What the Athletics need to do to host a playoff game

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In which we consider the odds they win the first Wild Card or the American League West.

The Oakland Athletics have been one of the biggest surprises of 2018.

With just 13 games to go, the team is on-pace to win 98 games…but still clinch the second Wild Card. That’s just the state of the American League (outside of the Central). However, as they are just 3.5 games out of the AL West and 1.5 games out of the first Wild Card, there is still a slight chance that the Athletics will host a playoff game.

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Into Saturday, FanGraphs put the Athletics’ postseason odds at 99.6 percent. Okay, making the postseason shouldn’t be an issue. While FanGraphs doesn’t project first versus second Wild Card odds, Oakland is projected to finish 2.7 wins behind the Yankees, so the odds that they catch New York are probably pretty slim. To add insult to injury, they had just a 2.7 percent chance to win the division into the weekend, and that was before they fell another half-game back after FanGraphs’ last adjustment.

For now, though, with 13 games left to play, anything is possible.

The Athletics have one clear advantage: two days off. This will help keep their bullpen, which has the second-lowest ERA in the Major Leagues thus far, rested. (Amazingly, the three teams highlighted here, the Athletics, Astros and Yankees, have the three-lowest bullpen ERAs in the Majors.) From an fWAR standpoint, the Athletics’ relievers rank sixth in baseball. Still, off days can be extremely beneficial to relief pitchers, potentially giving the Athletics more flexibility when it comes to their starting pitching staff. I know I’d be more likely to have my starter on a short leash if I knew I had an off-day coming up. This is especially true when I have 22 pitchers (!!!) on my active roster.

With every advantage comes a disadvantage, though, and two days off means one fewer potential win. Yes, the Athletics have played phenomenally well so far, but I’m sure they’d also like to have one more chance to potentially overtake the Yankees (or Astros).

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Here’s a chart that’s easier on the eyes and gives us more information. While having the raw schedule data is nice, we need to know just how tough each of these teams’ remaining schedules actually are.

As you can see, it’s probably more likely that the Athletics are able to catch the Yankees than the Astros. Not only are the Athletics further behind Houston than they are New York, but the Astros’ remaining opponents have an average winning percentage of just .460. (This average has been weighted for the number of times Houston plays each team.) The Athletics are more in the middle, at a .502 winning percentage, and the Yankees have by far the toughest remaining schedule, at a .551 winning percentage. This figure is probably inflated due to six remaining games against the Red Sox, though they also get a mid-week breather against the Orioles.

This is the last important information that we need: data on how the Athletics, Astros and Yankees have done under certain conditions to date. Since all three teams have about the same number of home and road games, those two conditions probably aren’t as important as some of the others. It still should be noted, however, that Oakland plays one fewer home game. While it may appear insignificant on paper, with fewer than 15 games left in the season, every game at this point does truly matter. Luckily for Oakland, they aren’t that much worse on the road than at home, but the best team left that they face are the Mariners. That series is on the road.

Let’s turn the attention to the final two columns: records versus teams with a winning percentage at or above .500 and records versus teams with a winning percentage below .500. All three teams have crushed teams that are below .500, just as contending teams should. What’s interesting, though, is that the Athletics are below .500 in games that they have played against other good teams. The Yankees and Astros have each done relatively well in those games.

The Astros should have no problem locking up the American League West. Not only do they have the weakest schedule of the three, but they also have the best record against teams that do not have winning records. With their last 10 games coming against the Blue Jays, Angels and Orioles, Houston will win the division by five or more games.

For the Athletics, this probably means that they will need to win the Wild Card if they want that home playoff game. With the information above, we can see that the series against the Mariners is the most key. That’s the last series that the Athletics have against a team with a winning record. If they can take at least two out of three (or better), they may be in business. If they don’t, it’ll be a tough road. They might be able to get lucky if the Yankees struggle in their six games against Boston.

With fourteen days left in the Major League Baseball season, a lot has yet to be settled. The Athletics can mathematically still win the division, either of the two Wild Card spots or even fall out of the playoffs altogether. We will see what happens, though the Sept. 24-26 series against the Mariners may be what ultimately decides their fate.


Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.

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