Who Should Come out on Top in Each MLB Playoff Race?
Baseball

Who Should Come out on Top in Each MLB Playoff Race?

It has gotten so epic that we’re close to witnessing something that’s only happened twice since MLB moved to the current divisional format. 

Entering Friday’s action, there were two teams with .639 winning percentages or better battling it out for the NL West title. But it’s certainly not the pair we expected at the beginning of the year after the Los Angeles Dodgers (.717) and San Diego Padres (.617) came close to winning at those clips in the 60-game 2020 season.  

Before the Dodgers punched a ticket for a franchise-record ninth straight season on Tuesday, the San Francisco Giants – perhaps this season’s biggest surprise (though our preseason model had them sixth in the majors) – became the first team to clinch a playoff berth this season on Monday night. 

The defending World Series champions sit just a game back but continue to keep the pressure on with six straight wins, while the Giants had held them off by winning nine in a row in historic fashion before losing their last two.  

Do our roster-adjusted team rankings point to the Giants staying on top? Or does the data forecast a Los Angeles run, much like it did for the Toronto Blue Jays earlier this month? We’ll get into that a bit later. 

But with San Francisco rolling at 95-52 (a .646 winning percentage) and Los Angeles right behind at 94-53 (.639), the NL West is on pace to become only the third division to finish with a pair of 100-game winners the current format was implemented in 1994. 

Divisions with Multiple 100-Game Winners (Since 1994)

YearDivisionFirst-Place TeamWinsSecond-Place Team Wins
2018AL EastBoston Red Sox 108New York Yankees 100
2001AL West Seattle Mariners 116Oakland Athletics102

Coincidentally, the Giants are also zeroing in on the best 162-game season in franchise history, which was 103-59 (.636) in 1993 after they had signed Barry Bonds to a six-year, $43.75 million deal – the richest in baseball at the time. 

As it turned out, the Giants played a leading role in MLB’s move to the current format after they incredibly did not make the playoffs. They finished one game behind the 104-win Atlanta Braves after losing to the rival Dodgers 12-1 on the final day of the regular season. The uproar over the first 100-win team to miss the playoffs led MLB to realign with three divisions and a wild card. 

Since then, the club with the best record to fall short of the postseason was the 1999 Cincinnati Reds, who finished 96-66. They were blanked by Al Leiter and the New York Mets 5-0 in a one-game tiebreaker to determine who would be the NL wild card. 

That hasn’t been much of an issue since MLB moved to two wild cards in each league starting in 2012. The New York Yankees are the best team on the outside of a playoff spot heading into Friday and are on pace for about 90 wins (more on this later). 

So back to our roster-adjusted team rankings, which can help pin down which team has the advantage in the NL West chase. They’re derived from a model that combines each player’s raw value (RV) data. They’ve also been adjusted to incorporate trade-deadline moves, so Kris Bryant has taken his raw-value data with him to San Francisco. RV+ examines how a hitter performs throughout each pitch of an at-bat rather than just the result, while RV- does the same from a pitcher’s perspective.

Our model says: There’s a good chance the Dodgers catch the Giants. Los Angeles ranks first overall in the majors with a combined RV of 129.4, while San Francisco sits fourth at 123.7. The Dodgers hold the biggest advantage in the rotation, ranking first overall with an RV- of 75.4. The Giants are fifth in MLB in that area, but far behind with an RV- of 91.7. Entering the week, Walker Buehler was fifth in the majors in RV- (70.8), while Julio Urias was 10th (77.0).

RV- leaders

With Urias (18-3), Buehler (14-3) and Max Scherzer (14-4), the Dodgers are trying to join the 1927 Yankees as the only teams to have the top three pitchers in MLB in winning percentage. Kevin Gausman was the only Giant in the top 20 in RV- entering the week, ranking seventh (72.7). 

Key Series: Padres at Dodgers, Sept. 28-30; Padres at Giants, Oct. 1-3

The NL East Race

The Braves won just eight of 20 since a 16-2 stretch in August put them in position to claim a fourth straight division title. They’ll gladly take it if no one else wants it as the Philadelphia Phillies (3.0 games back) have dropped eight of 13 – including a 4-6 mark against the Miami Marlins, Colorado Rockies and Chicago Cubs (so much for the advantage of a soft schedule down the stretch) – and the Mets (5.5 behind) have gone 12-20 since they were tied for first with the Phillies on Aug. 12. 

Our model says: The Braves’ current cushion in the race should allow them to hold on and win the NL East. Though they’ve had some devastating injuries and aren’t as dominant as they’ve been in recent years, the Braves (110.8) sit in good shape at ninth in our team rankings. They’re two spots ahead of the 11th-ranked Phillies (106.0) and eight spots ahead of the Mets, who fall below the league average (97.4). Atlanta’s biggest advantage is at the plate, where it rates fourth in the majors in RV+. Freddie Freeman has led the way, ranking fourth with a 167.0 RV+ and 18th with a 164.8 BIP+.

Key series: Phillies at Braves, Sept 26-30; Mets at Braves, Oct. 1-3

The AL Wild Card Chase

At the start of September, we were trying to make sense of why our raw value model ranked the Blue Jays fifth in the majors. At that time, Toronto seemed to be a long shot at 4.5 games back in the wild-card chase. Well, the Jays have gone 13-2 in the two weeks that have passed to erase that deficit while the Yankees (6-13), Red Sox (4-6), Seattle Mariners (3-6) and Oakland A’s (11-18) have experienced fades. Entering Friday, Toronto (82-64) sits in a virtual tie with Boston (83-65) for the two postseason spots, while New York (82-65) sits a half-game back.

Our model says: It’s the Blue Jays and Red Sox, though it’s bound to be close between Boston and New York for the second spot. The Jays are third overall in the team rankings (126.1), and it certainly helps when you have both an AL Cy Young candidate in Robbie Ray (14th with an RV- of 80.5) and an AL MVP candidate in Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (second in RV+ at 175.6). The Red Sox are fifth (118.9) and the Yanks are sixth (117.3). It could come down to their series at Fenway Park later this month.

Along those lines, we’ve heard what some fans are asking about interleague play and whether it has given an advantage to certain teams. Well, we have answers. Using a model that measures opponent RV, we’ve been able to establish which teams have had the easiest and the most difficult schedules this season. (Note: Opponent RV is the club’s total RV throughout the season – not at the time the teams played.) 

According to this model, the A’s have had the easiest run to this point with an opponent RV of 99.78, followed closely by the Jays (99.82) and the Yankees (100.0). But the Red Sox (101.0) and the Mariners (101.3) might have more legitimate beefs as they both rank in the top 10 in terms of the most difficult slates in MLB.

highest opponent raw value

Key Series: Yankees at Red Sox, Sept. 24-26; Yankees at Blue Jays, Sept. 28-30

The NL Wild Card Race

The St. Louis Cardinals were left for dead at 55-56 and eight games out of the second wild-card spot on Aug. 8. Since then, they’ve been one of MLB’s biggest stories of the past five weeks, going 21-13 – including seven wins in their last eight games (against the Dodgers, Reds and Mets) – and moving into the second wild-card lead by half-game over the Padres and a full game over the Reds.

We documented the struggles of the Phillies and Mets earlier, and the Reds have dropped 12 of 17 while facing clubs like the Marlins, Detroit Tigers, Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates. The Padres have gone from a postseason sure thing to a team that’s probably going to be on the outside after losing 21 of 30 as injuries and ineffectiveness finally caught up to them. Since going 7-2 with a 2.44 ERA in his first 16 starts, San Diego “ace” Yu Darvish is 1-8 with a 7.67 ERA over his last 11. 

Our model says: Though the Cardinals (20th, 93.8) have been hot, the Reds (12th, 106.4) and Padres (13th, 104.0) remain well ahead of them in the team rankings and could easily make up their narrow deficits. The Reds hold a big edge over the other two in starting pitching, ranking ninth in the majors with an RV- of 95.9. Tyler Mahle and Luis Castillo both ranked in the top 20 in RV-, whiff+ and command+ entering the week.

As you might expect, our model reveals that the Reds and Cardinals have had easier paths than the Padres in the competitive NL West. And San Diego’s schedule is brutal the rest of the way with series against the Giants (2), Cardinals, Braves and Dodgers remaining. Good luck. Don’t be surprised if it’s the Cardinals and Reds.

Key Series: Padres at Cardinals, Sept. 17-19; Dodgers at Reds, Sept. 17-19


Research support provided by Evan Boyd. Design by Matt Sisneros.