Right here, headed into September, is where the second wild-card has added so much to the pennant races. If this season were playing out two years ago, the race for the American League West title would be all but irrelevant. The Oakland Athletics and the Los Angeles Angels, the two best teams in the league for much of the year, would be coasting into the postseason, more concerned with aligning their rotations than with winning the division.
Now? Now, the American League West race is perhaps the most fascinating in baseball. The loser of that competition faces a one-game wild-card for the right to survive. The potential opposing pitchers in that wild-card game: Felix Hernandez or Max Scherzer. Or David Price.
Yesterday we examined the races in the NL. Today we handicap the AL pennant races with just more than a month to go.
Los Angeles Angels
Current position: Lead AL West by 1 game
Playoff percentage: 99.8* (according to Baseball Prospectus)
At some level, how can it be surprising that a team that can roll out Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton every day is as good as Los Angeles? Yet for all that offensive potential, only four teams in baseball have scored fewer runs since the all-star break than the Angels, and only two have a worse OPS than their .653. Hamilton, too, appears not to be the player the Angels thought they signed two years ago. Then, his career OPS was .913. In two seasons since: .750.
Add in their shredded rotation – Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs are both out for the year – and it’s tough to figure how this outfit is on pace for 96 wins and could post the best record in baseball. Trout and his .925 OPS would be one reason, and a postseason with him in the mix could be fascinating. But their moves to bolster the bullpen have proved to be shrewd. Former San Diego closer Huston Street has allowed a run just once in his 15 appearances (a blown save last week) and is yet to give up an extra-base hit. Former Pittsburgh closer Jason Grilli is averaging more than a strikeout per inning and holding opponents to a .239 average. Thus, since the break, the Angels have the fifth-best bullpen ERA in the game.
Worrisome: Los Angeles is just 9-15 against Oakland and Seattle. And is Jered Weaver’s 86-mph fastball going to intimidate any playoff opponent?
Current position: Trail Angels in AL West by 1 game, lead wild-card race by 5 games
Playoff percentage: 99.5
No team swung for the fences at the non-waiver trade deadline quite like Oakland, which overhauled its rotation by acquiring Jon Lester from Boston (at the expensive price of outfielder Yoenis Cespedes) and Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Cubs (at the expensive price of shortstop prospect Addison Russell). The result: The Athletics’ ERA in August is 4.33, 23rd-best in baseball. Hammel, who may have been pitching better than the more-prized Samardzija at the time of the deal, has a disastrous 6.75 ERA in his seven starts. The A’s still lead the majors in runs scored, but before the July 31 deadline they averaged an even five a game, and since they’re averaging an even four. The result, part II: After going at least four games over .500 in April, May, June and July, the A’s are just 11-13 in August.
Still, there’s lots to like here. The bullpen has been among the best in the game – a 2.19 ERA since the all-star break. (Concern: all-star closer’s Sean Doolittle strained rib cage muscle, which put him on the disabled list Sunday.) Right-hander Sonny Gray, despite a shaky August, has a 3.00 ERA and looks like an anchor for the postseason and years to come. And should they reach a division series, they could have Lester, twice a postseason hero for Boston who has a 2.60 ERA in his first five Oakland appearances, to lead them.
Current position: Lead AL East by 7 games
Playoff percentage: 96.6 percent
Yeah, they got swept by the lowly Cubs over the weekend. Yes, a pair of cornerstones – catcher Matt Wieters and third baseman Manny Machado – are out for the season after combining to play in 108 games. Yes, big-ticket free agent Ubaldo Jimenez has busted enough that he’s in the bullpen. And yes, first baseman Chris Davis is hitting .190 with twice as many strikeouts (156) as hits (75).
Yet the Orioles are winning what once was an unwinnable division, and they’re doing it handily, having arrived in first place July 5 and building a lead that was once nine games, going 32-16 since the last day of June. They’re doing it because since the all-star break, their bullpen has a 2.41 ERA. They’re doing it because play-anywhere Steve Pearce has an .881 OPS. They’re doing it because designated hitter Nelson Cruz (league-leading 34 homers, .834 OPS) is perhaps the best one-year bargain in the game at $8 million. They’re doing it because right-hander Chris Tillman has a 2.35 ERA and has held opposing batters to a .199 average since July.
Whether a rotation without a name starter can compete in the playoffs is a reasonable question. But the Orioles – with Manager Buck Showalter at the helm — keep figuring out ways to surprise, and their first division title in 17 years would be well-earned.
Kansas City Royals
Current position: Lead AL Central by 1 1/2 games
Playoff percentage: 68.2 percent
Here’s the other division race that’s particularly intriguing. Detroit made perhaps the single biggest splash on the July 31 non-waiver trade-deadline day by snagging former Tampa Bay ace David Price. Kansas City, looking for its first postseason appearance since 1985, responded by doing … nothing. The result: The Royals, who opened August four games behind the Tigers, won 17 of their first 21 games of the month – the best record in baseball during that time – and surged ahead in the division.
Since the break, only five teams have a rotation with an ERA better than the Royals’ 3.20. James Shields is a workhorse (only four pitchers have thrown more than his 185 innings), and he could be on the cusp of making Kansas City fans forget the trade (with Tampa Bay for Wil Meyers) that brought him there (maybe). Since June 24, closer Greg Holland (league-leading 40 saves) has allowed three earned runs (1.35 ERA) and a .145 batting average. And somehow, a team that has only two regulars with OPSs better than the AL average of .710 (Alex Gordon at .802 and Billy Butler at .715) is threatening to become one of the game’s best postseason stories.
Could the Royals last once they get there? In Kansas City, that might not matter.
Current position: Trail in AL Central by 1 1/2 games, trail second wild-card by ½ game
Playoff percentage: 63.5 percent
On paper, these could seem to be the same old Tigers. They lead the AL in OPS. They have the last three Cy Young award winners in Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and David Price to go along with Rick Porcello (15-8, 3.06 ERA), which offsets concerns that Anibal Sanchez (last year’s ERA champ) might not return from his strained pectoral muscle. And the lineup still centers around Miguel Cabrera — who has won the last two AL MVP awards — and is getting a career year from Victor Martinez, who has a .949 OPS at age 35.
But Verlander’s problems – and his 4.82 ERA – have been well-documented. Sanchez is due to return to the rotation over the weekend after being hurt. The bullpen has a ghastly 5.22 ERA since the break, 28th in baseball. And though Cabrera has some numbers others would be proud of (league-leading 40 doubles), his slugging percentage (.501) and OPS (.876) are his lowest since he was a 20-year-old rookie, and he has just nine extra-base hits in 37 games since the break.
So, whither the Tigers?
Current position: Hold second wild-card spot by ½ game
Playoff percentage: 49.2 percent
Seattle’s run to get in this position began in the offseason, when they were the surprisingly able to sign prize free agent second baseman Robinson Cano. And Cano has delivered, leading all second basemen with 71 RBI and an .863 OPS. General Manager Jack Zduriencik sensed the chance to go for it and got involved in the three-team Price trade, landing outfielder Austin Jackson from the Tigers.
But the Mariners’ OPS of .678 is last in the league. They are close to their first playoff berth since 2001 for one reason: pitching. And this isn’t just about Felix Hernandez, whose 2.07 ERA is the lowest of his stellar career and his 0.885 WHIP is best in the AL. It’s a nice place to start, but the Mariners have benefited from a renaissance year from 35-year-old Chris Young (3.17 ERA in 25 starts) and Hisashi Iwakuma has walked just 13 batters in 149-1/3 innings and has a 2.83 ERA. Thus, the Mariners’ 3.20 ERA from the rotation is the best in the league.
And the strange thing? They’ve been better in the bullpen. Anchored by closer Fernando Rodney and his 2.19 ERA, first-year manager Lloyd McLendon can choose among six relievers with ERAs under 2.60 to get to him. That’s how an American League team can have the best ERA in baseball (2.92), and that’s what makes Seattle an intriguing postseason team: it prevents runs.
New York Yankees
Current position: Trail second wild-card spot by 3 1/2 games
Playoff percentage: 12.3 percent
The Yankees’ most-frequent starters at every position are 30 or older except for third base. They got eight starts from CC Sabathia before he went down for the year, four from Ivan Nova before he did the same. They are still waiting for Masahiro Tanaka to make his way back from a torn elbow ligament and have used 12 different pitchers to start games. Catcher Brian McCann (.236/.290/.391) doesn’t appear to be the player they signed as a free agent. They have allowed more runs than they’ve scored.
Yet somehow, they’re alive. Barely, but alive. Maybe it’s the fact that they haven’t missed the playoffs in consecutive years in the Derek Jeter Era, and that karma in Jeter’s swansong season is playing a part. But even if the Yankees somehow wriggle in (and really, aren’t the Tigers, Mariners and Royals all better?), who would they scare? The best bet is they head into their first offseason without Jeter as their shortstop in two decades wondering how to reconstruct this frail, aging outfit.