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The Wild-Card Winner Is The Team To Beat In The NL

On Tuesday, I previewed the American League playoffs, and today, it’s the National League’s turn. Compared to the AL, the NL playoffs are much more chaotic. Judging by the teams’ run differentials, there are no clear tiers, as there were in the AL. The preseason consensus pick for NL champion (the Washington Nationals) didn’t make the dance, and the three best teams in the NL all play in the same division (the NL Central), which means that two of them will have to face each other in a wild-card play-in game. One of the NL’s foremost contenders is doomed to sit out the remainder of October.1 Whoever survives, though, will have the best chance of winning the World Series of any NL team.2

As if that wasn’t enough, it’s hard to evaluate two division champions that have seen unusual bouts of good and bad luck, which are unlikely to persist in the playoffs. And the two most surprising contenders (the New York Mets and Chicago Cubs) have ridden incredible waves of young talent into the postseason, waves that may or may not have already crested.

So there are no world-beaters, like the Toronto Blue Jays. There is only entropy. As the field stands going into tonight’s wild-card game, the most likely National League team to win the World Series (the St. Louis Cardinals) has only a slightly better chance than it would if we awarded the Series by picking a team at random. Come the divisional series, there will be eight teams left, and the Cardinals barely have a better than 1 in 8 shot of winning it all.


Chicago Cubs

(Chance of winning the World Series: 7 percent)

The Cubs are the second-youngest team in the postseason (when you weight the team’s age by its players’ production), coming in at an average of 25.6 years, just a smidge over the Houston Astros.3 That’s important because MLB is in the midst of a surge in youth production. The shape of baseball’s aging curve seems to be changing — young players are becoming better earlier and old guys are falling off faster.

You can see that in the accuracy of projections: Players 25 and younger outperformed their projected wins above replacement by a grand total of 43.6 WAR.4 Older players fell short by a nearly equal margin (44.7). These systematic errors in our predictions suggest that teams like the Cubs and Astros, who rely on green talent like Kris Bryant and Carlos Correa, may be better than we think. In addition, because some of that talent was called up in the middle of the season (e.g., Kyle Schwarber), this Cubs team is better than its full-year run differential suggests.

But that potential won’t mean anything if they can’t get past the Pittsburgh Pirates in a one-game playoff that’s rigged to be random.

Pittsburgh Pirates

(Chance of winning the World Series: 8 percent)

Like the Cubs, the Pirates have a tough road to the divisional series. That’s because the wild-card games are so unforgiving. Tonight, it’ll be the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta, owner of one of the most incredible second-half performances in major league history (and the same Jake Arrieta whose path to ace status has been very, very strange), versus the Pirates’ Gerrit Cole, who has one of the most electric fastballs in baseball. Arrieta has the edge.

But Pittsburgh is playing at home, which is worth a few percentage points of win probability. Whether that cancels out the advantage in starting pitching partially depends on how much you believe in Arrieta. If he’s as good as his second-half ERA suggests, the Pirates may not have much of a chance. But pitching is a volatile alchemy; on a slightly off night, when batted balls find a few extra holes, Cole might be Arrieta’s equal.

There are dozens of potential factors that could influence the outcome of this one game, ranging from temperature to manager skill, but let’s not fool ourselves. As hard as it is to predict a five- or seven-game series, attempting to forecast the outcome of any single game between nearly evenly matched teams is as close as you can come to a coin flip in sports. Anything can happen.

New York Mets

(Chance of winning the World Series: 9 percent)

It’s difficult to talk about the Mets’ unexpected playoff run without invoking the name of their chief rival in the NL East, the Nationals. The Nationals suffered a well-documented collapse for somewhat mysterious reasons, which left the door open for the Mets squad to take the lead. The Mets seized on the opportunity, albeit not without some drama.

The Mets come into the playoffs with mixed indications of how they’ll do. On the one hand, they had the easiest schedule of any playoff team, beating up on the Phillies, Braves, Marlins and the eviscerated shell of the Nationals. On the other hand, the Mets have excellent young starting pitchers who throw very hard (more than 20 percent of their pitches are faster than 95 mph, which leads the league). Hitters are extra vulnerable to high velocity pitching in the playoffs, so the Mets should have an advantage in October. This postseason is probably a year too early for the Mets to make a strong run at the championship (same for the Texas Rangers), but don’t let that diminish the joy of seeing Bartolo Colon potentially work his magic.

Los Angeles Dodgers

(Chance of winning the World Series: 12 percent)

The numbers suggest that the Dodgers may be better than they appear. The Dodgers had the fourth-worst cluster luck in baseball this year, doing a terrible job of stringing together their hits and walks to maximize their run scoring. The good news is that there’s no reason to believe such poor clustering will continue into October.

The Dodgers have a top of the rotation that is the envy of every team in baseball, with two potential Cy Young contenders in Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. Kershaw has had his troubles in the playoffs before, but like the Dodgers’ cluster luck, such struggles are unlikely to persist. On paper, then, the Dodgers remain one of the World Series favorites, hampered only by potentially inefficient managing and a mediocre bullpen.

St. Louis Cardinals

(Chance of winning the World Series: 13 percent)

These 2015 Cardinals are doing something we don’t understand: Over the course of the year, their pitching staff stranded baserunners at a rate (79.4 percent) that has rarely been seen in MLB history. As a consequence, the Cardinals have won about six or seven more games5 than we would have expected, given the skill of their pitching staff. It’s tempting to call that all luck, but this isn’t the first time the Cardinals have found their way into historic bouts of run-clustering or prevention.

But even if you take away the luck, this Cards squad is a good one. It has solid pitching, both in rotation and in relief, and a steady lineup getting contributions from younger players. The one gaping hole is at catcher; Yadier Molina, St. Louis’s erstwhile X factor, may be out with an injury. Depending on how much of the Cardinals’ incredible pitching performance is determined by Molina, the Cardinals could be in deep trouble or still in line for a championship.

Read more:

The Blue Jays Are The Best — And There’s An 80 Percent Chance They Won’t Win

The Best 2015 MLB Teams, According To Our New Ratings

Footnotes

  1. Living in Chicago, I’m not bitter or anything. Do I seem bitter? I’m not bitter.

  2. The Cubs and Pirates chances are lower than the other teams’ for now, but once one of them is out of the way, the winner’s odds will essentially double because the coin-flip nature of the wild-card game is behind it.

  3. Who have an average weighted age of 25.5.

  4. Using Steamer projections from FanGraphs.

  5. The Cardinals received a net of 62.8 runs from their cluster luck. Using the standard exchange rate between runs and wins (between 9.5 and 10 runs per win), that’s about six or seven wins.

Rob Arthur is FiveThirtyEight’s baseball columnist and also writes about crime.

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