Sizing up AL wild-card options

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Most bettors fall into the same routine that I have the last few weeks, turning a lot of the attention we have dedicated to baseball into football pursuits. But in doing so, we miss out on a lot of the intricacies that have gone into building MLB’s postseason picture. I still build strength ratings every morning for baseball, so it’s impossible to get away from it completely. But I still feel like I haven’t paid enough to the developing odds offered by sites like DraftKings and all the opportunities that come with it. 

Let’s break down the American League wild-card race, which had five teams within 4 1/2 games of one another as of Tuesday afternoon — and only two will make the postseason.

The race for the two wild-card spots in the AL is as intriguing as any battle in baseball. The Blue Jays thrust themselves back into position to claim a spot with a huge offensive surge over the last couple of weeks. This came after the Yankees surged but then faded. Meanwhile, the Red Sox had solidified their rotation and hence their position atop the wild-card standings as they headed into Tuesday night’s game against the Mets on a five-game winning strike. Oakland is outside the AL East and perhaps the wild-card picture, but the A’s won five straight over the last week to climb back into contention. Let’s size up the race and peg which two will be battling it out on AL wild-card night.

Boston Red Sox

DraftKings playoff odds: Yes -650/No + 475

FanGraphs playoff chances: 90.5 percent  

Baseball Reference chances: 90 percent  

With Chris Sale performing far better than expected since his return, the Red Sox’s rotation is in better shape than it has been all season. Manager Alex Cora’s team seems to be picking the best time to put it together. Entering Tuesday night, the Red Sox boasted a 1.5-game lead over Toronto and a two-game edge over New York in the wild-card chase. Their schedule was very favorable as well, with the next five games against the New York teams at home, where they are 47-29, and the last six games on the road against teams playing out the string. If the other contenders hope Baltimore or Washington can spoil things for Boston, they are probably reaching for straws. FanGraphs.com lists the Red Sox as having a 90.5 percent chance to be one of the wild-card teams. That would equate to juiced odds of about -1200, so theoretically there is actual value in taking DraftKings’ -650 price.

Toronto Blue Jays

DraftKings playoff odds: Yes -170/No + 140

FanGraphs playoff chances: 62.9 percent  

Baseball Reference playoff chances: 75.8 percent  

Toronto thrust itself back into the playoff hunt by going on a recent 12-1 run, a stretch in which it averaged 8.6 runs. This team would be as exciting as any to watch in the postseason, with MVP candidate Vladimir Guerrero Jr. leading the way. But the Jays have proven they are far more than just an offensive juggernaut, as they rank third in my starting pitching rankings and sixth in my bullpen rankings. Postseason inexperience is the only thing that could stand in the way of this team finishing its quest to lock down a wild-card berth. The schedule is manageable on paper, with the Sept. 28-30 series against the Yankees being paramount. However, the four-game set at Minnesota might be tougher than many people think. Three of those games are at night, and Toronto is only 45-49 in night games as compared with 39-17 during the day. Plus the Twins need something to play for in the last two weeks. In this case, the FanGraphs percentage chances of making the playoffs equate quite accurately to the odds at DraftKings. However, seeing as how this is the youngest team in the playoff picture and I believe the Jays could struggle at Minnesota, I will bet no on this prop.

New York Yankees

DraftKings playoff odds: No -135/Yes + 110

FanGraphs playoff chances: 39.7 percent  

Baseball Reference chances: 24.2 percent  

The Yankees have been an enigma this season. Just when you think they are turning the corner and are about to assert themselves, they go on a losing skid, and vice versa. Their rotation has been a mess nearly all of 2021, and the bullpen hasn’t performed anywhere near expectations. The lineup is still as good as it gets, though, and until that changes, they should be in the wild-card hunt all the way up to Game 162 — or perhaps even 163. As of Tuesday, New York trailed Toronto by just a half-game for the second spot. The Yanks will have a chance to directly make up ground on Boston and Toronto as they face those teams in six consecutive games starting Friday, all on the road. That latter point figures to make things tough, but manager Aaron Boone’s team has been as good on the road as at home. Favoring New York in that crucial six-game stretch is that five games are at night, including all three at Toronto. The Yankees boast an incredible 63-34 record in night games this season. They also figure to turn to Gerrit Cole three times in their final 11 games if necessary. I’m willing to go with the underdog on this one, which is unusual to say considering it’s the Yankees, and project this team’s experience to be the difference in edging out Toronto. I have a hard time understanding the very low Baseball Reference projections, and I think it stems from the fact that New York closes the season with Tampa Bay, a team that figures to be disinterested that weekend. I’ll take the Yes + 110.

Oakland Athletics

DraftKings playoff odds: No -1400/Yes + 850

FanGraphs playoff chances: 5.8 percent  

Baseball Reference chances: 8.9 percent  

Oakland reached 19 games over .500 twice in mid-August. But since reaching 68-49, the A’s are on a 14-19 slide that has them on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. Arguably, they also have the toughest remaining schedule, as their final 12 games are against Seattle and Houston, both in the playoff picture. Though Oakland is only two games back of Toronto for the second wild-card spot, it seems like much more than that. The A’s also have very little support in their community to drive them to greater heights. In fact, they haven’t topped 10,000 in attendance in their last seven home games, despite being in the playoff chase. It has been a fun, moneymaking season for Oakland backers in ’21, and several new potential stars have emerged, but it looks like this underdog will come up short. If forced, I’d play the + 850 before the -1400. But in the end, this is a pass for me.

Seattle Mariners

DraftKings playoff odds: No -10000/Yes + 3000

FanGraphs playoff chances: 1.4 percent  

Baseball Reference chances: 1.7 percent  

Considering their prospects were bleak at the outset of the 2021 season, just to see some playoff odds still hanging around the Mariners is exciting. They have been a cash cow for bettors all season, leading the AL with a bankroll-building + 27.9 units of profit produced. They’ve also done it with no winning streak longer than five games and no losing of more than six. Seattle has also found some key pieces on which to build. Sitting three games back of Toronto for the second wild-card spot, the Mariners are theoretically still in the hunt. I wouldn’t discount them with 12 games to go as all are against the division, and they are 38-26 vs. AL West foes this season. However, considering that six games are against fellow contender Oakland and that the AL East contenders will all be facing one another and splitting games, Seattle will have to be nearly perfect to close it out. The Mariners haven’t demonstrated that ability at all. As tempting as the 30-1 price looks, I would opt for the other side.

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