By Rich Arleo
Before the inception of the second Wild Card spot in 2012, most teams knew whether they were in or out of the postseason race by the end of July. Since the addition of that second spot and the Wild Card Game, however, more and more teams have found themselves within a few games of a postseason berth longer than they normally would have.
While this change has expanded the postseason picture in past years, never have fans seen a crowd quite like the current crop of NINE teams in the American League Wild Card race this season.
At the start of play Monday, with just under a month-and-a-half left to go in the regular season, the New York Yankees hold a 2.5 game lead over the current holders of the second Wild Card spot, the Los Angeles Angels and Minnesota Twins. Behind the Angels and Twins are six teams within just five games. Of those six teams, two of them are within 1.5 games, and the other four — the Texas Rangers, Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles, Toronto Blue Jays — actually have losing records despite being just a few wins out.
The potential scenarios come Oct. 1, the final day of the regular season, are seemingly endless and certainly crazy to think about. MLB has a plan for a potential four-way tie, which while highly unlikely certainly remains possible at this point. The four teams would get A,B,C,D designations based on a number of tiebreakers (the first being regular-season series wins against), and those teams would play for whichever spot they are tied for before moving on. Should MLB have a five, six or seven-way tie on its hands at the end of the season, then, well … they’ll be figuring out what to do along with the rest of us.
While those wild scenarios are fun to dream about, it’s obviously more likely that one or two teams separate themselves from the pack and claim their spot in the end. With nine teams technically vying for two spots at the moment, let’s take a look at which teams are legitimate contenders, and which ones are just pretending.
New York Yankees (66-57, 1st Wild Card) – Contender
Among this large crop of Wild Card teams, the Yankees have certainly separated themselves with a 2.5 game hold on the first spot, which would mean the Wild Card Game would be played in the Bronx. The Yankees are also only five games out of first place in the American League East after dropping two out of three against the Red Sox over the weekend.
Sitting nine games over .500 with 39 games remaining on their schedule, the Yankees have positioned themselves nicely for at least a Wild Card spot thanks to an impressive young offense, a very deep bullpen and somewhat-surprisingly strong starting pitching. The Yankees average 5.2 runs scored per game (third best in baseball) and allow 4.2 runs per game (fifth best) for a positive run differential of 0.9. Their Pythagorean Win-Loss record (expected record based on run differential) is 72-51, which means they’ve won six fewer games then they “should have” based on run differential. This can be attributed to their poor record in one-run games (15-21), and if they can improve on this during the rest of the season, they will have no trouble securing a spot and may even be able to win the division.
Anaheim Angels (64-60, 2nd Wild Card) – Contender
At the end of May when the Angels were sitting under .500 and facing 6-8 weeks without Mike Trout, most thought they were as good as done. But after battling through the month-plus without Trout while continuing to play around .500, they have come on strong in August (13-5 in their first 18 games) and find themselves holding onto the second Wild Card spot.
Considering how they were able to weather the storm without Trout and now have their superstar back and playing well, the Angels have certainly made their case as a contender. They also have the backing of experienced long-time manager Mike Scioscia to go along with arguably the best player in the world in Trout and what has been a strong pitching staff, ranking 10th in the league in team ERA.
Are the Angels as good as they have been in August? Probably not. Their run differential of 0.0 is middle of the pack, and based on their Pythagorean record (62-62) they’ve actually squeaked out a few more games than expected. In any other year the Angels might not be in contention, but in a year where it looks like a borderline .500 team is going to grab that second Wild Card spot, they have enough to stay the course, avoid a big losing streak and get in.
Kansas City Royals (62-61, 1.5 GB) – Contender
On May 31, the Royals were 22-30 and the fans and media were already asking questions about what they would do with core players Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain — all of whom will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. Many expect that at least one or two of the four would be traded before the Deadline in order to recoup some prospects before potentially losing them outright. But then the Royals got hot, and at the end of a nine-game winning streak they found themselves at 54-47 right before the Trade Deadline.
So the Royals stood pat and held on to all of their stars, even making some additions with starter Trevor Cahill, relievers Ryan Buchter and Brandon Maurer, and outfielder Melky Cabrera. Unfortunately, things haven’t been great since then. Kansas City started August losing eight of 10 and now find themselves out of the playoffs — albeit by less than two games. With a run differential of -0.2, Pythagorean record (59-64) isn’t doing them any favors. Nonetheless, this Royals team has the talent and the playoff pedigree to make a run. Hosmer (.315/.378/.496) and Moustakas (35 homers) are carrying the offense and their bullpen — while not as deep as it was in past playoff runs —is good enough to keep teams at bay. Kansas City should be right in the thick of things through the end of the season.
Minnesota Twins (63-59, t-2nd Wild Card) – Pretender
The term “rollercoaster season” aptly fits the Twins. On May 27, Minnesota was 26-19 and one of the early surprise “feel good” stories in baseball sitting atop the AL Central. On July 23, they were just a game above .500 but acquired pitcher Jaime Garcia from the St. Louis Cardinals in an attempt to make a push. More acquisitions seemed to be on the horizon, but on July 30 they found themselves three games under .500 and ended up trading away Garcia and their closer Brandon Kintzler.
After looking to be in full sell mode ready to look forward to ’18, the Twins have now won 11 of 15 and sit just a game out of the second Wild Card spot. The red-hot Indians have claimed a nice lead in the Central over both the Royals and Twins, but that second Wild Card spot seems to be open for either team. The Twins, however, don’t appear to be in line to claim that position.
The Twins’ -0.3 run differential is one of the worst in the AL and they’ve actually won six more games than expected (57-65 Pythagorean record). Their 4.72 team ERA ranks 24th in baseball and their offense isn’t good enough to make up for that (578 runs, 17th in MLB). This streaky team probably has one more extended losing streak in them, which will keep them out of the postseason.
Seattle Mariners (63-62, 1.5 GB) – Contender
The ’17 Mariners have been about as mediocre as you can get. They are one game above .500 and rank 15th in runs scored, 16th in team ERA and 15th with a -0.1 run differential. So the question is, do they have a run in them?
Despite being average in just about everything, the Mariners do have more star power than some of the other teams in this race. Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager form a formidable middle of the order with hit machine Jean Segura at the top, and the addition of Yonder Alonso and breakout of Ben Gamel gives the bottom of the lineup some depth.
Seattle’s biggest issue has been health, and right now their two best starters — Felix Hernandez and James Paxton — are on the disabled list. Hernandez, who hasn’t pitched since July 31, is expected back either at the end of August or early September. Paxton was one of the best pitchers in baseball in the second half with a 5-0 record, 1.88 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 38 1/3 innings over six starts before hitting the DL on Aug. 11. This is Paxton’s second DL stint of the year, and injuries have been a major issue for the young lefty throughout his career. If King Felix and Paxton can return and pitch at their best come September, the Mariners will be able to push for the Wild Card.
Texas Rangers (61-62, 2.5 GB) – Contender
Since trading ace Yu Darvish at the Deadline, the Rangers are 11-7 with seven wins in their last 10 games. Texas sticks out from some of these other Wild Card hopefuls because of their offense (628 runs ranks fifth in baseball), which has given them a 0.3 run differential. Unlike the other teams ahead of them (minus the Yankees), their Pythagorean record (65-58) is better than their actual record, and this recent hot streak may have made up for some early tough-luck losses.
Texas obviously would’ve been better equipped for a push with Darvish, but Cole Hamels and Andrew Cashner have pitched very well atop the rotation and the offense has caught fire. Behind low-average, high-power hitters like Joey Gallo, Rougned Odor and Mike Napoli, the Rangers have hit 194 homers, the second most in MLB behind the Houston Astros. Their offense can be very streak, but it could be enough to get them a Wild Card spot if they continue to get decent pitching.
Tampa Bay Rays (61-65, 4 GB) – Pretender
The Rays had a surprisingly impressive first half, pounding out 133 homers (fourth most in MLB) and staying right in the thick of not just the Wild Card, but the Division race as well. In the second half, however, the Rays have fallen back to earth. Their power has dissipated and they’ve lost 10 of 13 games to fall 11.5 out of the AL East and four back of the second spot.
Tampa Bay’s Pythagorean record has them at 61-65, and given their slumping bats they may have run out of luck. The Rays’ pitching staff does give them some hope, with ace Chris Archer leading the way ahead of Jake Odorizzi but, surprising rookie Jacob Faria (3.32 ERA in 13 GS) just hit the DL. Tampa Bay can be and always has been a pesky team that will rarely go away quietly, but they just don’t have the depth to climb ahead of and stay ahead of the rest of this bunch.
Baltimore Orioles (60-64, 4 GB) – Pretender
Baltimore has been out of the race for much of the year, but they’ve been able to hover around .500 and kind of avoid a long losing streak that would knock them out. After last year’s heartbreaking extra-inning loss in the Wild Card Game, the O’s pretty much stood pat in the offseason and hoped to rely on continued offensive success and the development of young pitchers. While that has happened to some extent, the starting pitching outside of Dylan Bundy has been atrocious.
The Orioles’ 4.92 team era is third worst in baseball, and it’s only that low because of their strong bullpen. Their starters have a 5.65 ERA and .285 batting average against this season, both topped only by the Cincinnati Reds. Bundy is the only starter with a sub-5.00 ERA, and even he has had his struggles in the second half. The Orioles can hit with the best of them, but their pitching isn’t just bad, it’s to the point where it will keep them from making any sort of run down the stretch, no matter how hot their offense may get.
Toronto Blue Jays (59-65, 5 GB) – Pretender
The fact that the Blue Jays are even in the playoff discussion at this point in the season is somewhat shocking after the first half they had. Toronto was 41-47 at the break and were seven games below .500 just 10 days ago, but a recent run of seven wins in the past 10 games coupled with the mediocrity in the rest of the league has kept them in the hunt despite still being three games under .500.
The Wild Card Game winners last year have struggled to overcome the loss of Edwin Encarnacion to free agency and Troy Tulowitzki to injury. Jose Bautista is having his worst season in quite some time, Kendrys Morales hasn’t done enough to pick up the slack of Encarnacion and the rest of the lineup outside of Justin Smoak has struggled all year up until a recent surge. Josh Donaldson has broken out of his season-long slump in August, raising his batting average from .249 to .272 in just 15 games with nine homers and 21 RBIs in that stretch. Unfortunately, it might be too little too late. Toronto has already outperformed its expected record (54-70), and with last year’s darling Marco Estrada looking lost on the mound this season, Marcus Stroman and a few hot bats probably won’t be enough for Toronto to climb over all these teams.
*Records, stats accurate as of Aug. 21, 2017