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The playoff races, with luck stripped out

Everyone knows the playoff races involve lots of luck. What this article presupposes is... maybe they don’t.

New York Yankees v Detroit Tigers Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Luck is a huge part of baseball. That’s a feature, not a bug; baseball would be much less interesting if we just simulated all the games 10 million times and crowned the best team the champion. But it does mean that, frequently, the teams that look good and the teams that are good are two different groups.

There’s been a lot written this year about the AL Wild Card race, and with good reason. It’s a muddled mess, and it’s hard to tell which teams are underperforming their true-talent, which are overperforming, and which are exactly as mediocre as they look.

Luckily, FanGraphs has a stat called BaseRuns, which strips out the effects of “sequencing” on a team’s offensive and defensive performance. What does that mean? Imagine two teams, one of which hits two singles and a home run, followed by three strikeouts, while the other hits a home run and two singles, followed by three strikeouts. The first team scored more runs than the second, but only because of the order of the hits, not any difference in the hits themselves. BaseRuns would view those teams evenly (and view the two pitching staffs that gave up those runs evenly). Sequencing isn’t the only type of luck that can make or break a team’s season, but it’s a big one.

FanGraphs then recalculates each team’s record, based on their BaseRuns performance. What would that crazy AL Wild Card race look like if each team hadn’t been hurt or helped by sequencing? What would every playoff race look like? I’m glad you asked; that’s what this article is about.

The AL East

Team Actual Record BaseRuns Record BaseRuns GB
Team Actual Record BaseRuns Record BaseRuns GB
Yankees 69–59 78–50 --
Red Sox 73–56 70–59 8.5
Rays 64–67 70–61 9.5
Orioles 64–65 58–71 20.5
Blue Jays 61–68 57–72 21.5

Did you realize quite how poorly luck has treated the Yankees this year? I didn’t! But they gain a full nine games when sequencing is removed, the most in the league by a large margin. By that measure, New York is not just on top of the AL East, but one of the best teams in MLB, which is a sign that they might be more dangerous than expected if and when they make the postseason. The Red Sox lose three games, more than enough to put them behind New York, but still, the story in the AL East is the Yankees’ underperformance.

The AL Central

Team Actual Record BaseRuns Record BaseRuns GB
Team Actual Record BaseRuns Record BaseRuns GB
Indians 72–56 78–50 --
Royals 64–64 60–68 8
Twins 66–63 60–69 8.5
Tigers 56–72 59–69 19
White Sox 51–77 52–76 26

Not much changes here; Cleveland consolidates power in the division after gaining six games (tied with three other teams for the second-largest jump), while the Royals and Twins fall back, but in a way that’s more relevant to the Wild Card chase than the division. The Indians were always supposed to run away with the Central, and while it’s nearly September and they still haven’t, that looks like more the product of luck than skill.

The AL West

Team Actual Record BaseRuns Record BaseRuns GB
Team Actual Record BaseRuns Record BaseRuns GB
Astros 78–51 81–48 --
Rangers 64–65 65–64 17
Mariners 66–64 63–67 18.5
Athletics 57–72 61–68 20
Angels 66–54 61–69 20.5

Similarly, the AL West changes, but not in ways that really alter the playoff picture. The Astros maintain their hold at the top, gaining three games that they emphatically do not need, but the order behind them goes nuts. The Angels drop from second to fifth, behind even the A’s, while the Rangers snag the second spot with the only above-.500 record in the division (except for the Astros’, of course).

The NL East

Team Actual Record BaseRuns Record BaseRuns GB
Team Actual Record BaseRuns Record BaseRuns GB
Nationals 77–50 76–51 --
Marlins 65–63 66–62 10.5
Mets 56–72 58–70 18.5
Braves 57–70 55–72 21
Phillies 47–81 53–75 23.5

There’s been a lot of complaining about the noncompetiveness of the various divisional races, and these last few BaseRuns standings have really driven the point home. Even with teams gaining and losing games, there’s little to no change in the playoff picture. To be fair, none of the teams in the NL East shift very much when sequencing is removed, with the exception of the Phillies; their 47–81 record rockets upward by six games, making them look very slightly less terrible. That, of course, does nothing to shake the Nationals loose from their perch on top, with a comfortable lead both with and without sequencing.

The NL Central

Team Actual Record BaseRuns Record BaseRuns GB
Team Actual Record BaseRuns Record BaseRuns GB
Cubs 69–59 71–57 --
Cardinals 65–64 71–58 0.5
Brewers 67–63 65–65 7
Pirates 62–58 57–73 15
Reds 55–75 57–73 15

Now this is a bit more like it. It’s no surprise that the Cubs have been unlucky, given their incredible success last season and their disappointing follow-up this year. But their gain of two games is nothing compared to the Cardinals’ gain of six games, enough to put them into a virtual tie for first in a sequence-less NL Central. With a current lead in the division of 3 games, Cubs fans may have been able to talk themselves into the proposition that neither the Brewers nor the Cardinals have the firepower to catch up in the last month of the season. But based on how they’ve played this year, the Cardinals and Cubs look identical, and the Brewers don’t look much worse than their record would indicate. Neither team is a paper tiger, and the Cubs are unlikely to have a cakewalk through September.

The NL West

Team Actual Record BaseRuns Record BaseRuns GB
Team Actual Record BaseRuns Record BaseRuns GB
Dodgers 91–37 86–42 --
Diamondbacks 72–58 74–56 13
Rockies 70–59 64–65 22.5
Padres 57–72 54–75 32.5
Giants 52–79 53–78 34.5

With a five-game slide, the Dodgers are one of MLB’s biggest losers in a shift to BaseRuns, but I feel we can chalk that up to a side-effect of winning at a .700-plus clip more than any flaw on the part of LA. The real interesting movement is below them. All year, it has seemed like the Rockies and Diamondbacks are linked at the hip, with both holding a lead in the NL West for surprisingly long, both being passed by the Dodgers, and both now sitting in the Wild Card slots. But by BaseRuns, the Diamondbacks gain two games while the Rockies lose six, putting the two teams into entirely different classes. As the NL Wild Card begins to tighten, the apparent differences in the underlying talent of Arizona and Colorado could be a big deal.

The AL Wild Card

Team Actual Record BaseRuns Record BaseRuns GB
Team Actual Record BaseRuns Record BaseRuns GB
Red Sox 73–56 70–59 +1
Rays 64–67 70–61 --
Rangers 64–65 65–64 4
Mariners 66–64 63–67 6.5
Athletics 57–72 61–68 8
Angels 66–64 61–69 8.5
Royals 64–64 60–68 8.5
Twins 66–63 60–69 9
Tigers 56–72 59–69 9.5
Orioles 64–65 58–71 11
Blue Jays 61–68 57–72 12
White Sox 51–77 52–76 16.5

And here’s really what we came here for: the AL Wild Card. Without the randomness of sequencing luck thrown in, this race becomes a lot less exciting and a lot more pedestrian. The Red Sox have swapped places with the Yankees, but along with the Rays, they have a fairly comfortable lead over the rest of the AL. (Perhaps the demise of the AL East has been overstated?) With real records, there are nine teams within five games of the Wild Card slots; by BaseRuns, there are only three. The Athletics, surprisingly, are one of the top teams, though that still means they’re eight games out and unlikely to occupy one of the two Wild Card slots at any point, even temporarily. Apparently, most of the chaos of the AL Wild Card is thanks to some good luck experienced by the various teams in the mix. If you didn’t already appreciate the role luck plays in baseball, I hope you do after seeing this vision of a bleak, joyless AL Wild Card race.

The NL Wild Card

Team Actual Record BaseRuns Record BaseRuns GB
Team Actual Record BaseRuns Record BaseRuns GB
Diamondbacks 72–58 74–56 +2.5
Cardinals 65–64 71–58 --
Marlins 65–63 66–62 4.5
Brewers 67–63 65–65 6.5
Rockies 70–59 64–65 7
Mets 56–72 58–70 12.5
Reds 55–75 57–73 14.5
Pirates 62–68 57–73 14.5
Braves 57–70 55–72 15
Padres 57–72 54–75 17
Phillies 47–81 53–75 17.5
Giants 52–79 53–78 19

The big change here is, as hinted at above, the fall of the Rockies. They go from a 3.5-game lead on a Wild Card slot that, while not fully secure, feels pretty safe, down to 7-game deficit that requires passing three different teams to make the postseason. The Cardinals are sitting pretty in this scenario, though the resurgent Marlins are positioned to make a run. Interestingly, this comes pretty close to how I might project the NL Wild Card to look like by the end of the year: the Diamondbacks and Cardinals in the two slots, the Rockies on the outside, and the Marlins coming up just short.

So! Not much changes, honestly, and what does change isn’t that surprising. The biggest shift is probably the Yankees seizing the AL East; the biggest loss is of all the fun, messy drama in the AL Wild Card race. Of course, this is just an exercise; the games have already been played, and whether a team was lucky to win or not doesn’t matter one iota to whether they get to play in October or not. But as we enter the home stretch of the 2017 season, it’s worth keeping in mind just how impactful a bit of luck can be.

Henry Druschel is the co-Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.