Handicapping tight NL playoff chase

With about 20 games to go in the abbreviated MLB season, I noticed something very peculiar. The eight teams that would be competing in the American League playoffs had essentially already been decided, according to their playoff-percentage chances. All eight had better than 98% chances to make the postseason with one-third of the season to go. And, as projected, those eight teams will make up the field in the AL playoffs.

On the other hand, the National League almost certainly figures to come down to the final day. As of Tuesday, four teams were essentially locked into the playoff picture, with six others separated by a mere 1.5 games battling for the final four spots. With some of those teams colliding in head-to-head play, the rest of this week figures to be a wild ride. 

Let’s look at the six teams contending for those final four NL playoff spots to see which might have an edge in how the odds line up and in any head-to-head or pitchers’ series trends that will apply. 

Contending teams are listed in alphabetical order, with records heading into Tuesday night’s games. The Marlins and Phillies are battling for second in the NL East as well as a potential wild-card spot, and the Brewers, Reds and Cardinals are doing the same in the Central. The Giants’ only shot is as a wild card.

Cincinnati Reds (28-27)

Remaining Games:

9/22 — vs. Milwaukee

9/23 — vs. Milwaukee

9/25 — at Minnesota

9/26 — at Minnesota

9/27 — at Minnesota

Projected record in remaining five games based on my power ratings: 2.5-2.5.

Recent offensive performance: Cincinnati’s 2020 offensive performance has been generally disappointing, especially when you consider the money the club spent in the offseason to upgrade the lineup. The Reds have topped the 10-hit mark just once in September and have been held to three or fewer runs in half their 20 games this month.

Recent bullpen performance: The bullpen has surprisingly been one of the strengths of the team recently after an abysmal start. There are some live arms in this group, and four regulars are averaging over 11.0 strikeouts per nine innings. Raisel Iglesias is the stopper and has allowed just one earned run in his last 13 2/3 innings.

Top H2h series trend: Cincinnati had won three straight versus Milwaukee before Tuesday (+ 3.55 units).

Top starting pitcher series trend: Luis Castillo was hit hard by the Twins in his only recent start (2018), allowing five earned runs and eight hitters to reach base in one inning.

Analysis: Cincinnati has picked the right time to get hot, going 8-1 in nine games heading into Tuesday. The Reds’ pitching has been carrying the team. This organization exhausted a lot of resources in the offseason trying to get to this point. The investment will pay off in a postseason berth, most likely as the second-place NL Central team at 31-29.

Miami Marlins (28-26)

Remaining Games:

9/22 — at Atlanta

9/23 — at Atlanta

9/24 — at Atlanta

9/25 — at N.Y. Yankees

9/26 — at N.Y. Yankees

9/27 — at N.Y. Yankees

Projected record in remaining six games based on my power ratings: 2.08-3.92.

Recent offensive performance: The Marlins have played a lot of games in September due to doubleheader makeups and could be showing signs of fatigue, as their offensive performance has been erratic. Over the last two weeks they’ve scored six runs or more nine times in 18 games but have also been held to two or fewer six times. Miami’s recent opponents have included Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, teams that have put up ugly pitching performances in 2020.

Recent bullpen performance: Other than an ugly 10-run performance against Washington in Game 2 of Sunday’s doubleheader, the bullpen has been solid of late, allowing just seven earned runs in 30 2/3 innings over the last week. Brandon Kintzler has been good but not great as the stopper. This could be an issue in late-inning crunch time.

Top H2h series trend: Miami was just 6-18 in its last 24 games vs. the Braves before Tuesday, resulting in -7.7 betting units.

Top starting pitcher series trend: Miami is just 1-7 vs. Atlanta in Pablo Lopez starts since 2017, good for -6 units. His ERA is 4.97 in those starts.

Analysis: The Marlins were enjoying the smallest of cushions in the standings. But they have by far the toughest remaining schedule of the contenders. Having to play at two of the leading World Series contenders was no gift from the schedule makers. However, this team has been a pleasant surprise. With a 30-30 finish, Miami could make the postseason.

Milwaukee Brewers (26-27)

Remaining Games:

9/22 — at Cincinnati

9/23 — at Cincinnati

9/24 — at St. Louis

9/25 — at St. Louis (Brewers considered home team)

9/25 — at St. Louis

9/26 — at St. Louis

9/27 — at St. Louis

Projected record in remaining seven games based on my power ratings: 3.24-3.76.

Recent offensive performance: The Brewers’ offense has been hit-or-miss the last couple of weeks, which is an improvement over their early-season performance. At one point, the Brewers didn’t have a single hitter at better than a .240 average, and that included Christian Yelich.  Milwaukee has broken out for 18- and 19-run performances since Sept. 9 but has failed to reach three runs six times since.

Recent bullpen performance: The bullpen has been good but probably not as good as expected. Still, with Josh Hader and Devin Williams on the back end, this is a formidable unit. Since Sept. 1, Milwaukee’s relief corps has an ERA of 3.39, a WHIP of 1.131 and 12.19 K’s/9.

Top H2h series trend: Milwaukee is 16-12 at St. Louis since 2017, netting 8.4 units of return for bettors.

Top starting pitcher series trend: Corbin Burnes has lost back-to-back starts versus St. Louis (-3.15 units), allowing 19 baserunners in just eight innings.

Analysis: The Brewers have a chance to make their third straight postseason for the first time in franchise history. However, don’t confuse this year’s Brew Crew with the teams of 2018 and ’19, as their lineup pales in comparison. With Yelich and Ryan Braun underperforming and big bats like Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Yasmani Grandal not around, this team doesn’t outslug anyone. However, if the Brewers can keep games close into the late innings, that’s where they are at their best. I’ll call for a 30-30 finish, although 29-31 and out of the picture wouldn’t surprise me.

Philadelphia Phillies (27-28)

Remaining Games:

9/22 — at Washington (lost 5-1)

9/22 — at Washington

9/23 — at Washington

9/25 — at Tampa Bay

9/26 — at Tampa Bay

9/27 — at Tampa Bay

Projected record in remaining five games based on my power ratings: 2.52-2.48.

Recent offensive performance: Philadelphia’s offense is the only reason it is still in the playoff picture. Only a few other teams would have been able to survive what has been an atrocious year for the pitching staff. But after J.T. Realmuto injured his wrist, the lineup struggled. He returned to the lineup Tuesday and will be needed to have any shot at a series win at Tampa Bay to close the regular season.

Recent bullpen performance: The bullpen has been the worst in baseball this season, as evidenced by league-worst rankings in ERA (7.11) and WHIP (1.845). The Phils haven’t improved at any point in the season and are on a stretch where they allowed no runs in only three of their last 18 games.

Top H2h series trend: Philadelphia swept the Rays in Tampa in April 2018, winning all three games as underdogs (+ 3.65 units).

Top starting pitcher series trend: Aaron Nola has not faced the Rays since his first career start in 2015. He lost that game despite allowing just one earned run and striking out six in six innings.

Analysis: Before the series against the Nationals, I thought the Phillies would be a lock for second in the NL East. But things seem to be unraveling quickly offensively and defensively. Fortunately for the Phillies, there’s a good chance the Rays will have locked up the top seed in the AL by this weekend’s series and won’t push it. I’ll call for a 30-30 mark.

San Francisco Giants (26-27)

Remaining Games:

9/22 — vs. Colorado

9/23 — vs. Colorado

9/24 —vs. Colorado

9/25 —vs. San Diego

9.25 — vs. San Diego (considered visiting team)

9/26 — vs. San Diego

9/27 — vs. San Diego

Projected record in remaining seven games based on my power ratings: 3.65-3.35.

Recent offensive performance: The Giants have hit better than anyone projected in 2020, scoring just over five runs per game heading into Tuesday’s contest vs. Colorado. But like many other teams, it’s been hit-or-miss lately, and having OF Mike Yastrzemski out of the lineup has not helped. In the last 10 games, San Francisco had scored nine or more runs three times but had been held to one run or none five times. 

Recent bullpen performance: Like most of their units, not much was expected from the Giants’ bullpen. But after outperforming expectations, this group now finds itself in a playoff race. They have been very good lately, allowing zero runs in eight of the last 15 games and accumulating an ERA of 2.09 and a WHIP of 0.961. This corps, essentially closing by committee, looks ready to do its part in getting the Giants back to the postseason. 

Top H2h series trend: San Francisco has lost seven of its last eight overall vs. San Diego (-5.65 units) and scored just two runs in a three-game set a couple of weeks ago.

Top starting pitcher series trend: Johnny Cueto is 1-3 vs. San Diego in his last four starts (-2.3 units) after winning four straight.

Analysis: If any NL contender might have a preferred schedule, it would be the Giants. The Rockies are struggling and the Padres won’t have much to play for this weekend other than potentially keeping a rival out of the postseason. Like Milwaukee and Philadelphia, the Giants project at between 29 and 30 wins. I’ll side with the latter.

St. Louis Cardinals (26-25)

Remaining Games:

9/22 — at Kansas City

9/23 — at Kansas City

9/24 — vs. Milwaukee

9/25 — vs. Milwaukee (considered visiting team)

9/25 — vs. Milwaukee

9/26 — vs. Milwaukee

9/27 — vs. Milwaukee

9/28 — at Detroit

9/28 — at Detroit

Projected record in remaining nine games based on my power ratings: 4.75-4.25.

Recent offensive performance: St. Louis for the most part has seen its bats go quiet when needed most, and the lineup could be getting tired. This team has played 21 games over 17 days. Since Sept. 14, the Cardinals have scored just 33 runs in 11 games and have topped the seven-hit mark just twice. With a schedule that features nine games in seven days, it’s difficult to see this team getting hot offensively. The Cards are scoring only 4.2 runs per game.

Recent bullpen performance: The bullpen has shown signs of fatigue lately. In some games, the relievers have been sharp, having allowed just one earned run in their last 14 1/3 innings. But before that, it was 20 earned runs in 20 ⅓ innings. St. Louis fans have to hope that this isn’t the group they rely on to get into the postseason. I would trust starters Jack Flaherty and Adam Wainwright a lot more.

Top H2h series trend: St. Louis had been on a 13-5 surge against in-state rival Kansas City before Tuesday (+ 3.8 units).

Top starting pitcher series trend: The Cardinals are just 3-8 in Flaherty’s last 11 starts versus Milwaukee (-7.45 units).

Analysis: On paper, the Cardinals have a manageable schedule. However, assuming the two games Monday at Detroit wind up being played because of the logjam in the standings, this team will have played 30 games in 24 days. That type of scheduling wears down pitching staffs, which had had an adverse effect on St. Louis’ offensive effort. I can see the Cards getting to 31 wins, but it won’t be easy. If they do, a playoff spot awaits.

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