With three weeks to go in the season, most people are still waiting for some clarity in the American League postseason race. With seemingly half the league within four games of a wild card spot, this year has the potential to end in the most hectic last weekend in a long time. Can we at least make an educated guess towards how the season will finish? I believe we can.
To clear up the waters, the first step should be analyzing the strength of schedule for the playoff hopefuls in September. Houston and Cleveland have all but locked up their playoff spots, leaving the Wild Card and possibly the AL East up for grabs. After all, the Yankees sit just four games back of the Red Sox.
For the nine teams in the playoff “hunt”, then, we should rank them based on their remaining schedule, and the winning percentage of their upcoming opponents:
The Yankees are smack-dab in the middle of the easiest-to-toughest opponent pack. Their upcoming opponents have a combined .4939 winning percentage through the season, putting them in a better position than Tampa Bay, but teams like Kansas City do have a slightly easier upcoming schedule.
There are a few adjustments that need to be made for this ranking, though. First, some clubs are more likely to win a random game simply because they’re better teams. Kansas City may have an easier schedule, but is less likely to win any random game than the Yankees are, because the Bombers are a better team. To account for this, I plotted a team’s upcoming schedule against the team’s existing run differential:
The premise here is pretty simple; teams want to see themselves in the top left of the graph. Farther to the left indicates an easier upcoming schedule, while closer to the top indicates a better run differential and therefore a stronger true talent team.
The only teams currently in the “sweet spot” of these metrics are the Yankees, the Red Sox and Texas Rangers. It’s increasingly clear that both the Tampa Bay Rays and Seattle Mariners are closer to pretenders. They’re stuck with the hardest schedules while being the weakest teams.
The final adjustment is more qualitative than anything else, and it’s based around who has the most to “play for”. Teams that are out of the race, like the Toronto Blue Jays, have already begun giving time to their September call-ups, giving prospects extended looks at the major league level. This bodes well for teams like the Yankees and Red Sox, who both play two more series against the Jays this season, as it lowers the true talent level of Toronto even further.
Conversely, there’s a real race for the best record in the AL, and the home field advantage that comes along with it. As Houston has come back to Earth and Cleveland has taken off, these two teams can be expected to play the entire stretch run hard to secure the top seed. This means that teams facing either of the AL’s two top guns can’t expect a lineup full of call-ups. The matchups will be as difficult as ever. This hurts the Angels and Mariners the most, as they both play two series against the Astros and one against Cleveland before season’s end.
The playoff picture is pretty cloudy in the American League, and with only 24 games left in 2017, the sample size may not be large enough for the cream to truly rise to the top. The keys in scheduling, however, do help us sift through a little bit of the noise as we approach the postseason.