So You Want a Cinderella Story?

According to our playoff odds, there are currently 13 teams which feature playoff odds below 2%. As that number grows throughout the month, an increasingly large percentage of baseball fans will be bidding farewell to the hopes that this is the year for their preferred teams and looking to adopt other rooting interests. There’s no full replacement for the satisfaction of your team winning in October, but playoff baseball is still worth enjoying as much as you can. So, for whom do you root this month?

In recent years, Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated has popularized Team Entropy — spending your September rooting for the chaos generated by ties testing the limits of baseball’s tie-breaker system. With a range of 5.5 games separating the seven teams atop the AL Wild Card standings, Team Entropy is as in play as ever. The theoretical implications of a three- or four- or five-way tie for a Wild Card spot are delightful to imagine. It would be a blast to watch and, as someone with no skin in the game this year, I’d enjoy the hell out of it. That said, my strongest loyalties lie with another team — I’m not Team Entropy, I’m Team Cinderella.

For me, there’s no more exciting storyline than a September longshot bucking the odds and finding its way into the postseason. Two years ago, the Pirates had roughly a 20% chance to make the postseason on September 3rd according to The Baseball Gauge and then proceeded to secure themselves a spot in the Wild Card game. But I’d argue an even more exciting September Cinderella storyline unfolded a year before that when the 2013 Indians finished off the season by winning 15 of 17 and beating out the Rangers for a Wild Card Spot despite possessing 15% playoff odds at the start of that final 17-game run. Now that’s my idea of brilliant September baseball.

It’s been a few years and, though it may be a virtue, patience is certainly no fun. It’s time for a new September Cinderella team, so let’s go searching for one. For this exercise, I’m considering the cases of the five teams with playoff odds currently in the 3%-20% range.

Royals – Playoff Odds 3.1%

I thought about setting the outer limits of this exercise at 5% odds, but I couldn’t stop myself from including the defending champions and famous projections beaters, the Royals. The good news is they’re just four games out of the Wild Card. The bad news is they would have to leapfrog four teams in order to reach that final Wild Card spot and their only opportunity to make up ground by beating the teams ahead of them is one three-game set against the Tigers. Their offense has been disappointing and injury-plagued. Their pitching has been notably impressive of late, but a look at the members of the rotation gives rise to concerns that regression is nigh. If they have any magic left, they’ll need to capitalize on the fact that they face the White Sox, Athletics, and Twins in 14 of their remaining 23 games and hope the teams above them collapse.

Mariners – Playoff Odds 5.0%

The Mariners are objectively the best Cinderella-story candidate from a narrative perspective. All four of the other teams at which we’re looking were in the playoff last year; the Mariners’ last trip to the playoffs occurred when Cal Ripken was still an active player. Wait, I can do better than that… Chuck Finley was the opposing starter during the Mariners’ last playoff game. Chuck Finley! How about one more: the Mariners’ last playoff game came two weeks before Apple first introduced the iPod Classic. It’s been a while, is what I’m saying.

They’re 4.5 games back in the Wild Card race, but they do hold their fate in their own hands to some extent, with six games remaining against the Astros and three against a Blue Jays team that’s probably out of reach. They have a powerful lineup core in Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, and Nelson Cruz that makes you want to believe something magical could be in store, but they pair it with a starting rotation that makes it hard to let yourself.

Pirates – Playoff Odds 5.7%

Last night, the Pirates won the first game of a 12-game stretch played solely against the Reds and the Phillies. They currently sit four games out of Wild Card position and would need to pass two of the Mets, Cardinals, and Giants in order to reach the postseason — a heckuva mountain to climb. But the present opportunity to beat up on two of the worst teams in the league makes it possible to dream ever so slightly on the Pirates right now. It’s a long shot, but they could be primed to inch themselves ever so closer to relevancy.

Yankees – Playoff Odds 10.8%

Look, I don’t know. After hitting 378* home runs in 15 games, Gary Sanchez has finally cooled off a bit and has now gone 10 games without a home run. But after watching him post a 237 wRC+ in the month of August, are you going to be the one to bet against Sanchez right now? I’m not.

The Yankees are a really fun team at the moment and, what’s more, they’re not bad. They bade farewell to copious veterans at the trade deadline and have responded by going 22-13 since the trade deadline. They have a young lineup that is not without talent, a bullpen ace in Dellin Betances and a rotation ace in Masahiro Tanaka. They’re now just two games out of Wild Card position and, although they’re in fourth in the AL East, they’re only four games out of that race with games remaining against all three teams ahead of them. Yes, this could actually happen, folks.

(*Fine, it was 11.)

Astros – Playoff Odds 16.3%

It’s hard to get around the fact that it’s been a disappointing season for the Astros, but all that could disappear if they’re somehow able to get themselves to the postseason. Their lineup is rich with talent including potential MVP candidate Jose Altuve, rookie breakout Alex Bregman, the highly underrated George Springer, and more. If Carlos Correa is able to return to form from his current shoulder injury, then this could have a strong case for being the best lineup in the American League. The back of their bullpen features one of the best young closers in the game in Ken Giles. If their rotation is able to keep them in games, then this team could be very dangerous.

As the playoff odds indicate, there’s no denying that the Astros and Yankees are best positioned to put on a show this September, but weird things happen in baseball. Maybe the Mets and Cardinals collapse and the Pirates find their way back to another Wild Card game. Or perhaps the Mariners finally bring Felix Hernandez to a postseason. And sure, maybe the Royals have a chance, too. I’ll be here on Team Cinderella waiting for a bandwagon upon which to jump. Here’s hoping September fulfills its annual promise of captivating baseball drama.

Corinne Landrey writes for FanGraphs and's Cut4 site. Follow her on Twitter @crashlandrey.

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7 years ago

In 2116* I’ll entertain the possibility that the Yankees could be my Cinderella Team**. (* I’ll be 149 then.) (** If they haven’t won another World Series between now and then.)

7 years ago
Reply to  Kenny

I was thinking something similar: the Yankees could be a lot of things — including even, grudgingly, fun to watch — but they’re never going to be my Cinderella.

There are players I’d like to see play in a World Series — Beltre, Altuve, McCutchen — even if their teams make me hold my nose while doing so, but I can’t say I see a Cinderella Team for me among this group.

OddBall Herrera
7 years ago
Reply to  Joser

To make it worse, ‘Plucky never say die Yankees squad” would be the such a profitable low hanging fruit for sports writers that the national media would probably forget to mention any other teams were even in the playoffs.

7 years ago

Well, unless it was the Cubs in the World Series. I wouldn’t want my AL club to end its playoff drought by making the WS in the same year the Cubs are the first to do it since 1945. The media hurricane would be so focused on that team that any reasonable observer would conclude the Cubs must be playing themselves.