The 2018 National League Playoff Race
The Baltimore Orioles’ season might be in playing-out-the-string mode, but that doesn’t mean we as baseball fans shouldn’t be excited about the MLB playoffs. I’ll certainly be watching, and I’m sure most of the readers of Baltimore Sports and Life will be, too. That’s just how we roll.
Having acknowledged that, it’s time to look ahead to the playoffs and (more specifically) try to make sense of what is a puzzling NL playoff situation.
The 2018 NL season has been, to be blunt, kind of a mess. There are a lot of solid teams, but no great ones. The Dodgers are nowhere near the 104-win juggernaut of last season and could miss the playoffs entirely. The Washington Nationals are even worse than the Dodgers, barely above .500.
The closest thing to an NL power is the Chicago Cubs, but even they will only finish with 94-95 wins if they continue to win at their current .584 clip. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 2007 to find an National League that failed to produce a team with at least a .585 winning percentage. That was the year the wild-card Colorado Rockies outlasted a mediocre field for the right to have the Boston Red Sox and Jonathan Papelbon river dance on their graves.
This is looking like a postseason that could go similarly, with the NL’s best potentially putting up little fight against the AL’s bullies in Boston, New York, Cleveland or (of course) Houston.
But, since you never know what’s going to happen for sure, we’ll take a look ahead to the NL playoffs anyway.
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The Nationals owned this division in three of the last four season and haven’t finished below second since 2011. That string is currently in jeopardy, however, as they toil in the middle of the pack, well behind the Atlanta Braves.
Even the Braves haven’t exactly been dominant, though a recent 7-3 run did lift their record to seven games over .500. Sitting on a 6 ½-game lead, the Braves will probably be the first NL team to clinch their division.
How are the Braves doing it? Atlanta has been a pleasant surprise, as the franchise’s rebuild is at least a year ahead of schedule. Freddie Freeman as usual is the veteran star, but the immediate rise of 20-year-old Ronald Acuna (.954 OPS) plus great contributions up and down the roster – from veterans like Nick Markakis, Charlie Culberson and Kurt Suzuki to youngsters like Ozzie Albies and Johan Camargo – have made for a dangerous offense.
The starting pitching, though has been shockingly good. Four of their regular starters have an ERA+ over 100, led my Mike Foltynewicz (151) and Anibal Sanchez (134). Yes, you read that right. And while the Orioles are certainly jealous of the Braves’ quick rebuild, they’re probably even more jealous of the Kevin Gausman Atlanta is getting – 2.61 ERA, 155 ERA+ — over eight starts since his trade.
The Braves will probably lock this division up in a week or so, with the Phillies and Nationals left to scrounge for glory from the fringes of the NL Wild Card race.
This was looking like a two-horse race for much of the season, as the Cubs and Brewers battled it out. But the Cardinals also inserted themselves into the mix once Matt Carpenter decided to become super-human, compiling a 151 OPS+ despite a horrendous April, and St. Louis fired manager Mike Matheny. All three teams are within 5 1/2 games of the division lead, with the Cubs leading the way. All three teams are also currently in playoff contention, thought the Cardinals took a hit in this weekend’s series against the Dodgers.
The Cubs are obviously the favorites here, having plenty of playoff experience and a great manager. But there are some concerns. The starting pitching has been largely disappointing (even if you don’t count the injured Yu Darvish), and the bullpen lacks depth with closer Brandon Morrow out with an injury. On top of this, fill-in closer Pedro Strop injured his hamstring running the bases on Thursday night and is expected to miss the rest of the regular season.
The Brewers are capable of running down the Cubs. And while the Cardinals are running out of time, they do finish the season with three games at home against Milwaukee followed by a three-game set at Wrigley Field.
The Dodgers possess five straight division titles, and took the division by 11 games last season on their way to a heartbreaking, seven-game World Series defeat to the Astros. Unfortunately for them, that run of success has not resulted in a championship, and they are now fighting for their playoff lives.
Much like the Central, this division is a three-horse race, with the Dodgers nipping at the Rockies’ heels, and Arizona not far behind Los Angeles. The crazy thing is neither the Dodgers or Rockies are getting the results they should be based on the underlying numbers. In fact, according to Baseball Reference’s Pythagorean Win-Loss (basically an expected record based on run differential), the Dodgers (88-59) should be a whopping 15 games ahead of the Rockies (73-73).
That’s a pretty amazing spread, however it’s not a perfect signal for what’s going on. Yes, the Dodgers do lead the NL in run differential (+1.0) while the Rockies are about even, but LA has been dogged by a mediocre bullpen. It’s a pen that ranks just ninth in the NL (per FanGraphs WAR) and has been exposed for lack of depth while ace closer Kenley Jansen has battled health problems.
When you look at the fact that the Rockies and Diamondbacks have also had bullpen issues, you have to figure this division is too close to call.
NL Wild Cards
You wanna get nuts? Let’s get nuts.
While the AL playoff teams have pretty much been decided barring an epic collapse, the NL is still pretty wide open. The Brewers are in good shape to take either the Central Division or No. 1 wild card spot, but even that is hardly decided. The Dodgers and Cardinals are tied for the second wild-card spot, just three games back. The Diamondbacks are still in the mix, too, as are the Phillies and Nationals, though they might simply have too many teams to leap-frog.
When you consider that the Central and West divisions are still very much up for grabs, it looks like six teams fighting for four playoff spots (eight, if you’re giving the Phillies and Nats a shot).
That could make for a nutty final two weeks of the season, with plenty of key series that could play an outsized role in the postseason matchups.
The Rockies have it particularly rough, with series against the Dodgers, D-backs and Phillies still to play. In addition to playing the Rockies, Philadelphia still has seven games against the Braves. And rivals St. Louis and Chicago end their season with a three-game series that could decide the division title. It’s going to be a fun ride to the finish.
Here are the key series remaining:
Dodgers vs. Rockies: 9/17-19
Dodgers vs. D-backs: 9/24-26
Rockies vs. D-backs: 9/21-23
Cubs vs. D-backs: 9/17-19
Cubs vs. Cardinals: 9/28-30
Brewers vs. Cardinals: 9/24-26
Phillies vs. Braves: 9/20-23, 28-30
Phillies vs. Rockies: 9/24-27
Bob Harkins is a former editor and writer for Time Warner Cable Sports in Los Angeles, where he helped cover the Dodgers and Lakers. Prior to that, he was a senior editor and writer for NBCSports.com, leading the site’s coverage of Major League Baseball for nine seasons. He always believed that Major League catcher was the toughest job in sports -- until he wrote a series on professional rodeo cowboys. Talk about tough!