More Ups and Downs

The roller coaster ride continues.

When I last wrote about the MLB playoff chase, Seattle was two games out of the Wild Card with forty-five games remaining. As I said then, they were relevant.

At one point–August 20-22–they were actually the top non-Wild Card team, a mere one game behind the Orioles. Since then, they’ve been as far out as six games back and as close as two.

Before today’s games, they were (wait for it) two games out of the Wild Card. Exactly where they were, except that now there are only ten games left.

They’re still relevant, and they could still make the playoffs, but the odds aren’t nearly as high as they were a month ago. FiveThirtyEight has them at 15%. Ouch.

On the brighter side, they’re at 80-72, so they only need to win three more games to secure a winning season. Not that that’s much of a consolation.

Seven wins would equal their total from 2014. Doable, but unlikely. Less likely, even, than making the playoffs (FiveThirtyEight has their expected final record at 85-77.)

I’m ironically amused to note that my two fallback teams (the Giants and Mets) are currently two of the three teams tied for the NL Wild Card–with a record of 80-72. New York has a 75% chance of making the playoffs and San Francisco, thanks to their embarrassing string of blown games since the All Star Break, is at 59%.

I take some consolation–not much, but some–in the fact that the hated Yankees are given a mere 7% chance of making the playoffs.

But, heck, two games back? Totally doable. It’ll take a lot of help*, but it could happen.

* Detroit, Houston, and either Boston, Toronto, or Baltimore would need to lose a bunch of games, and Houston is the only one of the five with games left against Seattle.

It could. I’ll take odds of one chance in six*–which is probably why I suck at Yahtzee.

* OK, one in six and two-thirds. Close enough.

Seattle has the day off today. Detroit, their primary competition outside of Houston, is playing a doubleheader against the Twins today. A pair of Minnesota victories would drop the Tigers into a tie with the Mariners. A pleasant thought, that.

Anyway, there’s another week and a half on this roller coaster–and the similar ones fans in Detroit, Houston, Baltimore, New York, San Francisco, and St. Louis are riding. Please keep your hands inside the vehicle at all times.

Not So Great

Well, so much for that experiment. I’ve run out of good news. So, back to the usual ration of doom and gloom I serve on days starting with a “T”.

We’ve got less than two weeks left in the MLB season–barring the possibility of a tie-breaking game being needed, the last regular season games will be played on October 4–so let’s check in on how the playoff picture is shaping up, with particular emphasis on the predictions I made at the beginning of the year.

In that post, I laughed at Cubs fans for basing their hopes of a World Series victory on the Back to the Future movies. Winning the Series would, of course, require that they make the playoffs. As of today, they’re at 88-62, sitting in the second Wild Card slot, and holding a 9 1/2 game lead over the Giants and Nationals. So there’s still hope. Tenuous, perhaps, but present. Let us not forget that both World Series teams last year were wild cards.

My predictions for the American League were for Boston, Kansas City, and Seattle to win their divisions, with Toronto and Baltimore taking the Wild Card slots.

Um…

Boston is currently 72-77 and cannot win their division. Ditto for the Mariners at 73-77. Both have faint hopes of squeaking into the playoffs via the second Wild Card, but they both have elimination numbers of six*. Note, by the way, that I ignored the numbers to take Seattle over Oakland for the West title. Oakland is the only team in the AL to have guaranteed themselves a losing record this year and the only team mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. Kansas City, on the other hand, is at 87-62 with an eleven game lead over the Twins. With thirteen games remaining, it would take a historically unprecedented collapse for them to fail to win the division.

* The elimination number is the number of losses by the team in question and wins by the team they’re chasing that will mathematically eliminate them from contention. So in this case, both the Red Sox and Mariners will be eliminated by a combination of six losses and/or Houston wins.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jays are at 86-64, leading the East by 3 1/2 games. They could still wind up in the Wild Card as I predicted, or even fail to make the playoffs, but they’ve got decent odds of winning the division. The news isn’t as good for Baltimore. They’re barely ahead of Boston and Seattle in the Wild Card race with an elimination number of seven.

So the odds right now say that one of my five predictions is likely to be correct; two if we just go by the predicted teams making the playoffs.

Over in the National League, my numbers aren’t much better. The predictions were for New York, Cincinnati, and Colorado to win their divisions, and St. Louis and Pittsburgh to take the Wild Card slots.

The Mets are leading the East by 6 1/2, so there’s that. However, the Reds (63-86) and Rockies (63-87) have already been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.

There’s better news for Cardinals and Pirates fans: St. Louis is leading the Central by four games over the Pirates, who currently hold a two game lead over those smug Cubs in the Wild Card.

Nobody else has much of a shot at the Wild Card. Only San Francisco and Washington have any chance at all, and they both have elimination numbers of four.

So here too, only one of my predictions seems likely to materialize. If the Cubs put on a late run and take the division away from St. Louis, then I’d most likely have three of five right.

By the most likely outcomes, I’ve scored a 20% rate with my predictions. That’s not too great, but that Cubs rally would up it to 40%. Sounds better. (Just predicting the playoff teams, I did rather better. Right now the odds say I hit 50%. That’s not bad*.)

* If I’ve done the math correctly, you’ve got one chance in three of being correct for each team you pick at random making the playoffs (30 teams and 10 playoff slots). So the chances of making a correct pick five times are 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3. That’s one chance in 243. Hey, anyone out there more knowledgeable about stats than I am who can tell me how badly I’ve screwed up the calculation by not allowing for the fact that the teams are split into two leagues?

There are, by the way, other ways to slice and dice these numbers. Consider that there’s one chance in five of picking division winners at random. I did that twice at odds of one in twenty-five. Not too shabby.

So what have we learned here? First, picking playoff teams is hard. But I think we knew that already. Second, I don’t really understand statistics. But we knew that too, as witness the fact that I buy lottery tickets. Third, and more to the point, it suggests that margin of victory in the first game of the season is a decent predictor for the playoffs. Who cares if it’s a sample of one?

Not Quite Dead Yet

Tradition decrees that the playoff chase officially begins September 1, although media babble about the chase often begins as early as mid-August. Much as I respect tradition, this is one area where I think the tradition needs to be changed. September 1 might have made sense in the past, but the introduction of the second wild card team has altered the picture.

Mind you, the notion of a playoff chase is silly. A win in April counts exactly as much towards the playoffs as a win in September. And nobody’s goal is to make the playoffs. That’s just a step on the way to the real goal: winning the World Series. But people want a story, and the media are designed around providing stories, so as long as there are newspapers, TV shows, and Internet pundits, there will be a playoff chase.

IMNSHO, for a playoff chase to make sense, it must be clear which teams are chasing, which ones are being chased, and which ones are watching wistfully from the sidelines (and playing spoiler). The addition of the second wild card means that more teams see themselves as competing later in the season than ever before.

We have a clear, objective definition for which teams are being chased: they’re the six division and four wild card leaders; the teams who would be in the playoffs if the season ended. What’s not so clear is how to distinguish the chasers from the spoilers. I propose we shortcut the argument and simply declare that any team not yet mathematically eliminated from the playoffs is a chaser. By that logic, any team that has been mathematically eliminated is a spoiler.

At this point, somebody is going to want to claim that there are teams that are obviously not going to make the playoffs, despite still having a mathematical chance. Allow me to point out that–as we’ve discussed several times–baseball is a game where the improbable can occur on any given day, and probably will. In terms of making the playoffs, consider for example, the 2004 Astros. With 35 games left, the were given a .41% chance of making the playoffs–that’s 243:1 odds–and yet they snuck in. The 1934 Cardinals faced 80:1 odds with 25 games left. The list goes on (see Nate Silver‘s fine analysis for more examples). Let’s not rule anyone out until they’re actually out.

So what does this get us in terms of the official start of the playoff chase? As I said earlier, to have a chase, we need chasees, chasers, and spoilers. With a simple, objective definition for the distinction between chaser and spoiler, we also get a simple, objective definition of the start of the chase: it’s the day when the first team is mathematically eliminated: the day we have our first spoiler.

As I write this post, before any games have been played on September 4, we don’t yet have an official playoff chase. We’re close, but not quite there.

Texas is currently 23 games back in the quest for a wild card berth and one game from elimination. An Oakland win or a Texas loss will, metaphorically speaking, throw out the first pitch on the playoff chase. That could give us a chase roughly* 25 games long. A few too many for the mathematically-impaired to count, even if we take off our shoes, but still a manageable number.

* Thanks to scheduling quirks and rain outs, teams have played different numbers of games; at the moment the range is between 137 and 140.

Oakland has today off, but Texas is playing Seattle. Tune in at 7:00 Central to find out if the playoff chase starts tonight. Media outlets are standing by!