MLB: American League Wildcard race heating up

August 15, 2023

The dog days of the Major League Baseball season are upon us. Teams currently in a playoff spot will attempt to hold their position over the next month and a half (roughly) while teams in the hunt will attempt to keep close enough in the race with the goal to overtake a spot in the postseason. But as the late baseball manager Frank Robinson once said, “close doesn’t count in baseball, close only counts in horseshoes and grenades”.

Here is a rundown of teams currently in an American League Wildcard spot, and teams within shouting distance.

(Standings, stats and odds are through August 14. Odds are attributed to Fangraphs)

1Tampa Bay Rays7249+5.5
2Houston Astros6852+2.0
3Toronto Blue Jays6654--
4Seattle Mariners63552.0
5Boston Red Sox62563.0
6New York Yankees60595.5
7Los Angeles Angels59617.0
8Cleveland Guardians57628.5

Tampa Bay Rays

Runs per game: 5.17 (No. 4 in MLB)
Opponent runs per game: 4.01 (1)
Record since July 1: 15-21
Odds to make playoffs: 97.1%

Why they make the playoffs: The Rays are probably thanking themselves for getting off to a scorching hot start early in the year and providing themselves with a little room to have a down month (or two). They still sport an above average offense in the month of August (109 team wRC+) and an xFIP good for 8th in MLB this month from the pitching staff despite ace Shane McClanahan pitching just four innings in his last outing of the season before injury on August 2.

With a five-game lead on the No. 3 Wildcard spot, they should be able to hold on and get into the postseason. 

Why they miss the playoffs: With the loss of McClanahan and the impending status of Wonder Franco (placed on the restricted list, MLB launching an investigation into social media posts about Franco) it is easy to worry about what the ramifications of losing McClanahan for the season, and Franco for any amount of time might be.

Already being six games under .500 since July 1 before losing their stars doesn’t bode well for the rest of the year. To pile on top, with 41 games left they have the sixth most difficult strength of schedule in the majors with series against the Orioles, Jays, Red Sox, Mariners and Giants remaining.

Houston Astros

Runs per game: 4.87 (6)
Opponent runs per game: 4.15 (7)
Record since July 1st: 23-14
Odds to make playoffs: 88.4%

Why they make the playoffs: Since Yordan Alvarez came back from injury on July 26th after missing 39 games, the Astros rank fourth in team wRC+ in the majors (125) and third in team RE24 (30.07). The offense is rolling and the strength of schedule is on their side.

With 42 games left to play, the combined winning percentage of their remaining opponents is just .480. The Astros are likely thinking more about catching the Rangers in the AL West than they are losing a spot in the postseason.

Why they miss the playoffs: A pitching collapse. Since July 5 the Astros are No. 26 in the majors in team pitching fWAR (1.3) and have a team ERA of 4.21. They added Verlander at the trade deadline and that should help, but in two starts since joining the rotation he has given up 13 hits, two home runs and struck out only 11.

Framber Valdez in his last five starts has a 6.10 ERA in just 31.0 Innings pitched and is getting hit hard with an average exit velocity of 91.7 MPH and allowed six homers in that span. The bullpen since July 1 ranks second to last in MLB in fWAR (-0.7) with no help in sight. Still, the likelihood their rotation bounces back and the offense keeps producing is strong.

Toronto Blue Jays

Runs per game: 4.50 (16)
Opponent runs per game: 4.01 (T1)
Record since July 1st: 21-16
Odds to make playoffs: 68.3%

Why they make the playoffs: Even with Alek Manoah seemingly forgetting how to pitch, the starting rotation has been spectacular and should continue to be. As a whole, they are sporting a 3.79 FIP, a 24.1 K% and allowing just 0.98 HR per nine innings.

While the offense has been mostly average, they limit strikeouts (5th lowest in MLB with a 21.1 K%) and rank 6th in team OBP (.331).

Why they miss the playoffs: Speaking of the offense — Toronto can’t afford for Vlad Guerrero Jr. to stay in his current slump. Since July 1st, Guerrero Jr. is slashing just .241/.321/.411 with a 100 wRC+. In other words, that is an exactly average MLB bat that they expect to be one of the best hitters in baseball. Injuries to Kevin Kiermaier, Bo Bichette, Jordan Romano and Trevor Richards could have an impact over the next couple weeks.

They’ll need to stave off the red-hot Mariners to stay in the driver’s seat and continue to rely on their pitching to finish the job.

Seattle Mariners

Runs per game: 4.54 (15)
Opponent runs per game: 4.04 (3)
Record since July 1st: 25-12
Odds to make playoffs: 29.3%

Why they make the playoffs: The pitching in the rotation and the bullpen is phenomenal. Combined, they own a 17.8 K-BB%, good for No. 2 in baseball, as is a 3.86 xFIP. Since July 1, the offense has finally found its rhythm with a team 116 wRC+ that is good for 6th in MLB and that is largely due to the 22 year-old Julio Rodriguez finally finding his. During that time frame, the young all-star has banked a .292/.351/.487 line at the plate with a 134 wRC+.

In the same breath, the role players have begun to contribute. Utility man Dylan Moore in his last 53 plate appearances has a 186 wRC+, and back-up catcher Tom Murphy in his last 65 sits at a 167 wRC+. Have we talked about J.P. Crawford being third among qualified shortstops in wRC+ (129) in 2023, yet?

Why they miss the playoffs: Offensive inconsistency. Despite the recent July and August success, the offense is still striking out at a 26.1% clip (second worst in MLB in that time). Offseason addition Teoscar Hernandez has been bad enough against right handed pitching in 2023 (.224 average) that he has essentially become a platoon bat and second base is still a rotation of bench pieces after Kolten Wong was DFA’d in July.

The aforementioned Crawford is currently on the seven day injured list after sustaining a concussion and the Mariners can only hope it doesn’t have lingering effects.

Boston Red Sox

Runs per game: 4.84 (9)
Opponent runs per game: 4.04 (3)
Record since July 1st: 21-14
Odds to make playoffs: 17.1%

Why they make the playoffs: Despite starting August off just 6-6, the Red Sox are still just three games back of the No. 3 Wildcard spot. Since July 20, the starting rotation has held true with a 3.80 ERA and are striking out 9.50 batters per nine innings to back it up.

Star third-baseman Rafael Devers is heating up with a 134 wRC+ (also since July 20th) and if the offense can get on track as a whole – they’re hitting just .244 in August – this team could be dangerous.

Why they miss the playoffs: Defensively, this team is really bad. Defensive metrics only go so far, but check this out: The Red Sox rank last in the league in OAA (outs above average) at -50. The next worst team? The Reds at -19. To compare, the best defensive team in the big leagues has an OAA of +27. Pure and simple, this team can’t afford to go through extended offensive slumps if they are to catch the Blue Jays, or even the Mariners.

The Sox have the third most difficult schedule in MLB for their last 44 games, their opponents have a combined .535 winning percentage. Time to get hot, Boston.

Can the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Angels, or Cleveland Guardians climb back in the race? We’ll check back in a few weeks,

Casey Bellon

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