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Sorting the playoff contenders at the 3/4 mark

The regular season is drawing to a close. With teams approaching the 120 game mark, we are now reaching the final quarter of the baseball calendar. By this time, most every team has shown their true colors. It’s a good time to look ahead to October and project which 10 teams will be punching their tickets for postseason baseball.

About a third of the league is already looking ahead to next season. For teams like the Mets and the Orioles, 2018 goes down as another lost season with no prospects of reaching the playoffs.

Another four teams are still nominally in the chase for October, but would need an absolute miracle to sneak in. The Angels (10.5 WCGB), Rays (10 WCGB), Twins (11 DGB), and Giants (7 DGB, 7 WCGB) are all roughly in the conversation, but don’t really deserve a deeper look here. With that, we’ll turn our attention to the remaining 16 teams chasing 10 postseason slots.

The Shoo-ins

The AL playoff field is basically already set in terms of composition. The only remaining question is the order of the teams. The Red Sox, Astros, Yankees, and Indians, all have a 99.9 percent or greater chance of reaching the playoffs according to FiveThirtyEight, Fangraphs, and Baseball Prospectus. They are also arguably the four best teams in baseball right now, and have played like it to this point in the season.

While it’s not inconceivable that the Yankees could chase down the Red Sox, the sad reality is that Boston will likely be the AL East champs. Barring a sudden collapse, the Astros also look likely to clinch the AL West over the A’s and scuffling Mariners. The Indians, who have largely underperformed their talent this season, have the benefit of playing in the weakest division in baseball. The lowly Twins, at 53-61, are the closest team to catching them.

Finally, despite the sky-is-falling attitude on Yankees Twitter, the Bombers are on track to win 102 games this season and are four games into a stretch of 26 games against teams below the .500 mark. Yes, the Red Sox series was ugly, but this team is not in danger of losing their Wild Card spot. Even with Oakland heating up, the Yankees hold a comfortable four and a half game lead on the first Wild Card and seven game cushion for the second. That looks set to expand as the Yankees take on the dregs of the AL for the rest of August.

The Near Locks

Beyond these sure things on the AL side, the NL has a pair of contenders that have emerged from the pack as superior talents that should have no trouble making the playoffs.

The Dodgers ice cold start to the season has them locked in a division race with the Dbacks that few saw coming before the year. Key injuries to Corey Seager, Julio Urias, and Hyun-Jin Ryu have kept the team from pulling away to this point. But the impact additions of Manny Machado and Brian Dozier are shifting the power balance in the AL West, and it would be stunning if the Dodgers failed to secure even a Wild Card spot.

Similarly, the Cubs have never seemed to truly heat up throughout the entire season. Untimely injuries to key players have left them playing below their full potential, yet they still sit at 66-48 with a two game lead over the surprising Milwaukee Brewers. Like the Dodgers, the talent and positioning would make it a shock if this team failed to secure a Wild Card spot at a minimum.

Both teams have a greater than 80 percent chance of making the playoffs, and a more than 60 percent chance of winning their respective divisions. Anything can happen in 40 games, but it would be nothing short of shocking if one or both of these teams missed out on October baseball.

The Best of the Rest

That gives us six probably playoff teams so far. Three other spots are far from guaranteed, but seem likely based on talent and current record. These teams represent three breakout clubs who had low expectations entering the season, but are now well-positioned to break postseason droughts.

First, the aforementioned Brew Crew have been a breakout team this year at 66-52. Bolstered by the offseason acquisitions of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain as well as deadline trades for Jonathan Schoop and Mike Moustakas, the Brewers offense and defense are much improved in 2018. Their pitching staff has been underrated, with the eleventh best team ERA in the league. Just two games out in the AL Central and a game up on the second Wild Card spot, they look prepared for the home stretch. The team looks poised for a return to the postseason after a seven year hiatus.

Similarly, the Oakland A’s have shocked supporters and critics alike with their 68-47 record to this point. The team has been red hot of late, playing 13-5 baseball since the All Star Break. They are led by dark horse MVP-candidate Matt Chapman and a resurgent Jed Lowrie. Khris Davis has mashed to an .880 OPS with 32 dingers and 88 RBIs already. Their offense is eighth-best in the league, and their staff quietly has the 10th-best ERA as well. With Jeurys Familia and Fernando Rodney now securing their pen, they should have Yankees fans slightly worried about a potential Wild Card showdown.

Lastly, the Phillies are clinging to a slim one game lead over the Braves in the NL East. They have significantly outperformed their Pythagorean W-L projections, suggesting a regression is possible. The Phillies offense has been below-average, but their strong pitching staff led by Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta has kept them relevant all season. Though they are most at risk of missing out on the playoffs of the teams listed thus far, their light schedule could help carry them to the finish line.

These teams all have a 67 percent or greater chance of making the playoffs according to the projection sites. Each has the luxury of leading struggling teams, which bolster their chances of advancing to October. If they can take care of business, they’re in pole position to be back in the postseason after long layoffs.

The Chasers

In the NL, that leaves us with one Wild Card spot unclaimed. The Diamondbacks and Braves are the leading contenders for that coveted final playoff spot. Both teams started hot and have been struggling of late, but they have a sizable cushion on the rest of the pack.

The Rockies, Cardinals, Pirates, and Nationals are all within five games of that spot as well. The Cardinals and Pirates are hot, but might be a case of too little too late. The Rockies are also still in the picture, but have been fading from view in the past couple of weeks. This could be a second consecutive year of close but no cigar for the Colorado team.

Finally, the Nationals have been the story of the season with their massive underperformance. Having made the playoffs four of the last six years, the narrative entering the year was their inability to win a playoff series. Now even reaching the NLDS is in doubt. With Bryce Harper becoming a free agent after this season, and Max Scherzer not getting any younger, this looked like the potential last year in Washington’s window. Barring a late surge, they are now at risk of wasting it badly on a .500 campaign.

On the AL side, the Mariners are the only team with a real chance at unseating the A’s. After starting the year red hot on the backs of a historic record in one-run games, the Mariners have regressed since the All Star Break to the tune of an 8-11 record. Meanwhile, the A’s are the hottest team in baseball, leading to a two and a half game cushion between the teams. Though the Mariners added several pieces at the deadline, none truly seem to shift the balance of power. North America’s longest playoff drought could be extended to 17 years following this disappointing second half collapse.

Conclusion

In sum, I see the playoff field shaping up something like this when all is said and done:

AL East: Red Sox; AL Central: Indians; AL West: Astros; Wild Card 1: Yankees; Wild Card 2: Athletics

NL East: Phillies; NL Central: Cubs; NL West: Dodgers; Wild Card 1: Brewers; Wild Card 2: Diamondbacks

While the Red Sox are rightly the only team Yankees fans are scoreboard watching, the rest of the league is primed for an exciting race to the finish. Especially in the NL, ten teams are legitimate contenders for five spots, with nothing secured even this late in the year. Keep an eye on those races in the final months to see who will be fighting for the commissioner’s trophy at year’s end.

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