By now I’m sure the reader is well aware of the awesome chase going on for the second wild card in the American League. While most of the divisional races across the league are out of hand (no division lead is smaller than 3.5 games right now), the AL wild card race goes seven teams deep. And that’s not even including the top wild card team at this moment, the Yankees, who still aren’t out of the woods just yet, with a 2.5 game lead over the second wild card spot after Tuesday’s games.
There are currently seven teams within 3.5 games of each other in the AL, all in a glut right around .500. Although some would call this a glitch in the system, a change to baseball that will allow a mediocre team into the playoffs, I fall aggressively on the side of fans who believe the second wild card (and the race that ensues) is great for the game. As of now, the Minnesota Twins hold the distinction of being the leader for the second spot, but they are far from leaders in the clubhouse, as they have a cadre of .500 teams nipping at their heels.
Now there are plenty of good articles out there laying out tiebreaker scenarios and the general vibe of the AL wild card scene for the final month (including one by Anthony Rescan here at BtBS), but there are undoubtedly many, many fans who are without a dog in this race. They either are more a fan of the sport of baseball than any specific team, or they have a team not in this race but would love to follow along and need a team to root for. That’s what this article is here for: to lay out just whom you should be cheering for. Because if there’s anything more white-male than rankings baseball teams, it’s pretending your subjective rankings are law. Enjoy.
These two teams simply suffer from playoff fatigue for the non-partisan fan. The Royals missed out on the postseason last year, but they got plenty of October screen time in 2014 and 2015 when they made their infamous runs to a pennant and then a World Series victory in back-to-back seasons. The Rangers have been to the postseason each of the past two seasons, and while they haven’t made it past the ALDS in either of those seasons, baseball fans have already gotten to see a bit of what they have to offer.
It’s telling that these two teams are at the bottom of the rankings, however, because it’s not as though they are hate-able by any stretch of the imagination. The Royals have the “get the gang together for one more run” appeal that comes along with their impending choices in free agency. They were also the darlings of baseball just a mere three seasons ago, and if they were to rip off another deep run from the second wild card spot, it would be hard not to smile. However, they also have the worst run differential of any of these seven and for those who care about that sort of thing, it would feel a bit cheap to see them sneak into the playoffs when there are likely more deserving teams around them in the standings.
For the Rangers, they also get the edge on the Royals because they have some of the most lovable players in the game. Who doesn’t want to see what sort of stunts Adrian Beltre would pull in a play-in game? Would Elvis Andrus make a mad dash for Beltre’s dome if the team was able to win their first World Series in franchise history? How about Joey Gallo; would he become the first MLB player in postseason history to cause an eclipse with a home run? There are just so many fun possibilities.
Even if either of these two squads make it in, the AL play-in game would still be a fascinating one.
The Orioles are just above the Rangers and Royals for a few reasons. First of all, they don’t have back-to-back postseason appearances like the Rangers, or a recent title like the Royals to spoil us too much with recent success. However, the team has been to the postseason three of the past five seasons, losing in last year’s play-in game most recently.
With the Orioles, though, it’s amazing to watch them keep racking up the wins. The team hasn’t had a losing season since 2011, despite the fact that basically every season they start the year out near the bottom of the league in the projection systems. Now many fans shrug that sort of thing off, or are completely unaware of the oddity. However, the readers at BtBS, and thus the readers who are using this text as sacrosanct, are the ones who are likely to notice, and enjoy, this trend that has gone on too long to simply be a blip in the radar at this point. Buck Showalter may actually be a wizard, and a pennant would be the crowning achievement of his run as the O’s manager.
There’s also the added bonus of a likely division rivalry in the play-in game should the Orioles get there, as the Yankees seem in the driver’s seat for a playoff spot right now (nearly as close to the division lead as the second wild card spot as of today, and sporting a 84 percent chance at the playoffs, according to FanGraphs’ playoff odds). Division rivalries always burn a bit brighter in October, and the Yankees and Orioles have a nice tradition of meeting in the playoffs (and having teenagers steal home runs for the Evil Empire).
Finally, it would be really funny to see the Orioles announce a starting pitcher for the play-in game. Just imagine the FOX intro. “Two teams will face off with a chance for glory. The Yankees turn to young stud Luis Severino. The Orioles counter with Kevin Gausman and his 4.98 ERA.”
The Rays fall right in the middle of these rankings which is both fitting and sad. Often the forgotten child among their AL East brethren, the club deserves far more attention for the success they’ve been able to have on their shoestring budget. They’re really the sabermetric fan’s dream team.
They have a book on them by Jonah Keri; they adhere more strictly to the third time through the order penalty than most teams; they helped propagate the importance of getting ahead on 1-1 counts; and they are the three true outcome kings. They have the highest team three true outcome percentage in the American League and are in a virtual tie for first in all of baseball if pitchers are removed from the equation.
Plus, this year’s team is really hard to dislike. You have Kevin Kiermaier, who has returned from the DL ablaze and has eyes that make Coldplay write songs about him. There’s Logan Morrison raging against the machine whenever he opens his mouth (even if he’s usually wrong with his hot takes). Chris Archer is one of the most charming and down-to-earth aces in the sport right now. And Steven Souza is the type of guy who does this, as well as this:
while being the 32nd-most valuable position player in baseball this season, per fWAR.
The team finally made some moves to become buyers instead of sellers at the trade deadline this season, so it would be karmically tragic to punish this bargain bin squad for taking a chance this one time.
3) Minnesota Twins
The Twins are a funny team. Right now they are leading this group of seven with a 67-63 record. They are also coming off a 103-loss season and have currently been outscored by 26 runs, third-worst among this group of seven. They have a losing record at home, and they have only two pitchers worth more than even 0.8 fWAR this season.
That being said, this could be an incredibly fun playoff team. The Twins gave it a run in 2015 when they came out of nowhere to finish 83-79, just three games out of the playoffs, so it would be nice to see them actually get in this time.
They have a lineup loaded with some of the best (and more importantly, most fun) young hitters in baseball. Miguel Sano is on the DL right now, but he’s a 6’ 4” 260 lb. linebacker who the Twins accidentally signed to hit rockets over the fence for them. His 45.3 percent hard hit ball rate makes me giggle a bit whenever I see it, and he is in the Aaron Judge/Joey Gallo tier of exit velocity gods. Max Kepler is a 24-year-old German whose power can come in waves and seems like the perfect player to sneak up on everyone during a nuclear postseason run a la David Freese. Byron Buxton may be the most fun of the bunch, a Statcast catch probability wizard (he has made 23 of 24 possible catches of the four-star variety) who is just starting to heat up with the bat. Buxton just won AL Player of the Week in a decision that was more obvious than the Mayweather victory. Buxton has an OPS of 1.187 over his past 18 games and capped his incredible past week with a three-homer game on Sunday. He’s quietly up to a 4.3-WAR season using the Baseball-Reference variety of WAR.
Plus, Minnesota sports could always use a win.
The Mariners could easily be first on this list in many other seasons. As in any season since 2001, which is the last season in which the side made the postseason. Their 15-year playoff drought is currently the longest in baseball, and it’s going to get excruciating for the good folks of the Pacific Northwest if it goes on much longer.
The Mariners came into the season with playoff hopes and expectations after GM Jerry Dipoto made approximately 3,487 trades in the offseason. Dipoto upgraded the outfield defense, cashed in on a few sell-high candidates, and looked to provide some depth to the rotation. Of course the injury bug has hit Seattle in 2017, and hit hard. Their rotation currently consists of Erasmo Ramirez, Ariel Miranda, Yovani Gallardo, Ken Salazar, Marco Gonzales, and Andrew Albers — and only one of those guys is actually the former Secretary of the Interior under President Barack Obama.
However, both Felix Hernandez and James Paxton are currently rehabbing from injuries, and both would make awesome television in a one-game scenario like the AL wild card play-in game. King Felix, in particular, has been waiting his whole career to bathe in the playoff atmosphere, and given what the Seattle stands look like on a run-of-the-mill, regular season Hernandez start, I’d imagine a playoff game with Felix on the mound would be electric (if the Mariners could position themselves to get a home game, or win the play-in game).
However, one team tops them this season.
Better known as the Fighting Trout-Simmons, the Angels top these rankings for those two men, and basically those two men alone. Mike Trout and Andrelton Simmons are doing awesome things in Orange County this summer. The two have combined for 10.3 fWAR, while the rest of the offense has combined for 2.7 fWAR - as in, nearly half of either of those two individually. Trout and Simmons are basically trying to turn baseball into basketball by making the ultimate team sport a two-man game, the Stockton and Malone of MLB if you will. Trout, in particular, has been spellbinding this season, but that’s not something I need to tell you, reader of Beyond the Box Score, you already know that.
Trout has had a taste of postseason baseball once in his career, but it was incredibly brief as the 2014 Angels were swept aside by the eventual pennant-winning Royals in three games. That’s not nearly enough of a league-wide spotlight on the once-in-a-generation, if not once-in-a-lifetime, talent that Trout truly is. The more baseball is able to have Trout under the limelight of the postseason (and the postseason truly is another level of limelight, there are many, many casual fans who flip on strictly for October), the better the sport will be for it.
Plus, who among us doesn’t want to see what Trout could do in a deep playoff run. Could he hit 10 home runs in one postseason? Could he rob back-to-back potential home runs? How about hitting for the cycle in Game 7 of the World Series? Literally anything seems possible with Trout.
Add in the possibility for a few mind-melting Andrelton Simmons highlights and the possibility that the corpse of Albert Pujols decides to stop filming Weekend at Bernies: Angels Edition, and there’s almost no reason not to root for the Angels to make this year’s postseason.