-- Could 2016 have been the start of a less exciting brand of MLB, with haves and have-nots so clearly established by the All-Star break that the second half of the season is more or less meaningless for determining postseason participants? During the first four seasons of the current 10-team playoff format (2012-2015), 11 teams that would have been out of the playoffs at the All-Star break secured a postseason berth by the end of the regular season, with the yearly results being evenly distributed.
In 2016, that all changed. Every team that was in playoff position at last year's All-Star break made the postseason. Sure, there was some shuffling of seeds as the Orioles and Giants dropped from division leaders to wild cards, but the "Hunt for October" drama all but disappeared from the second half of the season.
On the surface, there might not be much drama this year, either. At least half the division races are over, five of the divisions have the preseason favorite in front, and for someone to crash the National League wild-card party right now, they would need to make up at least a 7.5-game deficit. Only the American League wild-card race has obvious drama.
Still, we're in the business of looking ahead and digging beneath the surface of win-loss records for clues, so I'm going to take a crack at projecting which of today's division and wild-card leaders won't retain their playoff standing when the season ends.? Chicago Cubs?fans may want to avert their eyes.
Here's a projection of the National League's potential playoff participants, in order of their current win percentage:
Los Angeles Dodgers
I have a number of issues and concerns to address when the topic of the "best team in baseball" arises. In the case of the Dodgers, it includes a cluster of career years, unproven track records and a rotation I positively don't believe in beyond ace Clayton Kershaw. But for the purposes of determining playoff participation, those points amount to rounding errors.
The Dodgers will be hosting Game 1 of the NLDS, and they can begin setting their postseason rotation as soon as they want.
Playoffs? Yes, NL West division champion.
One of the reasons I'm not about to cede the "best team in baseball" mantle to the Dodgers right now is that I'm not convinced they are the best team in the National League, let alone all of baseball. The injuries to Washington's Trea Turner and Adam Eaton are so significant that they probably make the Dodgers the league front-runners, but any improvement to the Nationals' roster between now and September -- which should include the return of Turner -- might alter that standing.
Thanks to facing far less competition for their division title than the Dodgers, the Nationals should be the first team to clinch an NL playoff spot, even if it means they won't be better than the No. 2 seed.
Playoffs? Yes, NL East division champion.
As I pointed out in my second-half betting piece, anyone who is bullish on the New York Yankees' outlook has to like the Diamondbacks' outlook even more. Their rotation is better, especially at the top, and while the knee-jerk reaction would be to take the Yankees' bullpen over Arizona's -- thanks to Aroldis Chapman versus Fernando Rodney -- as a whole, it's probably just a small edge for New York. Both defenses are a team weakness, and when it comes to hitting, I'll take Arizona's much more balanced and consistent lineup over the Aaron Judge-led Bronx Bombers.
The Diamondbacks are undervalued. You don't have to look any further than the futures markets (at least at the South Point sportsbook in Las Vegas) for the NL pennant to see that, because the Diamondbacks (7-1) sport longer odds right now than their division rivals, the Colorado Rockies (4-1). A futures bet probably isn't the best way to exploit that valuation gap, but it's a great indication of what's available on a daily basis.
Defense and offensive production away from their home field are obvious weaknesses, but the return of A.J. Pollock to the D-backs' lineup -- after missing roughly half of the season so far -- should provide help in both of those areas. This is a very dangerous team; they're probably just in the wrong division to provide shock value in the second half of the season
Playoffs? Yes, NL wild card No. 1.
The Rockies are third in the National League in scoring, which shouldn't surprise anyone who annually digs into data; Colorado has fielded deeply under-.500 teams (e.g., 2015 and 2014) that led the league in scoring. So what's different this season? The 2015 and 2014 squads were 15th and 14th, respectively, in league scoring in away games. This year Colorado is much more balanced, sitting seventh in the NL in scoring away from home.
But there's an even more significant shift in performance that demonstrates a true roster upgrade, and frankly reflects an uptick in front-office competence. Getting strikeouts in Coors Field is more important than in any other venue in baseball because of the existence of the largest playing field in the majors. Yet the Rockies have traditionally stocked their roster with pitch-to-contact hurlers. Not this year. The bullpen sports a franchise-record strikeout rate (24.2 percent) by a full 2 percentage points, and the rotation has the third-best rate (18.6 percent) in the 25 years the franchise has existed.
To give you an idea of how much that area of roster construction has been neglected: having the third-best rate in franchise history is still not even league average in 2017. So Colorado still needs a much better rotation to be an October threat. But with the bullpen and a significantly above-average defense (another franchise outlier), there should be enough assets to paper over the rotation weakness and reach the playoffs -- largely because the Rockies have such a big cushion over any potential pursuer.
Playoffs? Yes, NL wild card No. 2.
You might not remember it, but the Brewers pulled this same trick in 2014 as well. It's probably recalled only by fans in Milwaukee because the Cardinals won the division, the Pirates hosted the wild-card game and both finished comfortably ahead of the Brewers. But after 91 games played, Milwaukee led the division by three. This year, the Brewers' lead stands at an even larger 5.5 games heading into the second half. So is the extra cushion sufficient this year to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2011?
I know this isn't going to surprise anyone, but I'm not writing this for shock value -- I'm a firm "no" on that question. The Brewers are one of only five teams whose bullpen and rotation have ERAs lower than their skill-based SIERAs. Defense plays a role in that divergence, and while Milwaukee has flashed mildly above-average leather this season, it isn't good enough to explain all of the difference, or even a majority of it. Simply stated, virtually all of Milwaukee's plus-45 run differential to date can be explained by cluster luck. If I told you the Brewers were going to play .500 ball the rest of the season, do you think they'll make the playoffs with 85 or 86 wins?
As much as any other division leader, the Brewers' offense is being carried largely by four bats, and with the exception of Ryan Braun, they are in entirely uncharted waters as far as offensive performance. One factor that supports the Brewers continuing at their current level of production (including being tied for third in the NL in runs scored) is the fact that the offense is fairly young as a whole, and their league-leading stolen base total is a source of hidden slugging production that doesn't show up in SLG or ISO tables.
The Brewers are interesting, and thanks to the short odds the Chicago Cubs are still getting to win the pennant, Milwaukee probably has true odds better than its posted odds in futures markets, but the true talent level, especially on the mound, is still lacking from my standpoint. That is why I see the Brewers as the only NL team currently "in" the playoffs that won't make the postseason.
St. Louis Cardinals
Everything about the Cubs' current odds to win the World Series, pennant, division -- and heck, right down to Friday's game against the Orioles -- screams "mispriced" and "overvalued." Overvalued, because what do they really have that the Cardinals don't? Well, maybe that's not the best question, because Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are the obvious answers. However, after that significant advantage, I'm not so sure all the checkmarks don't go to the Cardinals' side of the ledger.
Despite the presence of Bryant and Rizzo, the Cubs don't get on base any more often than the Cardinals do as a team, and they have a measly .001 lead in slugging percentage this season. Both the offenses have been essentially identical this year. Is the true talent level equivalent going forward? Given that Rizzo and Bryant are not having off years, I suspect the answer is very close to yes. The Cubs have four or five below-average lineup holes right now that aren't necessarily going to turn around.
On the runs allowed side of the ledger, it's a clear win for the Cardinals. Both teams are backed by top-10 defenses, but the Cardinals have the better rotation. The Cubs' relievers have a far better 2017 ERA (3.26 versus 4.12), but the skill sets are a lot closer than that.
This isn't just a value play -- although the Cardinals are clearly the better bet from that perspective, and frankly so are the Pirates at the very long odds they're getting -- it's an outright call. The Cubs will be a better team in the second half of the season -- and catch the Brewers -- but still not make the playoffs.
Playoffs? Yes, NL Central division champion.