Team Entropy 2021: Dial M for Mariners

This is the fifth installment of this year’s Team Entropy series, my recurring look not only at the races for the remaining playoff spots but the potential for end-of-season chaos in the form of down-to-the-wire suspense and even tiebreakers. Ideally, we want more ties than the men’s department at Macy’s. If you’re new to this, please read the introduction here.

The Mariners haven’t reached the postseason since 2001, and all season long, our Playoff Odds have strongly suggested that their drought — the majors’ longest active one — will continue. But as we head into the final weekend of the 2021 season, they’re on a 10-1 tear that has interjected them right into the thick of an American League Wild Card race with a decided East Coast bias. With the Yankees sweeping the Red Sox in Boston and then taking two out of three from the Blue Jays in Toronto while the Red Sox somehow dropped two out of three to the Orioles in Baltimore, we now have four teams separated by three games from top to bottom, with just three to play for each:

AL Wild Card Standings Thru Sept. 30
Team W L Win% GB
Yankees 91 68 .572 +2
Red Sox 89 70 .560
Mariners 89 70 .560
Blue Jays 88 71 .553 1

This is not a drill! I’ll get to the mechanics of how this will be sorted out soon enough, but first, I’m taking the opportunity to spotlight the Mariners’ unlikely run and the trends they’re up against. This isn’t a dive into individual performances; elsewhere on FanGraphs today, Jake Mailhot has a closer look at what’s fueled their September run. Here I’m looking at the bigger picture. But first, an illustration of the Mariners’ Playoff Odds over the course of the season:

It’s been awhile since the Mariners were anywhere close to this position. While they went 89-73 just three years ago before slipping below .500 in both 2019 (68-94) and ’20 (27-33), that ’18 squad fell eight games short in the AL Wild Card race and finished 14 games behind the Astros in the AL West race. They did finish three games back in the AL Wild Card race in 2016, going 86-76 while both the Orioles and Blue Jays went 89-73, but they were a distant nine games behind the Rangers in the AL West. Not since 2003, when they went 93-69 in Lou Piniella’s final year at the helm, have they come as close by both routes to the postseason; that year, they finished three games behind the A’s in the division race and two behind the Red Sox in the AL Wild Card. And not since that 2001 team set a modern record with 116 wins have they qualified for the playoffs.

The Mariner’s postseason drought is the runaway leader among active streaks. Only the Phillies’ elimination on Thursday night trimmed the Mariners’ margin to less than a decade, and perhaps only temporarily:

Longest Current Postseason Droughts
Team Last appearance Seasons
Mariners 2001 ALCS 19
Phillies 2011 NLDS 10*
Tigers 2014 ALDS 7*
Angels 2014 ALDS 7*
Pirates 2015 NL Wild Card 6*
Royals 2015 World Series 6*
* = includes elimination from 2021 postseason contention.

If the Mariners fall short, the franchise will tie the Pirates for the fifth-longest drought of those that have crossed into the Wild Card era (1995 onward):

Longest Postseason Droughts Crossing Into Wild Card Era
Team From To Seasons
Expos/Nationals 1981 2012 30
Royals 1985 2014 28
Brewers 1982 2008 25
Blue Jays 1993 2015 21
Pirates 1992 2013 20
Mariners 2001 19

Even as they approach 90 wins, it must be acknowledged that these Mariners aren’t exactly a powerhouse. In fact, they’ve been outscored by 48 runs. Not only could they become just the sixth team with a negative run differential over the course of a full 162-game season to make the playoffs, but they could potentially do so with both the largest negative run differential and the most victories of those teams — and that’s a difficult trick to pull off:

Postseason Teams With Negative Run Differentials
Team Year Wins Losses RS RA Dif
Padres 2005 82 80 684 726 -42
Diamondbacks 2007 90 72 712 732 -20
Twins 1987 85 77 786 806 -20
Royals 1984 84 78 673 686 -13
Giants 1997 90 72 784 793 -9
Mariners 2021 89 70 687 735 -48
List does not include playoff teams from shortened seasons: 1981 Royals (50-53, -8 runs) or 2020 Marlins (31-29, -41 runs), Brewers (29-31, -17 runs), or Blue Jays (32-28, -10 runs)

Even before going 18-8 this month to give themselves a shot at a playoff spot, the Mariners were making light of their run differential while highlighting their fun differential. Baseball Reference has even gotten in on the joke.

The Mariners got to this peculiar spot in part by going 33-18 (.647) in one-run games; both their win total and winning percentage are tops among the 30 teams, but in the division play era, that .647 winning percentage only ranks 43rd, a far cry from the 2016 Rangers’ .766 (36-11) for the highest of the period.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Mariners are a ghastly 11-28 (.282) in games decided by five or more runs, which is quite bad but just the 72nd-lowest mark of the division play era (the 2019 Tigers went 6-40 for a .130 mark!), and well ahead of the Orioles (13-42, .236) among this year’s crop. It’s when you put those two extremes together that you get something, ummm, special:

Largest Win% Gap Between One-Run Games and Blowouts
Team Year W-L 1-Run Win% 1-Run Rdiff W-L Blowout Win% Blowout Rdiff Net Win%
Padres 1974 31-16 .660 15 7-38 .156 -230 .504
Cleveland 2012 24-12 .667 12 12-32 .273 -146 .394
Mariners 2021 33-18 .647 15 11-28 .282 -135 .365
Tigers 2003 19-18 .514 1 7-40 .149 -222 .365
Reds 2003 30-21 .588 9 9-29 .237 -154 .351
Tigers 2002 23-23 .500 0 7-37 .159 -230 .341
Rangers 2016 36-11 .766 25 18-24 .429 -52 .337
Orioles 2010 29-21 .580 8 10-31 .244 -135 .336
Padres 2009 23-18 .561 5 10-32 .238 -150 .323
Phillies 2016 28-23 .549 5 10-34 .227 -192 .322

What’s here are splits covering 90 Mariners games at either competitive extreme — the close ones and the laughers — during which they went 44-46 while being outscored by 120 runs! In the rest of their games, they’ve gone 45-24 while beating opponents by 168 runs 72 runs (reversed a minus sign there previously, sorry). Here’s a breakdown of their won-loss record by score margin:

Mariners’ Record by Score Margin
Margin Wins Losses Run Dif
1 33 18 15
2 17 13 8
3 11 7 12
4 17 4 52
5 3 7 -20
6 6 8 -12
7 0 5 -35
8 0 2 -16
9 1 2 -9
10+ 1 4 -43
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Forget that 11-28 record in games decided by five or more runs; the Mariners are 2-13 in games decided by seven or more runs. Their .133 winning percentage in that context is 81 points lower than the next-lowest team, the Orioles (.214, 6-22).

Splits like these will do a number on the way a team’s Pythagorean record matches up — or doesn’t — with its actual record, and in fact, it’s here where the Mariners really shine:

Largest Gaps Between Actual and Pythagenpat Win%
Tm Year W-L Win% RS RA Rdiff pythW-L% Pythdif
Mariners 2021 89-70 .560 687 735 -48 .469 .091
Tigers 1905 79-74 .516 512 604 -92 .428 .088
Rangers 2016 95-67 .586 765 757 8 .505 .081
Padres 2017 71-91 .438 604 816 -212 .364 .074
Athletics 1955 63-91 .409 638 911 -273 .335 .074
Angels 2008 100-62 .617 765 697 68 .543 .074
Dodgers 1954 92-62 .597 778 740 38 .524 .073
Diamondbacks 2005 77-85 .475 696 856 -160 .403 .073
Yankees 2004 101-61 .623 897 808 89 .551 .073
Mets 1984 90-72 .556 652 676 -24 .484 .072
Mariners 2018 89-73 .549 677 711 -34 .477 .072
Dodgers 1924 92-62 .597 717 679 38 .525 .072
Orioles 2012 93-69 .574 712 705 7 .505 .069
Reds 1970 102-60 .630 775 681 94 .560 .069
Diamondbacks 2007 90-72 .556 712 732 -20 .487 .068
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Includes only seasons of 154 games or longer since 1901.

Note that where my data source, Baseball Reference, uses the version of the Pythagorean formula with 1.83 as the exponent, I’ve opted for Pythagenpat, which uses an exponent based on the run environment. The choice of exponents reorders the top two teams, but as that’s the version of the formula we use at our Projected Standings page, it makes sense to fall in line. (Hat-tip to Baseball Prospectus‘ Rob Arthur for tracking that one, albeit with different exponents.)

As to why the Mariners are deviating from their Pythagenpat record to such a great degree, it comes down to good timing, which often has words like “clutch” or “luck” attached. Their offense has hit for a 94 wRC+ overall, which ranks 18th in the majors, but their 136 wRC+ in high-leverage situations is 20 points better than the next-highest team, the Giants. Our splits in this area only go back to 2002, but the Mariners’ performance is tops so long as we disregard both the Padres’ 166 in the shortened season last year and the 2017 Astros’ 147, which probably wasn’t all on the up-and-up. The 2005 Yankees (134) are the next-highest over a 162-game season in our limited set of data.

By our Clutch metric — which tracks how much better or worse a player (or team) does in high leverage situations than in a context neutral environment, the Mariners’ offense’s mark of 9.3 is the highest in our set of data, which goes back to 1974 and beats out the aforementioned 2016 Rangers’ 8.2 (and hat-tip here to Lookout Landing’s Isabelle Minasian for tracking that one). Throw in their 7.4 Clutch mark on the pitching side, which is merely the 12th-highest since 1974, and you’ve got another record, as their hitting-and-pitching sum of 16.72 obliterates the 2008 Angels’ 14.7 as the post-1974 record. The 2018 Mariners, who cracked the Pythag table above, challenged the mark, as Jeff Sullivan noted at the time, but they regressed to finish at 11.6. Justin Choi tracked the Mariners’ progress as far as this year’s two-way total.

With three days in the regular season to go, this plucky, Pythagenpat-defying group of clutch-sters is guaranteed nothing, and the Playoff Odds (29.9%, remember?) still say their season is more likely to end in heartbreak than not, but right now, they’re Team Entropy’s darlings. Here’s the head-to-head grid:

AL Wild Card Contenders Head-to-Head Records
Team Record GB Yankees Red Sox Mariners Blue Jays
Yankees 91-68 +2 9-10 5-2 8-11
Red Sox 89-70 10-9 4-3 10-9
Mariners 89-70 2-5 3-4 4-2
Blue Jays 88-71 1 11-8 9-10 2-4
Yellow cells denote that team won the season series.

If the season were to end today, or if this exact order held through the weekend — during which the Yankees host the Rays, the Blue Jays host the Orioles, the Mariners host the Angels, and the Red Sox visit the Nationals — the Red Sox and Mariners would play a Game 163 tiebreaker in Boston on the basis of the two teams’ season series results, with the winner moving on to play the Yankees in New York in the Wild Card game. Indeed, the Red Sox hold the tiebreaker advantage over all three of their competitors should such a situation arise. If they were to wind up in a three-way tie for the second spot with the Mariners and Blue Jays — and currently our Playoff Odds Tiebreaker page shows a 9.0% chance of some kind of three-way tie — the Sox would have dibs on the top spot in the pecking order on that basis, with the Mariners choosing second and the Blue Jays third for the following scenario: Club A would host Club B, with the winner of the game hosting Club C to determine who would become the lower Wild Card seed.

As for the other permutations involving a three-way tie for the second spot, if it’s the Mariners who somehow wind up above the fray, the selection order for the other three goes Red Sox, Blue Jays, Yankees. If it’s the Red Sox in the top spot, the other three would be ranked on the basis of combined winning percentage within the scrum, since each owns the upper hand in one season series but not both. That would shake out as Blue Jays (.520, 13-12), Yankees (.500, 13-13), Mariners (.462, 6-7).

The only way the Blue Jays could get to the top spot would be to sweep the spoiler-minded Orioles while the Yankees are swept, with either or both of the other two teams joining the fun by winning two of three. In this case, a three-way tie would mean three teams battling for the two Wild Card spots, the formula for which is Club A hosting Club B, with the winner becoming the top Wild Card seed, and then Club C hosting the loser of the A/B game to determine the lower Wild Card seed. We already know two of the pecking orders, namely Boston/Seattle/Toronto and Toronto/New York/Seattle. Of the others, one would go Boston/Toronto/New York (the Red Sox won both season series and the Blue Jays beat the Yankees in theirs) and the other Boston/New York/Seattle (the Red Sox won both season series and the Yankees beat the Mariners in theirs).

If we’re somehow blessed with a four-way tie (0.5% chance of happening!), the teams would be ranked by combined head-to-head winning percentage: Red Sox (24-21, .533), Blue Jays (22-22, .500), Yankees (22-23, .489), Mariners (9-11, .450). In that order, they’d draft spots in the following scenario: Club A hosts B for one Wild Card spot, while Club C hosts Club D for the other spot. The protocol page is a little murky but I believe the A/B winner would be the Wild Card host (it’s explicitly spelled out that way for the four-team, one-spot tiebreaker, which is no longer possible); if not, head-to-head records would determine the host, for which you’d consult the table above.

It’s bananas, right? And the Mariners are clear underdogs here because there aren’t many scenarios where they’re the home team in a tiebreaker situation, though they’re still in a better spot than the Blue Jays (13.6% odds). What’s more, their odds of making it through are about triple those of the two-games-back Dodgers overtaking the Giants in the NL West (9.5%) in the only other undecided race. That one wraps up with the Dodgers hosting the Brewers while the Giants host the lifeless Padres, who have lost 10 out of 11 and 16 out of 19, though all three of those wins were over the Giants. If the two teams wind up tied — meaning that the Dodgers sweep while the Giants lose two of three — they’ll meet in a tiebreaker at Oracle Park, with the loser then playing the Cardinals in the Wild Card game.

I don’t know about you, but my head is spinning from all of this. I’ll be back over the weekend with brief updates as needed.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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2 years ago

The most likely scenario here in my opinion, is that the Yankees win 2/3 over a Rays team that isn’t playing for anything. Though I’m sure they’d be happy to hurt the Yankees in any way they can. I think Seattle is in the best spot. Go take a look at the Angels lineup they’ve been running out. It’s awful. I really think they’ll sweep the Angels. So the Red Sox would have to sweep the Nationals to keep pace. That means the Blue Jays are sitting out, no matter what they do.

So I think we may get a game 163 with the Red Sox and Mariners to decide who gets the WC2 spot, then the winner will play the Yankees. I’d love for the Jays to get in, but the Nationals and Angels are just too weak, one of them will get swept IMO. Unless Boston lets Juan Soto beat them. They’ve got to walk him in basically every non blowout spot, right? I mean he’s been ridiculous.

2 years ago
Reply to  steveo


2 years ago
Reply to  steveo

He came up with the based loaded tonight and hit a sac fly.