Ever since the MLB instituted the second NL and AL Wild Card games in 2012, headline stories have been abundant. The Kansas City Royals became the Cinderella of the 2014 season, going from the Wild Card to their first World Series appearance since 1985. The New York Mets rode a second half surge to get in on the second-to-last day of the season last year. The San Francisco Giants took the second spot a day later. The added Wild Card has made the dog days of August and the late regular season more entertaining than ever.
This season is absolutely no different.
The NL Wild Card seems just about set. The top two spots are currently occupied by the Diamondbacks and Rockies, with the closest teams (the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers) sitting five games back. However, the AL Wild Card is a different beast. While the top two spots are currently held by the Yankees and Angels (Side Note: Aaron Judge and Mike Trout in a play-in game would absolutely be must-see TV), a whopping seven teams find themselves within four games of the second spot; two teams, the Royals and Minnesota Twins, only lag a game back of the Angels.
Biggest Questions for AL Wild Card Teams
This provides a wealth of stories at a time in which the race for division leaders isn’t very hot. Unless the Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, and Washington Nationals completely forget how to play baseball, their spots are all but locked up. Despite having gaps within five games separating first and second place, the Cleveland Indians, and Bostno Red Sox seem to be figuring it out just in time for a late playoff push. The only real divisional question is whether the Cardinals, Brewers, or Pittsburgh Pirates can unseat the Chicago Cubs.
So, with that said, let’s rattle off some of most interesting questions this AL Wild Card race has to offer.
#1: New York Yankees
Question: Do the Baby Bombers have the power to maintain the top Wild Card spot?
The Yankees have been one of the top stories all season. After making multiple moves last season to stock up on young assets, they were able to re-sign flamethrower Aroldis Chapman (whom they gave up for top prospect Gleyber Torres at last season’s trade deadline) and make trades to bolster their deadly bullpen. They have also made moves to improve their less-than-impressive starting pitching, acquiring Sonny Gray and Jaime Garcia.
Their biggest question lies with their greatest strength: offense. This team is very young; five of their top 10 leaders in WAR are 26 or younger, and are susceptible to slumps. Judge’s slump is a big reason the Yankees have been only four games above .500 since the All-Star Break and are struggling against the Red Sox. In order for this team to reach its full potential, Judge has to return to his first half form. The Yankees find themselves in arguably the most important stretch of their schedule, with all but one series (a three-game stint against the Detroit Tigers) either being against division leaders or teams within striking distance of a Wild Card spot. The Yankees can play spoiler to a division leader in the playoffs, but need to get in and get in strong in order to do so.
#2: Los Angeles Angels
Question: Do pitching and defense really lead to success?
Trout is arguably the greatest player in MLB. He’s only played 75 games out of the Angels 121, yet still has a 5.1 WAR and is an MVP candidate. In an age characterized by offense, the Angels hold a Wild Card spot and rank in the mid 20s in most major offensive statistics. Despite great seasons from Trout and Andrelton Simmons, the Angels rank 24th in runs scored and OBP, and 26th in batting average.
So, what has helped them to this record? The fifth-best fielding percentage in the league and a pitching staff that ranks within the top-11 in six categories. That, combined with the high caliber of production by Trout and Simmons, has helped carry them to 2nd in the Wild Card race. Yet, the question must be asked: can pitching and defense alone really be the answer? The Angels hope to prove so. They face a mixed schedule the rest of the way; while facing multiple contenders, they do have multiple matchups against the Oakland Athletics and Chicago White Sox.
#3: Kansas City Royals
Question: Can they stop their skid?
After starting the season 22-30, the Royals caught fire in June and July, going 33-19 and throwing themselves back in the playoff hunt for the first time since winning the World Series in 2015. They’ve recently sputtered, going 6-10 so far in August, and they now sit on the outside looking in. However, despite being in the same division as the Twins, they face the exact opposite conundrum, schedule-wise.
Of their remaining games, 18 are against .500-or-worse teams. Their schedule also includes multiple series against the division-leading Indians and the Twins, whom they are tight in the Wild Card race with. They need to get more out of their middling pitching staff to compliment the breakout seasons of Mike Moustakas, Whit Merrifield, and Jason Vargas. Their road isn’t exactly easy, but if they can catch fire once more, it’s certainly doable.
#4: Minnesota Twins
Question: Can the play better against good teams?
The Minnesota Twins are an anomaly from a statistical standpoint. One glance will show an offense that ranks below the top 15 in every major category except on-base percentage. They hold the 26th-best ERA and allow the 7th most runs. On the bright side, they own the seventh-best fielding percentage and, surprisingly, the most complete games and sixth-most shutouts. However, the stats don’t reveal the most important reason for the Twins success: their division.
The AL Central is one of the weakest divisions in baseball. Despite going just one game over .500 against their division, they are four games over .500 against teams under the mark and three games under .500 against teams at or over the mark. Their ability to not fully sink to poor teams levels and win games against sub-.500 talent will prove important if this team wants a shot at the playoffs. Of their remaining 45 games, 27 will be against teams currently at or below .500.
For them to have any sort of success beyond just making it to the Wild Card game, they must prove that they can play to the level of the better teams in the league. They would be better off playing in the second Wild Card spot; they have a 32-24 road record, as opposed to a 27-34 home record.
#5: Seattle Mariners
Question: Is there a method to Jerry DiPoto’s madness?
DiPoto makes a lot of trades. He’s made over 50 trades in nearly two years, involving prospects, proven players, and players who may never see the majors. The team has shown improvement, finishing 86-76 last year and currently sitting 1.5 games out of the Wild Card spot. Is, is this the year his moves start paying off? They have a solid offense, ranking in the top 15 in the league in runs scored, batting average, and on-base percentage, and a good bullpen, but feature starting pitching that leaves much to be desired. Only one starter, James Paxton, has posted an ERA under four (2.78), and he’s doubtful to return this month due to a pectoral injury.
The last three major moves made by DiPoto were acquiring first baseman Yonder Alonso, and pitchers Erasmo Ramirez and David Phelps. Alonso has struggled this half, following his first All-Star appearance, but Ramirez and Phelps have been solid. Their remaining schedule is highlighted by many games against fellow contenders. This Mariners team needs to keep hitting and hope that Paxton can come back to the form he’s been at all season.
#6: Texas Rangers
Question: How important was Yu Darvish to the Rangers success?
The Rangers have already started rebuilding in a way that allows them to still compete right now. Recently, they traded Darvish in a deal centered around the return of now #2 prospect Willie Calhoun. That said, they’ve played their way into contention without Darvish, going 10-5 so far in August. Darvish was fourth on the team in WAR, but not the top pitcher in that category (Andrew Cashner). This team is power-heavy in every sense. They are second in home runs with 188, but 26th in batting average, hitting a lowly .244. No Ranger is a better example of these statistics than Joey Gallo. Gallo leads the team with 35 home runs, yet is hitting .209.
Despite these statistics, the Rangers still have plenty of pieces that could mean success. They have young talent, with four members of their typical lineup (Gallo, Nomar Mazara, Rougned Odor, Delino DeShields) being under 25. They have the ageless wonder Adrian Beltre, who is currently slashing .309/.381/.542 and recently collected his 3,000th hit. Despite being ranked 26th in fielding percentage, the percentage is still 98.2%. Even without Darvish, they still have a solid rotation and a pitching staff that ranks 15th in ERA. Their main issues are their lack of contact hitting and lack of a definite closer. Their listed closer, Matt Bush, has only recorded 10 saves, which ranks 15th in the AL. However, If they keep hitting well and with power, and if their staff holds on to the clip they have been pitching at, it’s not impossible for the Rangers to make the Wild Card game, even without Darvish.
#7: Tampa Bay Rays
Question: Can they win without the home run?
One of the Rays biggest strengths (which is also one of their biggest weaknesses) is their reliance on the home run. They’ve hit 167 home runs and, including recent acquisition Lucas Duda, have four players who have hit 20+ homers this season. However, this trend doesn’t quite spell out continued success. They have hit home runs in 47 of their 60 wins. That’s a total of 78.3% of wins that featured a home run. The 2016 Mets faced a similar trend last year, as most of their runs were scored by way of the long ball and they did not win often when the didn’t hit at least one. Their run ended in the Wild Card game after being shutout by Madison Bumgarner.
The Rays have been streaky this season; they have lost eight of their last 10, and a lot of that has to do with the reliance on the home run. They’ve only hit home runs in three of the eight losses. There are two ways this Rays team can turn it around and get into the Wild Card race. Either they catch fire once again, or they find ways to win without hitting home runs. Given how tough it is for teams to make quick, long-lasting adjustments, it’ll most likely end up being the former.
#8: Baltimore Orioles
Question: Can their pitching back up their hitting?
Baltimore has a top-tier offense; they’ve hit the sixth-most homers and have the fifth best batting average, and sit in the top 15 in other offensive categories. However, they have a middle-of-the-pack defense, and one of the worst pitching staffs in baseball. No starter has an ERA under four, they have the third-worst team ERA, have allowed the third-most earned runs, and have the second-worst batting average against. These pitching stats are odd, considering their bullpen is rather good. It features former All-Star Brad Brach, stalwarts Richard Bleier and Mychal Givens, and Zach Britton who, over the past season-and-a-half, has been one of the most dominant relievers in MLB history.
Their solid bullpen speaks to just how bad their rotation is. Their acquisition of Jeremy Hellickson was a step in the right direction, but Hellickson still brandishes an ERA over four. If their rotation was even average, this Orioles team might have had a shot at the division. Their poor pitching has made them one of nine teams fighting hard for just two spots.
#9: Toronto Blue Jays
Question: Can they find consistency?
In 2017, the Blue Jays have been one of the most inconsistent teams in baseball. They’ve had three months with below .500 records and, if they continue their hot streak, two months with records above .500. Currently, they are three games above .500 in the second half and only three games shy of a .500 record for the year. There are multiple reasons for their inconsistency. Josh Donaldson spent much of the beginning of the year on the DL with calf issues, projected ace Aaron Sanchez has had four DL stints with finger and lat issues, and they lost Edwin Encarnacion, who hit 42 home runs and led MLB in RBI with 127 last year, to free agency.
However, the return of Donaldson and the breakout seasons of Justin Smoak and Marcus Stroman have kept them in the race. Smoak, at one point considered a bust destined for mediocrity, was an All-Star this year. He’s slashing .296/.371/.579, with 33 home runs and a 3.5 WAR. The only player who is ahead of him in WAR is Stroman, who is currently having the best season of his young career. He has been the one consistent spot on a Blue Jays pitching staff that has seen injuries and down years from multiple starters. His 2.99 ERA has helped the Jays start to get back on track. Even in April, there was chatter as to whether Toronto would be able to turn it around. In August, they are on the cusp of completing a full comeback into a Wild Card spot. If Donaldson, Stroman, and Smoak can continue to succeed, the Blue Jays have a chance to beat their injuries and inconsistency and get into the postseason.
Get your devices charged and your popcorn ready. There is plenty of important AL baseball coming up.