Handicapping Each MLB Division Race With 20 Games Remaining

After each team has battled through approximately 142 games out of the 162 in professional sports’ longest regular season, we are now in the stretch run.  And while some division races are realistically over, others are a real tossup.  Here is the chance I give each contender to win their division.

I am focusing here on the division races, and not the wild card races, due to the importance of avoiding the Wild Card Game, the one-game playoff in each league between the top two non-division winners.  Everybody wants to avoid that one-off scenario, so the focus in each clubhouse is on winning their respective division.

AL East
Current standings: Baltimore Orioles (84-59), New York Yankees (73-68, 10 GB), Toronto Blue Jays (74-69, 10 GB)
Key Series:  New York at Baltimore, September 12-14 (Doubleheader on 9/12)
This is one of those that is, at this point, realistically over.  The Orioles took the division lead on July 5, and haven’t looked back, stretching the lead to 10 games as of yesterday.  With a magic number of 11, the O’s have an outside chance of clinching during this weekend’s Yankees series, should the Yanks and Blue Jays both struggle this week, and while they do play Toronto six more times and the Yankees four more after this weekend’s series, it is very unlikely that these games will matter in the division race (they will matter in the Wild Card, as well as Baltimore’s playoff seeding).
Baltimore: 99%, New York: <1%, Toronto: <1%

AL Central
Current Standings: Kansas City Royals (79-63), Detroit Tigers (79-65, 1 GB), Cleveland Indians (74-68, 5 GB)
Key Series: Detroit at Kansas City, September 19-21
This is undoubtedly 2014’s best divisional race.  The Tigers, who have both a great pitching staff and a good lineup, and were picked by many (including me) to win the AL, are pitted up against the upstart Royals, looking for their first playoff appearance since winning the World Series in 1985.  Kansas City took the lead for three days in mid-June, only to fall as many as eight games back by July 21.  Remarkably, after an incredible run of 16-3, they were back in first just 21 days later on August 11, and haven’t trailed since.  The two teams did fall into a tie last week, but the Royals took a two game lead into their current series, before the Tigers won the opener yesterday.  The teams play tonight and tomorrow, before meeting on the penultimate weekend of the regular season.  The Indians have snuck into the race by charging after hanging around the .500 mark for much of the season, and got within two and a half games on Labor Day weekend, currently sitting five back.  However, the Indians are running out of games and will have to pass two teams to win the race.
Kansas City: 50%, Detroit: 45%, Cleveland: 5%

AL West
Current Standings: Los Angeles Angels (88-55), Oakland Athletics (80-63, 8 GB), Seattle Mariners (80-64, 9 GB)
Key Series: Oakland at Seattle, September 12-14
For the first half of the season, a team winning the AL West by eight games, or more, seemed feasible, but the thought existed for the Oakland A’s, not the Los Angeles Angels.  After a 47-28 start for Oakland, the season seemed to become World Series-or-bust.  But to the Angels credit, they never trailed by more than six games, and have caught Oakland, who fizzled in August despite the acquisition of Jon Lester.  Now the Angels are the favorites to represent the AL in the World Series, with neither Oakland nor Seattle in shouting distance.  When the Athletics and Mariners play their final series against each other this year over the weekend, it should eliminate one from any shot to catch the Angels, and will also have big Wild Card implications.  The Angels do have seven more against Seattle, and three more against Oakland, but the games aren’t likely to matter, with the Angels magic number currently sitting at 12.
Los Angeles: 98%, Oakland: 1%, Seattle: <1%

NL East
Current Standings: Washington Nationals (81-61), Atlanta Braves (74-70, 8 GB)
Key Series: Washington at Atlanta, September 15-17
Last night’s Nationals win over the Braves stretched the gap to eight games in this race, which has been a close, back and forth race all season, with the Nationals pulling away late.  The two teams are currently in the midst of a three game set in Washington, and with the Nationals magic number at 12, it is possible (although not likely) that they could clinch on their rival’s field when the teams meet in Atlanta.  The Braves offense hasn’t shown many signs of life lately, but during Fredi Gonzalez tenure (particularly the last two years), the team has had a tendency to get very hot, very quickly, with little explanation.  They would have to do that to have any shot to catch Washington, and even then the chances would be low with such a deficit, but with five games remaining between the teams, it is possible.  Otherwise, the Nationals could clinch relatively early and focus on trying to secure home-field advantage for the playoffs.
Washington: 96%, Atlanta 4%

NL Central
Current Standings: St. Louis Cardinals (80-64), Pittsburgh Pirates (75-68, 4.5 GB), Milwaukee Brewers (74-70, 6 GB)
Key Series: Milwaukee at Pittsburgh, September 19-21
After the Brewers had led the entire season, the Cardinals tied Milwaukee on August 31 and took the lead September 1, and in just over a week, the Brewers have fallen six games back, with the Pirates moving into second place at four and a half games back.  St. Louis is trying to reach the playoffs for the fourth straight year, after winning the World Series in 2011 and reaching it in 2013, and now have the momentum in this race to go with that experience.  Pittsburgh and Milwaukee still have a shot, as this is, in fact, the third closest division race in the game, although their focus is also on each other as they battle with the Giants and Braves for two wild card spots, and their series against each other at PNC Park next weekend will go a long way towards determining that winner.  The Brewers have little division shot, due to the gap as well as a recent scuffle, losing 12 out of 13, while the Pirates have played well to get into, for now, the second wild card spot, but I don’t expect either to make a run at the Cardinals.
St. Louis: 90%, Pittsburgh: 9%, Milwaukee: 1%

NL West
Current Standings: Los Angeles Dodgers (82-62), San Francisco Giants (78-65, 3.5 GB)
Key Series: San Francisco at Los Angeles, September 22-24
At the start of the year, the West looked like it was the Giants’ division to lose, leading by 10 games on June 8.  Then the Dodgers caught fire through the rest of June, just like last year, and by June 30, the race was tied.  The Dodgers took the lead for good on July 27, after the teams had gone back and forth throughout July, and by August 15, with a five game lead, the Dodgers looked like they were going to run away with the title.  The Giants have fought back, however, hovering at two games back most of last week, and currently sitting three and a half back.  The teams play a pair of three game series over the next couple of weeks, with the first coming this weekend in San Francisco, and the second coming during the final week of the regular season in Los Angeles.  Both these teams have great pitching staffs, and although the Dodgers overall team looks better on paper, the Giants just don’t seem to go away.
Los Angeles: 75%, San Francisco: 25%

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