We’re in for One Heck of a Second Half

Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Time is flying. It seems like only weeks ago that Shohei Ohtani struck out Mike Trout with a picture-perfect sweeper to finish off the World Baseball Classic, the Rays started the season with a franchise-record 13-game winning streak, and the Pirates shocked the baseball world with a 20-9 April. But no – the calendar turns to July this weekend, those Rays just played their 81st game on Sunday, becoming the first team to reach the halfway point, and Pittsburgh has fallen into fourth place in the NL Central. The days are getting shorter, now, and so is the remaining calendar – by the end of the week, most teams will have more regular season baseball behind them than ahead of them.

If that’s the bad news, here’s the good news: We’re poised for an exciting run over these next three months. With July around the corner, there are 23 teams within six games of a postseason spot, and 19 within four. No division lead is greater than 6.5 games. According to our playoff odds, 21 of the 30 clubs – a full 70% – have between a 10% and 90% chance of ending up in the playoffs. At this point in the baseball calendar last year, just 12 teams fell in that range:

After play on July 3, 2022, when teams had averaged the same number of games – just over 79 – as they have now, the Yankees and Astros had division leads of more than 13 games, making them virtual locks to make the playoffs. The Dodgers, who led the National League with a .628 winning percentage, and the Mets and Braves, who were battling it out in the NL East, all had better than 90% odds, as did the Blue Jays. As of Tuesday, only the Rays and Braves, who lead their respective circuits in wins, have eclipsed 90% – both are north of 98%. The Dodgers and Rangers are over 80%, and Arizona sits at 75.9%, but none of the 25 other teams have a 3-in-4 shot or better:

Playoff Odds of the Top Eight Teams, 7/3/22 and 6/28/23
2022 Team Playoff Odds 2023 Team Playoff Odds
Astros 100% Braves 99.9%
Yankees 100% Rays 98.9%
Dodgers 98.3% Dodgers 89.7%
Mets 97.1% Rangers 81.3%
Braves 93.3% Diamondbacks 76.1%
Blue Jays 92.9% Giants 75.2%
Padres 87.5% Orioles 68.3%
Brewers 85.4% Marlins 63.3%

Things may be even murkier among the bottom tier of the postseason hopefuls. On July 3 last season, 12 teams, or 40% of the league, had less than a 1-in-10 chance of extending their season into the playoffs. On Tuesday, just seven teams fit that bill – the White Sox, Pirates, Tigers, Royals, A’s, Rockies and Nationals. Most everyone else is going to head into the second half of their schedule thinking they have at least a shot to grab a Wild Card. By that measure, we have about as much uncertainty left to sort out in the back half as we did when the season began – our Opening Day playoff odds also had seven teams shy of 10%. Only the Reds have played themselves over that threshold, and only the White Sox have played themselves under it.

There are a good handful of teams in the 10-20% range right now, but I’d say the difference between below 10% and 10-20% is a meaningful one. In that 10-20% bin are the Reds, who lead their division and who the projections may be underrating; the Cubs, Mariners, and Red Sox, who are a hot week or two from a playoff spot (and who seem capable of stringing a couple of hot weeks together if things fall the right way for a stretch); and the Mets and Cardinals, who, for as bleak as the first half has been, are 8.5 and 8.0 games out of a playoff spot, respectively, with enough talent on their rosters to make a significant second-half improvement feasible:

The Rest of the Contenders
Team Record GB from Closest Playoff Spot Playoff Odds
Twins 40-41 62.2%
Yankees 43-36 60.1%
Blue Jays 43-47 0.5 58.9%
Astros 43-37 1.0 51.1%
Brewers 41-38 0.5 50.1%
Angels 44-37 46.7%
Phillies 41-37 3.0 45.0%
Guardians 38-40 0.5 33.6%
Padres 37-42 7.5 32.1%
Reds 42-38 19.0%
Cubs 37-40 3.5 18.6%
Mariners 38-40 4.5 16.1%
Red Sox 40-40 3.5 15.9%
Cardinals 33-45 8.0 14.1%
Mets 36-43 8.5 13.5%

In terms of the ultimate end goal, at this time last year, our playoff odds had just 10 teams with a 2% shot at winning the World Series – with the eventual NL champion Phillies notably not among them – with about two-thirds odds that it would be the Dodgers, Braves, Astros, Yankees, or Mets. This year, though we give about a 47% chance that it’ll be any of the Braves, Rays, or Dodgers, half of the league has a better than 2% chance.

I largely opposed playoff expansion, and I still think it has made the postseason tournament too big, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate what it does offer, which is that it can keep middling teams motivated to win through this point of the season and beyond. But some of the particulars of this competitive landscape are due more to the quirks of division alignment – the same quirks that have brought us an AL East with five teams better than any AL Central team. This season, these quirks mean that the Wild Card races are populated almost exclusively by East and West teams in both leagues, but the Central races are tight enough that second- and third-place teams like Cleveland, Cincinnati, and the Cubs are still very much within reach of the playoffs.

This isn’t a good thing for the general fairness of playoff qualification. We could easily end up in a situation in which the first Wild Card team out in either league has a better record than their league’s Central division champion – right now in the AL, Houston (42-37) and Toronto (43-37) would be left out in favor of Minnesota (40-41). But it’s a great thing if you’re rooting for total chaos in the second half. More teams in the hunt and fewer teams running away with division titles means more meaningful games late into the summer.

To put it another way, with 21 teams left with less-than-surefire playoff odds one way or the other, a 15-game day on the schedule should include on average between 13 and 14 games featuring at least one of these teams. With only 12 teams in that no-man’s land, as was the case last year, a 15-game schedule would include on average nine or 10 games with at least one of these contenders. That’s about four more games with playoff implications every day for fans.

As much as this has to do with extra Wild Cards and quirky division alignments, it seems like some of the credit is owed to the shifting sands of the league, as well. This year, we’ve seen the Orioles, Rangers, Diamondbacks, Marlins, Angels and now Reds emerge as playoff hopefuls – or safe bets, as the case may be – many of whom seem poised to stick around for years to come. It’s an impressive influx of teams trending upwards, and quickly – while the Orioles’ resurgence started early enough last year for the team to finish with 83 wins, the other five clubs averaged just 69.2 wins in 2022 and are projected to improve by an amazing average of 17.1 wins this season:

Surprise Playoff Contenders
Team 2022 W 2023 Projected W Increase
Rangers 68 89.8 21.8
Marlins 69 87.6 18.6
Reds 62 79.1 17.1
Diamondbacks 74 89.4 15.4
Angels 73 85.5 12.5

On the flip side, most of 2022’s top dogs haven’t exactly ceded their spots – the Braves, Rays, Astros, Dodgers, Yankees and Blue Jays aren’t quite ready to give way. In the middle of the pack, the Brewers, Phillies, Red Sox, Mariners, Padres, Twins and Guardians are hanging on while they try to find a hot stretch the way the Giants have. And while there’s little joy in St. Louis and Queens at the moment, given the talent in those clubhouses, our playoff odds aren’t ready to write them off completely, either.

The next few weeks will be crucial for some of these teams on the cusp of contention. With such a competitive field heading into the month, we might soon be closing in on an August 1 trade deadline that could feature far fewer sellers than buyers. Even the teams with comfortable playoff outlooks will be looking to add, so asking prices will likely be high, and it’ll be interesting to see which teams bite at those high prices knowing their own chances of a deep playoff run might be diluted by the field around them, not to mention an extra round of playoff randomness.

Last September, I wrote about the lack of intensity in the chase for playoff spots, much to the chagrin of anxious Mets and Braves fans enduring a nail-biting division race. So far this year, it looks like we’re in better shape to send a number of playoff races into the deep summer and early fall, with some fresh faces to boot. There’s a lot to sort out between now and October, and the sorting out is the best part. Here’s hoping this season stays messy as long as it can.

Chris is a data journalist and FanGraphs contributor. Prior to his career in journalism, he worked in baseball media relations for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

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9 months ago

This is something I noticed the other day when I was looking to see who was truly “out of it” and likely to sell at the deadline. There are only four teams that are more than 9 games out of both the division league and the wild card: The Royals, A’s, Rockies, and Nationals. The Cardinals and White Sox are less than 9 games back in their respective divisions, the Mets and Padres are less than 9 games back from the wild card, and the Cubs, Tigers, and Pirates are less than 9 games back on both. None of these teams have great chances, and the playoff odds for some of them are abysmal. But none of them are definitely, irretrievably out of it.

9 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Of course what this means is that the ratios of buyers to sellers is going to be really lopsided at the deadline this year. I think it’s fair to assume that none of the 11 teams I just mentioned are going to be buyers. And maybe the Red Sox, Brewers, Mariners, Guardians, and Reds are going to be reluctant to buy. That would mean that there are going to be at least fourteen buyers and maybe as few as four sellers. And some of those “sellers”, like the Royals, have largely traded almost everyone except players under team control forever / would actually be upgrades for other teams.

For this reason, some of the Tigers and White Sox and Cardinals and Mets might think that it makes more sense to sell at least a little bit, even though nominally they are still in it. If there were more sellers, I would think maybe they would just hold onto players and see what they could do. But there are probably only 10 players on the A’s / Royals / Rockies / Nationals who would be upgrades for any single contender and also available. Blackburn, Greinke, Chapman, Scott Barlow, Jeimer Candelario, Victor Robles, Lane Thomas, Matt Duffy, and maybe Lane Thomas, Hunter Harvey, or Brad Hand; that’s it. So you might be able to get far better prospects for good rental players like E-Rod or Jordan Montgomery than you normally would.

9 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I think it will be hard for Jerry Reinsdorf to sell. Even someone like Giolito who probably isn’t coming back in 2024. He’s 87, doesn’t know how many more seasons he will see, and probably feels like he just finished a rebuild and might not survive another one. Since it is almost impossible to be out of the AL Central race, they will talk themselves into not selling.

Of course, they don’t have much ammunition to be buyers either and the team hasn’t done what is necessary to keep them competitive after 2020 and 2021. I think they are headed back to “mired in mediocrity” for the rest of Reinsdorf’s life. They throw Rick Hahn (and maybe Kenny Williams) to the wolves, but as long as Jerry is in charge I don’t see anything more than the name plates on the offices changing.

9 months ago
Reply to  MikeS

No, they’ll sell. Seems like at least once per week there’s an article on MLBTR saying the White Sox are only considering trading their expiring contracts (Giolito, Grandal, and Reynaldo Lopez if anyone wants him) right now, but they’ll definitely do that. I hope they go further and trade Cease, Lynn, Kelly, Graveman, and Middleton.

2.5 years of Cease would return a bit less than the FV60 (Eloy) and FV50 (Cease, ironically) that 3.5 years of Quintana did in 2017, but this team isn’t going to be playoff-ready by 2025 anyway. We can’t trade Robert (control through 2027 so we won’t receive fair value), nor Hendriks (injured) and most of the rest of the team are having down years (like Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada, again), so there’s no point in trading them at their nadir.

Any contenders need either starting or relief pitching for the rest of the season or longer? The White Sox shop is open!

Ostensibly Ridiculousmember
9 months ago
Reply to  Shalesh

The way TA is playing it doesn’t make sense for the White Sox to pick up his option… So he could walk at the end of the year. (Almost wonder if that’s his goal)

9 months ago
Reply to  MikeS

The last I heard was that they would be open to trading players on expiring contracts but only them.

I haven’t heard or seen anything since then but I don’t think it would be difficult for them to consider trading Grandal or Clevinger, so if that is what they were referring to it’s almost a non-story. Trading Giolito is another matter. I guess we will see.

9 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone


9 months ago

Hm, I think I must have looked at his season last at the tail end of May or before he made his first start in June. In the month of June, his ERA has been 9.00 and his FIP has been 5.68. That has taken his solid 4th-starter numbers into 5th-starter territory.

But if you knock him off, that only means there are even fewer guys to trade!

9 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Some of midpack might think of being both sellers and buyers. Instead of a selloff, they might trade from strength to fortify a weakness.

It’s not a common tactic but it happens from time to time and with few sellers it might be the only open path, betting on each other’s underachiers.

Last edited 9 months ago by fjtorres
9 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

There are a couple cheap bats on the A’s that could help a few teams. Of course they are also cheap, so they will likely stay with the A’s.

9 months ago
Reply to  carter

If I were the A’s I would seriously consider selling high on Rooker and Noda. Especially Rooker. But they are under team control forever and cheap so maybe they stay.

The main trade piece they have is Blackburn.

9 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I don’t know if there is any selling high on Rooker at this point. He was hot for about a month and now he’s down to a .457 slugging percentage. He slashed .172/.254/.313 over the last month.