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Wild Card Picture

The American League wild card race remains unsettled with just 9 games (plus a suspended game in the 10th inning for Cleveland and Kansas City) to go. With so few games the race is essentially a sprint to the finish.

However, the sprint has a pattern and only so many outcomes possible at this point. I took some time this morning to visualize the remaining games in the AL Wild Card race by creating a mathematical graph. Graphs in math are comprised of nodes and paths, and for this exercise nodes are teams and paths are games between teams. I also weighted the nodes based on their odds to earn a wild card spot (according to FanGraphs), and weighted paths based on how many games remain between two teams, including today's games (even the one underway between Detroit and KC, plus the suspended game between KC and Cleveland).

There are six teams with odds remaining in the AL wild card race according to Fangraphs, ranging from the A's odds (92.7%) down to the Yankees odds (0.3%) with the Royals, Mariners, Tigers,* and Indians between, respectively. The Mariners, if you are interested, sit at 41.7% odds right now.

*I am using only wild card odds. The Tigers are at 95.7% odds to make the playoffs according to Fangraphs, but only 19.5% of those odds are wrapped up in the wild card. The rest of their odds represent their chance to win the AL Central. Similarly, the Royals' overall odds are split between the division and wild card, and for this graph only their wild card odds are considered.

Below is the resulting graph, which has two distinct cycles:

AL Central cycle

AL West/East cycle

One observation sticks out to me just looking at the two parts of this graph. The Central cycle has fewer teams and and fewer path than the East/West cycle. That means the East/West cycle is the more "open" of the two parts, which means there is more freedom for more teams in the East/West cycle to go on winning or losing streaks.

It is also interesting to consider where power is based on the graph. One way to measure a team's potential impact on the wild card races is to multiply the strength of the path by the weight of the nodes - essentially measuring how high the playoff implications are in each game remaining for each game in a team's remaining schedule. Here are the results of multiplying odds by nodes in the graph:
  1. Athletics (834.3)
  2. Royals (483.0)
  3. Angels (403.2)
  4. Mariners (375.3)
  5. Rangers (370.8)
  6. Tigers (264.3)
  7. White Sox (236.1)
  8. Indians (189.3)
  9. Phillies (185.4)
  10. Blue Jays (167.7)
  11. Astros (83.4)
  12. Twins (80.6)
  13. Rays (3.9)
  14. Yankees (2.7)
  15. Orioles (1.2)
  16. Red Sox (0.9)
The focus down the stretch will obviously be on the teams directly in the Wild Card race, but there is a strong case to be made that the Angels will actually decide who goes to the playoffs. They have a higher ranking than the Mariners thanks to their remaining series against the A's. Moreover, the Angels have the best record in baseball, so they have the talent to knock off wild card hopefuls along with the opportunity.

However, what kind of lineups will the Angels throw against teams the final week and a half of the season? How much will they rest their regulars since they have already clinched the AL West? Do they care enough about the A's or Mariners to try to steer one of them into the playoffs over the other? My guess is that the Angels will play hard through the A's series, but if they have the best record in the AL wrapped up by the time they face the M's (a real possibility), they will rest their starters liberally. That could bode well for the Mariners.

The graph also suggests that the Rangers and White Sox are best poised to play the part of playoff spoiler. Given the Rangers injury woes and the sudden departure of Ron Washington, plus the fact that Chicago has Chris Sale and Jose Abreu, I like Chicago's chances to spoil either the Royals or Tigers - though their better odds are balanced out by the smaller impact their potential victories would have on the wild card race.

Lastly, the games in the graph can be analyzed as a whole, particularly with so few games left. In such a short stretch basically every team would "likely" go .500. For instance, the Blue Jays have 6 total games in this graph and a 3-3 record in those games is easily the closest approximation to their actual winning percentage when compared to other two most likely outcomes (2-4 and 4-2). Therefore, by simply splitting games in this manner, pressure point games can be identified.

The Central, theoretically in this exercise, works out pretty nicely. The Angels clearly have a pressure point game though. They have 6 games total between the A's and Mariners, which would mean an expected 3 wins in this exercise. Whether they take 2 from Seattle and 1 from Oakland, or vice-versa, would make a huge difference in the Wild Card standings.

If everyone in the Wild Card hunt plays .500 ball the rest of the way, with the Angels taking 2 out of 3 from the A's and dropping 2 out of 3 to the M's at the end of the year, here are the final wild card standings:
  • (Tigers win AL Central with 90-72 record)
  • Athletics: 88-74
  • Mariners: 88-74
  • Royals: 88-74
Begrudgingly, I'll be an Angels fan for the next week, but only until Friday.