The American League’s Only Playoff Race

While the AL East race appears to have tilted decisively towards the Red Sox over the past five weeks, an even more dramatic turnaround has taken place in the AL wild card race over an even longer timeline, one involving the Mariners and A’s. This one has yet to be decided, which is good news, because it’s practically the last race standing in the Junior Circuit.

Through June 15, the Mariners were running neck-and-neck with the Astros despite a massive disparity in the two teams’ run differentials, a situation that — as I had illustrated a few days earlier — owed a whole lot to their records in one-run games (22-10 for Seattle, 6-12 for Houston). The A’s, though solidly competitive to that point, were something of an afterthought, far overshadowed by the Mike Trout/Shohei Ohtani show in Anaheim:

American League West Standings Through June 15
Team W-L W-L% GB RS RA Dif PythW-L%
Astros 46-25 .648 366 220 146 .717
Mariners 45-25 .643 0.5 311 284 27 .541
Angels 38-32 .543 7.5 319 286 33 .550
A’s 34-36 .486 11.5 304 313 -9 .487
Rangers 27-44 .380 19 297 379 -82 .390
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

On June 16, despite placing Matt Chapman on the disabled list with a contusion on his right thumb, the A’s, who had lost to the Angels 8-4 the night before, kicked off a five-game winning streak, taking the two remaining games of the series that weekend, then two from the Padres at Petco Park and the first game of a four-game set against the White Sox in Chicago. Though they merely split a four-gamer on the South Side, they swept four from the Tigers in Detroit, sparking a six-game winning streak that also included two victories at home against the Indians. Remarkably, they’ve strung together two separate six-game winning streaks since then, as well, one against the Giants (a pair of walk-of wins) at home and the Rangers in Arlington from July 21 to 26 and then another from July 30 through August 5 at home against the Blue Jays and Tigers. Alas, that one ended on Tuesday night against the Dodgers.

Though the Mariners had an eight-game winning streak from June 25 to July 3 against the Orioles, Royals, and Angels, it didn’t quite offset losing streaks of five and four games that took place in near proximity. They also endured a five-game skid just last week. Here’s how the division has played out since the point above:

American League West Standings Since June 16
Tm W -L W-L% GB RS RA Dif PythW-L%
A’s 33-11 .750 236 170 66 .646
Astros 27-17 .614 6 203 147 56 .644
Rangers 23-21 .523 10 249 222 27 .552
Mariners 20-24 .455 13 161 213 -52 .375
Angels 19-26 .422 14.5 206 205 1 .502
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

The A’s have been the hottest team in baseball in that span, a touch hotter than even the Red Sox (32-11). With their 13-game swing relative to the Mariners, they entered Wednesday at 67-47, five-and-a-half games behind the Astros (73-42) and two ahead of the Mariners (65-49) for the second Wild Card spot; they’re also four behind the slumping Yankees (70-42) for the top spot. Their total playoff odds, just 3.1% as of June 15, are up to 63.7%, while the Mariners’ odds have dropped from 75.1% to 35.8% in that same timeframe. Note how far in the red Seattle’s run differential has gotten; they’re lucky they haven’t been buried even further based upon what ol’ Pythagenpat says.

The flip-flopping of the A’s and Mariners owes to massive gaps in performance between the rivals’ offenses and bullpens over the past seven-plus weeks. Yes, we’re having some fun with arbitrary endpoints and small sample sizes (just over a quarter of a season) while acknowledging that over the course of the full season, the disparities just aren’t that wide. As a team, the A’s have had one of the most robust offenses in baseball in this span, scoring 5.36 runs per game (fourth behind the Red Sox, Rangers, and Indians) while hitting for an MLB-high 118 wRC+. Over that same timeframe, the Mariners’ 3.65 runs per game is 27th in the majors, while their 90 wRC+ is 26th. Between the two teams, the A’s boast nearly all of the hottest hitters, the Mariners nearly all of the frigid ones:

A’s and Mariners Hitters Since June 16
Name Team PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Matt Chapman OAK 123 .318 .398 .598 172
Nelson Cruz SEA 159 .302 .384 .619 171
Chad Pinder OAK 90 .300 .371 .537 151
Stephen Piscotty OAK 181 .262 .331 .543 138
Khris Davis OAK 186 .267 .344 .540 138
Mark Canha OAK 144 .280 .361 .504 136
Jed Lowrie OAK 175 .240 .349 .453 124
Matt Olson OAK 185 .242 .351 .452 123
Mitch Haniger SEA 174 .250 .356 .345 103
Denard Span SEA 135 .279 .319 .426 103
Ben Gamel SEA 83 .276 .337 .382 99
Marcus Semien OAK 187 .259 .330 .373 96
Kyle Seager SEA 159 .238 .289 .415 92
Ryon Healy SEA 165 .212 .248 .391 74
Dee Gordon SEA 181 .282 .298 .322 72
Jonathan Lucroy OAK 124 .229 .290 .312 64
Jean Segura SEA 165 .234 .279 .312 65
Mike Zunino SEA 90 .190 .233 .333 55
Dustin Fowler OAK 94 .220 .234 .330 50
Guillermo Heredia SEA 115 .194 .243 .278 45
Totals OAK 1702 .262 .338 .463 120
Totals SEA 1581 .246 .302 .378 89
All statistics through August 6

Note that the table does not include Tuesday night’s games, losses for both teams. Despite missing 16 games with his thumb injury, Chapman has been the A’s hottest hitter; his wRC+ is eighth in the majors over this stretch (120 PA minimum), and overall, he entered Tuesday 12th in the AL in wRC+ (136) and seventh in WAR (4.9) thanks in part to outstanding glovework (12.6 UZR, 25 DRS). Piscotty has heated up in the wake of his mother’s untimely death due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; he and Davis have both clubbed a team-high 11 homers over the 43 games, with Davis khrushing 10 of those in his last 14 games. (He extended that to 11 in 15 games on Tuesday.) Canha and Pinder have helped stabilize an outfield picture that hasn’t got what was expected of Fowler, who made the center-field installment of my Replacement-Level Killers series. Lucroy, the team’s other real offensive laggard, did so at catcher.

As for the Mariners, on a team-wide level, their impatience (6.5% walk rate to the A’s 9.2%) and lack of power stand out over this stretch. Cruz has 13 homers since June 16, but Healy (eight) and Seager (six) are the only other hitters with more than three, and it still hasn’t been enough to prop up their subpar production In fact, only two of Cruz’s teammates have been even slightly above average with the bat lately. Segura has slumped dreadfully, and while Span and Gamel have been about average, the team’s left-field production was bad enough to earn a spot on my Killers list. Likewise for Healy at first base and Gordon and Heredia in center field, though the irony is that Gordon hasn’t hit a lick since moving back to second base. The return of Robinson Cano from his PED suspension — as a first baseman — should help shore up the former spot, but so far, the work of July 31 acquisition Cameron Maybin on the latter front hasn’t helped (.235/.350/.235 in 20 PA).

Since mid-June, the performance of the two teams’ rotations has been quite even, at least from a fielding-independent standpoint:

A’s and Mariners Starting Pitchers Since June 16
Name Team IP ERA FIP
Edwin Jackson OAK 47.0 2.87 4.00
Brett Anderson OAK 27.1 2.96 4.40
Sean Manaea OAK 53.2 3.19 3.84
James Paxton SEA 41.2 3.46 3.27
Marco Gonzales SEA 53.2 3.52 3.66
Trevor Cahill OAK 26.1 3.76 3.50
Chris Bassitt OAK 21.0 3.86 3.68
Mike Leake SEA 54.0 4.00 3.97
Wade LeBlanc SEA 59.1 4.55 4.08
Frankie Montas OAK 30.2 4.70 3.61
Paul Blackburn OAK 20.1 5.75 3.10
Félix Hernández SEA 33.2 5.88 4.64
Totals OAK 234.0 3.88 3.99
Totals SEA 250.1 4.31 3.98
All statistics through August 6

On a team-wide level, the gap owes something to batting average on balls in play (.282 Oakland, .296 Seattle); the A’s have had the better defense of the two teams over the course of the season by 20-ish runs according to both UZR and DRS, and that’s a big part of the difference here. Within this span, the Mariners rotation’s rate of home runs per fly ball is about 50% higher than that of the A’s (14.2% to 9.5%), offsetting their advantages in strikeout and walk rates.

Individually, how about those blasts from the past? Anderson and Cahill are pitching like 2010 just decided to crash the party, but the even more surprising appearance is that of Edwin Jackson, who was toiling for the Nationals’ Triple-A Syracuse affiliate until exercising a June 1 opt-out clause and signing with the A’s on June 6. When. He made his debut for Oakland on June 25, he tied Octavio Dotel’s record of 13 teams played for — and he’s still a young lad of 34 years. His comeback is worth a separate article, but the short version is that he’s thrown at least 5.2 innings while allowing three runs or fewer in all but one of his eight starts while relying primarily on a new cutter-sinker-slider mix. His emergence has helped the A’s weather the losses of Kendall Graveman, Daniel Gossett and Jharel Cotton — a trio that combined for 61 starts last year, albeit with generally subpar results — to Tommy John surgery. The A’s have used 12 starters thus far, tied for second in the majors behind the Rays, who are working with an entirely different paradigm, man.

Not helping matters for the Mariners is that Paxton effectively missed three starts due to lower back stiffness (he left in the first inning of one of those), but the most dismaying row above is the one belonging to Hernández, and those numbers don’t even include Tuesday night’s six-inning, 11-run (seven earned), three-homer bludgeoning by the Rangers because I simply don’t have the heart. The 32-year-old righty has given the Mariners just one quality start in seven via the numbers shown above, and the timing of his next start is in doubt at this writing. Had Hernández managed even a league-average performance in terms of run prevention this year, the race between these two teams would be even.

As for the bullpens, I’ll spare you the full table, but in summary, the A’s have enjoyed a massive edge, with a 3.03 ERA and 3.17 FIP in 160.1 innings compared to the Mariners’ 4.62 ERA and 4.06 FIP in 132.1 innings. Oakland closer Blake Treinen and setup man Lou Trivino have been particularly stingy of late; the former has been scored upon in just three out of his last 32 outings dating back to mid-May, while the latter, a 26-year-old rookie, has been scored upon in just two of 23 appearances in this span, though he’s allowed inherited runners to score in four outings. Emilio Pagan and Yusmeiro Petit have been solid, while Ryan Buchter has been Oakland’s only medium- or high-leverage reliever to scuffle substantially.

On the other side, closer Edwin Diaz has been brilliant — his FIP during this stretch is -0.07, which, wow — and setup man Alex Colome has been good, but Juan Nicasio has been dreadful (7.42 ERA, .526 SLG allowed) while pitching through chronic pain in his right knee, and Nick Vincent hasn’t been much better. Not surprisingly, general manager Jerry Dipoto was busy around the July 31 deadline, adding Zach Duke, Sam Tuivailala, and Adam Warren via trades, though none may be as impactful as the A’s addition of Jeurys Familia.

Obviously, 43 games is not a full season, and the overall gap between the A’s and Mariners is hardly as big as what’s shown over the nearly two months since the green-and-gold went red hot. These A’s, who began the season with the majors’ lowest payroll (just south of $66 million), and these Mariners, who are trying to end the longest postseason drought in North American professional sports, are both compelling teams. As both our projected standings — which forecast the A’s to finish with 92 wins and the Mariners with 91 — and our playoff odds suggest, this is hardly a done deal. That’s good news, and hopefully this turns out to be one helluva race.

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Shoot2Thrill
Member
Shoot2Thrill

Oakland just needs to run away with it already. They were always better than the Mariners. Even the Angels were. Seattle is still there because of an early insanely clutch offense in one run games and the surprising rise of a dominant 9th inning guy.

phealy48
Member
phealy48

1. Wins are wins, it doesn’t matter who we think is better. Oakand doesn’t deserve the spot any more than Seattle does. I would say that if any team did “deserve” a wild card spot, it would be the Rays, who have been extremely unlucky by BaseRuns etc
2. The “rise” of Edwin Diaz isn’t that surprising. Had a 2.04 FIP(even lower xFIP and SIERA) in 2016 and has always posted incredible peripherals.

Shoot2Thrill
Member
Shoot2Thrill

Well Oakland is playing a lot better than Seattle is so would that not mean they deserve it more, at least at this point in time? And about Diaz I’m not really trying to pass it on as luck that he’s so good this year. To me, it’s surprising in the respect that I did not expect this level of dominance even though he always had an above average fastball and slider.

gavinrendar
Member
gavinrendar

You literally just said wins are wins and we shouldn’t assign deservedness because of anything else and then said the Rays deserve more because their play doesn’t match their win total. I’m so confused.

johnforthegiants
Member
johnforthegiants

The A’s are also there largely because of the surprising rise of a dominant 9th inning guy. Treinen’s WPA is almost a game higher than Diaz’ (4.69 vs 3.78).

Ivan_Grushenko
Member
Member
Ivan_Grushenko

Yes and he, Petit and Trivino have all thrown a lot of innings. They might need to acquire even more relievers.

johnforthegiants
Member
johnforthegiants

That is the plan

carter
Member
carter

Not sure why everyone is so convinced RP cannot just throw more. What evidence do we have that guys who are thrown in relief who throw a lot of innings lose effectiveness?

jmsdean477
Member
jmsdean477

Treinen has succeeded because of a change in pitch makeup that drastically improves his repertoire. He added a four seamer back in which lets him nibble the edges with a 98MPH cutting sinker, then throw a four seam at 97 thats exactly the same pitch, until it doesn’t cut into the zone and they wave at a pitch thats 8 inches outside. being able to go double sinkers down that fall out of the zone so that they are looking to take that pitch then bullet the bottom of the zone with a four seam on the same plane has been really effective as well. There is a whole article from May about Treinen where it talks about him adding back the four seamer when he returned to OAK since he used to throw it with them when he was first drafted. The dominance shouldn’t be surprising with him hitting triple digits with both the 2 and 4 seamers at times, the way those pitches compliment each other, and the 92MPH slider that has super late break. He has the best mix of super pitches of any reliever. He is Chapman with a better third pitch or Kimbrel with fewer options that are all a little better then any of Kimbrel’s.

jmsdean477
Member
jmsdean477

OAK RD +57 SEA RD -31 after todays loss, me thinks the numbers say OAK should run away with this in a hurry and NYY might have cause to worry with the injuries theyre dealing with.

OAK has a softer schedule then SEA with 4 less games vs HOU and every game this month is at home other then the next 3 in ANA against a currently Troutless Angels, and 6 at the end of the month in HOU to finish out the season series before Sept, and ANA again right up against the waiver deadline when they may have shipped out more players. Sept is juicy with the only contending teams OAK is playing being NYY at home to overtake them in the WC and 5 vs SEA other then those 8 games TB is the only team they play in Sept with a better then .500 record and that by only one game.

Unfortunately for the chances of OAK taking a run at HOU for the ALW HOU gets to close out there season vs BAL for 4, so OAK would need a decent lead before that series where you can afford to drop a game or two in the standings. It is very relevant that OAK who took 3 of 4 from HOU last time they faced each other, and it was only a very weird extra inning with Lucroy blowing multiple plays that prevented a sweep, will play the Astros in the next few days for 3 of 6 remaining games against a team that is missing McCullers, Altuve, Correa, McCann, Springer, Devinski, and a couple others. Oak better run at HOU now while they are weak and limping.