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What Impact Will Remaining Schedules Have on the MLB Playoff Race?

The MLB stretch run is upon us, and while some postseason hopefuls have a relatively simple path to getting there, others—like the Padres—are staring at a daunting final quarter of the season

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The MLB stretch run is here, and three-quarters of the way through the season, the league’s 30 teams have cleaved pretty neatly into two groups: Fourteen clubs boast better than a 30 percent chance to reach the playoffs, per FanGraphs, while 15 more are all well below 10 percent. Only the Mets, perpetual puzzles, occupy any sort of middle ground.

Roster talent, health, and plain old luck are still the most important factors in a team’s playoff positioning—but the schedule matters too, especially with just over 40 games left and such disparate remaining slates among teams battling for the same spots. Some teams have already exhausted their games against difficult competition; others play in brutal divisions that necessitate many more games against challenging foes.

So let’s investigate the contenders’ remaining schedules, taking particular note when all indicators point in the same direction, and forecast what effect they could have on the playoff race.

FanGraphs offers two different systems to project teams’ records: one that factors in a club’s remaining schedule, and one that doesn’t, instead intuiting based on team strength alone. Thus, the gaps between the systems supply hints about how the schedule should affect the playoff races.

The most glaring example this season comes in the NL wild card race. Either the Dodgers or Giants will land one of the two spots; the other will almost certainly go to the Padres, who have sat in playoff position nearly the entire season, or the Reds. The Padres’ lead over Cincinnati has dwindled from 6.5 to 2.5 games since July 23, thanks to a spate of crushing injuries and lackluster losses to the worst teams in the National League, but they would still be in a relatively comfortable position if not for a massive schedule disparity.

By the schedule-agnostic projections, the Padres are expected to land at 90.2 wins, with the Reds at 85.9—a gap of four-plus games. Yet after accounting for schedule, the Padres’ projection falls to 88.7 wins, while the Reds’ rises to 87.5—cutting the gap to just about one.

The other divergence of note comes in the NL East, where the schedule-agnostic projections have Atlanta, Philadelphia, and New York all bunched together at 85, 84, and 83 wins, respectively. Yet while the first two teams benefit from facing below-average opponents the rest of the way, the Mets are stuck with a fearsome slate of opponents: They’re currently in the middle of 13 consecutive games against the Dodgers and Giants, already having lost the first three over the weekend.

If New York escapes this two-week trip to hell within striking distance, it will have a chance to regain its perch atop the division—but the team has already dropped to 2.5 games back after the weekend sweep, with no practical shot at the wild card.

The schedule-influenced differences in the American League aren’t as great as in the NL. But the non-Central races could be so close that every fraction matters: The contrast between, say, the Astros’ easy remaining schedule and the Athletics’ challenging one could prove decisive in the AL West, where Houston currently leads by 2.5 games.

At this point in the season, there is also opportunity for more granular schedule analysis, such as tallying teams’ remaining games against the worst rosters in baseball. The Orioles, Rangers, Nationals, Cubs, and Pirates have all played terribly since the trade deadline (combined record of 15-58 when not playing each other), and they all project as the worst teams for the rest of the season, per FanGraphs. (Arizona still has the worst record in the majors, but the Diamondbacks didn’t trade many contributors at the deadline and have played nearly .500 ball since the start of July.)

This list of “gimme” games supplies supporting analysis for the broader conclusions drawn above. The Cincinnati vs. San Diego race stands out again: The Reds are scheduled to play a whopping 19 more gimme games, comprising 44 percent of their remaining slate. They can feast on nine games against the Pirates in September alone. The Padres, meanwhile, have zero remaining gimmes. (Even tossing in the Diamondbacks wouldn’t help much by this measure; San Diego has only three remaining games against Arizona.)

Remaining “Gimme” Games Against MLB’s Worst Teams

Team Games Opponent(s)
Team Games Opponent(s)
Reds 19 Pirates (9), Cubs (6), Nationals (4)
Phillies 13 Pirates (4), Cubs (3), Nationals (3), Orioles (3)
Blue Jays 12 Orioles (10), Nationals (2)
Red Sox 12 Orioles (6), Nationals (3), Rangers (3)
Yankees 9 Orioles (6), Rangers (3)
Mets 8 Nationals (8)
White Sox 8 Cubs (3), Rangers (3), Pirates (2)
Astros 7 Rangers (7)
Rays 7 Orioles (7)
Atlanta 6 Nationals (3), Orioles (3)
Brewers 6 Cubs (3), Nationals (3)
Athletics 3 Rangers (3)
Dodgers 3 Pirates (3)
Giants 3 Cubs (3)
Padres 0 n/a

This chart offers portents for other races, too, even if they’re not as extreme. In the AL, Oakland is trying to catch Houston, or at least hold on to the top wild card spot. Yet the wild card hopefuls chasing the A’s all have at least three times as many gimmes down the stretch.

We can also investigate the opposite of gimme games. While the Reds can feast on a bunch of Triple-A-caliber rosters, the Padres will fight for their playoff lives against the best the NL has to offer: 19 of their last 36 games come against the Giants and Dodgers. From here through the end of the season, the most common matchups between contenders are Giants-Padres (10 games) and Dodgers-Padres (nine games). That’s great news for a neutral viewing audience, but terrible news for Padres fans who just want a playoff berth.

Beyond the Padres’ cornucopia of contender clashes, there are 10 total pairs of playoff hopefuls that will play at least six games between now and the end of the season. Get ready for a whole lot of AL East bloodshed.

Most Remaining Games Between Contenders

Team 1 Team 2 Games
Team 1 Team 2 Games
Giants Padres 10
Dodgers Padres 9
White Sox Athletics 7
Yankees Blue Jays 7
Rays Red Sox 7
Giants Atlanta 6
Giants Mets 6
Astros Athletics 6
Rays Blue Jays 6
Red Sox Yankees 6

These schedule wrinkles are certainly not determinative, but at least some of them will end up mattering by the end of the season. And they offer narrative clues in advance. If the Blue Jays hope to go on a run, their 10 remaining games against Baltimore will surely help; if the Padres fall behind the charging Reds, they might not be able to retake the lead given the teams’ great gulf between opponents in late September. Making the playoffs is always a challenge, but at this point, that challenge will be much more arduous for some teams than others.