A Look at the National League Playoff Picture

Yes, it’s really an article on Musings of a Baseball Addict.

I’m back after the summer hiatus (where I spent most of my waking hours watching, analyzing, or writing about baseball—a dream come true) with a vengeance. Or at least back with hopefully enough time to publish an article every other week. I’m not promising anything, though.

The idea for this article, a look at the NL playoff picture, was actually given to me by a family friend who wanted an in-depth analysis of the chances his favorite team had entering the stretch run, so I sent him an email and figured I would turn it into a full-length article.

I’m going to go team-by-team in the National League and run down the likelihood that each team makes it and the possible scenarios. I’ll start with the teams that aren’t making the playoffs because those are the easiest to predict.

To all my Giants, Marlins, Mets, Nationals, Padres, Pirates, and Reds fans…it ain’t happening. You are dismissed.

Of the remaining teams, the Phillies and Diamondbacks are the furthest out of contention.

Then we have the teams that are solidly in the hunt for the National League wild card or their division: the Braves, Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers, and Rockies. We’ll take a look at those teams a little later. Let’s start with the two teams I mentioned first, though.

Philadelphia Phillies (74-68; 5.0 GB of NL East, 5.0 GB of wild card)

Remaining schedule: vs. WAS (3), vs. MIA (3), vs. NYM (3), @ ATL (4), @ COL (4), vs. ATL (3)

The good news for the Phillies is that they are in control of their own destiny. The bad news is that they play 11 of their remaining 20 games against playoff teams, which does not bode well for their chances.

They face off six times against the Braves, and they would need to sweep those six games to win the division outright (and that’s assuming that the Phillies and Braves have the same record in games where they do not face one another).

This season, the Phillies have a 30-33 record against the teams they are scheduled to face the rest of the season, which is unsurprising considering that they have a negative run differential and will be facing primarily playoff teams down the stretch. They have also been getting a tad lucky with a 22-15 (.595) record in one-run games (generally, teams should hover around .500 in these games).

According to Fangraphs, the Phillies have just a 13.7% chance of making it to October and by FiveThirtyEight’s numbers, the team’s chances are an even less inspiring 10%. This is mostly due to the fact that the only way the Phillies could make it to the postseason is by winning their division; they would have to pass three other teams to capture the second wild card spot as opposed to just one if they take the NL East title.

So, yes, it’s still possible for Gabe Kapler to manage his team to the postseason in his inaugural year as manager, but it’s not looking great. There’s a chance, though, and that’s why we play the games.

Arizona Diamondbacks (76-68; 3.5 GB of NL West, 4.0 GB of wild card)

Remaining schedule: @ COL (3), @ HOU (3), vs. CHC (3), vs. COL (3), vs. LAD (3), @ SDP (3)

The Diamondbacks, despite having a better record than the Phillies and being in closer striking distance of both their division and the wild card, are slightly less likely than the Phillies to make it to October. Fangraphs gives the Snakes just a 7.4% chance to land a postseason spot while FiveThirtyEight is a little more bullish on their odds at 10%.

Firstly, the Diamondbacks’ remaining schedule is far more daunting than the Phillies. Twelve of the team’s remaining eighteen games are against playoff teams, and another three of those are against a team that is right on the cusp of a playoff appearance (the Dodgers who, at the start of play on Tuesday, sit just a game and a half back of a playoff spot). Additionally, the Diamondbacks would have to pass two teams in the NL West to take the division outright, which does not bode extremely well for their chances. They do control their own destiny but the need to pass two teams ahead of them is a severe roadblock to their postseason chances.

The wild card race is a different story. The Diamondbacks are not mathematically eliminated, but it will be tough for them to overtake the two teams ahead of them in order to capture the second wild card. It helps that they have a series remaining against the Dodgers, but with no games left against the Cardinals, their fate is largely out of their hands.

Winning the division certainly isn’t the only way for the Snakes to dance in October, but it’s the easiest way.

Atlanta Braves (80-64; 1st Place in NL East)

Remaining schedule: @ SFG (2), vs. WAS (3), vs. STL (3), vs. PHI (4), @ NYM (3), @ PHI (3)

The Braves are sitting pretty right now. They have a five-game lead on the Phillies in the NL East and play eight of their remaining eighteen games against teams that are no longer in the hunt for the postseason. Plus, they get seven games against the Phillies, who they have outscored 57-38 on the season through 12 contests (averaging 4.75 runs per game while allowing 3.17 runs per game vs. Philadelphia).

Fangraphs gives the Braves an 88.3% chance at October baseball and FiveThirtyEight is even more optimistic, giving the Braves a 92% chance to end up in the postseason. So long as Ronald Acuña continues his hot hitting, the Braves should be able to lock up the National League East title. Their magic number is 15.

Chicago Cubs (83-60; 1st Place in NL Central)

Remaining schedule: vs. MIL (2), @WAS (1), vs. CIN (3), @ ARI (3), @ CWS (3), vs. PIT (4), vs. STL (3)

Much like the Braves, the Cubs are nearly a lock to make the playoffs. Fangraphs currently has the team’s odds at 99.7%, with a 71.3% chance to win the division. It helps that the team recently got Kris Bryant back from the disabled list and that 11 of their remaining 19 games are against teams under .500. Barring a catastrophic collapse, the Cubs should at least be able to capture the second wild card, though it’s far more likely that they end up winning the NL Central for the third consecutive season.

Milwaukee Brewers (83-62; 1.0 GB of NL Central, 1st Place NL wild card)

Remaining schedule: @ CHC (2), vs. PIT (3), vs. CIN (3), @ PIT (3), @ STL (3), vs. DET (3)

The Brewers, much like the Cubs, are a near lock for the postseason. This comes with the caveat that they are more likely to end up playing in the NL wild card game than winning the division.

As it stands now, the Brew Crew has a 97.1% chance of making the playoffs according to Fangraphs and a 71.5% chance of winning a wild card spot. FiveThirtyEight is giving the Brewers nearly identical chances of both of the aforementioned outcomes.

The best news for the Brewers is that they are well within striking distance of the Cubs. Milwaukee plays two more games against the Cubs this season (tonight and tomorrow night) and if they can sweep the series, they will go from being underdogs in the division to favorites. They also are playing just five total games against teams over .500 for the remainder of the season: two upcoming games against the Cubs and then a three-game set with St. Louis later this month.

Aside from those two teams, the Brewers get the Pirates, Reds, and Tigers, who have a combined winning percentage of .444. Despite the relatively easy schedule, though, the Brewers have struggled against the Pirates this year, dropping nine of their thirteen contests against the Bucs so far. If the Pirates continue to give the Brewers trouble that could seriously impact the playoff picture, so the Brewers are a team to watch very closely if your team is still in the NL playoff hunt. I think it’s most likely that the Brewers end up capturing the first wild card spot but they’ll need to take care of business against their divisional opponents down the stretch to ensure that outcome.

St. Louis Cardinals (80-64; 3.5 GB of NL Central, 2nd Place NL wild card)

Remaining schedule: vs. PIT (2), vs. LAD (4), @ ATL (3), vs. SFG (3), vs. MIL (3), @ CHC (3)

The Cardinals got the short end of the stick schedule-wise out of all the teams in the National League Central. Thirteen of the team’s eighteen remaining games are against teams that are in the playoff hunt and though the team has a firm hold on the second wild card spot for now, they could very easily fall out of that spot if they don’t continue to play good baseball.

Adam Wainwright returning from a long disabled list stint should help this team’s rotation after Carlos Martinez had to give up his spot due to injuries. The positive side of Martinez losing his spot in the rotation is that he is now closing ballgames for the Redbirds, which should immensely help what has been a putrid bullpen this season in St. Louis (the Cardinals bullpen ranks 19th in reliever ERA and 25th in reliever fWAR).

Fangraphs is currently giving the Cardinals a 64.1% chance to make the playoffs, which is a respectable percentage considering that they have three NL West teams breathing down their necks for the second wild card spot, but they also have a minuscule chance of winning the divison at just 3.1%.

If St. Louis wants to make it back to the postseason for the first time since 2015, they’re going to need to capture a wild card spot.

Colorado Rockies (79-64; 1st Place in NL West)

Remaining schedule: vs. ARI (3), @ SFG (3), @ LAD (3), @ ARI (3), vs. PHI (4), @ WAS (3)

Now things get interesting. The NL West is easily the most exciting divisional race of any of the six in the MLB right now and here’s why: it’s likely that only the winner is going to the postseason. In the AL, the five playoff teams are more-or-less decided (Red Sox, Astros, Indians, Yankees, Athletics). In the NL, whoever wins the East is making the playoffs and the other four teams are going to be sitting on their couches in October. In the Central, three teams are probably going to make it so the teams are just duking it out for who will get to avoid the wild card game.

But the NL West is a three-team race for just one spot. Exactly what September baseball is all about.

And that brings us to the Rockies. The models are split on whether the Rockies or the Dodgers should be favored to win the NL West. At the beginning of play on Tuesday, Fangraphs is giving the Rockies a 56.6% chance to make the postseason (37.5% chance to win the division) and FiveThirtyEight is far more bullish, giving the Rockies a 60% chance to make the playoffs and a 48% chance to win the division. As it stands now, Fangraphs and FiveThirtyEight are predicting different winners of the NL West which is a testament to how close this race actually is.

The Rockies have to play nine of their remaining nineteen games against the other NL West competitors, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a good thing because it means that they will have the opportunity to lock up the division themselves by simply playing well against their divisional opponents. The trouble is that these opponents are pretty tough, so if they do not win these divisional matchups then the chances of them capturing a wild card are slim. It also doesn’t help that the Rockies, if they weren’t winning their division, would be a half game back of the second wild card spot.

Simply put, if the Rockies want to play baseball in October they’re going to need to win the division. That isn’t going to be easy considering that they are under .500 this season in games against the Diamondbacks and Dodgers, and they lost two out of three when they played the Phillies earlier this season. So despite the fact that the Rockies are currently in the driver’s seat in the NL West, I actually do not think they are the most likely team of the three in the NL West to make it to the postseason.

And that brings us to the last team in the NL playoff race:

Los Angeles Dodgers (78-66; 1.5 GB of NL West, 2.0 GB of NL wild card)

Remaining schedule: @ CIN (2), @ STL (4), vs. COL (3), vs. SDP (3), @ ARI (3), @ SFG (3)

The Dodgers did some serious heavy lifting this past weekend when they took two out of three from the Rockies in Coors to cut the division lead to half a game. The trouble is that they then went out on Monday night and got embarrassed by the Reds in a 10-6 loss.

The Dodgers also probably have the easiest schedule of all of the NL West teams, with just 10 of their remaining 18 games coming against teams that are above .500. Los Angeles’ combined record against the teams they are slated to play the rest of the season is 35-37 but that’s mostly because they have yet to win a game against the Reds or Cardinals this year. Given that Ryu, Stripling, and Kershaw are their probable pitchers for the next three contests (two against the Reds, then one against the Cardinals), I do not expect that trend to continue.

Of all the NL West teams I think that the Dodgers have the advantage talent-wise. Their starting rotation of Clayton Kershaw, Alex Wood (though he got knocked around yesterday), Walker Buehler, Rich Hill, and Hyun-Jin Ryu is one of the best in baseball, and Ross Stripling is expected to return to the rotation soon, so the Dodgers will have some of the best pitching in baseball down the stretch.

Fangraphs is currently giving the Dodgers a 72.3% chance to make the playoffs and a 58.5% chance of winning the NL West. FiveThirtyEight doesn’t like the Dodgers nearly as much, giving them just a 56% chance to make the playoffs a 45% chance to win the division.

The discrepancy between the two models is why we play the games; these are contests between two groups of nine humans, and anything can happen in baseball.

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Editor’s Note: All statistics, records, and remaining schedules are up-to-date as of the start of play on Tuesday, September 11th.

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