Ranking the most exciting playoff, award races

August 11th, 2019

In the words of Jerry Seinfeld when, at the urging of his girlfriend Lois, he finally accepted the long-proffered challenge of a former schoolmate, “The race is on!”

But in the home stretch of an MLB season, not all races are created equal. Some are scintillating, others are essentially settled.

That’s why we present this quick and handy guide to all of the races -- not just of the playoff variety but also the Baseball Writers’ Association of America award bids -- to see where things stand.

Here are all 16 of baseball’s races, ranked in order from most to least compelling at the moment.

All stats/standings entering Saturday

1) American League Central

At the conclusion of play on June 15, the Twins had an 11-game lead and a 94.3% chance, according to FanGraphs, of winning their first Central title since 2010. But the Indians, who have revised their lineup and are trying to win the Central for a fourth straight year, erased that gap in just eight weeks. Though the two clubs entered Saturday tied, FanGraphs was giving the Twins stronger odds (59.1%) of winning the division, likely because they have the home stretch’s easiest schedule.

But the head-on games have serious weight here, and, once this weekend wraps, these two clubs still have a pair of three-game series against each other during the first two weekends of September. This is a good, old-fashioned, two-team dash. Giddy up.

2) National League Central

This division has been difficult to decipher all year, but the Cubs have steadily been winning games of late despite steadily losing key pieces (Willson Contreras, Craig Kimbrel, Brandon Kintzler and Steve Cishek), and now FanGraphs is giving them a 74.9% chance of nailing down their spot at the top. But they also have one of the worst road records in baseball and end the season with a six-game road trip. Hmm …

With the Brewers trying to make the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since the early 1980s, the Cardinals trying to avoid four straight empty Octobers and the Cubs playing out what could be the final year of the Joe Maddon era, there’s a lot at stake. The Cubs and Cardinals face each other seven times in the final week and a half of the season, which could be interesting.

3) NL Most Valuable Player

What did we do to deserve an MVP race that's not only statistically substantial but as charmingly cadenced as the Belli vs. Yeli Show?

Cody Bellinger: .319 AVG, .419 OBP, .659 SLG, 179 OPS+, 172 wRC+, 6.2 fWAR, 7.4 bWAR
Christian Yelich: .336 AVG, .428 OBP, .705 SLG, 185 OPS+, 180 wRC+, 6.4 fWAR, 6.1 bWAR

Bellinger has been the superior defender (a legitimate Gold Glove candidate), so maybe that (and Yelich’s battles with a back issue) could and should give him the edge. But this could legitimately go either way.

4) NL Wild Card

The Mets’ surge from 11 games under .500 on July 12 (second-worst record in the NL at that time) to genuine contention in this race says a lot about them and, well, a lot about the NL as a whole. It’s open all night. Any team not named the Marlins or Pirates could still technically get involved, but, for what it’s worth, these are the clubs not currently atop a division who had the highest FanGraphs-calculated odds entering Saturday:

Nationals: 74.7
Mets: 47.0
Cardinals: 30.9
Brewers: 30.9
Phillies: 12.5
D-backs: 11.3
Reds: 5.7

We ask this question every year, but here it goes again: Is this the year chaos swallows the standings and we end up with a three-, four- or five-way tie for one or two spots?

5) AL Wild Card

Right now, it’s down to whomever finishes as runner-up in the Central (the Twins or Indians) and the Rays and A’s for two spots. Maybe, possibly we’ll see a late-season surge from the defending World Series champion Red Sox, but their dog days of August, in the midst of an erratic 2019 overall, have greatly compromised their playoff hopes.

The Twins and Tribe both have a decent number of Royals, Tigers and White Sox tilts left on the docket, and that could help the runner-up pad its win total and maybe even ensure host duties here. The Rays and A’s, meanwhile, are two of the most fascinating, financially savvy organizations in the sport, and it’s hard not to be romantic about either of them advancing.

6) NL East

Atlanta has an 82.7% chance of nailing down the 6 1/2-game division lead it took into Saturday’s play, though the Braves’ bullpen concerns, which to date have not been totally solved by their Trade Deadline activity, do create the possibility of an upset down the stretch.

The Braves have six games against the surging Mets this month, and another three the last weekend of the regular season. They face the Nationals (will Max Scherzer be involved?) and Phillies seven times apiece in September.

7) NL Rookie of the Year

Could Pete Alonso hit 40 homers and somehow lose this award? Feels doubtful, but it ultimately could depend how strongly the voters feel about the total package the 20-year-old Fernando Tatis Jr. presents with his fantastic defensive profile.

Alonso: 3.8 bWAR, 3.9 fWAR
Tatis: 4.4 bWAR, 3.9 fWAR

(And keep in mind, those close numbers come despite Tatis falling more than 100 plate appearances shy of Alonso due to a hamstring injury earlier this year.)

Oh, and Mike Soroka has been awfully good, too, if you’re into that whole “rookie ace of a contender who has also put himself on the fringes of the Cy Young discussion” thing.

Pretty good year for Senior Circuit freshmen.

8) NL Cy Young

Scherzer’s continued absence sure hurts his hopes, and Hyun-Jin Ryu is returning Sunday from a very brief injured list stint with a crazy-low 1.53 ERA and crazy-high 272 ERA+. The only other Modern Era pitcher with an ERA that low and an ERA+ that high was Dutch Leonard (0.96, 279) of the 1914 Red Sox.

Ryu hasn’t had enough innings to qualify for the ERA title since 2013, so we’ll see if he can finish strong. Stephen Strasburg, Luis Castillo, Jacob deGrom and Soroka are among those lurking here if he regresses.

9) AL Rookie of the Year

There weren’t many people who would have picked somebody other than Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to win this award prior to the season. And Guerrero (.800 OPS, 1.6 bWAR) is certainly worthy of consideration (alas, teammate Bo Bichette probably joined the party too late to win it).

But All-Star Brandon Lowe (.862 OPS, 2.8 bWAR) asserted himself well here, Yordan Alvarez (1.131 OPS, 2.1 bWAR) has done an amazing amount of damage in a short time and Oscar Mercado (.790, 1.4 bWAR) still has a chance to seize this with a scorching finish.

10) AL Cy Young

Justin Verlander goes into Sunday’s start with the league’s best ERA (2.68), most innings (157 2/3), lowest WHIP (0.81) and highest strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.24), so this is his award to lose right now. But he’s 36, still has about 10 starts left and the voters betrayed (I would say robbed) him in 2016 and '18, so who knows?

Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton and Shane Bieber are on the periphery.

11) AL MVP

Winning team, schminning team. If Mike Trout isn’t the 2019 AL MVP, get rid of the award.

12) AL Manager of the Year

With the way the Yankees’ season has gone, it’s amazing Aaron Boone himself hasn’t been injured. So he deserves serious consideration. But the Twins’ Rocco Baldelli has the surprise factor in his favor, and the team’s turnaround came in his rookie year.

Those two seem to have the best shot. But if the Indians overtake the Twins, Terry Francona is worthy, even though he’s won it twice in the last seven years. The A’s Bob Melvin has won it twice in the last decade, but his A’s are surging again. The Rays’ Kevin Cash deserves a lot of love. And has anybody noticed A.J. Hinch has never won this award? Maybe that’s worth correcting, regardless of preseason expectations.

13) NL Manager of the Year

Because greatness is routinely expected of Dave Roberts’ Dodgers, the Braves’ Brian Snitker won this last year and the NL Central has been such a mess, this is certainly unsettled.

There are still several potential options for the requisite “surprise” squad skipper salute, be it Bruce Bochy going out on a high note, Davey Martinez getting recognized for the Nats’ midseason resurgence or -- most prominently right now -- Mickey Callaway living to see “tomorrow.”

14) AL East

Given the context of this season, it sure seems like the Yankees could post a rotation ERA of 32.67 from here on out, suffer a wave of injuries that compels them to insert some of the Monument Park plaques into the starting lineup and somehow still come out with their first division title since 2012.

15) AL West

Can any West team seriously challenge the Astros?

Oh, I’m asking about 2020, in case that wasn’t obvious.

16) NL West

It seems crazy to think that anybody could match the Braves’ record 14 consecutive division titles from 1991-2005, but the Dodgers, for all intents and purposes, are halfway there. For now, though, they also have a Braves-like legacy of unsatisfied Octobers.