What an end to the season!
The NL Central and NL West went into the final weekend of the season being up for grabs, and they exit the weekend...still being up for grabs! Today will add more craziness to the baseball calendar as two Game 163s are played to see who will go on to the NLDS, and who will have to play one sudden death game for that same privilege. The Cubs will be hosting the Brewers at 1:00, and the Dodgers will be hosting the Rockies at 4:00.
The Cardinals entered the final series with a small chance to make the playoffs. Going into Friday night’s game, FanGraphs had them at just a 13.5 percent chance at getting a Wild Card. The schedule makers did them no favors with a final series at Wrigley Field when the division was already beyond their grasp. With a loss on Friday night and a win by the Dodgers, the Cardinals’ chances fell below one percent. They pulled off a 2-1 victory on Saturday, but the Dodgers won too, so the Cardinals were eliminated from postseason play. An 88-win season normally buys a team entrance into the postseason, but the top-heavy NL changes the formula.
Cubs fans are probably not too happy with how the schedule was set for the final weekend of the season. The Cubs were only a game up on the Brewers entering Friday night, but they had to play the Cardinals while the Brewers hosted the Tigers. As you are likely well aware, the Tigers were one of the worst teams in the league this year. FanGraphs still had the Cubs at a 78 percent chance of winning the division, which seems high given the gap between the Cardinals and the Tigers.
While criticizing the schedule is fair, the fact of the matter is that the season is 162 games long. The Cubs had 159 games to grow a bigger lead going into the final weekend. It is not the schedule makers’ fault that the Cubs hit only .235/.297/.357 in September, which was the fifth-worst offense in the league for the month.
The Brewers might be the biggest story at the end of the season. Earlier last month, they went 4-2 against the Cubs. They are currently on a six-game win streak, and have won ten of their last 12. They now have the chance to take the division from a team that FanGraphs gave an 81 percent chance to win the division coming into the season.
I was skeptical that anybody besides the Cubs could win the division. I loved the Brewers’ offseason acquisitions of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, both of whom combined for 13 WAR at FanGraphs, but the team did little to address its weak starting rotation. However, the 2015 champion Royals showed that an excellent defense and elite bullpen can prop up a sub-par rotation. The Brewers’ 90 DRS was second only to the Diamondbacks’ 118 DRS. Their bullpen had a rough August, but they finished in the top five in baseball by RA9 and third by K%.
You can’t talk about the Brewers’ last couple of weeks without discussing the tremendous Christian Yelich. He had always been a very good player thanks to his defense and baserunning, but he never broke through at the plate until this year. And saying “broke through” is an understatement. He hit .324/.400/.599 with 36 HR. His 166 wRC+ ranked fourth in baseball and first in the NL. He led the NL in WAR among position players at both Baseball Reference and FanGraphs. Yelich might be the ultimate change-of-scenery player.
In September, Yelich hit an utterly ridiculous .360/.500/.826. In 50 PA since September 17th, he has hit .486/.620/1.216 with 6 HR. MVP voters have gotten a lot better with not overrating a player’s end of the season compared to his season as a whole, but with the best NL position players clustered together, Yelich might have separated himself from the pack with his other worldly recent end of season performance; let us not forget I am not going to get into the age old argument concerning pitchers as MVPs, other than to say that I fully support it. That being said, if you believe that the MVP is only for position players, Yelich would be a great first choice.
The NL West had its fair share of excitement, too. The Rockies had a one-game lead on the Dodgers going into the final series of the season, with a 62 percent chance to win the division. The Dodgers were pegged at having an 85 percent chance to win the division during the preseason, mostly because the projections thought that the Rockies and Diamondbacks were going to regress. The projections were half right. The Diamondbacks did regress, but the Rockies actually improved from 87 wins to 91 wins.
What is most surprising about the Rockies’ season is that it is so successful despite how poorly their free agent signings from the past few years have performed, such as Ian Desmond. The bullpen spending was especially egregious. The team has paid tens of millions of dollars to players who gave them little to no production.
The Rockies’ success came from their terrific success in player development. Nowhere is this more evident than their starting rotation. Developing good staring pitcher in Coors Field has long been a thorn in the side of the Rockies, but they might have finally done it. This season was one of the best a Rockies’ rotation has ever had.
The Rockies’ were able to force game 163 thanks to a great finish to the season. They won nine of their last ten, and eight straight before their loss on Saturday night. It was not against a cupcake schedule either. They finished the season against the Diamondbacks, Phillies, and Nationals.
As for the Dodgers, there is not too much to say. They are where they are mostly due to injuries. Clayton Kershaw and Justin Turner missed a lot of time while on the disabled list. Corey Seager was a devastating loss. He played in only 26 games before going down due to Tommy John surgery. They likely would have won the division with better health. At least Max Muncy was a revelation.
The end of the season provided for an exciting, fascinating final weekend. Now we are going to be treated to not one, but two games to decide a division. I imagine there will be a lot of fans ducking out early from work. Or skipping it altogether.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.