Something thrilling is brewing in the American League Wild Card race

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?

Frontrunners

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.

Underperformers

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.

Overperformers

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 & Resources
All statistics current as of games ending on Tuesday, July 17, unless otherwise noted.

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Comments

  1. roadrider said...

    Drama? Manufactured hype is more like it. Look, the real drama in baseball was the winner-take-all pennant or division title race. That’s been legislated out of existence with the advent of this kooky three-division, wild-card setup and the two wild-card scheme is not an improvement even though it does add some incentive to winning a division.

    Some folks may get excited about a battle between also rans for a spot in the play-in game but I can’t- even if it were my team involved. Look, you could implement a real wild card by having a lottery for last-place finishers for a playoff spot. As we all know, even the worst team can get on a hot streak and steal a playoff series or even two. I’m sure it would generate excitement and the media would have no difficult hyping the crap out of it. But is it a good idea? Obviously not.

    Sorry, but I can’t get excited about who wins the second wild card when I don’t even think there should be even one.

  2. MikeS said...

    Not necessarily the best idea he has had in years.

    Records cluster around the middle, the farther you go back to the pack the more teams you will find with similar records.  So this is not surprising.

    I can easily envision a tie (even a three or four way tie) for that last spot.  The one game playoffs to see who gets into the playoffs would be exciting but could involve criss-crossing the country on airplanes several times and delaying the real playoffs and World Series into worse and worse weather.  Imagine if Baltimore had to fly to Anahiem for game 163, then back to Boston for Game 164, then to Oakland for the actual WC game, then to NY for the ALDS?

    The other problem I have with it is that it lets too many teams think they are in it.  It makes the trade deadline potentially less interesting because so few teams are willing to part with talent.  Many of these teams have no real shot and should be unloading veterans to improve the future but they won’t because they delude themselves into thinking they have a chance.  When the free agents walk at the end of the year there is much less compensation then there used to be.

    Finally, allowing more teams in cheapens the regular season.  In general, I don’t like seeing a fluke 83 win team win the championship.  It’s ok, but I prefer that the best team be recognized as the best team.

  3. David P Stokes said...

    Back when the NFL had 3 division winners and 2 wild-cards per conference, I thought that was the perfect set-up for pro football (and really, though it won’t happen, I’d like to see them go back to that).  It meant that the WC teams had to play an extra game, giving the division winners a bye, so it made a division title actually mean something.

    BUT—the NFL plays a 16-game schedule, MLB plays 162.  That means that baseball has a much better chance of the best teams actually having the best records.  I’m not sure that baseball needs a wild-card, much less 2 of them.

  4. Ted M said...

    I agree with David P Stokes.

    I’d also add that adding the extra wild card does nothing at all to make this particular race any more exciting… at least where it stands now.

    Under the current format, we have 8 teams fighting for 2 wild card spots.  Under the old format, we’d have had 8 teams fighting for 1 wild card spot.

    The only way it becomes more exciting under the new format is if one of the teams starts running away from the others.

  5. Philip said...

    Not a fan of Wild Cards for MLB, either. Since it does make winning the division much more important, a 2nd WC isn’t that big a deal since it involves a one-game playoff between the two of them in each league. But ‘‘special’‘? Hardly.

    Yes, as Dan points out, at the moment 11 of 14 teams in the A.L. have a shot of either winning the division or getting a wild card spot.

    But imagine the division races we’d be having right now if only division winners made the playoffs under the old East-West set-up:

    American League East
    New York     57-38 … -
    Detroit     52-44 … 4 1/2
    Baltimore   51-44 … 6
    Tampa Bay   49-47 … 8 1/2
    Toronto     48-47 … 9
    Boston     48-48 … 9 1/2
    Cleveland   47-48 … 10

    American League West
    Texas       56-37 … -
    Los Angeles   51-44 … 6
    Oakland     51-44 … 6
    Chicago     50-45 … 7
    Seattle     42-55 … 16
    Kansas City   40-54 … 16 1/2
    Minnesota   40-55 … 17

    National League East
    Washington   55-39 … -
    Pittsburgh   54-40 … 1
    Atlanta     52-43 … 3 1/2
    St. Louis   50-45 … 5 1/2
    New York     47-48 … 8 1/2
    Miami       44-51 … 11 1/2
    Philadelphia 42-54 … 14
    Chicago     38-56 … 17

    National League West
    Cincinnati   55-40 … -
    San Francisco 53-42 … 2
    Los Angeles   52-44 … 3 1/2
    Arizona     47-48 … 6
    Milwaukee   44-50 … 10 1/2
    San Diego   41-56 … 15
    Colorado     36-58 … 18 1/2
    Houston     34-62 … 21 1/2

    We’d still 6 or 7 teams with a shot at a divisional title in the A.L. and another 8 in the N.L.

    And maybe teams 2-7 in the A.L. East would be better because they’d have know going into this season that to make the playoffs they’d have to be better than the Yankees, not play a few games above .500 and get a wild card spot.

  6. Danny Jackson said...

    More teams headed for the playoffs is good for baseball.  Just like thd NBA, NFL snd NHL.  More interest, more revenue and more FUN!!  The purists would bring back two leagues and two teams headed straight to the WS.  How much fun would that be??  Add Wild Card spots!!!sportsmanship

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