It’s Time to Talk About the AL Playoff Picture

It might seem a bit premature, but I think it’s time to talk about the American League playoff picture. Even though we’re only in the middle of June, the field might already be rounding into its final form, so we ought to at least entertain the conversation. During the preseason, we thought we had this all figured out; the preseason is when we feel our most clever. And for the most part, things in this sortable table don’t look terribly different than we expected them to before Opening Day.

American League Playoff Odds
Team Preseason
Win Div Win WC SOS Pyth.
Astros 98.8% 100% 98.1% 1.9% 0.491 -5 -2
Indians 96.6% 95.9% 95.4% 0.5% 0.477 -1 -1
Yankees 89.7% 100% 74.8% 25.2% 0.489 +3 +1
Red Sox 84.2% 99.5% 25.2% 74.3% 0.509 +1 +2
Blue Jays 37.1% 2.7% 0.0% 2.7% 0.506 0 +2
Twins 28.7% 7.0% 4.4% 2.6% 0.484 -2 0
Angels 27.1% 14.0% 0.1% 13.9% 0.510 -1 0
Mariners 9.4% 74.9% 1.8% 73.0% 0.516 +8 +7
Athletics 9.2% 5.6% 0.0% 5.5% 0.508 +1 +1
Rangers 7.7% 0.1% 0.0% 0.1% 0.504 +1 +2
Orioles 4.9% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.523 -4 -3
Rays 4.9% 0.2% 0.0% 0.2% 0.515 -1 -5
Royals 0.9% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.501 0 -2
Tigers 0.7% 0.2% 0.1% 0.1% 0.506 +2 +1
White Sox 0.1% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.505 -2 -6

The Astros, Yankees, and Red Sox are the class of the league, with all three teams projected to win at least 100 games and the first two of those each projected to win 103. The Indians are worse than we thought they would be, but the presence of the Royals, White Sox, Tigers, and even the Twins means their pursuit of another division championship likely won’t be imperiled.

We expected the Indians to win, and it looks like they will. We expected the Yankees and Red Sox to kick the snot out of each other on their way to sterling records, and for one of them to end up a quite overqualified Wild Card teams, and that looks overwhelmingly likely, too. And despite their currently narrow two-game lead on the Mariners, we expected that the Astros would run away with the West. That still looks probable, as well. It all still mostly looks probable. We (or at least the projections) were pretty clever.

Except for one thing, that is — namely, that the Mariners are currently in sole possession of the second Wild Card and that the Mariners are 7.5 games up on the Angels.

This isn’t a post about the Mariners, per se, but it is useful to think about how they got to this point. As Jay Jaffe wrote, they’ve been both ridiculously successful in one-run games (currently 23-10) and ridiculously clutch in high-leverage situations. (Their current 7.17 Clutch Score still leads the AL.) Their bullpen is quite good (fourth in the AL). Mitch Haniger has taken a big step forward, Marco Gonzales a more modest one. James Paxton has a FIP in the twos. Jean Segura would deserve to be an All-Star if shortstop weren’t such a crowded position.

But all that isn’t enough. In May, when the Mariners’ lead was more modest, Jeff Sullivan used a metaphor I quite liked when he said that, in the race to the playoffs, “there are many, many more miles to go, and you might say the Mariners are short on supplies.” A playoff lead, even a 7.5-game one, isn’t much use if you can’t keep it. This is where the rest of the AL comes in, and why it might be time to start thinking about Paxton pitching a Wild Card game in Boston.

The AL’s middle class is hilariously, even perilously, thin — a development recently documented by Travis Sawchik. Only six teams have playoff odds above 10%. The Blue Jays, which our projections liked quite a bit preseason, are 33-39 and 12.5 games back of the second Wild Card; they look likely to sell at the deadline. The Twins are mired in a stretch of bad, boring, sub-.500 baseball and have playoff odds below 10%. They are projected to win 79 games. Given how grim the field is, we might not expect that a lot of teams would necessarily be inclined to spend to improve at the trade deadline; one way to win a race is to have a few of your opponents sit down in the middle of the track.

That leaves the Angels — and, if the Mariners are in possession of a flawed roster, well so too is Los Angeles. The Angels do boast Mike Trout, who you may know, and Andrelton Simmons, but other key pieces are either sidelined by injury or underperforming. The Angels have said they are “optimistic” Shohei Ohtani’s UCL sprain might not require Tommy John surgery, but even if that optimism proves to be warranted, it will still be a few weeks before he is even evaluated — and there’s a strong argument for caution if and when he does return. Garrett Richards, Zack Cozart, and Jefry Marte are all on the disabled list. Matt Shoemaker likely won’t pitch again in 2018; Keynan Middleton and JC Ramirez definitely won’t. Ian Kinsler has disappointed. Kole Calhoun’s season has been so bad that talking about it feels unkind.

And while the Angels have a bit more to spend at the trade deadline than the Mariners do, they don’t have a lot lot more in the way of prospect treasure, either. That so many teams are in some state of rebuilding could mean there are a few bargains to be had, but rebuilding teams also tend to be picky about getting prospects of value, and while the AL is a tepid bore, the National League has a bit more juice, with nine teams featuring playoff odds above 10%. The Angels could certainly upgrade at the margins, this isn’t a team that is likely to go get a Justin Verlander like the Astros did last year. The Angels are probably more or less the 2018 Angels.

It could all change, of course. On June 20, 2017, we gave the Blue Jays the best odds to take the second Wild Card; the eventually (if not ultimately) triumphant Twins checked at a meager 6%. A more appropriate cautionary tale might be the 2014 Brewers who, with a paltry run differential of 31, were 45-30 on June 20 of that season and had 71.4% chance of making the playoffs. They went 37-50 the rest of the way. They did not play October baseball; a resurgent Pirates team did. Their banked wins weren’t quite enough.

The Mariners lost last night. A diminished Felix Hernandez pitches today. Wade LeBlanc is an important part of Seattle’s rotation. There are a few issues. The Twins have some prospects and could choose to make moves at the deadline. And the Angels have Mike Trout, who, since June 1, has hit .448/.554/.776 with a 256 wRC+. We’ve been fooled by June teams before. Heck, we’ve been fooled by Mariners teams before. A 7.5-game lead isn’t insurmountable. You might say it’s only June, and that’s true, but then again, it’s already June, and they can’t take those wins away. The Mariners appear to be in command of the second Wild Card spot, with little in the way of legitimate competition at their backs. In a time of feeling clever, it can be nice to see something a bit unexpected, and it’s time to start talking about it.

Meg is the managing editor of FanGraphs and the co-host of Effectively Wild. Prior to joining FanGraphs, her work appeared at Baseball Prospectus, Lookout Landing, and Just A Bit Outside. You can follow her on twitter @megrowler.

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5 years ago

Unpopular opinion: losing Cano was a bigger boon than minus. The bat is wonderful, but the difference between an aged veteran playing an up-the-middle position and a 2nd baseman trying to learn outfield on the fly and the current iteration is a world of difference.

Also, losing Cano freed the Mariners up to have Gordon, Segura, AND Heredia all in the same lineup at the same time. Speed kills, and the stolen bases, extra bases taken, and infield hits are racking up and making more than just a couple runs’ worth of difference. Especially since all 3 actually get on base.

It is no mere coincidence that they began to streak after losing Robinson Canó.

Fangraphs Manmember
5 years ago
Reply to  rasouddress

you’re right. your opinion is unpopular. also insane
i think they’d be better off with the 132 wRC+ up the middle bat

5 years ago
Reply to  Fangraphs Man

I know it was! And I wasn’t even bashing anyone! I’m a fan of Gordon and Heredia and I’m an Angels fan lol.

5 years ago
Reply to  rasouddress

The only positive from losing Cano is that they get some money to spend on their biggest need, but they’d still prefer to have Cano.

5 years ago
Reply to  rasouddress

Except that Cano is really good, while Dee Gordon and Guillermo Heredia are not very good

Tim L.
5 years ago
Reply to  rasouddress

Speed only kills if it gets on base. Dee Gordon barely cracks .300 OBP, with little to no pop, so even if he’s sparkling on the base paths and good in the field he’ll end up about 1 to 1.5 win player this year. He’s walked 4 times this year – 4 Times!!! His stolen base success rate barely justifies the green light he gets. Why Servais hits atop the lineup is beyond me, and why he gets all star votes is beyond me as well.

5 years ago
Reply to  Tim L.

I notice that the Mariners generally have Dee Gordon as lead-off ,,, which his .313 OBP doesn’t really merit.

A humble suggestion: like Jackie Bradley Jr for the Red Sox, he might actually benefit from hitting #9. He’s done it once this season. It might be worth a try.

Ryan DCmember
5 years ago
Reply to  rasouddress

Yes thank goodness they managed to get Guillermo Heredia and his 0.4 WAR into the lineup. There is no version of this team that is better off with Heredia than Canó.

5 years ago
Reply to  Ryan DC

The version in 2023 is likely to be better off with Heredia than Cano. Yep, that’s right, Cano is signed through twenty. twenty. three.

Tim L.
5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

The last 3 years of that contract are going to be dark days indeed.

5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

He’s already essentially justified the contract. Never would have thought it possible, but he did it.

Pepper Martin
5 years ago
Reply to  3cardmonty

Steroids will do that.