The five games that swung MLB’s wild wild-card races

When Philip K. Dick wrote “The Man In The High Castle” in 1962, he left many of his major plot points to chance. Dick would throw coins and, using the ancient Chinese divination text the I Ching, let the characters’ actions be dictated to him. “That governed the direction of the book,” he said later. “Like in the end when Juliana Frink is deciding whether or not to [do a big thing], the answer indicated that she should. Now if it had said not to, I would have had her not go there.”

The risk, of course, is that the coins will lead you somewhere boring. A major league baseball season is, in many ways, an entertainment product in which the most crucial plot points — the closeness of the pennant races — are largely out of the producers’ control. A team that is two games out of first place (exciting) can win and make the race closer (more exciting!) or lose a bunch and fall way back (less exciting).

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By the end of May this year there were already seven teams with playoff odds at FanGraphs of 0.0%, months and months of meaningless baseball ahead of them. Lousy for the storyline. On the other end of the standings, few division races have been competitive: None of the leaders in the AL East, AL West, NL East or NL West has had a rival closer than four games since mid-June. The AL Central has occasionally been closer than that, but the Twins have also led by as many as 11½ games and haven’t trailed since April 18. That’s not devastating to the storyline, but it’s not ideal. The ideal story gives us a reason to watch as many games as possible with as much underlying suspense as possible.

And with just a few days left in the season, there are essentially two playoff spots still up in the air: the wild-card spots in the American League, with Cleveland, Tampa Bay and Oakland fighting. (At that, the A’s are around 90% likely to win one.) Everything else is basically resolved. The other eight playoff teams are now playing only for closure and the possibility of an extra home game in October. The other 19 teams are done. There will be no Game 162 hysterics this year.

All of that suggests MLB has rolled some unfortunate storyline dice this year, and what can you do? But I’m here to make the counterargument: This year was great!

It was saved by the wild cards, both of which were densely populated by contenders and defined mostly by abrupt and inexplicable swings among those contenders. Nearly every team in each race put together both a hot streak and a cold streak that dramatically shifted its chances and ate into everybody else’s. With four or five teams competing in the AL, and seven to nine teams competing in the NL, nearly every permutation of the standings lived for at least a minute. An author could write an “If The Season Ended Today” alternate universe for, oh, 18 or 19 different Manager of the Year votes.

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How to demonstrate this entertainment objectively? Consider a team with playoff odds of 40%. It goes on an eight-game winning streak and bumps its odds up to 60%. Before the streak, the team was unlikely to make the playoffs, and afterward it was likely to make the playoffs. We’ll call this a lead change, just as we do when a team goes from likely to win a game to unlikely to win (or vice versa).

In 2019, there have been 12 teams that had at least one lead change in the playoff odds. That’s fine, nothing special. It’s about average: In the previous five seasons, there were 62 lead changes, about 12 per season, with as many as 17 (in 2015) and as few as nine (in 2017).

But those 12 teams this year were responsible for more lead changes among them than any other year in FanGraphs’ Playoff Odds archive, which goes back to 2014. When Cleveland briefly fell a game behind Tampa Bay over the weekend, it dropped from just over 50% to 29%. That was Cleveland’s 15th lead change this year, and the 101st across major league baseball:

  • Brewers: 19 lead changes

  • Indians: 15

  • Phillies: 13

  • Cardinals: 13

  • Red Sox: 9

  • Mets: 9

  • Rays: 7

  • Cubs: 7

  • Nationals: 4

  • A’s: 3

  • Twins: 1

  • Braves: 1

Even in 2015, when 17 teams had at least one lead change over the course of the season, there were only 93 total lead changes. In 2017, there were a mere 39. That was a bad year.

Those 12 teams that have been jostling for playoff spots this year (not counting those that never really got serious traction, like the Mariners and Giants, nor those that started out likely to make the playoffs and never faltered, like the Dodgers and Astros) have averaged almost nine lead changes per team this year, strikingly more movement than in previous years:

  • 2019: 12 teams with 101 lead changes, 8.4 per team

  • 2018: 12 teams with 78, 6.5 per team

  • 2017: Nine teams with 39, 4.3 per team

  • 2016: 10 teams with 74, 7.4 per team

  • 2015: 17 teams with 93, 5.5 per team

  • 2014: 14 teams with 95, 6.8 per team

It can be hard to remember, after a long season, just how dramatic some of the playoff swings we saw were — teams rising, teams falling, teams doing both over the span of a few weeks. It helps to see these swings visually. So consider five games this year that can be seen, in retrospect, as tilt games: A team that seemed safe saw its odds tilt steeply downward. A team that seemed out of it started walking up a ramp to relevance. A team that was peaking crested and tumbled. All these playoff contenders essentially becoming one another.

May 11: Oakland A’s (7.8% playoff odds) vs. Cleveland Indians (60.6%)

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The A’s entered the May 11 game having won two of their previous three games by walk-off — including one against Cleveland — but they were 18-22 and in last place in the AL West. After closer Blake Treinen blew a one-run lead in the ninth inning, the A’s put the first two runners on base in the bottom of the ninth. They sacrifice bunted — the first sacrifice of the year for bunt-averse Oakland — which brought Cleveland’s infield in. That made all the difference: Ramon Laureano popped a ball up weakly — 69 mph, 55 degree launch angle, .070 expected batting average — but, with the infield playing shallow, the second baseman couldn’t get back in time. It landed for another A’s walk-off.

Laureano was hitting .232/.286/.345 at the time. He would hit .320/.370/.610 the rest of the way, and the A’s would begin climbing up the standings — slowly and then all at once. Meanwhile, Cleveland kept sinking, dropping to 29% on the last day of May. On Sept. 4, the A’s finally passed Cleveland in the playoff odds and haven’t ceded the lead since.

June 19: New York Yankees (96.2%) vs. Tampa Bay Rays (82%)

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The Rays trailed the Yankees by just a half-game entering a three-game series in New York on June 17, and the two teams had nearly identical playoff odds. But Masahiro Tanaka threw the best game of his career in the series opener and Edwin Encarnacion hit his first home run as a Yankee to win Game 2. The Rays started their ace, Blake Snell, in the final game of the series. Leadoff hitter DJ LeMahieu topped a slow roller — it went 34 feet — for a single, and that was about as good as it got for Snell. He ended up going only one-third of an inning, knocked out with six runs on the board. The Yankees won 12-1, and from that point on there was really no race in the AL East. The Rays had been relegated to the daily fluctuations of the wild card.

Tampa Bay lost the next day in Oakland — another walk-off — and by July 23 the A’s had passed them in the standings, Snell was on the disabled list, the Rays were tied with Boston for third place in the wild-card race and their playoff odds — having been as high as 93% — had fallen into the 40s.

July 13: St. Louis Cardinals (18%) vs. Arizona Diamondbacks (20.4%)

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Over the offseason, the Diamondbacks had decided they were not contenders, and traded Paul Goldschmidt. The Cardinals had decided they were, and traded for Goldschmidt. But in early July, everything was backward: Goldschmidt was hitting just .249/.337/.417, while the young catcher he’d been traded for, Carson Kelly, was hitting a Goldschmidtian .271/.350/.525. This day, July 13, was the first all season that the Diamondbacks would wake up with higher playoff odds than the Cardinals.

It would end up being the only day. The Cardinals scored a couple of unearned runs after a first-inning error by Jake Lamb, one of three by the Diamondbacks that night, and won 4-2. Over the next six weeks the Diamondbacks would maintain a historically unprecedented .500 run, landing on a perfect .500 record 12 times in the next 39 days. The Cardinals, meanwhile, would get hot like nobody could have anticipated: Since that day against Arizona, they have the best record in the National League and the best ERA in baseball. Six weeks after that game, St. Louis’ playoff odds were in the 80s; Arizona’s were at 2.

Aug. 11: Washington Nationals (68%) vs. New York Mets (53%)

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Three weeks earlier, with the trade deadline looming and the Mets looking to sell, New York was at 4%. Then the Mets won seven in a row, decided they would actually be buyers at the trade deadline, acquired Marcus Stroman and followed the seven-game winning streak with an eight-gamer. They were just a half-game behind the Nationals for the top wild-card spot going into the Aug. 11 game. Looking to sweep Washington, they sent ace Jacob deGrom to the mound on a Sunday afternoon.

The Nationals loaded the bases against deGrom in the first inning. Asdrubal Cabrera grounded to first baseman Pete Alonso, seemingly ending the inning, but Alonso’s throw went off deGrom’s glove and rolled to where nobody was backing up. Three runs scored, and the Nationals made deGrom throw 34 pitches in the inning. He wouldn’t allow any more runs, but his pitch count caught up with him, and he had to leave after five innings and 101 pitches. The Nationals hung four more on the Mets’ bullpen. The Mets’ playoff odds would drop more than 20 percentage points in the next five days. The Nationals’ gained about as much.

Sept. 7: Chicago Cubs (79.6%) vs. Milwaukee Brewers (8.4%)

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The Brewers entered this four-game series four games behind the Cubs, and lost the first game. That put them five games out of the final playoff spot, with two other teams ahead of them as well. But they won the second game of the series. And then in Game 3, Yasmani Grandal hit a game-tying home run in the eighth inning. They kept rallying that inning, but left the bases loaded without scoring.

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Those baserunners would be important, though. In the ninth, Addison Russell made a throwing error — his third in three games. With two outs and the potential winning run on base, Christian Yelich batted — his turn in the lineup coming up only because the Brewers had put those three men on base in the previous inning. Yelich doubled just out of the reach of left fielder Kyle Schwarber, and the Brewers won.

Three games later, in the first inning, the MVP candidate Yelich fouled a ball off his knee and was lost for the rest of the season. No matter: The Brewers (who had already won four in a row) would win that game, and then 10 of the next 12. The Cubs would briefly recover, then head into free fall. From Sept. 16 to Sept. 22, their playoff odds would drop from 77% to 2%, as they lost six games by a total of seven runs. The Brewers, meanwhile, would go from 6% to 97% in the span of 17 days.

The storyteller always runs into a problem: We’re all so attuned to timeworn tropes and steady beats of cause and effect that it is difficult for the storyteller, having laid out the structure of a plot, to truly surprise us. If he says A and B happened, we anticipate that A and B will lead to C. If C doesn’t happen, if the storyteller veers into a wild and out-of-nowhere Y scenario, we see it as a contrivance. The audience doesn’t necessarily want the predictable, but it won’t accept the outlandish. In either case, the plot shows all the fingerprints of authorship, instead of feeling natural and spontaneous.

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