The National League playoffs situation is still a muddy picture, as pretty much the entire NL West is still battling, the Phillies are still in the Wild Card situation and the Central is looking like a winner-take-all race to the finish between the Cubs and the Brewers.
The American League, however, is pretty much set. We’ve reached the point where the Baseball Prospectus playoff odds reporthas four teams above 90%. Barring a highly improbable surge from the Tigers and a catastrophic implosion from one of the Yankees, Indians or Red Sox the playoff situation will look like this:
AL East Champions: Boston Red Sox (96.86% AL East, 3.13% WC, 99.99% playoffs)
AL Central Champions: Cleveland Indians (98.26% AL Central, 0.55% WC, 98.81% playoffs)
AL West Champions: Los Angeles Angels (99.91% AL West, 0.01% WC, 99.92% playoffs)
AL Wild Card: New York Yankees (3.14% AL East, 87.49% WC, 90.62% playoffs)
Computing magic numbers gets tricky with the wild card involved, but divisional magic numbers are easy. The Red Sox’ magic number in the AL East is 13, the Indians’ magic number in the Central is 11, and the Angels’ in the West is 10. If the Red Sox were actually in a position to have to worry about winning the Wild Card the five New England states would probably collectively enter a state of Martial Law, so let’s just worry about that number: 13. A combination of thirteen Red Sox wins and Yankees losses means the Sox win the AL East. We have sixteen games remaining, the Yankees have eighteen. That means that if we play .500 ball from here on out, the Yankees would have to go 14-4 to win the AL East.
ESPN is reporting today a new rule change in which the first seed in the AL Playoffs gets to choose their opening Divisional Series schedule. The two options are to alternate games and off days during games 1 through 3, or to begin with an off day, then play 1 and 2 consecutively, then have an off day before 3. The Red Sox would be the one seed were the playoffs to start today, and would apparently have exactly one hour (?) after clinching the one seed to decide which schedule they would like to use. The main impact this has is to reduce the number of rest days the game 1 starter would have, thus making it less likely that the starters of games 1 and 2 could also start games 4 and 5.
This strategy would make a lot of sense against the Indians, whose entire pitching strength lies in C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona. If we hold onto the one seed, we will play whichever one of the Indians and Angels has a worse final record. Since playing games one and two consecutively also reduces OUR chances of starting our top of the rotation starters again (probably Beckett and Schilling for the postseason), it wouldn’t make sense to use the schedule where games 1 and 2 are played on consecutive nights against the Angels. We wouldn’t gain a significant advantage, since their rotation is not particularly scary, and would in turn not only forfeit the chance to have Beckett and Schilling pitch games 4 and 5 but possibly throw off rest schedules for the whole postseason, particularly if the first round series goes five games.
The postseason team I am least worried about is the Indians. Their lineup isn’t as scary 1 through 9 as the Yankees, they are leaning on a lot of young, inexperienced players, and their bullpen has a lot of holes in it. The Yankees are obviously daunting, particularly with the psychological edge of the sweep at Yankee Stadium. We can take great steps towards restoring the team’s (and the fans’) confidence by returning the sweep in Fenway this weekend. The Angels are an extremely well run team with a lot of underrated hitters, a solid bullpen, and the amphibious ability to grind it out small-ball with speed and defense or swing for the fences.
I think what would bode the absolute best for us would be if the Indians took the number two seed and the Angels took the number three. The Indians could very realistically win the opening two games with Sabathia and Carmona pitching at home, then drop the games at Yankee Stadium, forcing that series to four or five. Assuming we beat the Angels (for the sake of argument, not because we should treat it as a foregone conclusion) that would mean that either the Indians or the Yankees would have a beat-up pitching staff going into the ALCS. We could have Wakefield or Tavarez make a spot-start in game one of that series, a luxury that neither the Indians or the Yankees would have, and try to keep our rotation fresh to have Beckett pitch on the road in game three and save him for game seven as well if it goes that far.
Let’s see how the next couple weeks play out. This is a really strong season in the American League, emphasized by the fact that such a complete team as the Tigers looks to be on the outside looking in. Good luck, boys.