Who Will Win the Final American League Wild Card Spot?
Yeah, winning the division is fun and all, but sometimes, you have to take baby steps back to the postseason.
For five teams, getting into that scary, dangerous, terrifying, one-game wild card playoff is the dream come true.
The New York Yankees appear to be a solid favorite to land the top wild card spot, if they don't overtake the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL East. Heading into Friday's games, the Yanks were 3 1/2 games behind the Jays but held a comfortable 4-game lead on the top wild card spot and a 5 1/2 lead on a playoff spot. Our numbers see the Yanks as having a 98.4% chance of making the playoffs.
That leaves four teams grappling for that final wild card spot and the pleasure of playing a one-game playoff in the Bronx against New York. Houston, losing ground quickly to the Texas Rangers in the American League West, holds a scant 1 1/2 game lead over the surprising Minnesota Twins, with the Los Angeles Angels and Cleveland Indians still with a realistic, if unlikely chance, to catch them. The Baltimore Orioles, despite a recent winning streak, are two games under .500 and, according to our playoff odds, have just a 0.8% chance of making the playoffs.
So who has the edge? Can Houston stop the bleeding quickly enough to keep the three teams behind them from catching up? Or can one of those teams make enough hey over the last two and a half weeks of the season to snag that last spot?
Below are the playoff odds of each of the teams and how they match up.
Houston Astros - Playoff Odds 80.8%
Our numbers still see Houston as the likeliest bet to secure that final wild card spot. They hold a 1 1/2 game lead over Minnesota and are still within shouting distance of the Rangers in the AL West, just 2 1/2 games out of first. However, after spending most of the season in first place, the Astros have stumbled in their huge four-game series against Texas, losing all four games and allowing the Rangers to overtake them in the division.
What's most distressing about Houston is that they've basically been a .500 team since May, going 16-13 that month, 15-14 in June, 12-12 in July, 15-13 in August and 4-10 so far in September. The offense has really struggled, just 10th in the AL in runs scored this month, and 11th in the American League in the second half. That is due in large part to the struggles of rookie shortstop Carlos Correa, who is hitting just .254/.323/.407 with a wRC+ of 98 in September.
Their starting rotation is still excellent, but the offense is striking out too much and not scoring nearly enough runs. If it can't get its act together soon, Houston could soon find itself on the outside looking in.
Minnesota Twins - Playoff Odds 12.4%
It's time to stop asking how the Twins have done this and start to realize that they are doing it. They haven't stopped winning, and at just 1 1/2 games behind the Astros, have a realistic chance to make the postseason for the first time since 2010.
Offensively, the addition of Miguel Sano has been much-needed, but the offense is still just 12th in the AL in runs this month and 13th in the second half. They have a run differential of -7 but have done well in one-run games, 21-19 this season, which has helped. The pitching staff isn't anything to get excited about either, with their 4.61 ERA 12th in the American League since the All-Star Break.
Yet here they are, fighting for a playoff birth. Sometimes, voodoo and mirrors can work, I guess. I still don't think it gets them into the playoffs.
Los Angeles Angels - Playoff Odds 11.7%
The Angels are heading in the wrong direction. Their run differential of -16 gives them a Pythagorean won-loss record (based on their run differential) of 71-75, and after finishing July with a record of 55-47, they've gone 19-25 since. They are 14th in the American League in runs scored in the second half with a league-worst .242 batting average and .303 on-base percentage.
The team simply doesn't have anyone opposing pitchers need to worry about outside of Mike Trout and Albert Pujols. And while the staff's 4.37 ERA in the second half isn't bad (middle-of-the-pack, eighth in the AL), their rotation of Garrett Richards, Andrew Heaney, Matt Shoemaker, Jered Weaver and Hector Santiago lacks a true ace.
It doesn't appear as if they have the horses to make this a true race over the last two weeks.
Cleveland Indians - Playoff Odds 4.4%
If the season had an additional two weeks attached to the end of it, I think Cleveland would have a great shot at making the postseason. Unfortunately, they may have waited a little too long to get hot.
At 72-73 heading into Thursday, the Indians are four games behind Houston, a tough, but not impossible hill to climb. Since August 8, the Indians have gone 23-14 and possess the best group of pitchers outside of the Astros. Led by last year's Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, Cleveland also runs out high strikeout arms Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer (although Bauer's 6.32 ERA and 4.74 BB/9 are far too high for a guy striking out 9.05 batters per nine innings).
Cleveland's ERA (starters and relievers) is 3.95 in the second half of the season, third-best in the American League, and their 8.37 strikeouts per nine is second-best. They are a group of arms no one wants to face. It also helps them that they still have seven more games against the Twins, the team 3 1/2 games ahead of them in the standings.
Offensively, the bats have heated up a bit, with Francisco Lindor's 3.6 fWAR since the All-Star Break second-best in the AL, behind only Josh Donaldson. Not too shabby for a 21-year-old rookie who has played just 83 games. He could be emerging as the new favorite to win the AL Rookie of the Year.
In the end, it's likely Houston, third in our power rankings, holds off Twins, Angels and Indians and secures a playoff spot. But of the three teams directly challenging Houston for that final wild card, it is Cleveland, fifth in our power rankings, that is the most dangerous, despite having the lowest playoff odds of any of them.