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The AL West Playoff Picture

AL West Playoff

AL West Playoff Push Heats Up as Houston Falters

On September 2nd, the AL West playoff picture seemed clear. The Oakland Athletics held a 2.5 game lead over the Houston Astros for the division lead while the Astros held a comfortable six-game lead over the Seattle Mariners for the second playoff spot in the division. The AL West playoff teams seemed destined to be the Astros and Athletics. Then, the Mariners series with the A’s was postponed due to COVID-19. In Arlington, the Texas Rangers season-long swoon continued, going 3-12 in their last 15 games, and they were seven games behind Houston. Finally, out in Orange County, the Los Angeles Angels bottomed out after trading Brian Goodwin and Tommy La Stella; they were nine games back. Things looked fantastic in Houston.

What a difference two weeks can make.

Now, the AL West playoff picture includes three teams within 3.5 games of each other. The Astros 23-24 record places them two games ahead of the Mariners and 3.5 games ahead of the Angels. We will look at what happened to each team and what’s next for them in their chase for the playoffs.

ALSO READ: The History of AL West Team Names

Houston Astros

At 20-15, the Astros playoff chances looked excellent on September 2nd. Yet, a 3-9 record since then has put the Astros postseason hopes in jeopardy. The low-light? The Angels swept them in a four-game series, including three one-run losses. The main culprit? Pitching. With the loss of Gerrit Cole to free agency this past winter and Justin Verlander‘s season-ending injury, the Astros pitching staff has struggled. Despite an excellent debut season by Cristian Javier, the Astros have faltered down the stretch to the tune of a 101 ERA+, which puts them 17th in baseball. Last year they had a 128 ERA+ which was tops in the league.

Or maybe it’s their hitting. Seven Astros hit for better than a 125 OPS+ in 2019 (if you prefer wRC+, read this), led by Yordan Alvarez’s amazing 87-game rookie season. This helped the Astros end the year with a 119 OPS+, also first in baseball. They truly were a dominant squad. This year, however, they are 21st in baseball with a 94 OPS+, which is 6% worse than league average. Michael Brantley is the only hitter over a 125 OPS+ and he’s missed a handful of games. Not having Alvarez this season has truly hurt an already under-performing offense.

Why they will make the playoffs: They still have a two-game lead AND they play the easiest remaining schedule in the division- a mere .380 opponents winning percentage. Seven games against the Rangers will do that for you.

Why they won’t: Their hitters aren’t taking a walk and their pitchers are giving up too many. Or maybe it’s the curse of Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch. Either way, the baseball world is pulling against them.

Seattle Mariners

At 15-22, the Seattle Mariners were still alive in the race for the second playoff spot in the AL West. Furthermore, they had just beat the Angels two games in a row by one run. Yet, every loss seemed like the beginning of the end for the overachieving young team. That end has never come. Since they came back from their mini-COVID vacation, the Mariners have gone 7-4.

Why they will make the playoffs: In the coronavirus world of 2020, anything is possible. Not enough? Kyle Lewis looks like he is going to be a star. The Mariners have a team filled with players who put pressure on the defense. They steal bags. They take the extra base. Their young pitchers keep getting better with Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn are solid pieces of a rotation. Marco Gonzales is incredibly underrated.

Why they won’t: They don’t have a deep enough lineup and the trade of Austin Nola didn’t help. Plus, they have the hardest remaining schedule in the division since they have to play the San Diego Padres, Astros, and A’s. Their remaining opponents winning percentage is .575.

Los Angeles Angels

At nine games back of the Astros at 12-25, the Los Angeles Angels appeared to be readying themselves for next season when the calendar hit September 3rd. First, they traded La Stella and Goodwin in a span of three days. Then, they began to bring up young players from their alternate site in Long Beach. Next, they began using those young players more and more, including playing them at positions they had not played before. Yet, as they proceeded to make these moves the Angels began to win. The next day they shut out the Padres. Then, they swept the Astros. The Angels are 8-3 in their last 11 games. Jared Walsh started hitting home runs. The bullpen stopped giving up two plus runs a game. The Angels began to look like the dark horse contender that many experts predicted before the season began.

Why they will make the playoffs: Mike Trout…and his blazing start to September: .385/.529/.795/1.324. Or, Anthony Rendon’s monster numbers in Interleague Play  David Fletcher has come off the Injured List. Even Albert Pujols, who tied Willie Mays with his 660th home run last week, is starting to hit with a .912 September OPS. It would be the highest OPS he’s had in a month since July of 2018.

Why they won’t make the playoffs: Their last five games are at San Diego (2) and the Dodgers (3). Not a good recipe for wins. Losing two out of three to the Rangers last week didn’t help their case.

Playoff Race to the Finish

The AL West playoff picture remains wide open with two weeks left in the season. The Seattle Mariners and Los Angeles Angels remain right in the thick of things as the Astros continue to struggle. With 12-13 games left, depending on the team, the newly added second playoff spot in each division is making every game that much more important. If the Astros have any difficulty in their seven games against the Texas Rangers, they might just be sitting out of the 2020 postseason.

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