Will the AL Wild Card come from the Central?

(This post is partially in response to a challenge from my good friend Jake that I would not be able to write about anything substantive in less than 1,000 words. Let’s see if I succeed. The word count starts after this parenthetical. Follow me on Twitter or friend me on Facebook if you like – I’m always open to comments and critique!)

Will the AL Wild Card come from the Central?

No.

Oh, fine, I’ll get into it a little bit more, but I’ll still beat that 1,000 word challenge. I was listening to ESPN Radio about a half an hour ago here in the DC ‘burbs, and they asked a commentator (whose name I cannot recall, despite trying) what their pick for the wild card will be. To be clear, the question was almost certainly a roundabout way to get the guest to give an opinion on who would win the AL East (as it has been long-opined that the Yankees and Rays will, in some form, share the AL East title and the Wild Card). However, to my mild (okay, more than mild) surprise, the guest responded: “The Chicago White Sox.”*

*The sound you just heard? My head exploding.

So, here I am for a little bit of reality therapy. The Twins are not going to be the AL Wild Card. The White Sox are not going to be the AL Wild Card. The AL Wild Card is going to be either the Yankees or the Rays (sorry, Red Sox, but I’m sticking a fork in you now). Because my stock in trade is not in making bold statements without backing them up, at least a little bit, my reasoning follows.

First, let’s look at what the brilliant minds over at Baseball Prospectus have to say about this (note, the report I worked from was generated on Sun., Aug. 8, at 7:15pm. This means the result of the Yankees-Red Sox game was at least four hours too late to be included. Wait, who am I kidding? It would have been five hours. The Yankees and Red Sox play that slowly.). I put together the following spreadsheet, which simply states the percent chance that a team would reach the post-season as the Wild Card, based on 1 million simulations of the rest of the season. The first model is based solely on the results of the season so far, the second is adjusted by PECOTA, the model developed by stats genius Nate Silver, and finally, the third is adjusted based on an ELO ratings system (if you don’t know what an ELO ratings system is, Silver explains in this old post). So, what do the Baseball Prospectus people, all of whom are smarter than me, posit? The results are striking:

All Numbers © 2010 Prospectus Entertainment Ventures

Wow. Even I can tell you the Wild Card winner is going to come from the AL East. In all three models, there is a greater than 90% chance it will (91.72612% under the first model, 97.36387% under PECOTA, and 92.64992% under ELO), with an average of a 93.91330% chance. Wow. That seems pretty conclusive to me, right? Well, let’s play that game for a second. Based on that, I calculated* the odds of a non-AL East team getting the Wild card:

*My 10th-grade Accelerated Algebra teacher taught me to always show my work. So there it is.

So, odds are just over 16.5 to 1  that a non-AL East team will take the Wild Card. By doing some brutally simple (and inaccurate) math, I can posit that the Twins have something like 35 to 1 odds, and the White Sox approximately 60 to 1 odds.

Now, 35 to 1 doesn’t sound so bad, when you look at the above numbers, but it is a similar number to what Australian Steven Bradbury (40 to 1) was facing in his attempt to become the first gold medalist from the Southern Hemisphere to win a gold medal in the 2002 Olympic short track speed skating, and the first Aussie to win a Winter Olympic Gold. He won, so that should give the Central’s second-place finisher hope, right? Not really; it took the following events to occur:

  • The disqualification of the second-place skater in his qualifying heat, which allowed him to move into the semi-finals.
  • In his semifinal, he was in last place on the last lap when three of the four other skaters crashed, allowing him to finish a distant second place.
  • In the final, he was far behind the field when this happened:

I can’t really think of a more unlikely event. It took an act of the judges, an act of God, and the deliberate trip of Apolo Ohno by the Chinese skater for Bradbury to take the Gold.

Based on the numbers, the odds of the Twins (or White Sox, or any other team) taking advantage of the Wild Card playoff berth are extremely low.

Second, other than the Yankees and possibly the Rangers, no other team in the majors looks quite as good as the Rays right now. The Twins had a terrible June, and since the break they have dominated the cellar-dwellers, while only barely managing a split with the Rays. The Rays, on the other hand, have looked pretty darn good all year. I say that with some trepidation, because right now the Rays have two of their starters going to see the doctor for shoulder ailments, but they are also almost uniquely able to fill the holes, with stellar minor leaguers, including Jeremy Hellickson, who was most recently seen shutting down the Twins last Monday. Their outfield and infield defense are better, their starters are better, and their bench and system are deeper. The Twins have the edge in lineup strength and the bullpen (with the possible exception of Matty “Two-Face” Guerrier and the minor-leaguer-of-the-week), but their starting pitching can be very suspect, especially with a potential Kevin Slowey elbow problem.

The Twins’ best shot to make the playoffs is to

overtake the White Sox. In theory, that shouldn’t be too hard to do. The White Sox lineup still makes me cringe, but not with fear. Gordon Beckham just hit the DL. The Twins should easily win the AL Central.

And that, including this postscript, is 999 words. I win.

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