Something thrilling is brewing in the American League Wild Card raceby Dan Lependorf
July 19, 2012
If nothing else, Bud Selig has some fortuitous timing.
The Wild Card spot in the playoffs was taken out and rebuilt over the offseason, and for the first time in major league history, 10 teams will get a shot at the Fall Classic. After the end of the regular season, two Wild Card spots per league will be available, and the lucky teams will face each other in an exciting one-game, winner-takes-all playoff. Commissioner Bud Selig led the charge in adding a second Wild Card spot, but even he couldn't have dreamt that a playoff scenario like the one currently brewing in the American League would happen so soon.
At the All-Star break, the Los Angeles Angels (48-38) and the Baltimore Orioles (45-40) were on pace to win the two American League Wild Card spots, though just by a hair. The Tampa Bay Rays (45-41) were only a half of a game behind the Orioles. And a half game behind the Rays? The Cleveland Indians (44-41). Hot on the Indians’ heels were the Detroit Tigers (44-42). And just to make this heavily knotted situation even tighter, the Oakland Athletics, the Toronto Blue Jays, and the Boston Red Sox (43-43) were all tied at one full game behind the Tigers.
To make a long story short, that makes eight teams that have a very serious shot at grabbing one of the two Wild Card playoff spots. Eight teams plus three division leaders puts the American League in the bizarre spot of having 11 of 14 teams dreaming of baseball in October. It's a tangled mess, but it just might be setting the stage for an incredibly dramatic September.
As luck would have it, those eight teams managed to make the mess even bigger in the week since the break. But how many of those teams actually have a real shot? Are some bound for regression? And are there some who have been underperforming?
The clear favorites for snagging a Wild Card spot have to be the Los Angeles Angels (50-41, Pythagorean 51-40, 27.9 fWAR). They were in the lead at the break, and as of Tuesday the 17th, they have a three game lead over anyone else in the hunt. Albert Pujols is starting to hit like himself, they have the highest Pythagorean-adjusted record, and they’ve managed to accumulate this largest amount of Fangraphs WAR. A three game lead isn’t certain by any means, but the Angels should feel a little safer than the rest.
The unfortunate aspect of a rabid media market like Boston is that any perceived failures are constantly brought up and nailed to the wall. Thankfully, the Red Sox (46-45, Pythagorean 50-41, 26.6 fWAR) and their shortcomings have largely been due to a spate of bad luck. Their Pythagorean-adjusted record is significantly higher than how they've actually played, which suggests that even if they make no changes at all, they should be a little happier for the second half.
The Baltimore Orioles (46-44, Pythagorean 39-51, 13.7 fWAR) have been a great story so far, but things aren't looking so great under the hood. Their Pythagorean record is an enormous seven games lower than their actual record, and their Fangraphs WAR total is somehow the lowest total in the American League. Sadly for Baltimore, it's not likely that they'll still be in this race come September.
The Cleveland Indians (46-44, Pythagorean 42-48, 17.9 fWAR) are also overperformers, though not to the extent of Baltimore. Their Pythagorean record is lower than the also-ran Mariners, and their Fangraphs WAR total isn't much to speak of either. The Indians probably face an uphill battle to stay relevant this year.
All of the rest
Of the remaining teams in the mix for one of the two spots, the Detroit Tigers (47-44, Pythagorean 46-45, 23.0 fWAR) boast a hefty Fangraphs WAR total. The remaining three, the Tampa Bay Rays (47-44, Pythagorean 46-45, 18.2 fWAR), the Oakland Athletics (46-44, Pythagorean 46-44, 19.0 fWAR), and the Toronto Blue Jays (45-46, Pythagorean 47-44, 18.8 fWAR) have all been relatively neutral with regards to first half luck, with win-loss records hovering around .500. They're all solidly in the race, but these teams may need to make a few tweaks to stand above the crowd.
Last year's season-ending week was one of the most exciting in decades. It's obviously premature to start drawing comparisons, but at the very least, we seem to be heading toward a fun second half. Some of these teams might drop off, and some may move ahead of the pack, but the stage is set for a thrilling ride, if you like vast transcontinental games of playoff standings Twister. Bud Selig gets a lot of criticism, but a second Wild Card spot might just be the best idea he's had in years.
References and Resources
All statistics current as of games ending on Tuesday, July 17, unless otherwise noted.
Dan can be contacted here (email) or here (twitter). He welcomes all comments, even offers for cheap male enhancement pills and winnings from lotteries he didn't realize he had entered. (He really wishes you wouldn't, though.)
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