On the day after Memorial Day, 2015, 13 American League teams had at least a 15% chance of making the postseason. In 2016, that number was 11. Then, just seven in 2017, and six in 2018. As of today, there are currently seven as well.
When half of the league is generally “out” of it by Memorial Day, there’s usually a cyclical reason as to why there is. There’s random variation, causing good teams to be bad, and vice-versa. There’s also organizational goals, some of them focusing on winning now and others on rebuilding or tanking.
We find ourselves in the latter era, where teams like the Orioles, White Sox, Blue Jays, Tigers, Royals, and Mariners are all in an either self-imposed or forced rebuild. That leaves seven teams—only one of them truly surprising—actually competing for the American League pennant.
Of those, just one popped up out of nowhere, and only one truly faded from our radar. The Twins are on a projected pace of 97 wins, buoyed by savvy signings of Nelson Cruz and CJ Cron, the late-but-embraced rises of Byron Buxton and Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, and a surprisingly durable staff led by Jose Berrios.
The team that fell off were obviously the Cleveland Indians, who sink to a projected pace of 86 wins. The injury bug and the desire for austerity have pushed the team into free-fall and a possibly early (let’s not say it again, please) rebuild, and it may put Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and/or Trevor Bauer on the trade block.
The question, of course, is whether any of this is going to change. The worst thing about baseball currently isn’t the home run or the strikeout, or the pace or the length of action. It’s actually that when you’re flipping through your local sports channel or on MLB.tv, most of the teams are completely out of it.
Should I watch Cubs/Brewers, or maybe White Sox/Royals? I think you know what I’m turning on. We’re lucky that the National League has a smidgen of competitiveness, but even there, there are still just nine teams above that 15% threshold, and four of them reside in a single division.
To answer this in a back-of-the-napkin sort of way, it’s best to analyze what players these teams will have, and how good they will be in the future, roughly. ZiPS has 2020 and 2021 projections to give us the two-year outlook, and the results are definitely interesting. If you take a tally of the total positive WAR in 2020 (889.4) and 2021 (847.2), and then sum that up by the five best teams, they have the same approximated share of positive WAR in those two seasons: 5% for the Yankees and Astros, 3.5% for the Rays and Twins, and 3.25% for the Red Sox.
That answers just really one narrow question, which is how durable are these teams in the immediate future based on their cores? The evidence suggests that the Yankees and Astros with ~40 projected WAR for 2020 and 2021 are going to be the best teams in the league into the future, most likely. The Red Sox may lose ground, and the Rays and Twins having a similar core to work from suggests that the moves they make—trades, signings, etc.—will be the tipping point into or out of sustainability.
As for other teams that could contend... it’s certainly possible the levy does start to break on parity by 2021. With the Blue Jays sporting Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, they should increase their WAR share to 3.5%, above even the Red Sox. Other than that, few of the teams are even close to the end of a rebuild, as none of the Royals, Orioles, White Sox, or Mariners are projected to crack 3%, and some like the Tigers, not even 2%.
The playoff picture in the American League is set, and based on the long-term outlooks, it could be more-or-less the case for the next couple of years: the surprise here and there, but the top teams firmly entrenched. For the sake of all things exciting, hopefully something just snaps this paradigm.