major contender in 2021. But then they were the first to 50, 60, 70 and 80 wins, respectively. More recently, they were the first to 90 on Wednesday.

    That's what consistency looks like, and the Giants barely offer nits to pick. Their offense hits lots of home runs, their pitching is about as good as it gets and, oh yeah, they field the ball with the best of 'em.

    Yet there's a case to be made that the Giants are better than the sum of their parts. And that may not be a good thing.

    For instance, their only truly red-hot hitter since the trade deadline is Darin Ruf, who's more of a platoon guy than an everyday contributor. They also have some instability in their rotation, where Kevin Gausman and Anthony DeSclafani have been just OK with a 4.07 ERA since July.

    In addition to home runs, it helps to have stars in October. Whether the Giants have enough of those is up for debate.

NL Wild Cards: Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Los Angeles Dodgers

    Record: 90-53

    Broadcaster Dave Flemming has a take on why the Dodgers lost the season series to the Giants, theorizing that it has to do with MLB's instituting a ban on sticky stuff June 21. The trouble is the numbers don't bear that out. Since then, Los Angeles pitchers are second in spin rate, and the club is 46-26.

    Rather than on the mound, the Dodgers' shortcoming is on offense. They're hardly bad with the bats, but this lineup isn't the same as the all-around excellent ones they had in 2018, 2019 and 2020. As such, they have less of a chance of outslugging the competition in October.


    San Diego Padres

    Record: 74-67

    If the Padres make it to the playoffs, they can hope to rally behind their Fernando Tatis Jr.-led offense and a rotation captained by three aces in Blake Snell, Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove. This isn't even to mention Mark Melancon, who's been perhaps the best closer of 2021.

    However, the vibe the Padres had amid their ascendant 2020 season hasn't been there this year. Their offense has gone from very good to below average, while their pitching has largely folded as it's posted a 4.48 ERA since the trade deadline. This team is barely hanging on.

NL Wild Card Contenders: Cincinnati, St. Louis, Philadelphia and New York

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Cincinnati Reds

    Record: 75-68

    If the Reds can get Jesse Winker (intercostal strain) healthy in time for the playoffs, he, Joey Votto, Nick Castellanos and Jonathan India would be a formidable offensive foursome in support of four front-line starters: Wade Miley, Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray and Tyler Mahle.

    On the downside, the Reds belong in the same bad defense/bad bullpen boat as Boston and Toronto. They're dead last in the NL in outs above average, while even an improved version of their pen only has a 4.75 ERA since the trade deadline.


    St. Louis Cardinals

    Record: 72-69

    The Cardinals are not without star attractions. Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina are impressive batterymates even in their golden years. Alex Reyes is an electrifying closer. Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt and Tyler O'Neill are impressive two-way stars.

    But, man, does this Cardinals team have a "just lucky to be here" vibe. They're sorely lacking in depth around their star players, which shows not just in their minus-22 run differential but also their 25-38 record against winning teams. A legit World Series contender, they are not.


    Philadelphia Phillies

    Record: 72-70

    In Bryce Harper and Zack Wheeler, the Phillies might have the guys to beat for the NL MVP and NL Cy Young Award, respectively. Watching them plus fellow stars like J.T. Realmuto and key supporting characters such as Ranger Suarez in the playoffs would be a treat.

    It nonetheless takes some awkward contortion to see the Phillies as a good team. Not while slugger Rhys Hoskins (abdominal surgery) is sidelined, anyway. And especially not in the context of a bullpen that's up to its same bad ol' tricks with a 4.90 ERA since the trade deadline.


    New York Mets

    Record: 71-72

    Go figure that a $200 million team from New York has become a scrappy underdog. The Mets have been battling injuries and impatient fans all season, yet they've been mounting a push with nine wins in their past 14 games.

    But a World Series contender? Yeah, right. Maybe with healthy versions of Jacob deGrom (elbow) and Noah Syndergaard (elbow), but the Mets don't have those. They also haven't been and still aren't the offensive juggernaut that was promised, as only four clubs have more games with two or fewer runs.


    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.