With Oakland having just been swept by Los Angeles and now five games back from the Rangers, the division lead is looking increasingly secure with only 27 games left to play. The Athletics and the Angels both have significantly tougher schedules from here on out, and the Rangers have a substantial enough lead in the first place that BaseballProspectus.com has deemed it 92.7% certain the Rangers take the A.L. West title for the third straight season.
While we are excited at the prospects of making the playoffs, and happier than ever to cheer our Rangers on, our eyes also shift nervously to the rest of the standings. In an elimination series, who are we going to face? The surprise entry, the Orioles? The least surprising entry, the Yankees? A team with star power by serious holes, like the Tigers, or a solid all-around team like the White Sox? And of course, since predicting who are opponents are is an inexact science, we often find ourselves wishing for a particular team. We think the Athletics look weak, maybe, or we think of our consecutive wins against the Rays in the playoffs.
The science is so inexact, in fact, that I have absolutely no idea who we will face. The outcome is entirely predicated on whether or not we have the best overall record, and which teams come out of the dogfight that is the wild-card race right now. I can tell you, however, who I am rooting for. I’ve made my decision based on the third order win percentage of the contending teams, calculated over at BaseballProspectus. Third-order win percentage is adjusted for strength of schedule, run differential, and component statistics to determine how many games a team “should have” won, without luck or other incidental factors playing a role. It isn’t perfect, but its a better indication than the actual record of where a team’s true talent level is.
I present you my 2012 Threat list, in ascending order:
The Orioles have built their winning percentage this season largely off of 1-run games, which in theory are affairs that could easily have gone either way. They have by far the greatest differential in expected v. actual win percentage in the league. Last season, the Orioles were a comical monstrosity that came nowhere near postseason play. The Orioles have absolutely atrocious hitting: they are third to last in the majors in batting fWAR, led by Adams Jones with 40% of their WAR total. Their pitching is more middle of the road, sporting a weak rotation but an excellent bullpen, led by former Rangers Pedro Strop and Darren O’Day. In a playoff series where one fewer starter is needed and the bullpen has ample opportunity to rest, the Orioles might be more of a threat than expected. Still, the expectation is they would be no threat at all. Far and away my favorite matchup.
The Athletics are a huge surprise this year. After finishing 2011 22 games out of first, and trading away their top pitcher Gio Gonzalez in the offseason many including myself figured the A’s wouldn’t be competitive this season. The Athletics are fairly solid all-around: above average relievers in Grant Balfour and Ryan Cook, a couple good starters in Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone, and a good group of hitters. Of those, the only standout is Josh Reddick who is enjoying a tremendous season; the rest are contributing at around league average levels. The Athletics have gotten a few breaks this season, but they are more or less backing up their record with their performance. Still, after losing Bartolo Colon to steroids, the Athletics are looking vulnerable, and I would be pretty comfortable facing them.
Chicago White Sox
The Chicago White Sox are designed much like the Orioles, namely a weak rotation, excellent bullpen, and lackluster hitting. Still, their rotation has some truly excellent players in Chris Sale and Jake Peavy, and some serious power in Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn. Still, when two of your hitting leaders in Alex Rios and A.J. Pierzinsky are having career years, you have to count yourself lucky if you are winning the division. Sure enough, the White Sox have benefited tremendously from luck this season. I would be happy to face them in the playoffs, with the caveat that like the Orioles, the structure of their club inherently gives them a slight advantage in the playoffs over a more balanced team, so I would be a little wary of overconfidence.
3rd Order: .548
The Tigers are the first team on this list who aren’t outperforming their expected record. Indeed, the Tigers have had some real standouts this season, and its hard to blame them for feeling a little put upon. They have superstars, including Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder, and Miguel Cabrera. They have the league’s best pitching, behind four solid pitchers including Scherzer and Porcello, and a terrific bullpen in Octavio Dotel and Villareal. The problem with the Tigers is the absence of production from anyone outside the team’s top four hitters, leading to a middling offense. Still, I would be extremely wary of the Tigers in the postseason. They were very tough to get in 2011, and the addition of Prince Fielder isn’t going to simplify matters. I am especially worried about having to deal with four solid pitcher and a terrific bullpen, a combination that I’ve mentioned can be really lethal come playoff time.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
And here we are, faced with the greatest underachievers this season. The most popular pick with ESPN analysts for the World Series title, the Angels are currently fighting for a playoff berth. Still, they are going about it the right way by sweeping the Oakland A’s this past series and winning 10 of their last 11. On paper, they assuredly have the best rotation in the league, with C.J. Wilson, Jered Weaver, Zack Greinke and Dan Haren. However, their rotation hasn’t translated its dominance on paper to the field, a C.J. Wilson and Dan Haren have struggled immensely, Greinke has not adjusted well to the American League, and while Weaver has performed well this season he might have injured himself this past series. Moreover, their bullpen has been nothing short of a calamity, apart from the recently acquired Ernesto Frieri. Still, they lead the league in offensive fWAR, thanks mostly to the outstanding rookie Mike Trout, who has earned 8.3 WAR all by himself, and leads the league. Albert Pujols isn’t doing all that badly himself despite a slow beginning, Torii Hunter is having a resurgent season and Trumbo, Aybar, Callaspo are all doing their part to generate a serious amount of runs for the Angels. Its hard to choose between the Angels and the Tigers, but I think I would prefer the Angels, just because the Rangers have done pretty well against their pitchers so far and would hopefully continue to do so in the playoffs, and for better or for worse the Rangers strength right now is pitching, and a shutdown bullpen.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Tampa Bay Rays have got a hell of a pitching squad. David Price is unquestionably an ace, James Shields makes a solid claim at that title as well, and the supporting cast is making a name for itself in the process. Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and Jeremy Hellickson have put up terrific ERAs, especially for the A.L. East, while even spot starter Jeff Niemann has posted an ERA just over 3 in his 8 starts this season. Meanwhile their bullpen, led by a resurgent Fernando Rodney, has been nearly as formidable. However, their batting has exactly followed their pitcher’s example. Desmond Jennings and Ben Zobrist have done good work, but B.J. Upton has disappointed, and Evan Longoria was absent nearly all season. Not a team I am wild about facing. The Rangers pitching staff should be able to make sure the Rays aren’t bouncing around the basepaths, but Rangers hitters will struggle mightily against the Rays pitchers, and we might spend more than a few nights anxiously begging heathen gods for a run in a deadlocked game. I will add that the Rangers have had a great deal of success against the Rays in the past, especially against their ace David Price, and maybe this matchup might be more favorable than I expect due to circumstances I don’t really understand.
New York Yankees
Of all the teams we’ve looked at so far, the Yankees are by far the most balanced team. There are no glaring weaknesses here. The hitters are led by Robinson Cano, who is having another terrific season, while Derek Jeter is drinking straight from the fountain of youth, and Nick Swisher hasn’t succumbed to the power of his own smirk. Over on the mound side, C.C. Sabathia continues to put up Cy Young caliber seasons, Hiroki Kuroda looks like a genius signing, and Andy Pettitte has been taking hits from that same fountain. The bullpen has also been well above average, led by Rafael Soriano and David Robertson. Apart from their on the field performance, the Yankees are an extremely well-coached team, with an extremely difficult home stadium to play in, and a variety of other factors that make playing them in a series absolutely no fun at all. I’ll be honest, the Yankees are easily the team I am least looking forward to facing.