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Three-Quarters Of Baseball’s Playoff Spots Are Up For Grabs

With the All-Star Game and its many festivities (go Juan Soto!) in the rearview mirror, MLB can now set its sights on the stretch run — and all of the playoff races that come with it. So with some help from our forecast model, let’s dig into the burning questions that will get answered as we approach October baseball.

Who’s going to win the toss-up divisions?

According to our forecast model, three divisions — the American League East (led by the New York Yankees), AL West (Houston Astros) and National League West (Los Angeles Dodgers) — are already all but locked up, with the leaders each possessing a 95 percent probability or better to win. But the other three are fairly close to being toss-ups.

Who has the edge in MLB’s closest division races?

Key stats, strength of schedule and division title probabilities for teams with a 1 percent chance or greater to win a division where the leader’s odds are under 95 percent

Team Record Run Diff/G WAR/162 Elo Past Future Division%
White Sox 46-46 -0.15 27.5 1527 5 30 46%
Twins 50-44 +0.30 39.1 1515 30 13 36
Guardians 46-44 +0.06 33.3 1497 18 19 18
Team Record Run Diff/G WAR/162 Elo Past Future Division%
Brewers 50-43 +0.27 38.8 1530 24 25 55%
Cardinals 50-44 +0.69 46.3 1515 20 29 44
Team Record Run Diff/G WAR/162 Elo Past Future Division%
Mets 58-35 +0.89 47.5 1549 10 21 59%
Braves 56-38 +0.77 49.3 1559 28 11 36
Phillies 49-43 +0.67 42.9 1537 3 27 5

Strength of schedule is based on the average Elo of past or future opponents, adjusted for the quality of starting pitchers.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

In the closest race of the bunch, no AL Central team carries even a 50 percent chance of winning the division. (The Chicago White Sox lead with a 46 percent chance.) Minnesota has been in first place for most of the season, but both of its pursuers have gained ground in recent weeks as the Twins were only 3-7 in their last 10 games before the All-Star break. There are a lot of ways to handicap this battle over the rest of the season, but much of it depends on whether you favor the team with the superior underlying 2022 stats but the more difficult future schedule (Minnesota); the injury-ravaged preseason favorite with the weaker stats but the easiest remaining schedule in baseball (Chicago); or the fun, young upstart sitting in between (Cleveland). Despite the slim edge our model gives to the White Sox, uncertainty in this division reigns supreme.

Elsewhere, the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals are once again locked in a tight race for the NL Central crown. Milwaukee currently holds a half-game lead on the Redbirds, and our model slightly favors the Brewers because they have the higher Elo rating — a residual, at least in part, of their status as preseason favorites. However, many other factors tilt in the Cardinals’ direction, including more wins above replacement1 per game, more runs scored and fewer allowed per game, and an easier remaining schedule. The Brewers’ winning formula is dangerous if their pitching staff can get healthy and return to its previously dominant levels — Corbin Burnes notwithstanding (he remains a beast) — but the Cards bring some serious star power too.

Finally, the New York Mets have a 59 percent chance to win the NL East, compared with 36 percent for the four-time defending division champion Atlanta Braves and 5 percent for the Philadelphia Phillies. For observers waiting on the customary Mets implosion, it hasn’t quite happened yet, with New York holding its own over the past month (17-13 in its past 30 games). Based on run differential or WAR, it’s hard to say with certainty whether the Mets or Braves have been better so far this season.2 Meanwhile, another complicating factor is arriving soon: New York and (especially) Philadelphia will see their schedules get easier from here on out, while Atlanta’s schedule gets much harder.

Will the Mariners finally make the postseason? Will the White Sox, Red Sox and Giants miss it?

Of course, the division races aren’t all that matter when we look ahead to the postseason. In fact, they matter less than usual, with MLB expanding its playoff field from 10 to 12 teams for the 2022 season. That opens up more opportunities for wild-card teams to sneak in the back door and go on a run — and there are plenty of sleeper candidates right now.

Surveying the wild-card field

2022 MLB wild-card standings for teams with at least a 1 percent probability to make the playoffs, according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast model

Team Record Games Behind Make Wild Card Make Playoffs
Rays 51-41 +1.5 68% 69%
Mariners 51-42 +1.0 66 70
Blue Jays 50-43 68 69
Red Sox 48-45 2.0 43 43
Guardians 46-44 2.5 11 29
White Sox 46-46 3.5 15 61
Orioles 46-46 3.5 5 5
Rangers 41-49 7.5 2 2
Angels 39-53 10.5 2 2
Team Record Gms Behind Make Wild Card Make Playoffs
Braves 56-38 +6.0 59% 95%
Padres 52-42 +2.0 68 70
Phillies* 49-43 61 66
Cardinals* 50-44 16 61
Giants 48-43 0.5 38 38
Marlins 43-48 5.5 3 3

*The Cardinals and Phillies are tied for the NL’s third wild-card spot.

Source: ESPN

In the AL, it’s no surprise to see the talented Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays sitting among the wild card favorites, even if Toronto did fire manager Charlie Montoyo last week amid inconsistent first-half results. But one playoff hopeful does count as surprising: the streaking Seattle Mariners, who emerge from the All-Star break as MLB’s hottest team with a 14-game win streak. Seattle was in the mix last season to make the playoffs and end the franchise’s two-decade postseason drought, but it appeared to be mostly a magic trick of close wins and comebacks. Many signs pointed to regression in 2022 — but instead, the team has posted a winning percentage nearly on par with last season’s, and this time it has the underlying stats to back it up. Because of this — and a schedule that looks easier in the second half — our model thinks Seattle has a fairly strong chance to hold off its fellow wild-card competitors and secure its first playoff berth since 2001.3

Over in the NL, the Braves are good bets to earn a wild-card bid even if their division chase against the Mets comes up short. Likewise, the San Diego Padres are in solid shape for the wild card despite having very little chance of catching the Dodgers for the division crown. And the Phillies’ strong spell of recent play (18 wins in their past 30 games) has earned them a slight edge in playoff odds over the Cardinals, as both teams sit tied coming out of the break. Those two teams serve as an interesting exercise in contrasting playoff paths: While Philadelphia has little chance to win the NL East, St. Louis’s entry to the postseason would most likely come via the NL Central title and not the wild card. Conditional on not winning their division, the Cardinals have just a 29 percent chance to earn a wild-card berth.

One final takeaway is that the Chicago White Sox, Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants — three of the best teams from 2021 — are currently outside of wild-card positioning looking in, each with less than a 50 percent chance to make the postseason conditional on not winning their divisions.4 All three clubs have plenty of talent, but through a combination of injuries and underperformance, not enough of it has performed to expectations in 2022.5 Though there’s still time for that to change before season’s end — particularly for Chicago in a very winnable division — there’s a strong chance at least one of those three teams misses the playoffs, if not more.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

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

  2. Both have been better than Philadelphia, though the Phils were never as bad as they appeared back when former manager Joe Girardi was fired in early June, either.

  3. Technically there is also a 5 percent chance Seattle hunts down the Astros for the division title, using that avenue to end the drought, but the wild-card path is far more likely.

  4. This is really only a practical distinction for the White Sox, who could still win the AL Central but have just a 27 percent chance to win the wild card if their division bid falls through.

  5. Of the 28 current players across all three teams who had at least 2.0 WAR last season, 19 are on pace for fewer WAR this season.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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