Dynamics of the NL Wildcard Race
NL WILDCARD SPOTS MAY BE DETERMINED BY WHO HAS THE EASIEST SCHEDULES
Yesterday here in the NOTEBOOK we talked about the exciting race for the Wildcard spots in the American League. The National League race is certainly up for grabs as well. But, the dynamics are very different. The two teams currently best positioned for a run have very easy schedules the rest of the way. And, the NL West race is now such that third place Arizona is closer to the top of its own division than it is to the Wildcard spots.
That makes breaking things down a little tricky. The best way to simplify it is this:
Washington and Cincinnati are the two best teams in the NL, and are currently about 90% to reach the playoffs according to the standings page at ESPN's website. Even if they don't hold onto their respective divisional leads in the NL East and NL Central, they're very likely going to be playing in October anyway as Wildcards.
Atlanta and Pittsburgh are on the heels of the aforementioned teams, and currently have some distance from the pack in terms of earning the two NL Wildcard spots. ESPN says they're about 75% to reach the postseason because of their current positioning and the ease of their remaining schedules. Either could catch the team in front of them for first. Both have easy pathways that will aide them in protecting their turf.
The NL West will probably be sending only one representative to the playoffs...the division winner. THAT'S turned into a very interesting race because San Francisco has slumped a bit, the LA Dodgers are up and down depending on their health, and Arizona has played its way into the race by beating up on a very soft recent schedule. At the moment, San Francisco is in the lead...which means we'll be listing the Dodgers and Diamondbacks in the Wildcard discussion.
With that as the backdrop, let's pick up with yesterday's format so you get a better sense of how things are likely to play out...and what it would take for any surprises to occur. Because of publication deadlines we'll be using data updated through the games of Tuesday Night.
WILDCARD RACE (through Tuesday Night)
LA Dodgers 56-49
St. Louis 55-48
That just lays out the numbers for what we had already described to you in words. Pittsburgh and Atlanta have some distance over the field right now. Both are in very good shape to reach at least 90 wins. A 90-72 record would be 18 games over .500...and both were already 15 games over .500 through Tuesday's action. That's TWO MONTHS to pick up just three more games over .500 to reach a landmark that usually qualifies. If this year we're destined to see 95 wins be the Wildcard target because so many bad teams are making wins easier for the good teams...it's still obviously the Pirates and Braves best positioned to make it.
We've mentioned easy schedules a few times already. Yesterday in the American League you saw that most contenders were dealing with average opponent records around 52-49 give or take a game. Here's what's ahead for the NL teams listed above as tabulated by the great Baseball-reference website. Again, we'll use the order from above so you can see how the leaders compare to those chasing them.
STRENGTH OF REMAINING SCHEDULE
Pittsburgh's opponents' average: 50-53
Atlanta's opponents' average: 48-54
LA Dodgers' opponents' average: 50-52
St. Louis' opponents' average: 50-52
Arizona's opponents' average: 49-53
That's right, 50-52 is the TOUGHEST task awaiting any of the contenders! The Dodgers and Cardinals have a fairly easy schedule. But, Pittsburgh's is even easier...and Atlanta's is ridiculous. It's tempting to say "Look out Washington" at the top of the NL East. But, the Nats are at 48-53 according to Baseball-reference. There are so many bad teams in the NL right now that all the contenders are going to have soft schedules. San Francisco at the top of the NL West is looking at an average opposing record of 47-55.
Maybe we'll have a few teams reach 100 wins this year, and everyone in the NL make it to 95 wins...simply because Houston, Colorado, Miami, Philadelphia and company are playing so listlessly.
Let's make sure we've accounted for any pollution in the Wildcard race by checking in on a couple of important indicator stats...
WINS MINUS HOME GAMES PLAYED
LA Dodgers +5
St. Louis +5
Well, that suggests the possibilities for things getting interesting. Atlanta's schedule has been a bit home-friendlier than the others on the list. Not in the extreme by any means...but enough that it might be polluting the picture a bit. Pittsburgh's position just got stronger because they'll have a soft schedule AND more home games coming up than anyone else. The Dodgers and Cardinals may be closer to Atlanta than it seemed at first, though they'll still be dealing with tougher schedules. Arizona? They're in tougher shape than it seemed for the Wildcard spot, and they were already a good distance off the pace anyway. What's important for them is that they're further off the NL West pace than it seems because of a home-friendly schedule.
RECORDS IN GAMES DECIDED BY TWO RUNS OR MORE
St. Louis 43-30
LA Dodgers 36-31
There we go! There IS a chance things could get interesting because St. Louis and Arizona have had bad luck in one-run games so far to such a degree that regression to the mean may help them surge down the stretch. Their due to catch some breaks in nailbiters, while most of their opponents are due to flip back the other way. In fact, St. Louis is a league power in blowouts. That's why they have such a tremendous run differential this season.
Let's sum up what we've learned:
Pittsburgh and Atlanta are in great shape to win at least the Wildcards because of their current records and soft remaining schedules. Though, here is a potential skeleton in the close in terms of luck in nailbiters. Some teams behind them are better than their current full-season records seem.
St. Louis has the bats to make a run at the Wildcard, but they're going to need some help from opponents pulling upsets on the teams in front of them. It's telling that St. Louis has been on a good run lately but HASN'T been picking up ground in its division because the good teams are marching in lock step against the bad teams right now.
The NL West will probably only get one team into the playoffs. We reserve the right to change our view on that in a month if the teams here pick up steam or if one of the favorites from the other divisions suffers injuries or a surprising tailspin.
JIM HURLEY loves August baseball because his SCOUTS and SOURCES are always on top of which teams are playing all out, and which are just going at half speed because they've thrown in the towel. He has something special for Thursday to be sure. Make certain you take care of business EARLY because of the daytime options on the schedule. Game day releases always go up online a few hours before first pitch.
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Back with you Friday for showcase series coverage of Pittsburgh at Cincinnati. It's a rare matchup that doesn't feature a good team bullying a patsy! We're looking forward to this series that will go a long way toward determining ultimate supremacy in the NL Central.
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