It is important to remember that every time you look at the standings, you are looking only at a snapshot. You are looking at a specific moment in time, one that captures what happened before, but not after. If two teams are tied in the standings, it does not necessarily mean they are tied tied. If one team has to play the 1927 Yankees for the next two weeks and the other one gets to play the Washington Generals, one team might as well be, in fact, ahead.
So with five weeks left in the season, it is perhaps time to bring this context to the forefront. There are, to our calculations, nine teams with legitimate playoff hopes -- or that have plenty to play for when it comes to postseason seed positioning -- in the American League, and six in the National League. (We’re assuming the Dodgers have already essentially nailed down the No. 1 seed.) But what happens next will be affected as much by who these teams play than by who they are. So here’s a ranking of the schedules of each contender, from the easiest to the toughest, for each contending team.
This is my subjective ranking, though I’ve noted the combined winning percentage of their remaining opponents (thanks, Fangraphs!) as well, and those match up pretty well. That number doesn’t always match my ranking, and that’s because a team’s overall season winning percentage doesn’t necessarily reflect where it is right now, whether that is due to trades, injuries, player progress/regression, or some combination of all of it.
Opponent winning percentage: .479
If the Mariners are unable to break their streak of 22 consecutive seasons of missing the postseason, they will have no one to blame but themselves. After their next eight games against teams with winning records, they have 20 straight games against teams with losing records. That closing stretch is the most tantalizing, with 10 games at home -- including four vs. Detroit -- to finish the year. If the Mariners are even close to a Wild Card spot heading into that homestand … they should be home free.
2. White Sox
Opponent winning percentage: .483
The White Sox are still hanging around the AL Central race, and it will be interesting to see how they respond to the loss of manager Tony La Russa, who is dealing with medical issues. But if they are going to make a run, now is the time to do it. Not only do they have some handy out-of-division matchups (playing six against Oakland and Colorado at home is very helpful), but they’ve got plenty of games against the very teams they’re trying to run down in the division. It might feel like it’s over for them. But it absolutely is not.
Opponent winning percentage: .483
The Astros have a six-game lead on the Yankees for the top overall seed in the American League, and it would be wise for them to build that lead as much as they can over the next couple of weeks. Nineteen games against the Angels, Rangers, Tigers and A’s is a great way to build a margin you might need when you’re finishing against Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Philadelphia. They could put the Yankees away over the next fortnight.
4. (tie) Guardians
Opponent winning percentage: .490
Opponent winning percentage: .493
Is it cheating a little bit to have these teams tie for this spot? Probably. But their schedules are remarkably similar -- the Twins have four against the Yankees, the Guardians have six against the Mariners and Rays, but they’re otherwise the same -- and it all is going to come down to the eight games they have against each other. That five-game stretch between the teams from Sept. 16-19 is going to be bonkers and might just decide the AL Central. If there’s an edge between the teams’ schedules, you might have to give it to the Guardians, just because of how they finish the season -- with six games at home against the Royals.
Opponent winning percentage: .502
7. Blue Jays
Opponent winning percentage: .486
Opponent winning percentage: .517
Opponent winning percentage: .537
Perhaps not surprisingly, the four most difficult schedules are all for teams from the AL East that, of course, all have to play each other. Much of this comes down to how many games everybody has against the rest of the East. The Yankees have 18, with six against Boston (which, while in last place, is still in fact Boston); the Blue Jays have 25, the O’s have 20, the Rays have 21 … plus six against Houston (and three against first-place Cleveland). That gives the Rays the toughest stretch moving forward, though you can’t help but think the AL Wild Card is going to come down, one way or the other, to those 10 games between Toronto and Baltimore, starting with a doubleheader on Monday. The team that’s the happiest about all these AL East battles: Seattle. Definitely Seattle.
Opponent winning percentage: .469
The Cardinals have a scary road trip from Sept. 20-28, when they play at San Diego, Los Angeles and Milwaukee. They will need to build up their NL Central lead quite a bit by then. And they’re going to have every opportunity to. Other than two home games against Milwaukee on Sept. 13-14, the Cardinals play nothing but the Pirates, Cubs, Nationals and Reds, with all but three games in Pittsburgh at home. They also get to finish the season with six games against last-place Pittsburgh. You’re going to see Albert Pujols in the playoffs this year. You’re also going to see him get a lot of plate appearances against the Bucs that final week as he tries to get to 700 homers (if he isn’t there already).
Opponent winning percentage: .465
That Sept. 30-Oct. 2 series at Truist Park between the Mets and the Braves is going to be epic and intense. Well … probably. It’s very possible the Mets have already clinched the NL East by then -- or only need to win one game in that series to do so -- because of what their schedule looks like leading up to it. Five against the Marlins. Three against the Cubs. Three against the Nationals. Three against the A’s. Seven against the Pirates. (Seven against the Pirates!) And if they don’t finish off the Braves then, they still get three more against the Nationals at home to end the year. That will only be a big series if the Mets allow it to be a big series.
Opponent winning percentage: .481
With that Cardinals schedule, it’s going to be tough for the Brewers to catch up with them. But that Wild Card is very much in place for them, largely because they have so many games left against underwhelming National League teams that aren’t in the Central. They’ve got six hairy games against the New York teams -- all six at home -- and four against St. Louis, but other than that, it’s mostly smooth sailing, with four against the Marlins and three against the Rockies, though it should be noted that a four-game series makes it likely they will have to face NL Cy Young favorite Sandy Alcantara, and that those games against the Rockies are in Colorado, where they are much tougher. They also have seven against the Reds. The question may lie in the NL West: They’ve got two with the Giants and six more with the D-backs who, quietly, have become the next-closest team to them in the NL Wild Card standings. But if they take care of business, they can make up some real ground.
4. (tie) Braves
Opponent winning percentage: .504
Opponent winning percentage: .511
Again, a little bit of a cheat, and clearly, these teams have different priorities: The Braves have already gotten themselves in prime postseason position and are just chasing the Mets, while the Phillies are scrapping with the Brewers and Padres for a Wild Card spot. But you cannot ignore how many games these teams play against each other. They play seven head to head, four in Philadelphia and three in Atlanta, on consecutive weekends. The schedule is mostly equal after that: It’s a little harder for the Braves, but if they don’t catch the Mets, they’re still in. The Phillies need those wins even more than the Braves do.
6. San Diego Padres
Opponent winning percentage: .519
It is difficult to overstate the reckoning that might land in San Diego if they miss the playoffs, after all their Trade Deadline moves. But the Padres, who currently hold a half-game lead on the Phillies for the second NL Wild Card spot, might have the toughest schedule in all of baseball down the stretch. Sure, they have three games against the Rockies, but those are in Colorado, where the Rockies have a winning record this year. And, if you’re out on the Giants, they’ve got three with the Giants. But otherwise? They’ve got three with the desperate White Sox. They’ve got seven with the D-backs, who have been a lot better than the Padres over the last month. They have two with the Mariners, who may want a playoff spot more than any team in the sport. They have three with the Cardinals, who are likely to win the NL Central.
And, worst of all, they have nine with those blasted Dodgers, the best team in baseball and a team that loves making Padres’ fans’ lives difficult. Their saving grace might be the Dodgers resting some guys to prepare for the playoffs, but it’s not hard to imagine them wanting to rain on their rival’s parade. The Padres are going to have to step up, big, to make the playoffs. Because it’s all very stacked against them right now.