October is just a few days away, which for baseball fans means the regular season is closing down and the playoffs are close. And while for some teams it is, at this point, just a formality that they will make the postseason, for others, they still have very meaningful games left, as they need to survive September if they want to experience October.
Some will say that whoever the last couple of teams to get in the playoffs are won’t be irrelevant because they have no chance of winning the World Series, but that simply isn’t true. Both teams who reached the World Series a year ago, the Giants and the Royals, were Wild Card teams, with the Giants being the last team to get in the NL, and both franchises not clinching their spots until the season’s final weekend.
That being said, here is a look at every playoff race in baseball, with some expected to come down to the wire, while others are already a foregone conclusion.
(Note: this post uses the “magic number”, which tells how close a team is to clinching. The number reduces by one each time the team leading wins a game, or the team chasing them loses a game, and the team leading clinches when the number hits zero. It is explained more in-depth here.)
Texas 80-69 —
Houston 80-71 -1.0
LA Angels 76-74 -4.5
The Rangers were 9.5 games back on May 20, and were 47-52 on July 28, just two days before they acquired Cole Hamels, but thanks to a 33-17 stretch since, and a four-game sweep of Houston last week, they have passed the Astros, who spent 139 days in first place. The Angels, who were the favorites of many before the season, have very gotten back within arms reach of first after sitting 65-66 on August 31 after a 2-9 stretch. The Angels are in Houston for three games this weekend, and the Rangers head to Houston for three this weekend, giving the Astros a change to rectify their 6-12 September record before ending with six games on the road. Should the Angels be able to get any closer to the Rangers, they’ll have a great chance to win the division when they play a season-closing four-game set at Texas. This race is the most up in the air of all of the division races, as it is the closest, and also has three teams involved, but with Texas’s recent run I expect them to win the division, albeit by a very narrow margin. The Rangers’ “magic number” is 12.
Kansas City 87-62 —
Minnesota 76-73 -11.0
The Royals have the best record in the American League, as they have for a majority of the season, and have been in first place for 150 days. The Twins have been a nice story as a surprise contender, and have a shot at the Wild Card, but this division race that’s been “over” for quite a while will officially, mathematically be over very soon; the Royals “magic number” is down to three.
Toronto 86-64 —
NY Yankees 82-67 -3.5
The AL East race has been a fun one all year, with the Yankees, Orioles, and Rays taking turns in the lead through the first half, although the Yankees led the most, totaling 100 days in first place for the season. The Blue Jays were 50-51 and eight games back on July 28, just before they acquired Troy Tulowitzki and David Price. By August 12, in the midst of an 11-game winning streak, the Jays were up a half game on the Yankees. They’ve led every day since August 23, and have led by as many as four and a half games, but for most of that time the Yankees have stayed much closer than that. Toronto and New York are currently in the midst of a huge three-game series in Toronto through Wednesday, which Toronto won the opener of, after which both teams will play out the regular season against teams that are going to miss the playoffs. While the Jays do play their last seven games on the road, I expect them to ride their hot second half all the way to the division title, although it may come down to the final weekend. The Blue Jays’ “magic number” is 10.
LA Dodgers 85-64 —
San Francisco 78-71 -7.0
Many thought the NL West would be a three-team race, with the Padres acquiring several big name players in the offseason, but San Diego started 39-49 and never recovered. The Dodgers have led the division nearly wire-to-wire, and have led every day since May 29. The Giants were within a game and a half as late as August 23, but the Dodgers swept them in a three-game series from August 31 to September 2, which stretched the lead to six and a half. The Giants are the defending World Series champions, but don’t have the momentum to catch the Dodgers, whose “magic number” is seven.
St. Louis 94-56 —
Pittsburgh 90-60 -4.0
Chic. Cubs 88-62 -6.0
This is a strange division race, because all three teams are realistically guaranteed to make the playoffs, with the Cardinals already clinching at worst a Wild Card berth, and the Pirates and Cubs also about to do so as well, with the nearest Wild Card challengers nine games behind the Cubs. But all of these teams want to avoid the one-off Wild Card Game, so they all want to win the division. The Cubs and Cardinals have been over from the beginning, with the Pirates struggling early to an 18-22 record before an 11-2 stretch got them into the race. The Cardinals have the best record in baseball, as they have most of the season, and these three teams have the best three records in the NL. The Cubs won two out of three over the weekend in their last series of the regular season against the Cardinals, and host the Pirates for three games this weekend. Pittsburgh then hosts St. Louis next week for three games. The Cardinals and Cubs finish with six straight on the road, while the Pirates finish with six straight at home, although overall between now and the end of the season, all three teams have six at home and six on the road. The Cardinals are the best team in baseball, so they should be able to hold their four game lead over the last two weeks, and their “magic number” is nine. It is really unfortunate that two of these three teams are going to be in the Wild Card Game, and one of them will lose it, meaning their season will be over on October 7.
NY Mets 85-65 —
Washington 78-71 -6.5
The Mets are looking for their first playoff berth since 2006, but New York winning the division didn’t look likely before the season, with the Nationals being picked by every single season preview I read, and in a “World Series-or-bust” state of mind. The Mets strong pitching staff, and their resurgent offense since trading for Yoenis Cespedes at the trade deadline, took the lead for good on August 3rd, after the two teams had gone back-and-forth on top for most of the season. The Mets steadily built their lead up to nine and a half games on September 13, a seemingly insurmountable gap for the Nationals, but Washington has closed the gap a little bit coming into the season’s final stretch. Both teams have games exclusively against teams under .500 until the season’s final weekend, when they play each other, but by that time the race will very likely be over. The Mets’ “magic number” in seven.
Wild Card Races
AL Wild Card
NY Yankees 82-67 +3.0
Houston 80-71 —
Minnesota 76-73 -3.0
LA Angels 76-74 -3.5
Cleveland 74-74 -4.5
The Yankees and Astros have both spent a lot of time in first place, with the Astros only spending 31 days not in first, but have been the victims of big second half pushes by the Blue Jays and Rangers and, should they not come back to win the division, are currently positioned to appear in the Wild Card Game. The Twins were not picked by anyone to be in this position, but can be very proud of their contention to make the postseason. However, three games may be hard to make up with this little time left in the regular season. It’s even more unlikely for the Angels and Indians to reach the playoffs as they have multiple teams to pass at this point, although they can still keep fighting with the hope of a strong finish and some help from those above them. The Yankees are currently playing division leader Toronto, but have an easy finishing stretch after that series is done. Houston is hosting the Angels this week in a big three-game set, which they took the opener of last night. The Twins and Indians have seven games left against each other, and since both need an excellent stretch to catch Houston, if they split these games fairly evenly, it may end both teams’ playoff shot, but if one wins five or more out of the seven, that could be the team to make a run. The Astros’ “magic number” is 10, and the Yankees’ is 8.
NL Wild Card
Pittsburgh 90-60 —
Chic. Cubs 88-62 -2.0
Washington 78-71 -9.5
San Francisco 78-71 -9.5
The Nationals and Giants both came into the season with the playoffs as a goal, but both are closer to their division leaders than they are to the Wild Card at this point, a race that is nearly over. The only part of it that isn’t realistically over is between the Pirates and the Cubs to see who will host the Wild Card Game, although one or both of them could catch the Cardinals in the NL Central to shake things up as well. A big series towards determining that home field advantage for the one-game happens this weekend in Chicago, when the Cubs host Pittsburgh. As for clinching a playoff berth, the Cubs’ “magic number” is four, and the Pirates’ is two.
While this isn’t necessarily the closest pennant race we’ve ever seen, with many of the races being a foregone conclusion, this should be an excellent postseason. We know this because all of the teams in playoff positions are very deserving, and there are some very good teams that are going to be left out, no matter how these last two weeks play out. We also know this because teams like the Mets, Cubs, and Astros haven’t been in the playoffs in a while, and the Blue Jays haven’t been in them in my lifetime, not appearing in the postseason since Joe Carter’s World Series-winning walkoff homer in 1993, the last year before the Wild Card era began. Add the teams that haven’t been in the playoffs in this decade to teams like the Rangers and Yankees that have but have had a couple of down years in between, as well as the Royals, who appeared in the playoffs last year for the first time since 1985, and teams like the Cardinals, Pirates, and Dodgers who we’ve become accustomed to seeing in the postseason, and there will be no shortage whatsoever of storylines this October.