The American League Wild Card race is reaching the home stretch. With less than 10% of the season remaining the 162 game season marathon has tuned into a 14-game sprint.
With 2.5 weeks left, the Oakland Athletics (87-60) lead the Tampa Bay Rays (87-61) by half a game, with the Cleveland Indians (86-61) a half game behind the Rays.
At this point the loss column is what matters most. The Athletics have played one fewer game than the Rays and Indians, but they have the fewest losses. You can make up wins, but you can’t catch a team in the loss column without help.
Over the past couple weeks the Rays have gone on a run including a crucial three-game sweep of the Indians at Tropicana Field. However the Wild Card landscape hasn’t become clearer. It’s still three teams for two spots. The Red Sox have fallen from a long shot to nearly mathematically eliminated.
The Athletics have the most favorable remaining schedule. Of their 15 games, the Athletics play six games against the .500 Texas Rangers and the remaining nine games are against teams well below .500 (two against the Los Angeles Angels, four against the Seattle Mariners, and three against the Kansas City Royals).
The Rays have eight games remaining against teams above .500 (two against the Los Angeles Dodgers, four against the Boston Red Sox, and two against the New York Yankees) with the remaining six games being three-game series against the Angels and Toronto Blue Jays.
The Indians have a similar schedule with nine games against teams above .500 (three against the Minnesota Twins, three against the Philadelphia Phillies, and three against the Washington Nationals). Their remaining six games are three game series against the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox.
The Athletics hold the clear advantage in remaining schedules. The Rays and Indians have very similar remaining schedules.
With the Athletics holding the slight edge in the current standings and significant advantage of strength of schedule they hold the highest percentages of making the playoffs with 85.1% at FanGraphs and 79.5% at Baseball Prospectus.
The Rays are seen as favorites for the second wild card at 60.7% at FanGraphs and 76.9% at Baseball Prospectus.
The Indians still hold a healthy 49.1% at FanGraphs and 44.8% at Baseball Prospectus. Both see the Indians as underdogs in this race, but shouldn’t be counted out.
Rest of the Season
All three teams have been in playoff mode for the last couple of months. They have separated themselves from the Red Sox, but all have performed since the trade deadline. The Athletics have gone 25-12 since August 1 with the Rays going 25-13 and the Indians posting a respectable 23-17 record.
While the Athletics hold the schedule advantage, how that plays out gets tricky in September. With expanded rosters and teams falling out of playoff races, teams focus tends to shift from winning the game today to getting playing time for players that might be pieces in future teams.
This can even be seen in the great teams. The Rays have to play the Dodgers and Yankees who hold the best records of any team that the AL Wild Card contenders have to play. The Dodgers have already clinched the National League West and the Yankees will likely have the American League East clinched by the time they play the Rays, as there will only be five games remaining in the season.
Teams will focus on being prepared for the playoffs and when they can will take opportunities to rest their best arms. The most interesting series will be the final series with the Indians vs Nationals. The Nationals currently are 3.5 games ahead of the second Wild Card. The Rays would like for that series to matter. If the Nationals need to throw Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and/or Patrick Corbin that series makes a big difference. You only need to go back to game 162 to see how that played out as Dan Johnson got to face Cory Wade instead of Mariano Rivero in the ninth of a one-run game.
The Rays have been in playoff mode for the better part of two months. They look to be in solid shape, but the teams who play the best over the next two and half weeks will earn their opportunity to play in the Wild Card game.
The Rays continuing to play well will make the ending enjoyable as the journey can be as enjoyable as the destination.