The Lowdown on the American League Playoff Field
With roughly 10 games left in the MLB season, playoff races are coming down the home stretch. Some of them have been decided for a while, whereas others will come down to the final week or so of play — like the NL West, for instance.
Let’s take a look at the likely AL playoff field, and what you can expect from them this October (Odds via FanGraphs entering play Thursday):
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Boston Red Sox (100% playoff odds/100% division odds/15.8% World Series odds)
These guys have lapped the field, reaching and exceeding 100 wins while no other AL team has more. There’s an outside chance they win 110 games, but if you’ve met Red Sox fans before, you know they won’t be happy until another banner is hanging at Fenway Park.
Why they win it all – Their offense carries them to their third title since the turn of the century. Boston has hit .267/.336/.448 this season — a 108 wRC+ that trails only the Astros and Yankees in the AL. The Red Sox boast six above-average regulars on offense, including MVP candidate Mookie Betts, who has been unbelievable (.334/.429/.614) this season.
One of those regulars who isn’t hitting above average is Jackie Bradley Jr., who is a defensive wizard in center and has been terrific (116 wRC+) in the second half.
Why they don’t – The bullpen hasn’t been bad this year — 3.60 ERA, 9.6 K/9 — but if we were to gauge the trust level of this unit by how fans feel about it, they trust Craig Kimbrel, Matt Barnes and….that’s about it. Ryan Brasier, Heath Hembree and Joe Kelly have had their moments but still aren’t guys a team can necessarily turn to in big spots in October. Tyler Thornburg has been an unmitigated disaster from day one, and from there it’s just mixing and matching with guys who could be OK — Steven Wright? Brian Johnson? — but with no real idea how each guy will hold up to the pressure until it happens.
There will be rage if they get bounced in the first round, make no mistake.
New York Yankees (100% playoff odds/0% division odds/10.2% World Series odds)
The Bronx Bombers might screw around and win 100 games when all is said and done, and still be hosting a play-in game for the second year in a row thanks to being buried by the Red Sox in this uber-tough division. Still, what a year for the Yankees, who battled injuries at every turn and still will have the second- or third-most wins in the league.
Why they win it all – They ride the wave of the return of Aaron Judge into October. The offense was — believe it or not — already good (110 wRC+), but can go toe-to-toe with just about anyone in MLB when everyone is healthy. Eight players currently on the roster have wRC+ figures over 100, and that’s even with Gary Sanchez mired in a season-long funk. There isn’t an easy out in this lineup, and they also have the best bullpen in the AL statistically, too (9.4 fWAR as a unit).
You don’t want anything to do with Green-Robertson-Britton-Betances-Chapman late in games. All five of those guys could be closing somewhere.
Why they don’t – Their rotation isn’t flashy, but it’s been OK this season. Will that work in October? It could, since teams shy away from lengthening out their starters — especially if they run into trouble — but if Luis Severino isn’t on his game, falling behind 1-0 in a series could be dangerous. These Yankees are built to get ahead and stay ahead, and while they have the offense to play comeback, nobody wants to do that in October.
Cleveland Indians (100% playoff odds/100% division odds/12.5% World Series odds)
Cleveland has been on easy street all season long, and will cruise into the division with around 90 wins — right around the number of Seattle and Tampa Bay, both of which will be home this fall. Is it concerning that the Indians didn’t take more advantage of a division with three teams poised to lose nearly 100 games and another — the Twins — likely to lose 85? It’s certainly possible.
Why they win it all – They’re going to be the first team in MLB history to have four starters with 200 strikeouts in a season — Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco and Mike Clevinger. I can think of only one team that can go toe-to-toe with them starting-wise this fall, and that’s only a maybe (Houston). It’ll be interesting to see how Cleveland divides up the assignments, as Bauer’s recent injury issues mean he might be working out of the bullpen. How will he handle that? It’ll be worth monitoring. The offense is also a bit top-heavy with Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, but they have plenty in the bats to get back to the World Series.
Why they don’t – It’s pretty simple: the bullpen. They’re 14th in the AL in WAR from relievers — exactly 0.0 fWAR — and the big problem as a unit has been the long ball (1.6 per nine). They have been better in the second half (0.8 fWAR), but not markedly so — at least not as one might expect after a team adds Brad Hand and Adam Cimber. This is where Bauer can be a great help, but getting Andrew Miller (just 15 second-half innings) back up to speed and Cody Allen (5.18 FIP since All-Star break) back on track are the huge factors here.
Houston Astros (100% playoff odds/99.5% division odds/22.1% World Series odds)
The defending champions are right back where they want to be, even if it’s been with a pesky Oakland team buzzing around like mosquitos during the second half. Houston has the best offense in the AL, a stacked rotation no matter how you slice it and a bullpen that, at least on the surface, appears better served than last year to push the team deep into October.
Why they win it all – This is the most balanced team in the American League, as they’re first in team wRC+ and second in WAR from both starters and relievers. Even if Lance McCullers can’t make it back to help the team in the rotation — or even the bullpen — they still have an impossibly, stupidly deep rotation with Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton. The bullpen is deep and dastardly — thanks in part to the midseason addition of a guy I’m familiar with in Ryan Pressly — and there just aren’t any holes here, really.
Why they don’t – It’s October, and four teams have to go home no matter how you slice it. If something happens, my money is on a bad defensive play costing them a big game.
Oakland A’s (99.4% playoff odds/0.5% division odds/1.7% World Series odds)
The story of the 2018 A’s begins in mid-June. They opened the day 35-36, and in fourth place in the AL West. They beat the Angels — a team ahead of them in the standings — in extra innings that day, and haven’t been back under .500 since.
In fact, no team in baseball has more wins (55) or a higher winning percentage (.688) since that date, as the A’s have gone 55-25 since then.
Why they win it all – Do you believe in momentum? Well even if you don’t — and I don’t, really — the A’s have a bullpen that’ll straight up kick your ass. It’s largely a collection of unknowns, as the most recognizable name is Fernando Rodney, a late-season waiver acquisition who isn’t even working the ninth inning as he did with the Twins. Blake Treinen has gained some recognition after an absolutely insane season (11.3 K/9, 0.68 ERA, 1.82 FIP) and Jeurys Familia is recognizable from his time with the Mets, but you’re probably lying if you thought Lou Trivino, Ryan Buchter and company were going to be this good this year.
The A’s can hit, too. They’re at 109 wRC+ — only the Yankees and Astros are better — and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better defensive team in the AL.
Why they don’t – Billy Beane’s sh*t doesn’t work in October, remember?
Seattle Mariners/Tampa Bay Rays (<1% playoff odds/0% division odds/0% World Series odds)
These are the only two teams still vying for a spot in the playoffs, and coming into Thursday’s action they were 7.0 and 5.5 games out of the last Wild Card spot, respectively. Hats off to both of them for having great seasons — though Tampa Bay has come on like wildfire while the Mariners have wilted of late — but for both, it looks like close, but no cigar this time.
Why they win it all – I don’t really believe in game-to-game momentum, but if either team makes it, it’s because they’ve played like their hair is on fire over the last 10 days of the season. So why not?
Why they don’t – You gotta make it to win it, friends.
Warne is a Minnesota Twins beat reporter for 105 The Ticket's Cold Omaha website as well as a sportswriter for Sportradar U.S. in downtown Minneapolis. He also contributes to FanGraphs / RotoGraphs.