Now that we’re in the dog days of August, we’re seeing a clear separation between playoff teams and clubs that will spend October on the couch. While it’s been said that no lead in August is safe, by my count there are 18 teams that are far enough out of contention that they don’t have any reasonable chance of making the playoffs. Some of those aren’t particularly surprising (Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Kansas City), but some of them come as a shock (Colorado and the L.A. Angels). Rather than dwelling on those who aren’t going to make it, though, let’s focus on the ones that are still – at least, in the eyes of many – in the hunt.
From where I stand, there are six AL teams competing for four playoff spots: the Yankees, Rays, Red Sox, Twins, White Sox, and Rangers. All of those teams either lead their division or are within five games of the lead or the wild card. We still have about a month’s worth of games to play, but without even looking at the schedule, I can already tell you which four will make the playoffs. Easy. The Yankees, Rays, Twins, and Rangers. If you life in Boston or Chicago, you may as well start gearing up for the NFL season. (Chicago fans should probably ignore the NFL season and go straight to the NBA. Only six more weeks until training camp, Bulls fans!) Why can I blow them off so easily?
Rather than looking at the standings or their remaining schedules, I just take a look at their scoring differential. With 120 games behind us, each team’s scoring differential gives us a pretty accurate sense of how good they are. At this point in the season, if you’ve scored 100 or more runs than your opponents have, you’re probably a playoff-caliber team. If you haven’t, I’m not sold on your chances, no matter how close you are in the standings.
The numbers line up with what you’d expect from the AL, too. If you had to guess which four teams would make the playoffs, you’d probably pick the Yankees, Rays, Twins, and Rangers, barring some major miracle, right? And just like you’d think, all of those teams but the Rangers have differentials of 100 or better. (The Rangers currently sit at +87, but the next highest differential in their division is +18 from Oakland. They qualify by default.) The Red Sox and White Sox are both hanging around +60. Feel free to write these guys off.
The NL is similarly easy to make sense of. By anyone’s estimation, we’re down to two teams in each division. We have the Braves and the Phillies in the East, the Reds and the Cardinals in the Central, and the Padres and the Giants in the West. Taking a cutoff of +100 quickly pares the field down to four, but it might not be the four you would expect. In our scenario, our playoff teams would be the Braves, Reds, Cardinals, and Padres.
Surprised that the Phillies and their hitters like Chase Utley and Ryan Howard don’t make the grade? Check the differential of +70 and think again. What about the Giants and pitchers like Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain? The scoring differential of +59 suggests they’re not quite as good as we thought.
The interesting thing is that both the Reds and the Cardinals are in a dead heat with the Phillies for the wild card, yet I feel completely comfortable saying Philadelphia isn’t making a return trip to the playoffs (let alone the World Series). I think the Braves are good enough to win the NL East comfortably (sitting on a 3 game lead and +48 over the Phillies), so they’d need to snag the wild card in order to be playing in October. That’s not impossible, but history has shown us that 30 extra runs in your scoring differential is about the same as six extra wins. If you think the Phillies – or any team, for that matter – can make up a six-game deficit without a miracle run for the ages, you might want to think again.
So if you live in New York, Tampa, Minneapolis, Dallas, Atlanta, Cincinnati, St. Louis, or San Diego, feel free to book your playoff tickets now. Beat the rush. And if you live in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, or San Francisco, it might be wise to stock up on tissues and ice cream. You’ll need them come October.
Follow Sam on Twitter at @TheRealSamOrme.