Will a Long-Shot Team Crash the National League Playoffs?
The first weeks of the MLB season are generally littered with pleasant surprises. Suddenly, Ryan Zimmerman appears healthy and ready to turn the clock back a decade to his prime years. Yonder Alonso has altered his approach and already set a career-high in home runs. The Yankees are arriving ahead of schedule (okay, that surprise may not be pleasant for everyone), and the Orioles look primed to continue their projection-bucking ways.
But this season’s early-going has seemed to be mostly dominated with the less positive surprises. It may not actually be this way, but it certainly feels like there are more high-profile teams scuffling out of the gates than normal right now. The Giants, comprised of mostly the same players that won them a third title in five years in 2014, are a mess. The Mets descend deeper into farce every day. The Blue Jays are mired in last place after running to the ALCS each of the past two years.
The unforeseen struggles of these thought-to-be-contending teams have garnered much of the headlines so far. What’s been less talked about is the primary side effect of these teams’ struggles: an off-the-board team looks likely to crash the playoff dance this year. Perhaps not in the American League, where Boston, Houston, Cleveland, and now the Yankees and Orioles all look pretty solid. But in the National League, with the Giants and Mets floundering to different degrees, the pair of Wild Cards appear liable to go to any number of unlikely teams.
Tough Luck For the Favorites
Entering the year, it seemed certain that the National League Wild Card game would feature teams that were involved in last year’s playoffs, or at least teams that made it to one of the past two Octobers. Projections pegged the Giants and Mets as the most likely participants in the Wild Card game, with the Cardinals and Pirates also owning significant Wild Card odds.
The Mets are stabilizing a bit but are far from out of the woods, not with Noah Syndergaard on the shelf and the Matt Harvey drama unfolding by the minute. The Giants are already close to fried at 11-23, and the Pirates are stuck in the mud at 14-19. The Cardinals, after a tough first week or two of the season, have solidified themselves and currently stand at 18-14.
It’s Long Shot Season
With only the Cardinals holding serve a fifth through the season, the door is open for teams to come out of nowhere. Teams like the Reds and Brewers, that had essentially no shot before the season, now have slim glimmers of hope. Also-rans like the Rockies and Diamondbacks now look like they have legitimate shots to make the postseason.
Let’s rewind the tape back to prior to the season. FanGraphs’ playoff odds gave both the Brewers and Reds less than a 1% chance of earning a Wild Card spot. Essentially, the projection systems thought either reaching the playoffs would be a once-in-a-lifetime type proposition. Fast forward to now, while it’s still highly unlikely either will make the postseason, their odds have multiplied. The Reds, half a game back of the first-place Cardinals, have about a 4% chance of making the playoffs. The Brewers, at 17-16, have played well so far and now own 5% playoff odds. It may not seem like much, but the Reds and Brewers now at least have a feasible chance of making the playoffs after fine Aprils.
But the biggest beneficiaries of the woes of the Giants, Mets, and Pirates are the Rockies and Diamondbacks. The Rockies generated a little bit of sleeper-buzz prior to the season, with a team anchored by star Nolan Arenado and a young pitching staff that was flashing talent, but preseason injuries to Ian Desmond, Chad Bettis, Tom Murphy, and David Dahl dulled their sheen. They had just 9% playoff odds entering the year, as did Arizona. The Diamondbacks were mostly forsaken by forecasters entering the season, a year removed from a disastrous all-in gambit that left the team without Dansby Swanson, and instead with Shelby Miller’s now sidelined arm and Zack Greinke’s onerous contract.
National League Playoff Crashers
Max highlighted how interesting the Rockies looked earlier in the year, and they’ve only grown more interesting since. At 21-13 and in first in the National League West, they aren’t exactly division favorites, not with the heavy-weight Dodgers breathing down their necks, but Colorado has to be taken seriously now. They’ve been propelled by the unheralded duo of Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela, who both own sub-3 ERA’s despite calling Coors Field home. The bullpen has been solidified by the return of Jake McGee and the signing of Greg Holland. All told, Colorado is winning because of pitching, as their staff ranks fourth in baseball in fWAR, thanks to the third-best park and league adjusted ERA in the majors.
The Diamondbacks have slipped a bit, going 3-7 in their last ten games, but they still stand just half a game out of a playoff spot at 18-16. At +17, Arizona actually has the fourth-best run differential in the National League, and like the Rockies, it has been good pitching that has the D-Backs in the running. Greinke has rebounded from a tough first year in the desert, and Robbie Ray and Taijuan Walker are an exciting pair of young, high-strikeout arms. Archie Bradley has been a revelation in the bullpen, with the former top starting pitching prospect striking out nearly 12 batters per nine innings as a reliever. Likewise, the Diamondbacks are just behind Colorado in fifth in terms of pitching fWAR at this early juncture.
Will It Come Together?
Overall, the four teams we’ve focused on here had a combined playoff probability of about 21% before the season began. If you add up their total odds now, that figure is above 80%. Of course, calculating the odds that one of these teams makes the dance isn’t as simple as just adding the probabilities: this is just to illustrate how much better these teams look now than they did a month ago.
But they really do look much better than they did at the season’s beginning. At this point, the race is wide-open for the National League Wild Cards. It wouldn’t be a surprise if one of these long-shots prevailed and made the playoffs. In truth, unless the situations in Queens, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh iron themselves out soon, it might be a surprise if one of these surprise teams doesn’t make the playoffs at season’s end.