The American League standings are beautiful right now. Or ugly. Depends on your constitution, I suppose. We're currently about three-quarters of the way through the regular season and, while the National League is fairly stratified, things are gloriously unsettled over in the Junior Circuit. Only three teams, the White Sox (16.5 games back), Athletics (10.5 games back) and Detroit (10.5 games back) are truly out of the Wild Card race.
We have four teams within three games of a Wild Card spot and then a few of teams who could join them with a series sweep against the right team. Perhaps you are thinking to yourself, "But a bunch of these teams are crap and don't even deserve to be here." To which I would respond, "Good sir/madam, you might be correct, but bring on the chaos." Can we please have the glorious scenario of a four-way tie with extremely complicated rules and multiple play-in games? Or, heavens help us, even a five-way or six-way tie that the rules don't even cover?
So, it's time to check in on the teams that are fighting to make things interesting before the playoffs even start. We're going to leave the current division leaders out of the mix. Houston has an 11.5 game division lead and is pretty much guaranteed to win their division, much less make the postseason. Boston was always the clear favorite to win the East and, although the Yankees' first half gave us all pause, they now have a 4.5 game division lead. Cleveland failed to create any separation in the standings until this month, but they finally have a 4.5 game lead and look like the the team that came so close to winning it all last year.
After the current leaders, though, there's a mess of teams muddying the waters. So, what can we expect from the teams that are still in the mix? Let's look at them each, in order of their likelihood of making things interesting down the line (according to yours truly), along with some statistics of particular interest and players to watch down the stretch.
Honorable Mention: Toronto Blue Jays
Record: 59-66 (.472 PCT)
Wild Card Games Back (WCGB): 6.0
While the Blue Jays were only a few games back of a Wild Card spot last week, they just lost four in a row. While they aren't quite statistically out of it just yet and could conceivably win four in a row to get right back in it, things aren't looking good. They are tied for the the worst offense in the AL by wRC+ (91) and have more holes in their lineup than they do contributors, not to mention a complete lack of depth. On the pitching side, Marcus Stroman is having an excellent season and J.A. Happ has been great except for his missed time due to shoulder issues, but there's not much after that.
Significant Stat: Toronto has overperformed their Pythagorean (+5) and BaseRuns (+4) records this year, mainly because they have a -82 run differential, which is the third worst in the AL. Frankly, it's amazing that they are even appearing in the honorable mention section.
Paramount Player: Robert Osuna may be one of the best relievers in baseball for most of the season, but he's been struggling as of late and has a 7.56 ERA in the month of August. We're talking about ERA for a reliever here and there appears to be a decent amount of luck involved, as he's sporting a .391 BABIP, but a return to the results of the prior few months would be a welcome development. Alone, it wouldn't be enough to get the Blue Jays back to the postseason, but it certainly wouldn't hurt their chances.
8. Baltimore Orioles
Record: 61-65 (.484 PCT)
Much like Toronto, it's pretty damn amazing that Baltimore is still here. Their starting pitching has been very, very not good, to put it mildly. The staff's ERA (5.65) is the second worst in MLB and their FIP (5.32) is only a touch better at third worst. By fWAR (3.5), they're third worst in MLB. While there aren't a lot of pretty pictures when you look at individual pitchers, the fact that Ubaldo Jimenez (6.91 ERA, 6.17 FIP, -0.4 fWAR) is still inexplicably starting games (yesterday's result: 5 IP, 9 H, 3 HR, 5 R) says pretty much everything you need to know.
The Orioles offense is built to dinger with the best of them, which they have (186 HR, 4th in MLB), but they're 11th in the AL by fWAR (12.1). The offense isn't doing enough to make up for the poor pitching and it's unlikely that they're going to fight their way through the rest of their AL East-heavy schedule to come away with a berth.
Significant Stat: The Orioles have MLB's second best record in extra-inning games in baseball at 9-2. They also have a -45 run differential, so they're going to need win as many close contests as they can if they're going to have any hope to make it into October.
Paramount Player: The snarky me would go with Jimenez (or the lack thereof), but I'll be nice and go with Manny Machado. In the first half, he hit .230/.296/.445 for a 90 wRC+. Since then, he's hit .333/.361/.575 for a 142 wRC+. One player alone won't get his team to the playoffs, but if Manny Machado doesn't continue to hit like "Manny Machado," any possibility of the O's making the postseason is out the window.
7. Tampa Bay Rays
Record: 62-65 (.488 PCT)
Just like the two teams before them, the Rays have to deal with the fact that they're playing their division rivals for the lion's share of their remaining games. The fact that they've got a mess of series against teams ahead of them on this list (Royals, Twins) and NL teams with better records (Cubs, Cardinals) doesn't help. Probably the only team on here with a tougher schedule remaining would be the Orioles. In fact, if it weren't for the strength of schedule, they might get waived a bit higher up the list. Unlike the teams below them, the Rays actually have some pitching, highlighted by an actual possible ace in Chris Archer and some depth in the rotation in Alex Cobb and Jacob Faria. The real problem is that the Rays seem to have forgotten how to hit.
Significant Stat: The Rays' 78 wRC+ since the All-Star break, which is the worst in the league. On the year, Rays hitters have been good for a 99 wRC+, though, which is firmly middle-of-the-pack, so hopefully they'll remember what they're doing soon enough. It doesn't help the Rays' cause that basically gave away Tim Beckham, who had been hitting a remarkably average .259/.314/.407 but has hit .416/.435/.719 since moving to Baltimore. They could certainly use that production right about now.
Paramount Player: RHP Brent Honeywell is the Rays' top prospect and the 14th overall on MLB.com and on Baseball America's 2017 mid-season prospect ranking. In July, he was named the Futures Game MVP. He has a 3.66 ERA for the AAA Durham Bulls this year, best of all, he throws a screwball. So, we all have that to look forward to and the Rays have the hope that his call-up is reminiscent of a certain David Price.
6. Texas Rangers
Record: 62-63 (.496 PCT)
On July 31, the Rangers were 19.0 games back of the Astros and 5.5 games back in a crowded Wild Card field. They'd already cut their losses and traded a struggling Jonathan Lucroy to the Rockies. So, you could see the logic in calling it a season and getting what they could for Yu Darvish before he reached free agency. Well, now they're firmly back in it, just without Darvish. While Darvish is currently on the 10-day DL in Los Angeles due to back tightness, he's currently slated in to start Sunday. While his season before the trade hurt his trade value, in his three starts since going West, he's 3-0 with a 2.50 ERA, 22 strikeouts and a 170 ERA+ over 18 innings.
It's tough to blame the front office for the decision they made and, even though they didn't come away with one of the Dodger's tip-top prospects, you can certainly make an argument that they did alright for themselves. But they're in a position where they might miss Darvish in their quest to make the playoffs and they might really, really miss him if they make it there.
Paramount Player: Yu… Nope. Lucroy, who has improved from a 67 OPS+ to a to a 123 OPS+ since heading to Colorado. Crap. Joey Gallo, then. He's currently on the seven-day concussion DL, but he's also been one of the Rangers biggest contributors (2nd by fWAR with 2.9) despite the fact that he's sporting a .205 batting average. That's frankly amazing, but when almost exactly half of your hits are home runs (71 H, 35 HR), well, yeah.
Significant Stat: The Rangers #blessed 2016 seems to have faded when it comes to their preposterous 36-11 record in one-run games. A year later, they are 11-21 in such games, the second worst mark in MLB after the Phillies. The baseball gods giveth and they taketh away.
5. Seattle Mariners
Record: 64-63 (.504 PCT)
And we finally get to a team that is over .500 in our rankings. Sure, it's just one game, but we're there. Seattle's hopes to make the playoffs hang on a pretty thin thread right now, thanks to the loss of their best player.
Paramount Player: James Paxton hit the DL earlier this month thanks to a pectoral strain. Despite previously hitting the DL in June, he'd been having an absolutely ridiculous season. With a 2.78 ERA, 2.49 FIP and 0.53 HR/9, he's been one of the most valuable starting pitchers on a per-inning basis (non-Chris Sale division). The only problem being that he's only pitched 119 innings. After Paxton, though, the Mariners pitching is pretty patchwork, so if he doesn't come back soon (he's scheduled to start throwing early next week) and continue dominating, Trader Jerry might need to make a waiver-wire trade if he wants to keep his team in the mix, starting pitching-wise.
On the bright side, the offense has been able to keep their mostly unreliable rotation afloat this far into the season. They only have one hole in their lineup, first base, and they've been one of the better fielding teams in baseball.
Significant Stat: 6, the number of games they have left against the Angels, including the final three of the season. It's not really a statistic, yes, but it seems like it's worth bringing up. The Mariners were really in the thick of it until their recent sweep at the hands of the Angels and we might have some must-watch baseball on the last day of the season.
4. Kansas City Royals
Record: 63-61 (.508 PCT)
We mentioned previously that the Jays are tied for the worst offense in the AL by wRC+ (91). The other team that's tied with them is the Royals, so why are they slotted so much higher in the rankings? First, there's the issue of competition.
Significant Stat: 31.6%, the percentage of their games that the Royals have left against the White Sox and Tigers, which makes things a little easier on Kansas City than it does on Toronto.
Then there's the fact that Royal's hitters have improved remarkably in the second half to a 103 wRC+, which is good for 8th in the AL. That might be the not be the stuff that titles are made of, but it might also be enough for the Royals in the silliness that is the Wild Card race this season.
Paramount Player: Joakim Soria has been the best reliever in the Royals' bullpen throughout the season by most statistics, even if his ERA and blown saves might suggest otherwise, and he's currently on the 10-day DL for an oblique strain. The Royals bullpen is not what it was a couple of years ago, and the loss of Soria could prove problematic to the Royals' postseason prospects, especially if deadline acquisition Brandon Maurer continues to struggle as he has since coming over.
3. Minnesota Twins
Record: 65-60 (.520 PCT)
While there have been plenty of teams surprising this season, no team might have done so much in that department as the Twins. I, for one, picked them to finish last in their division, so you can take everything I write with a grain of salt. I keep looking at the numbers and trying to figure out how they got to this point and, what am I doing, I can't believe that I'm putting a team that has a -32 run differential this high up the rankings, but...
Significant Stat: 37.8%, the percentage of games the Twins have against the White Sox, Tigers and Padres, giving them the easiest schedule down the stretch of any team in the AL. While the Twins have certainly been the recipients of some luck, as they've outperformed their expected wins by 6 (both Pythagorean and BaseRuns), they aren't giving any of those back and they should be able to take advantage of the lesser competition to stay in the race until the last minute.
Paramount Player: I dunno. Byron Buxton. I keep picking him to break out and I keep being wrong. Now's your time to shine, Buck.
2. Los Angeles Angels
Record: 65-61 (.516 PCT)
When Mike Trout went down with a thumb injury near the end of May, that was enough for most folks (yours truly included) to doom the Angels' season. They managed to play almost .500 ball while he was sidelined, going 19-20. It may have been a case of "all hands on deck," but the fact that they've been quite possibly the best defensive team in MLB hasn't hurt.
Paramount Player: Trout's the easy answer. Maybe a little too easy. So we'll go with the most important player in that defensive rating. Andrelton Simmons may be hitting .291/.345/.447 for a 115 wRC+, but he still ranks 11th in fWAR in MLB for the season. bWAR is even more generous, and at 6.3, he's been the third most valuable position player in MLB this season. By both WAR calculations, he's been the best defensive player in all of baseball and has meant more to his team than Trout this year thanks to Trout's missed time. His ability to keep his pitchers' batted balls from turning into hits is pretty important for the Angels. Which is important, because the pitching hasn't been very good. But they've had a great defense behind them and they have a not-so-secret weapon.
Significant Stat: 1, the number of Trouts the Angels have and other teams don't. He is sporting a 197 wRC+ and, with 5.6 fWAR, is creeping on MLB leaders Judge and Jose Altuve, who each have 6.0 but have played in 1.5 times more games. No player can make more of a difference to his team over the remaining quarter season than Trout.
1. New York Yankees
Record: 67-57 (.540 PCT)
We all knew this was coming. The Yankees spent much of this season in first place and finally look to have given it up for good since August rolled around. However, their trade deadline moves have worked out, with Sonny Gray, Todd Frazier, David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle all living up to expectations (with the caveat that the results haven't been there for Kahnle thanks to a high BABIP, but his peripherals suggest this is small-sample-size nonsense), even if the Yankees paid for those acquisitions.
They have the deepest bullpen and arguably the best in the game (even without a dominant Aroldis Chapman), they still have best rotation of any team on this list (thanks to the addition of Jaime Garcia and, of course, Gray) and they really do have one of the best lineups in baseball, especially if a certain someone comes around.
Paramount Player: Aaron Judge was the story of the first half of the season, as he hit .329/.448/.691 and looked like he might be able to crack 60 home runs. Regression has sunk in hard and, thanks to his three-true-outcomes approach at the plate and a .180 point drop in his BABIP, Judge has a .176/.346/.360 line since the break. After notching a single and three walks last night, Judge tied the 37-game record for most consecutive games with a strikeout (set by pitcher Bill Stoneman over two seasons from 1971 to 1972) and now holds the record for the same in a single season. Whether Judge can adjust and get back any of that magic he had in the first half of the season will go a long way towards determining New York's fate if they're playing in October. They don't look like they're going to have any problem making that happen, though.
Significant Stat: 1 year, the amount of time that the Yankees' "rebuild" took. Because of course it did.
Note: All stats and standings current before games started on August 23.