The Second-Half Slides That Have Crowded the Wild Card Races

It didn’t explicitly come up in the Effectively Wild podcast spot I did highlighting this year’s Team Entropy series, but one reason why the Wild Card races that I covered in my second installment early this week are so wild — with five teams chasing two spots in the AL, and five more chasing one spot in the NL — is a handful of prominent collapses. The Mets, Padres, and Red Sox all spent a good chunk of the season occupying playoff positions, with New York and Boston occupying the top spots in their respective divisions for more days than any of their competitors. Yet all three teams could miss out on October baseball thanks to some of the most drastic first half-to-second-half drop-offs we’ve seen in recent years.

The Mets, despite a slew of injuries, led the NL East — at times with company in first place — for nearly four months, from April 13 to August 6, with a slight return after falling out of first that stretched the window to August 13. They somehow did that by posting winning records only in May (17-9) and July (14-13), and even after being overtaken, they remained within striking distance for about half of a dreadful August during which they went 9-19. Since the July 30 trade deadline, when they acquired Javier Báez but arguably didn’t do enough to bolster their rotation — a decision that was exacerbated by Jacob deGrom’s subsequent setback, which came to light almost immediately after the deadline passed — they’ve gone just 17-28. At this writing, they’re 72-75, 5 1/2 games behind the Braves in the NL East, and five behind the Cardinal for the second NL Wild Card spot, with cumulative playoff odds of 2.1%. I’m skeptical they’ll be relevant by the time I next cover Team Entropy.

The Red Sox had an on-and-off relationship with first place in the AL East, occupying at least a share of it from April 8 through May 23, and then again for most of a stretch that ran from June 19 through July 30. They’ve gone just 20-24 since the deadline passed, for the third-worst record in the AL; they did so while the Rays (29-14), Blue Jays (31-16), and Yankees (29-16) peeled off the AL’s top three records in that span. A wave of COVID infections has played a part, knocking 12 players — including Xander Bogaerts, Enrique Hernández, Chris Sale, and Matt Barnes — out of action since August 27; notably, the Red Sox are one of the six teams that has failed to reach the 85% vaccination threshold to loosen protocols, though the majority of those infected were vaccinated. They’re now 8 1/2 games back in the AL East, but occupying the second Wild Card spot, a percentage point behind the Blue Jays and half a game ahead of the Yankees, with Playoff Odds of 75.3%.

The Padres were projected to be one of the NL’s two best teams, albeit in a division occupied by the other one, the Dodgers. But while the defending champions have indeed been one of the top two, it’s been the Giants, not the Padres, who have provided their closest competition; San Diego has spent just 14 days in first place in the NL West. Even so, they spent nearly three-quarters of the season with Playoff Odds of 75% or better, but have gone just 16-25 since the deadline, and 10-21 since August 10. Having just won back-to-back games for the second time in the past five weeks, they’ve closed the gap behind the Giants to, uh, 18 1/2 games, but their Playoff Odds have dwindled to 32.0%.

As you can see, there’s a pretty wide spread when it comes to these three teams’ chances of playing October baseball, but each has fallen significantly from the spots they occupied earlier in the season. Depending on where I set the endpoints, their slumps might appear even more acute, which works for storytelling purposes, but is harder for comparative analysis. Since all three were riding rather high in early July, I decided to see how their declines in winning percentage from the first 81 games — a point the Padres reached on June 29, the Red Sox on June 30, and the Mets on July 4 — to the second compared to those of other teams in recent years.

As it turns out, the Padres’ drop from a .593 first-half winning percentage — the first 81 games of the season, not the uneven “halves” defined by proximity to the All-Star break — to a .422 second-half mark so far is the fourth-largest since 2012, the start of the two Wild Card team era; their dip ranked second until this two-game hot streak. Meanwhile those Red Sox and Mets rank among the dozen largest drop-offs, with yet another team from this year, one I hadn’t even considered for this piece given my apparent East Coast bias, in the top 20:

Largest Winning Percentage Drop-Offs After First 81 Games
Team Year W-L1 WPCT1 W-L2 WPCT2 WPCT Dif Postseason
Brewers 2014 49-32 .605 33-48 .407 -.198
Athletics 2014 51-30 .630 37-44 .457 -.173 Wildcard
Mets 2012 44-37 .543 30-51 .370 -.173
Padres 2021 48-33 .593 27-37 .422 -.171
Giants 2016 50-31 .617 37-44 .457 -.160 Wildcard
Rangers 2019 45-36 .556 33-48 .407 -.149
Diamondbacks 2018 47-34 .580 35-46 .432 -.148
Pirates 2012 45-36 .556 34-47 .420 -.136
Mariners 2018 50-31 .617 39-42 .481 -.136
Red Sox 2021 50-31 .617 33-34 .493 -.124
Mets 2021 44-37 .543 28-38 .424 -.119
Rangers 2016 52-29 .642 43-38 .531 -.111 Division Champ
Pirates 2013 51-30 .630 43-38 .531 -.099 Wildcard
Yankees 2018 54-27 .667 46-35 .568 -.099 Wildcard
Phillies 2018 44-37 .543 36-45 .444 -.099
Astros 2015 47-34 .580 39-42 .481 -.099 Wildcard
Athletics 2021 47-34 .580 31-33 .484 -.096
Nationals 2015 45-36 .556 38-43 .469 -.087
Blue Jays 2014 45-36 .556 38-43 .469 -.087
Astros 2017 54-27 .667 47-34 .580 -.087 WS Champ

That’s not really a list you want to be on, judging by the minimal postseason impact of those teams. Obviously, we don’t yet know the playoff fates of the Padres, Red Sox, Mets (well, I think we know that one), and A’s (welcome to the party). Of the other 16 teams, seven made the playoffs; four won Wild Card games (the 2013 Pirates, ’15 Astros, ’16 Giants, and ’18 Yankees), but the only one that won a Division Series or a later round was the ’17 Astros, who, well, you know. Only one team with a drop-off of at least 87 points and a sub-.500 record in the second half won so much as a Wild Card game, namely the 2015 Astros.

Since the A’s turn up here, their arc is worth retracing as well. Despite being outscored in both April and May, strongly suggesting that they were playing over their heads, they climbed to the top of the AL West, and spent all but a single day of the next two months there, from April 20 to June 20. Despite their stellar June (17-9), an Astros team that had been lurking just behind them overtook them, and while the A’s were just 1 1/2 games back at the 81-game mark, and just 2 1/2 back at the 115-game mark (August 14) after some ups and downs, they’ve lost 18 of their last 29 and fallen seven games back. Their Playoff Odds peaked at 76.9% on June 18, and spent the next two months mostly in the 40-60% range, but they’ve plummeted from 62.5% on August 12 to just 4.3%.

So that’s two AL and two NL teams that have each taken rather dramatic tumbles this season. As you can see from the table above, it’s the second time within this span we’ve seen four teams from a single season take such falls; in 2018, the Yankees and Mariners both crumbled, as did the Phillies and Diamondbacks, with Philadelphia even sliding below .500 for the season to finish 80-82.

Not surprisingly, all four of these teams that have crashed in 2021 have underachieved relative to their Pythagenpat records during the second half. The Padres are the only ones who were underachieving during the season’s first half as well:

Second-Half Sliders
Team RS1 RA1 WPCT1 Pyth WPCT1 RS2 RA2 WPCT2 Pyth WPCT2
Red Sox 5.06 4.47 .617 .557 5.10 4.93 .493 .516
Padres 4.57 3.60 .593 .607 4.47 4.89 .422 .459
A’s 4.54 4.14 .580 .543 4.70 4.28 .484 .543
Mets 3.72 3.64 .543 .509 4.27 4.64 .424 .463
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

For the Padres, this has mainly been about the collapse of a rotation projected to be the majors’ best coming into the season; it’s been lit for a 5.52 ERA and 4.82 FIP in this second half. Yu Darvish has been battered for a 7.67 ERA and 5.74 FIP in 54 innings during this slide, that while landing on the injured list twice, for left hip tightness and lower back tightness. Ryan Weathers has completely collapsed (9.00 ERA, 7.55 FIP in 38.1 innings) after a promising beginning, Chris Paddack (5.74 ERA, 4.13 FIP in 42.1 innings) has had some bad luck, and even Joe Musgrove has regressed (3.79 ERA, 4.31 FIP). On the other hand, Blake Snell (3.03 ERA, 3.34 FIP) turned his season around, but a groin strain forced him out during the first inning of his September 12 start against the Dodgers. Adding insult to injury, the Padres reportedly were close to acquiring Max Scherzer at the deadline, only to watch as the Dodgers snatched him away, and he’s been brilliant. Scrapheap pickup Jake Arrieta? Not so much.

Run prevention has become a major issue for the Red Sox as well, with both the rotation and bullpen (4.42 ERA and 4.59 ERA, respectively) underperforming their FIPs by about four-tenths of a run. High-leverage guys such as Barnes, Adam Ottavino, and Hansel Robles have been particularly lousy. On the offensive side, the Sox have been a juggernaut, but while they’ve received a 100 wRC+ or better from nine out of the 11 players with 90 or more PA since July 1, Bogaerts (107 wRC+) and J.D. Martinez (108) haven’t been themselves, and rookie center fielder Jarren Duran (50) was over his head before landing on the COVID-19 injured list.

The Mets have continued to show holes on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Jeff McNeil (91 wRC+), James McCann (66), and Dominic Smith (56) have come up notably short even while the arrival of Báez (156), the return of J.D. Davis (118), and the upswing of Francisco Lindor (139) after a dreadful beginning to his season have helped; the last of those made the 36 games he missed due to an oblique strain a particularly big thumbs down. While late July additions Rich Hill and Trevor Williams have been pretty good, they don’t add up to a deGrom; meanwhile, the much-awaited arrival of Carlos Carrasco (5.59 ERA, 4.38 FIP) hasn’t really panned out, and Taijuan Walker (7.04 ERA, 6.90 FIP) has turned into a pumpkin. Key relievers such as Seth Lugo, Trevor May, Jeurys Familia, and Edwin Díaz have taken steps backwards of varying size at the wrong time as well.

By runs scored and allowed, the A’s have produced the same Pythagenpat winning percentages in both halves, but have gone from overachieving by 37 points to underachieving by 59 points, making for both the largest second-half shortfall and the largest overall swing relative to their expected record. The second-half fades of Sean Manaea and James Kaprielian and the frightening loss of Chris Bassitt (who’s still rehabbing his way back) have loomed large in the rotation. The bullpen — particularly Lou Trivino, Sergio Romo, and Yusmeiro Petit, three of the most four heavily-used relievers in the second half — has proven shaky as well.

For as much as these four teams have in common in terms of the severity of their second-half slides, and for as crowded as they’ve made the Wild Card races, it’s clear by now that the A’s and Mets are just hanging on, while the Red Sox are odds-on favorites to make it through, and the Padres are hardly out of it. Still, when the playoff slate is finally set, at least some of these teams will look back and wonder what might have been, and how they fell so far.

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

So much of success for the vast “mushy middle” of MLB comes down to the timing and severity of injuries. Unless you’re a no-doubt great team (with depth) or a no-doubt bad one, luck probably explains most of the variance.