Breaking down the wild, wild AL WC race

September 24th, 2021

As the regular season moves into the stretch run, the American League Wild Card race is complicated, confusing and undecided. Is there anything better than this?

The Red Sox, Yankees, Blue Jays and (possibly) the Mariners are all in position to nab a Wild Card spot, with home-field advantage still very much in play. The A’s remain mathematically alive at four games back, but our focus here is on the handful of teams most likely to secure a berth. Which two teams will meet on Tuesday, Oct. 5?

The remaining schedules are as follows:

Yankees: 3 at BOS; 3 at TOR; 3 vs. TB
Red Sox: 3 vs. NYY; 3 at BAL; 3 at WSH
Blue Jays: 3 at MIN; 3 vs. NYY; 3 vs. BAL
Mariners: 3 at LAA; 3 vs. OAK; 3 vs. LAA

Alyson Footer, editor/moderator: Based on strength of schedule, which we're realizing matters none (actually, Feinsand has known this all along), the Yankees would seem to be at a slight disadvantage heading to the final stretch. How much does this matter? 

Mark Feinsand, executive reporter: Thank you for acknowledging my general lack of give-a-hootness regarding strength of schedule. I would like to push back on that re: the Yankees.

Anthony Castrovince, reporter: The Yankees outscored the Rangers, 18-7, in a three-game sweep in the Bronx this week, while the Blue Jays dropped two of three in St. Pete. The Red Sox have jumped back to the top Wild Card spot by beating up on the lowly Orioles and the dysfunctional Mets. So, um, are you SURE about that??

Feinsand: I believe the Yankees are in the exact position they want to be in. Rather than having to beat up on some weaklings and watch the scoreboard to see if others can take care of their business, they have three chances each against the Red Sox and Blue Jays to handle their own business. If the Yankees can’t beat the teams they’re trying to chase down/hold off, then they don’t belong in the Wild Card Game.

Take two of three from Boston and Toronto and the Yankees should find themselves playing a week from Tuesday.

Castrovince: I like that this will largely be decided head-to-head. Let’s get it! 

The Yankees' fate is in their hands ... just like it was when they were like nine games ahead of the Blue Jays.

Feinsand: Now, that said, the Red Sox and Blue Jays certainly would seem to benefit from playing series against the Orioles/Nationals and Twins/Orioles. There’s not much arguing that.

Footer: I think we can all agree the Blue Jays’ surge was Great For Ball. That's what we've been waiting for all season, right? They were always better than their record indicated?

Feinsand: The Blue Jays have been feisty all season but hadn’t been able to put together a big run. Until they did. To me, they’re the most fun watch in the American League without a question. 

Footer: Feisty, yes. But scary? Are they scary? 

Feinsand: Yes, they’re scary. Nobody wants to face that lineup in a short series, especially with Robbie Ray and José Berríos pitching Games 1 and 2 -- with Steven Matz and Alek Manoah waiting in the wings.

Castrovince: Team execs are always citing run differential, maybe even more than fans do. The Blue Jays were always screaming for regression (or I guess progression) to the mean.

If you're the Rays, aren't you rooting for the Red Sox or Yankees to come out of the Wild Card Game and not the Blue Jays? That would be my preference, if I'm Kevin Cash and Co. 

Feinsand: If I’m Kevin Cash, I’m not particularly thrilled that any AL East team not from Baltimore is going to be my reward for finishing with the best record in the AL.

Castrovince: I actually had a card printed out that explained every team’s odds of beating the Rays in a Division Series, but Kevin Kiermaier stole it

Footer: People in Houston are rooting for the Astros to take over the Rays for best record, and … well, you may want to rethink not wanting the White Sox in the Division Series.

Castrovince: The White Sox have basically played .500 ball in the second half. Losing Carlos Rodón doesn't help. (Hopefully that Rodón issue is temporary.)

Feinsand: I pointed out on the Twitter this week that the White Sox are a potential first-round knockout given the way their season has gone. As of the other day, the White Sox were 33-9 against the Orioles, Twins, Cubs, Pirates and Rangers -- and 52-56 against the rest of MLB. They were 2-5 against the Astros, their likely ALDS opponent. Ouch.

Needless to say, that tweet was not very popular on the South Side.

Castrovince: There's that schedule strength conversation again.

Regular-season results aside, I love the Sox in a short series if they're healthy. But they've been pretty banged up down the stretch.

Feinsand: Well, I don’t put much into strength of schedule for future games. But for the games that have already happened, it means something. The Rays were 18-1 against the Orioles this year, and the Yankees were 11-8 against Baltimore.

Footer: Back on topic … are the Yankees, as they are constructed now, a dangerous team? Or are they just playing more to their level of being "good enough" to win the Wild Card? I believe Mark and I just did a Twitter Spaces conversation putting a bow on the Yankees’ season, and I took a very "RIP Yankees season" tone. Too soon?

Castrovince: Gerrit Cole in a Wild Card Game is dangerous. I'd struggle to call the Yankees dangerous overall given the state of their bullpen and their overall inconsistency.

Feinsand: The Yankees can absolutely win a Wild Card spot, and if they get there, then Gerrit Cole can absolutely pitch them into the ALDS. What happens from there, unfortunately, is a showdown with the Rays, which isn’t great for the Yankees.

I think both the Red Sox and Blue Jays would pose a far bigger threat to Tampa Bay. They have deeper pitching staffs and more consistent lineups overall.

Castrovince: The X-factors are Domingo Germán and Luis Severino in the 'pen, ultimately.

Feinsand: Meh.

I think Jordan Montgomery and Corey Kluber are far bigger X-factors. If they don’t pitch well, those bullpen innings won’t mean much.

Castrovince: These are not great X-factors, let's be honest. The Yankees' season should not be coming down to these X-factors.

Feinsand: People forget that what made those late-‘90s/early-2000s Yankees so scary was that they were throwing a top starter at you every night. Yes, they could hit, but when you have Cone/Pettitte/Clemens/Duque/Mussina/Wells/etc. going for you, that’s not easy. They don’t have anything close to that now.

Castrovince: So if/when they get bounced early (or don't make it at all), what happens? Big shakeup in the Bronx?

Feinsand: I don’t see much of a shakeup happening. Hal Steinbrenner has total faith in Brian Cashman -- and he should. Wasn’t it like four weeks ago that everybody was praising Cashman for the Rizzo/Gallo trades being brilliant?

Castrovince: Turns out Rizzo is a sub-.800-OPS first baseman and Gallo strikes out a lot. Who saw that coming?

Feinsand: As for Aaron Boone, I have argued all season that very little of what has gone wrong with the Yankees is his fault. Blame DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, Gary Sánchez, et al. There’s only so much a manager can do when his players are grossly underperforming.

Footer: How about the Red Sox? They were great, then terrible, then a little more terrible, and now they're ... great again? How cool is it that we still don't know who will be hosting the WC Game? 

Feinsand: The Red Sox have five players with 23 or more home runs and seven overall in double digits. If Chris Sale and Nathan Eovaldi can hold down the rotation, they’re going to be dangerous as heck next month. 

Castrovince: They did a great job finding that Chris Sale guy midseason. What a pickup.

Feinsand: The Red Sox are hosting the Wild Card Game, Alyson.

Footer: For sure? 

Feinsand: Unless they get swept by the Yankees, they won’t give up the top spot. Closing your season with six games against Orioles and Nationals teams that will have one eye on their flight home for the winter is a nice formula.

Castrovince: I think you just assured they will be forking over the hosting duties. 

Feinsand: Nothing is for sure. As my good friend John Sterling likes to remind us, you can’t predict baseball. You can try, but why would you?

Castrovince: That would be a tough place to try to win one game. The Red Sox have a .628 winning percentage at Fenway.

Feinsand: Rumor has it the Yankees plan to start Bucky Dent at shortstop if they make it.

Footer: When I look at the Blue Jays, I see a team that could very well keep streaking all the way to the end, but I also wonder if their recent tear would be hard to keep up for another couple of weeks, and they could be in for a letdown.

Castrovince: Ultimately, I'll take the Blue Jays’ pitching over that of the Yankees down the stretch. It's easy to salivate over that offense, but it's the improvement of the pitching staff in the second half that's allowed them to go on this run. The trades for Adam Cimber and Trevor Richards didn't get much love at the time, but they turned Toronto's season around. (The trade for Brad Hand less so.)

Feinsand: I agree with Castro. And man, I hate when that happens. The Blue Jays will be playing their final week in front of a rabid crowd at the dome, and I think they take care of business. I’m thinking we see Toronto at Boston on Wild Card Tuesday.

Castrovince: Preferably after Tiebreaker Monday!

Feinsand: Can I add one more thing? Why are we counting out the Mariners?

Castrovince: Because of math, mostly.

Footer: Well, we are pretty far into the conversation without mentioning the Mariners, who are two games out. So, what about the Mariners?

Feinsand: They play the Angels in six of their final nine games. Seattle!

Wouldn’t it be something if after all of this AL East talk, those three teams beat up on each other, split all their games, and the Mariners go 9-0 to end the season and steal a spot?

Castrovince: I'm all for it. The M's drought has gone on long enough, and it would be pretty satisfying for it to end in totally unexpected fashion. 

Have any two players ever hit a less-heralded 70 home runs between them than Kyle Seager and Mitch Haniger? Those guys can rake. 

Footer: Let's end with this -- you're Kevin Cash. Finish this sentence: "The WC team I least want to face in the Division Series is _____." 

Feinsand: The Blue Jays. And it’s not particularly close, to me. 

Castrovince: Agreed. Guerrero, Ray and customs. That's a load.