These are the 6 most compelling playoff races

September 9th, 2022

There is less than a month left in the season, which is to say, it’s the time of year when the MLB standings page is constantly open on your desktop or being checked on your device. These postseason chases are the very lifeblood of baseball, the most fun thing to follow daily throughout the month of September. And the best thing about them? They are plentiful. There are so many of them.

Sure, there are some divisions that are long settled: The Dodgers are all set in the NL West, the Astros are the same in the AL West, the Cardinals, after their hot streak, aren’t far behind them in the NL Central. But there are, to our calculations, six major playoff races to follow every day, all of them captivating in their own way. Which means we have to rank them.

So here are the most compelling chases, ranked.

1. American League Central
Yes, yes, we know the hearts and minds of Mets and Braves fans are constantly rising and falling with their NL East race, and we’ll get to that one. But we’ll make the case that this is the one that will get your blood pumping the most. Why? Because no matter who loses between the Mets and Braves, they’re both going to make the playoffs. That’s very unlikely to be the case in the AL Central.

Neither the Twins nor the White Sox are particularly close to the third AL Wild Card spot, which means it’s AL Central or bust. The Guardians are hanging on for dear life with a month to go, but the Twins and the Pale Hose (who, may we remind, were the heavy favorites going into the season) are right on their tails. With no tiebreakers this year, it’s very possible all three teams will be playing for their lives on the very last day of the season. No other postseason chase can say that. The Guardians and Twins are set to play eight games in the next 11 days, so this one is about to get very interesting.

2. National League East
This is certainly the tightest race, and the one with the most emotional resonance: After all, these teams have been at each other’s throats for decades. But the stakes are through the roof on this one, too. The difference between winning the division and the No. 2 seed (and the bye that comes with it) and finishing second and having to win two games just to make it to an NLDS where you get to play the Dodgers is profound. (This assumes, by the way, that the winner of this division can hold off those red-hot Cardinals for that No. 2 spot.)

Getting that bye is especially meaningful for the Mets, who draw a large portion of their postseason advantage from having Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer atop their rotation. With the compressed postseason schedule, they might not be able to start again in the NLDS, after the Wild Card series, until Game 3. Win the division, and they’ll be fully rested for whoever battled their way out of the No. 3-No. 6 matchup. These teams are as close as can be and have so much to play for. It’s high drama, every night.

These two teams have three more games during the last week of the season, and if the Mets can win just one of those games, they will also own the tiebreaker, which could prove significant in a world with no more play-in games.

3. National League Wild Card
Thanks to the Cardinals going 27-8 since Aug. 1 and opening up a 9 1/2-game lead in the NL Central, the division is probably off the table for the Brewers. With one NL Wild Card slot already spoken for by whoever doesn’t win the NL East between the Mets and Braves, there are three teams for two spots: The Phillies, Padres and Brewers. It is fair to say that each one of these teams desperately needs to make the postseason.

The Brewers just made a huge trade of their star closer at the Trade Deadline with a three-game division lead that has now evaporated; imagine missing the playoffs after that. The Padres traded for Juan Soto (and that Milwaukee closer, Josh Hader, for that matter); imagine missing the playoffs after that. Oh, and the Phillies have one of the highest payrolls in the game and the second-longest postseason drought in the sport; imagine missing the playoffs after that! There are going to be some very surly fans of one of these teams once the dust has settled. Which one will it be?

The Brewers’ recent skid has them four games behind the Padres for the final spot, so they’ll need to make up some ground, and fast.

4. American League Wild Card
This one, admittedly, has lost a little bit of steam with the AL Central teams essentially falling out of it and the Orioles losing three of four to the Blue Jays this week. But even if the Orioles don’t climb their way back in it -- and they very much could! -- it will be very compelling to see how the seeding shakes out here. If there’s any team that would most love to grab that top Wild Card slot, the No. 4 seed, it’s the Mariners. Otherwise, they’ll have to play their whole Wild Card series on the road, which means it’s possible their fans will have waited 21 years to make the playoffs but not actually get to watch them in Seattle if the Mariners do not advance.

That said, the No. 6 seed, the lowest Wild Card spot, may have more utility than the No. 5 spot: Whoever wins the AL Central -- and gets the No. 3 seed -- may well have a worse record than every Wild Card team, and would (in theory) be easier to eliminate. For what it’s worth, this one may zoom to the top of this list if, say, the Orioles or White Sox suddenly win 10 in a row or something.

5. No. 2 overall seed
We don’t mean the No. 2 seed in an individual league. We mean the No. 2 total seed, the second-best record in all of baseball behind the Dodgers. The Dodgers are sure to have the best record in baseball and thus home-field advantage throughout the World Series. But if they somehow don’t make the World Series -- which could very well happen; look no further back than just last year when they finished 18 games (yes, 18) ahead of Atlanta -- someone else is going to have home-field in the World Series. And it’s kind of a close race right now!

Race for second-best record
1. Astros: 88-49
2. Mets: 87-51 (half-game back)
3. Braves: 86-51 (1 game back)
4. Yankees: 82-54 (5 1/2 games back)
5. Cardinals 81-56 (7 games back)

Everybody would prefer home-field advantage in the World Series. If the Dodgers don’t make it, one of these teams may just have it.

6. American League East
Sure, the Yankees currently have 89.2 percent odds to win the division, according to Fangraphs Playoff Odds. But isn’t it fun to include this and freak them out a little? Sure it is! (They host the Rays this weekend and would essentially clinch the division with a sweep.)