Handicapping the AL playoff race based upon each contender's remaining schedule
A team-by-team look at what's ahead for each contender
On Wednesday, we broke down the six remaining National League contenders, their remaining schedules, and the factors that could decide their postseason fates. Today, let's jump into the American League, which features a far more chaotic playoff race, with nine teams within five games of a berth.
Lead AL West by 8 1/2 games
Remaining games vs. teams above .500: 4 of 22
The Cubs of the American League, at least in terms of playoff certainty, as the Rangers own a nearly insurmountable lead in the West. They took a very different path to get here, though. While the Cubs are on pace for one of the biggest run differentials in major league history, Texas has scored just 21 more runs than it's allowed. Scoring the best record in one-run games in the history of baseball (30-9 -- the 2012 Orioles went 29-9 in one-run contests) is a great way to make that happen. Decades of sabermetric study dating back to the early days of Bill James tell us that performance in blowouts is better correlated with team quality than performance in one-run games. That's because results in one-run games often have more to do with random chance than skill.
Still, looking at the Rangers exclusively through the prism of close games ignores how talented a team this is now. Jonathan Lucroy has been an offensive and defensive world-beater since coming over in a deadline deal with the Brewers. The additional addition of Carlos Beltran and Carlos Gomez, returns to health for Yu Darvish and Derek Holland, and the annual reshuffling of the Rangers pen that now has darkhorse pitchers like Matt Bush and Tony Barnette squelching opponents' rallies, make this one of the deepest teams in baseball ... and that's after the season-ending injuries to Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo.
In short, the Rangers have been lucky ... and they're also really good.
Lead AL Central by 5 1/2 games
Remaining games vs. teams above .500: 14 of 24
For the second straight year, I have a vote for National League Manager of the Year. Which is funny, because I consider Manager of the Year to be the strangest award in baseball by a mile. Many voters simply scan the standings, identify the team they feel did the best job of beating preseason expectations, and dole out all the credit to the manager -- ignoring the many factors that could have caused that surprise season that have little or nothing to do with him.
In reality, a manager's job ostensibly boils down to two areas: Keeping players motivated over the course of a 162-game season, and making the best tactical decisions during games. It's ostensibly impossible to accurately quantify how well one manager motivates his players compared to how well the other 29 managers do the same job. And when it comes to tactical decisions, it's tough to declare any one manager as substantially better than all the others. After all, we're now in an era in which Dusty Baker is mindful of pitcher workload and entrusts his starting center field job and leadoff spot to a rookie in the middle of a pennant race, while Joe Maddon's cleanup hitter opts to lay down a sacrifice bunt ... in the first inning of a game.
But if I had an American League Manager of the Year vote, I'd pick Indians skipper Terry Francona for one simple reason: At a time when managers rarely do anything completely indefensible but very few of them do much that's aggressively and unusually smart, Francona decided that the best way to use one of the most dominant relief pitchers in the game was ... whenever the hell the need was greatest. For a strong, balanced team with great starting pitching and a skilled and diverse lineup, Tito's determination to use Andrew Miller to the team's full advantage could end up being a huge difference maker. Maybe even in a decisive playoff game.
Boston Red Sox
Lead AL East by 1 game
Remaining games vs. teams above .500: 20 of 23
With the best offense in baseball and a rotation that's been on fire for the past several weeks, it's the bullpen that may very well decide Boston's season. The Red Sox pen has let the team down so many times, manager John Farrell has taken to pushing his starters deeper into games that he might normally, an approach that has failed multiple times. Farrell's list of critics runs long in Boston these days, but there's only so much a manager can do if every decision he makes in the seventh and eighth innings seems to end with a three-run rally by the other team. Craig Kimbrel being on a limited workload since returning from knee surgery (and thus not being used in high-leverage spots in the eighth inning) only makes things worse.
Of course, no team is perfect, contenders can and have overcome shaky bullpens, and the Red Sox are spectacularly talented. There's enough offense here to lay a bunch of 7-spots on opponents, and enough starting pitching to head into those seventh and eighth innings up five or six runs. If that's still not enough, Dave Dombrowski can always trade 100 more prospects for five more closers this winter.
Toronto Blue Jays
Trail AL East by 1 game
Remaining games vs. teams above .500: 16 of 23
If the Rangers are the miracle workers of one-run ballgames, the Blue Jays are the exact opposite. This season, Toronto has posted a brutal 15-23 record in one-run games, compared to 62-38 in all other contests. The difference was even more stark last year, as the Jays posted a 15-28 mark in one-run games vs. 78-41 the rest of the time.
It looks even worse if you eyeball the long-term trends. John Gibbons took over as Jays manager in 2004, stayed 'til 2008, then returned to the gig in 2013 and has been there ever since. Combine all of Gibbons' time as Blue Jays manager, and you get a record of 134-191 in one-game games, netting an ugly .410 winning percentage. Take every other game Gibbons has managed with Toronto, and you get a record of 498-411 (.548).
The Jays have fielded some really bad bullpens at various times during Gibbons' tenure. It's possible that recent teams' reliance on three-run homers might, at the margins, be less conducive to winning close games than a team that specializes in contact hitting, speed, and small ball. But mostly, you can chalk a lot of this up to simple luck, in this case really bad luck. The last two half-innings of Tuesday's game included the nearly unhittable Jason Grilli suddenly getting hammered by Yankees hitters, followed by a wild top of the ninth that included everything from strikeout machine Dellin Betances suddenly losing home plate completely, a catcher's interference call that was never called, and a game-ending leaping catch against the wall with the bases loaded.
This is still a deep, balanced, and dangerous team, arguably the most complete club in the division 1-through-25. If the Jays can get even a little good fortune in one-run games, a second straight AL East title might very well be in the cards.
Trail AL East by 2 games, tied for AL Wild Card lead
Remaining games vs. teams above .500: 16 of 23
If we're sticking with the theme of teams only being as strong as their weakest link, Ubaldo Jimenez might end up as the AL Most Valuable Player in a parallel universe. Arguably the worst pitcher in baseball in the league through his first 18 starts, Jimenez has somehow blazed through his last three opponents, allowing a combined seven runs and 12 hits over 21 2/3 innings against the Nationals, Blue Jays, and Rays. His complete-game two-hitter against Tampa Bay on Labor Day was so traumatic, the Rays actually fired their hitting coach the next day.
More seriously, the O's rotation actually looks half-decent now, with staff ace Chris Tillman returning from the disabled list, and the dynamic duo of Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy offering hope that Baltimore might've finally produced its first (and maybe second) truly good homegrown starter since Mike Mussina. Armed with more power than any other team in baseball, a lights-out bullpen headed by a closer who's a leading Cy Young candidate, and a remaining schedule that's not easy, but still a little lighter than that of its three contending divisional rivals, the Orioles could not only make the playoffs -- they could emerge as the last team standing in the AL East.
Trail second wild-card spot by 1 game
Remaining games vs. teams above .500: 13 of 23
Losing two straight to close out their series against the sub-.500 White Sox was a tough setback. Watching the bullpen implode in the eighth inning in the series finale in Chicago was frustrating. Watching the first two hitters reach base in the top of the ninth, only for the sad-sack trio of James McCann, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Tyler Collins to go down meekly thereafter -- while power-hitting rookie slugger Steven Moya sat buried on manager Brad Ausmus' bench -- even more so.
The good news is that the Tigers hold an edge over the passel of AL East wild-card contenders thanks to their remaining schedule. Seven games against the terrible Twins, plus a season-ending three-game set against the Braves, could be enough to mask the team's flaws, and propel them into the playoffs.
Trail second wild-card spot by 2 games
Remaining games vs. teams above .500: 13 of 23
The starting rotation is in bad shape. Lance McCullers has been out with an elbow injury since early August, and Dallas Keuchel suffered a shoulder injury that's preventing him from even throwing on the side at this point.
The offense has been scorching-hot lately, with George Springer, Evan Gattis, and especially rookie Alex Bergman going nuts over the past few weeks. But Houston's next seven games come against the first-place Indians, Cubs, and Rangers; winning slugfests against them, and keeping pace with the cast of thousands immersed in the AL wild-card race, will be a tough task.
New York Yankees
Trail second wild-card spot by 2 1/2 games
Remaining games vs. teams above .500: 17 of 24
The surge by Gary Sanchez and the rest of the Yankees' kiddie corps is an incredibly story, one that's rightfully gained a lot of attention for a team that had grown old and stale in recent years. If Sanchez in particular can sustain even a fraction of his recent onslaught, and Clint Frazier and some of the other top prospects acquired in this year's deadline deals can develop as hoped, this could be a fun team to watch in 2017 and beyond.
The playoffs almost certainly aren't happening this year, though. Not with this much ground to make up, this many teams to pass in the AL East and wild-card standings, and a brutal remaining schedule that not only matches them up against all those tough divisional foes, but throws in a three-game set against a very good Dodgers team to boot.
Kansas City Royals
Trail second wild-card spot by 4 games
Remaining games vs. teams above .500: 9 of 23
In the wildly superstitious world that is Major League Baseball, it figures that the Royals would seek inspiration from, of all things, a praying mantis. In reality, the 2016 Royals are still a talented team, one that's not all that different from their pennant-winning counterparts of 2014 and 2015. The differences boil down largely to Mike Moustakas being lost for the season with a torn ACL, and injuries severely hindering both the playing time and productivity of fellow core players Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer.
The good news? KC is in the midst of the easiest schedule in baseball over the next weeks, with matchups against the White Sox, A's, and White Sox again, after a three-game cakewalk vs. Minnesota. With a big gap to make up in the wild-card race and so many other teams in the mix, the Royals probably need to go something like 11-3 or 12-2 in this 14-game stretch to have a realistic shot at making it back to the playoffs. That's ... not impossible, by any stretch.
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