The end of the season is rapidly approaching, with just two and a half weeks and five full series (plus a quarter of the current Oakland set) remaining. The Dodgers became the first team to clinch a division on Tuesday, and the Astros are right now the favorites to follow them, with the next smallest magic number at 8.
And really, these last dozen-plus games will be relatively quiet, even outside of the AL West. Both East divisions have leads of 8 games or more and should be able to close things out without issue. The Twins have a 4.0 game lead on the Indians, which theoretically could be interesting given that they have a three game series this weekend, but things still skew heavily their way due to their current lead and schedule after that series (both play the Tigers and White Sox, but the Indians face the Nationals and Phillies where the Twins get a pair of Royals matchups). Really, the NL Central and Wild Card slots are the biggest drama remaining in the regular season.
But that’s not all bad, as it gives us a pretty good idea of who Houston might be facing come the first round of the playoffs, dependent on how their duel with the Yankees for top seeding goes. The Twins have almost as big of a climb to make it into second-place in the AL as the Indians have to overtake them, and the Wild Card play-in winner is hard-locked into the fourth seed. And of course, the Wild Card Game, as a single game, is pretty close to a toss-up.
So while the Twins are the most-likely of any single opponent, if you think the Astros are favorites to make up the half-game lead the Yankees currently have in the overall standings (and let’s be honest, we’re probably all at least a little biased that way), that still means the Wild Card Game winner is still the most likely opponent, even though we won’t know who that is until just before the ALDS starts.
How do these teams stack up? Is there one that Houston would clearly prefer? Let’s just take a quick look across all four.
Breakdown of Team Records
|W% vs >.500||0.462||0.4||0.557||0.492|
|W% vs <.500||0.738||0.696||0.612||0.671|
|W% vs HOU||0.571||0.429||0.389||0.571|
The Twins, as division leaders, are the obvious leaders here, but there’s a little more going on here. The AL Central is better than it was last year, but it’s still the weakest division in the AL, between the Tigers being the first team in the majors to 100 losses, the 92-loss Royals well-behind every other fourth-place team, and the third-place White Sox needing to go perfect the rest of the way to avoid a losing season.
Granted, it’s not like the Rays, who are just three games behind Minnesota, are in a completely stacked division themselves, given the presence of the bad bird teams in Baltimore and Toronto. But the Yankees and Red Sox are definitely harder opponents than the Indians and White Sox, and three games is small enough that I don’t know that I would necessarily say the Twins are in a difficulty tier ahead of the other three.
Fascinatingly, though, the only one of these four with a winning record against winning teams is Oakland. This isn’t really a knock on the other three, it’s just sort of confirmation that none of them are really at the same level as the Yankees and Astros. Bringing the A’s down is of course their failure against teams with losing records, especially the Blue Jays (0-6) and Mariners (8-7, still a winning record but much less impressive when everyone else is taking two of every three or better from them). Had they done better there, they’d probably have even better claims to be victims of geography than the Rays (the cellar-dwelling Mariners aren’t anywhere as bad as the Blue Jays or Royals, let alone the Tigers and Orioles, and the Astros are the only division rival that would match the Yankees in difficulty at the top), but like they say, you gotta take care of business against the bad teams.
Of course, while the A’s’ record against winning teams might be the most worrying thing in that table, the Astros have also taken dealt with them pretty handedly in the season, in the only sample size that I would say approaches meaningfulness, so it feels nullified. Really, all of these teams feel pretty close in quality, which makes sense.
If there’s anything separating out one of these teams, it’s the Indians’ massive disparity between their record against winning teams and losing teams. Helping to pump up that nearly-.700 record against losing teams is a ridiculous 15-1 run against the Tigers. Given that they’re already third-place in the Wild Card hunt as is, I have my doubts they’d hold up in any other division. Anyone can win in a playoff series, but the Indians definitely feel like the softest match-up here (which, of course, means they’re the one least likely to face Houston as is.
Sampling of Team Stats
There’s a lot of bullpen strength between these four, with all of them placing in the top seven in team FIP. Outside of that, though, each team definitely seems to lean more to their lineup or rotation as a strength. But what’s more, most of them will be playing below full strength in their weakest aspects come October. In Cleveland, it’s less of a guarantee that Jose Ramirez will miss the postseason, but it’s also less of a guarantee that they’ll make it in the first place, and their lineup is already the weakest of the bunch.
For the Rays, third baseman Yandy Diaz (118 wRC+) and second baseman Brandon Lowe (128), two of the team’s four or five best hitters, are both out for the rest of the season, and the rotation of players filling those gaps have definitely left the lineup weaker. This is a team that’s struggled to score runs throughout the season (currently tenth in the AL), and there’s a real chance they wind up running a Division Series lineup that features three corner bats (Ji-Man Choi, Avisail Garcia, and whoever plays third) with wRC+s below 110 and a bottom half of the order that’s all below 100. And if Garcia, Tommy Pham, or defensive whiz Kevin Kiermaier’s current lingering injuries become something worse and they need to go even deeper on the depth chart, things could get into Indians-offense-territory very fast.
Meanwhile, the Twins and Athletics will both be dealing with drug suspensions in their rotations, given the rules banning players who test positive for PEDs playing in the postseasons. Frankie Montas was Oakland’s best starter throughout the year (2.90 FIP in 90.0 IP), and the team will likely need to hope the recently-returned Sean Manaea (just two starts back from shoulder surgery) is ready to go at full-strength ASAP. Although, even if he is, he’ll likely be burned for the Wild Card game and see just one game in the Division Series. Their other options for the double-DS start are much less inspiring: Chris Bassitt? Brett Anderson? Mike Fiers? Homer Bailey? Tanner Roark? All of them are competent, but none feels like a “two-times-in-a-playoff-series” starter the way peak Manaea or Montas has.
The Twins’ loss of Michael Pineda, who was also suspended for performance-enhancing drugs, doesn’t look as rough in comparison. Pineda has definitely been better than Martín Pérez, who will replace him in the rotation, but he wasn’t the ace of the staff. However, they also had the worst defense of this quartet, and it will be hurt even further by the absence of Byron Buxton in center. Old friend Marwin Gonzalez had shifted from super-subbing to playing the everyday right fielder, but it meant a worse bat and glove in the outfield (Buxton had him beat in both this year), and to make matters even worse, now Marwin is injured with no estimated return on his part. None of those problems seem anywhere as big as the ones facing Tampa, Cleveland, or Oakland, but that’s still a lot of uncertainty for a team that’s almost guaranteed to be heading into any postseason matchup as the lower seed.
In a short series, none of those may matter, but the larger point is that all four have flaws in their roster constructions that could be exploited in a five-game set. Cleveland is still the weakest overall and would be the best draw for Houston to face in the first round, but those problems are also things that make them the least likely to make it that far in the first place. And the injuries and suspensions facing Tampa and Oakland definitely seem like the sort that could cause them notable problems, especially following a Wild Card match. On the whole, the Twins seem to have the fewest issues currently on hand and the strongest full-strength roster.
There are times when the likely Wild Card team looks like it might be stronger than a division winner, but that doesn’t seem to be a given this year, so trying for the #1 seed and dodging the Twins seems like a good payoff.