MLB: Here comes the fun, American League playoff race showdown

September 22, 2023

This is what we watch for. There are eleven days left in the Major League Baseball regular season, but it may well be eleven days of playoff baseball for what is a large group of teams in 2023. The extra wildcard spot added for each league has not only allowed for more teams to be in the race come the end of September, but has essentially extended the playoffs into the regular season, catapulting more teams into positions to fight for their postseason lives over the last couple weeks of games. 

Here, we’ll preview the American League. Who’s in? Who’s out? Who wins the AL West?

(Standings and odds are through August September 21. Odds are attributed to Fangraphs. Stats are through September 20)

1Tampa Bay9460+9.0
5New York76768.5

Tampa Bay Rays

Runs per game: 5.25 (No. 4 in MLB)
Opponent runs per game: 3.98 (1)
Record since August 1: 28-16
Odds to make playoffs: 100.0%

Can they win the Division?: Tampa Bay has lost their two best players (Wander Franco, Shane McClanahan) and somehow managed to get better. Since our last playoff preview (August 15), the Rays have increased their overall runs per game, and decreased their runs allowed per game. They clinched a playoff spot and sit two-and-a-half games behind the Orioles for the division. They’ll face a hot Blue Jays team in six of their last nine remaining games, while the O’s play the Nationals and slumping Red Sox. Tampa Bay doesn’t control their own destiny here, and I would bet on the O’s taking the division with the Rays clinching the top wild card spot. Nobody wants to play these guys in October. 

Why they could see an early playoff exit: The rotation likely goes Zach EflinTyler GlasnowZack Littell in a three-game wildcard series. While all three have been good this year, Littell has a 4.40 FIP in his last nine starts, and is allowing 1.5 HR/9 in that time. Glasnow in his last seven starts has a 4.17 ERA and has been getting hit hard with an average exit velocity of 90.7. Still, if I am the Rays I feel very confident about that trio heading into the postseason. The bullpen has been stellar with a league-leading 2.99 FIP since August 1 and the offense leads the American League with a team 116 wRC+ in the same time frame. 

Houston Astros

Runs per game: 5.16 (5)
Opponent runs per game: 4.38 (11)
Record since August 1: 25-21
Odds to make playoffs: 89.7%

Why they make the playoffs: The lineup is still as potent as ever, leading the AL in team wRC+ in September (131). Yordan Alvarez is back and hot at the right time, with a staggering 199 wRC+ in his last 78 plate appearances. The bullpen is holding the line with a 3.46 combined ERA in the months of August and September. They currently control their own destiny, leading the AL West, but Texas and Seattle are both just a half-game behind them. It’s tough to see the Astros losing enough games over the next eleven days to completely miss the playoffs, but the division is completely up for grabs. 

Why they miss the playoffs: The rotation is the achilles heel for a franchise that hasn’t missed the playoffs since 2016. Since August 1, the group ranks No. 22 in MLB in FIP (4.94) and are walking over three batters per nine innings. Compounding the issue, they’re allowing 1.6 HR/9 during that time and only five other teams in MLB are allowing more. They’ll finish the season with three game series against Kansas City (they went 1-2 vs KC on September 15-17), three games against Seattle and three games versus Arizona. Both Arizona and Seattle will be on the road against teams that are fighting for their playoff lives. The Astros have their work cut out for them. 

Toronto Blue Jays

Runs per game: 4.55 (16)
Opponent runs per game: 4.09 (5)
Record since August 1: 26-19
Odds to make playoffs: 84.4%

Why they make the playoffs: This is a team that is second in team ERA only to Seattle since August 1. The rotation has been No.1 in baseball in ERA since then, and the bullpen No. 4. The offense holds an above-average 107 wRC+ this month and Toronto is 12-6 in September, trending in the right direction late in the year. They’ve won five games straight, including sweeping the Red Sox and beating the Yankees twice in New York. Look for the Blue Jays to ride their pitching staff into a wildcard spot. 

Why they miss the playoffs: Getting swept by the Rangers in a four game series from September 11-14 hurt, and gives us a glimpse on what can happen if they run into a lineup that is hot. The Blue Jays aren’t scoring a ton of runs, and their success is reliant on their pitching staff getting the job done. They’ll finish the season with four games against the Yankees, and six games against the Rays, a team they are 3-4 when facing this season. In their favor, the teams they are locked in a wildcard race with (Astros, Rangers, Mariners) have multiple series against each other to end 2023. 

Seattle Mariners

Runs per game: 4.75 (10)
Opponent runs per game: 4.06 (3)
Record since Aug 1: 29-17
Odds to make playoffs: 60.5%

Why they make the playoffs: MVP candidate Julio Rodriguez is torching the league. Since August 1 his slashline reads .362/.406/.670 with a 193 wRC+ and 14 home runs. As Julio goes, the Mariners offense goes. Kelenic coming back off injury is a plus, with six hits in 25 at-bats (.261) and some stellar outfield defense since returning. Coming off a three game sweep of the A’s the Mariners now face the Rangers seven times, and the Astros three to finish their season. They control their destiny to make the playoffs via wildcard, and win the division. Seattle’s pitching staff ranks No. 1 in MLB in team ERA in September, and they’ll need the arms to bring it against the prolific offenses that Houston and Texas bring to the plate.  

Why they miss the playoffs: The offensive woes they experienced early in the season have come back a bit in September. As a team they’re hitting just .237 for the month with a 98 wRC+. This team will need more than just Julio Rodriguez to step up at the plate if they hope to carry on into the postseason, specifically the middle of the lineup. Eugenio Suarez is hitting just .200 with a 77 wRC+ this month, Ty France is hitting .210 with a 67 wRC+ in the final month of 2023. Look for the Mariners to use the sweep of the A’s as a means to get their offense back on track, and gear up for the final stretch. 

Texas Rangers

Runs per game: 5.53 (3)
Opponent runs per game: 4.47 (17)
Record since August 1: 24-22
Odds to make playoffs: 65.4%

Why they make the playoffs: The offense is on fire again, and it has to be. Only two teams have more home runs (31) than the Rangers in September in the big leagues and only three teams have a better wRC+. Corey Seager has been good enough to be an MVP candidate despite playing in only 109 games thus far, and is slashing .331/.392/.637 in 495 plate appearances. Texas owns the easiest remaining schedule of the Seattle, Houston, Texas group vying for the AL West division, sandwiching a series with the Angel’s between two series against Mariners. 

Why they miss the playoffs: Despite the aforementioned offensive onslaught, they still have a losing record this month (9-10). That’s how bad the pitching staff has been. With Max Scherzer likely done for the year, it won’t be getting any better. Here’s some numbers: In September, the bullpen is second to last in ERA in MLB (6.00) and the rotation is sixth worst (5.82). The rotation is in the bottom ten in walks-allowed and also in the bottom ten in strikeouts. To pile on, those numbers are with Scherzer throwing 9.1 scoreless innings earlier in the month. Texas is hoping to let the bats carry them, while they piece together the pitching to limit damage as much as possible. 

Look for a postseason match-up preview article after the regular season is finished.

Casey Bellon

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