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Tempering wild card expectations

As the trade deadline approaches, fans want to know if their teams are buyers or sellers. Chances are it's already pretty obvious.

Does this team have a chance of making the playoffs? Are you C-R-A-Z-Y?
Does this team have a chance of making the playoffs? Are you C-R-A-Z-Y?
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

A friend told me about a house with a garage door that had a naked lady painted on it, and while driving to look at it, I was listening to 670 The Score in Chicago and heard a caller ask if the White Sox had a chance to make the playoffs. The proper response to this question is either "No - nonononononononono!" or "Are you high?," but hosts Terry Boers and Dan Bernstein are known for their thoughtful analysis, friendly interaction with callers and a willingness, nay, a calling to educate in an engaging and informative manner. Of course the White Sox can make the playoffs -- all they need to do is finish the year 34-23 (.596) against the toughest schedule of any team with a reasonable chance of making the playoffs. Possible -- yes. Probable? Uh, no -- as of Sunday, July 27th Baseball Prospectus playoff odds give them a 2.5 percent chance.

I sent these basic facts into the Boers and Bernstein Show because the increase in the number of playoff berths coupled with the impending trade deadline has exacerbated irrational exuberance for White Sox fans. The frenzied rhetoric becomes "Are they buyers or sellers?" and "What do they need to add to shore up their playoff chances?" It wasn't helped with the Cubs trade of Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, only stoking the desire for deals. Leaving aside my thoughts on the frequency of trades and the decreased tendency for teams to part with highly-valued prospects (despite that Athletics-Cubs trade), what are realistic expectations for making the playoffs in the modern era, and does much change in the last part of the season?

I don't know the exact formula for the BP playoff odds but I can guess what goes into it -- team performance to date, remaining opponents and their performance, and, as it get closer to September, the number of games at home and against division rivals, particularly those ahead of them. Of these, team performance is easily the one fans disregard -- remember the White Sox need to finish by playing at a .596 clip, and that's just for the one-game wild card. For any realistic shot at winning the division they probably need to win another 3-4 games. Despite the heroics of Jose Abreu and the outstanding pitching of Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, the White Sox are not constructed to go on a sustained run like the 25-5 streak they had in 2010. They could -- anything is possible -- it's just highly unlikely.

Who a team plays is just as important -- is it a schedule full of cupcakes, like the Twins, Astros and Cubs, or is it against better teams? Also a factor is the number of division games and where they're played. In the White Sox case, both work against them -- as mentioned, they currently have the toughest schedule left amongst playoff contenders, playing teams with a cumulative .514 winning percent. Contrast that with the rest of the division:

Team Remaining
Tigers .496
Royals .494
Indians .487

The teams ahead of them have easier schedules, making it harder to make up games. The Sox will have a very difficult September, with 14 games against the Tigers, Royals and Athletics. While these games will give them the best chance to move up in the standings, they're 9-15 against these teams this year -- .400 is a long way from .596.

I've been describing the White Sox but have done the work for all teams in the playoff hunt. In this Google Docs spreadsheet, I've created three tabs that are updated daily -- the first shows team standings in both leagues, what it will take to make the playoffs (defined as equaling the win percentage of the last team to qualify), and the winning percentage of their remaining opponents. The second and third tabs show the remaining schedules by league and are color-coded to highlight both division games and games against teams with .500 records or better.

As of Friday, teams have played around 104 games -- since 1903, teams that are 50-54 at this point have made the playoffs exactly twice, the 1984 Royals and 1974 Pirates. 100 other teams didn't. Teams that are 50-54 usually have two very difficult hurdles to overcome -- they're not very good and have to go on a winning streak that is highly unlikely. It can happen, as last year's Dodgers proved with a historic 42-8 run that propelled them into the playoffs, but it's a huge difference between possible and probable.

I'll finish with this -- there's a very good chance the playoffs are already essentially set. This is how many of the playoff teams were in that position after 100 games, broken down by era:

American National
Era 1st after 100
PO Pct 1st after 100
PO Pct
Wild Card (1995-2013) 59 78 75.6% 56
78 71.8%
Division (1969-1993) 32 48 66.7% 30 48 62.5%
World Series (1903-1968) 56
65 87.7% 46
65 70.8%

Note -- does not include 1994 (no playoffs) or 1981 (split-season divisional format). There was no World Series in 1904.

Since the wild card was instituted in 1995, over 70 percent of the playoff slots were essentially set by the 100-game mark -- there's actually been less volatility in the standings than before. It's too soon to definitively state if the five-team playoff format increases the number of competitive races, but it's clear that moving from two to four didn't. The Google Docs sheet shows far greater detail in the 100 Games tab.

At this point in 2013, the Indians were eighth in the AL wild card race with a record slightly over .500 and needing to make up around four games to reach the fifth spot. They had a very easy September schedule and I wrote in my previous blog my prediction they would pass the teams ahead of them for that last spot. That's exactly how it turned out, but no team in either league appears to have that kind of soft schedule this year. It's fun to talk about big trades and winning streaks that lead to the playoffs, but in the end, that's all it usually turns out to be -- talk. We remember the wildness of the last day of the 2011 season and conveniently forget that's the exception, not the rule. Wait 'til next year, Sox fans -- we Cubs fans can tell you all about it.

Data adapted from Baseball-Reference. Any mistakes in amalgamating the data are the author's.

Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.