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MLB’s Hottest Team Is In Danger Of Missing The Playoffs

The general point of the MLB playoffs is to showcase the best teams in baseball with the World Series on the line. (No duh.) But that hasn’t always been the case in practice, even after baseball expanded its postseason over the past few decades to include an ever-increasing array of would-be contenders. Every so often, the system will break down and a really good team will slip through the cracks, missing the playoffs despite its impressive stats. We could be seeing one of those teams this very season in the Toronto Blue Jays — unless they keep their impressive hot streak going throughout the month of September.

The Blue Jays are currently making a desperate push for the playoffs as the regular season nears its finish line, winning their last seven games in a row (and 10 of their last 11). Toronto is now 1.5 games out of the American League’s final wild-card slot with 24 games left to play. But because the Jays would have to leapfrog either the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox while simultaneously holding off the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics (all while effectively having no chance to pass the Tampa Bay Rays for the division lead), our MLB forecast model gives the Jays just a 46 percent probability of making the playoffs. 

As they appear to be peaking at the exact right time, the Jays are not in the worst spot among wild-card aspirants. However, those playoff odds still mean Toronto is more likely to miss the postseason than make it:

Sizing up the American League wild-card chase

Standings and playoff odds for non-division leaders with at least a 1 percent chance of making the postseason, according to the FiveThirtyEight model

Team W L WPCT GB Run Diff. Playoff Odds
Boston Red Sox 80 62 .563 +0.5 +53 70%
New York Yankees 78 61 .561 +36 61
Toronto Blue Jays 76 62 .551 1.5 +143 46
Seattle Mariners 76 64 .543 2.5 -53 14
Oakland Athletics 75 64 .540 3 +57 11

Source: ESPN

Yet you can also make a strong case that the Jays shouldn’t even have to be in this position, fighting for their playoff lives, to begin with. While Toronto has a perfectly respectable 76-62 record (or a .551 winning percentage) in the standings, their +143 run differential suggests a much stronger team. Based on runs scored and allowed (aka the Pythagorean expectation), we would expect the Blue Jays to have a .602 winning percentage, which would see them leading the wild-card race by 5 games over the Red Sox — and send their playoff odds skyrocketing.

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If we sort this year’s MLB teams by Pythagorean winning percentage, the Jays rank fifth overall. Most of their peers near the top of the list are either very likely or all but assured to make the postseason; every other team in the top eight, for instance, has a chance of making the playoffs of at least 77 percent, and six of them have at least a 98 percent chance. At merely 46 percent, though, Toronto stands out in the crowd:

One of these teams is not like the others

Leading MLB teams by Pythagorean winning percentage, along with their playoff probabilities (according to the FiveThirtyEight model), 2021 season

Team W L Actual Pythagorean Playoff Odds
Los Angeles Dodgers 88 52 .629 .666 >99%
Houston Astros 81 58 .583 .621 98
Tampa Bay Rays 88 52 .629 .621 >99
San Francisco Giants 90 50 .643 .619 >99
Toronto Blue Jays 76 62 .551 .602 46
Chicago White Sox 80 59 .576 .598 >99
Milwaukee Brewers 86 55 .610 .590 >99
Atlanta Braves 73 65 .529 .569 77

Toronto is in this predicament at least in part because it’s gone just 13-15 in games decided by one run, while the Yankees and Red Sox are a combined 48-31 in those contests. And the Jays’ bullpen ranks just 14th in wins above replacement,1 while New York (No. 2) and Boston (No. 5) have late-inning relief corps more suited to eking out close games. They’ve also lacked the benefit of a real home-field advantage for most of the season: Before returning to Toronto on July 30 for the first time in 670 days (due to COVID-19 restrictions), the Blue Jays were just 22-22 in their homes-away-from-home in Dunedin, Florida, and Buffalo, New York. Since then, they’ve been a scorching 17-8 at the Rogers Centre — though it may end up being too little, too late.

But overall, this Toronto club would be one of the most talented to ever miss out on the postseason. In all of National League and American League history, only 67 teams have ever posted a Pythagorean winning percentage of .600 or better while also failing to make the playoffs. The bulk of those teams played before MLB added the league championship series in 1969, expanding the postseason field from two to four teams, and all but two came before 1995, when the division series was created to double the field yet again.2 Here’s a scatter plot of those 67 teams, and where the 2021 Blue Jays might fit in among them:

If we look just at post-strike teams, the exclusive (in a bad way) club Toronto would potentially join contains just the 2002 Boston Red Sox and the 2003 Seattle Mariners, a couple of clubs from before the second wild-card berth was added for each league in 2012. But while each team was unlucky in their winning percentage -- winning less than Pythagoras would suggest -- both still won 93 games apiece, and each would have made the playoffs as the second wild-card if the current system had been in place then.

According to our model, Toronto is tracking for only 90 wins despite a star-studded roster that includes seven of this season’s top 102 players by WAR per 162 team games,3 and three of the top six in second baseman Marcus Semien, first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and pitcher Robbie Ray. The last team to boast three of MLB’s six best players by WAR was the 1988 Red Sox, which featured Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens and Mike Greenwell on the same roster.

That team made the postseason, as we might expect from a team with plenty of star power to spare. The 2021 Blue Jays might well end up doing the same, particularly if they finish the regular season as hot as they’ve been at the start of September. But for now, our forecast thinks it will be an uphill climb. Most of the time, the system works -- but sometimes, a talented team is left on the outside of the postseason despite having the underlying stats of a World Series contender.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

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  1. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from and FanGraphs, for which you can download data on GitHub.

  2. Three came in 1994 (the Montreal Expos, Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees), when there was no postseason because of the players’ strike.

  3. Including José Berríos, who was acquired by the Jays from Minnesota at the trade deadline.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.