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Who’s who in the National League wild card race

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It's not the chaos of the American League, but it's chaotic enough. The Mets, Cardinals, and Giants are vying for two spots, with a couple of teams on the fringes of the race.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The American League wild card race is chaos. Utter chaos. The teams that don’t win the AL East will have to settle for the wild cards, unless those are ripped away from them, too. They’re all playing each other at the end of the year, while the Central teams get heapin’ helpings of the Twins, while the Astros and Mariners get all the Angels they can handle. There could be a five-way playoff for two wild card spots after the three-way playoff for the AL East.

The National League is far more boring. There are three teams who need a lot of help to get to the second wild card, and they’re running out of time. That leaves three teams with a good shot: the Giants, Cardinals, and Mets. This would be a perfect opportunity to take a cheap shot at the Mets, except they’re super hot right now, and if the Giants and Cardinals play in the Wild Card Game, how would they meet in the NLCS?

That means the Mets win one of the two wild card spots ... unless a Dodgers free fall pushes the Mets out and sets up that Cardinals/Giants NLCS. This is all so confusing.

We’ll talk our way through it. A look at the postseason picture in the National League, assuming the Nationals, Cubs, and probably Dodgers are safe.

Colorado Rockies

Games back of second wild card
7 games back, with 22 to play.

Odds of reaching the postseason
FanGraphs: 0.3 percent
Baseball Prospectus: 0.4 percent

Should they be here?
In this postseason outlook? Probably not. They weren’t tabbed as preseason contenders before the season started, and they’re several games under .500. Their odds are under one percent.

I’m just including them because I’ll be scared of them all offseason, so I feel like this is something to throw into the volcano. You should say "Uh, oh. The Rockies found starting pitchers" in the same voice as "Uh, oh. Happy learned how to putt."

The kids are still into Adam Sandler movies these days, right? Sure they are. Don’t edit this out.

Why aren’t they running away with their division?
Because while they’ve figured out their rotation of the future, and even though four members of the starting rotation are 27 or younger with adjusted ERAs better than the league average, it’s not like they’ve been dominant.

It’s also possible that Gerardo Parra is one of the worst players in baseball right now, as he’s sitting a cool two wins below replacement. Take those two wins, find a random outfielder from the system worth a win, duct tape those wins to the expected record according to runs scored and allowed (71-67), and blammo, you have a team that’s not only contending for the wild card, but the NL West.

Because this is totally how statistics works, leave a comment under the article. It’s very convenient to blame Parra, though. He’s been that bad, and he was the prize of the offseason along with Jake McGee.

It’s here that I would write that the Rockies need to figure out their Coors hangover effect, except they’ve outscored teams by about as much on the road as they have at home. They’re showing signs of a breakout, and everyone should pay attention now.

Miami Marlins

Games back of second wild card
5 games back, with 24 to play

Odds of reaching the postseason
FanGraphs: 1.3 percent
Baseball Prospectus: 1.6 percent

Should they be here?
Nah. They’re freefalling, having lost 10 of their last 12, and they made two of the head-scratchingest moves at the deadline, getting Fernando Rodney and Andrew Cashner in separate deals with the Padres for legitimate prospects. They have a solid core for next year, but the deals, the disappearance of Dee Gordon, the incredibly disappointing Wei-Yin Chen, and the yearly injury to Giancarlo Stanton were just too much to take.

Why aren’t they running away with their division?
Their entire bullpen has walked 4.3 batters for every nine innings they’ve pitched. There are only 19 non-Marlins relievers in baseball who have a worse walk rate than the collective Marlins bullpen. It’s like they overheard Barry Bonds in the clubhouse talking about how walks made him great.

But all of the above are probably bigger problems. They were counting on Gordon to repeat his breakout season. He got suspended instead. They spent an un-Marlins amount of money on Chen. He was ineffective and hurt. They were hoping for Stanton to be healthy. He wasn’t.

They’ll have a shot next year, especially if Chen comes back healthy and Jose Fernandez’s FIP isn’t lying. This year, though, it’s pretty rough to lose 10 out of 11 right as September starts and still expect to contend.

Up next: 12 of their final 20 games are against the Dodgers, Mets, or Nationals. So.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Games back of second wild card
4 back with 24 to play

Odds of reaching the postseason
FanGraphs: 5.7 percent
Baseball Prospectus: 3.5 percent

Should they be here?
They should be in the wild card discussion, yes. But they’re on the fringes after completely borking a run through the NL Central. Getting swept by the Cubs in Wrigley? Sure, we can understand that. But they’ve lost 10 of their last 11 home games, including a brutal sweep against the Brewers, in which they were outscored 4-18. The final game of that series was a 10-0 rout, in which they were shut out by a combination of Chase Anderson, Tyler Cravy, Jacob Barnes, Daniel Forn, and Ben Rowen. Only one of those players is made up, and I’m not telling you which one.

So things have been better in Piratesville, it’s true.

Why aren’t they running away with their division?
The Cubs found the earth’s nectar and drank greedily, giving them powers beyond their imagination ... at a terrible cost. But for this season, that kind of hoses the Pirates. They’re 3-12 against the Cubs this year, with four left to play. Good luck, ragged heroes.

Mostly, though, they didn’t have a sense of urgency after two straight wild-card berths. The Cubs added John Lackey, Ben Zobrist, and Jason Heyward the season after acquiring Jon Lester. The Pirates were cool with John Jaso, David Freese, Juan Nicasio, and Ryan Vogelsong. Not that those were all bad moves, but if they had known how miserable Andrew McCutchen’s season was going to be, or how much time Gerrit Cole was going to miss, maybe they would have approached the offseason differently.

Which is the point. Always assume horrible things like that are going to happen, and assume two more will happen for good measure. Build the roster with that smoking crater in mind. The Pirates had an if-everything-works-out plan for the offseason, and that’s a silly way to maintain the momentum of a franchise that had been without it for decades.

Probably too far back, but there is a little hope. They play 15 games in a row against the Reds, Phillies, and Brewers. That could be a dandy way to right the ship underneath the ol’ Jolly Roger.

Their last 10 games are against the Nationals, Cubs, and Cardinals, though. It’s overly simplistic to just list off the tough teams on the schedule, especially when two of them are going to be more worried about setting up their postseason rotation and keeping everyone healthy. Considering the Pirates just got pummeled by the Brewers, though, I’ll allow it.

New York Mets

Games back of second wild card
They’re leading by a half-game with 22 to play

Odds of reaching the postseason
FanGraphs: 68.8 percent
Baseball Prospectus: 71.1 percent

Should they be here?
They should! Why, I picked them to win the World Series because there was no way that baseball would smite their young pitchers so soon, ha ha. Why, that wouldn’t be fair.

Why aren’t they running away with their division?
Baseball smote their young pitchers. It wasn’t fair. But I probably should have seen it coming.

Not all of their young pitchers, mind you, and not all at the same time. Matt Harvey is out for the year, and Jacob deGrom is out for at least "a few starts," as is Steven Matz. Oh, and Zack Wheeler is out for the year. Also, Michael Fulmer is on the Tigers now, which is a very creative way for baseball to smite a young pitcher. But Noah Syndergaard is healthy and incredible. And there’s always the inimitable joy of Bartolo.


He’s young at heart, so we’ll include him, sure.

One of the biggest reasons the Mets aren’t going to win 95 games, though, has nothing to do with the health of Harvey, deGrom, and Matz. It’s their abominable performance with runners in scoring position. They have the lowest batting average with runners in scoring position of any team in the last 25 years, behind some generationally dismal teams. They’re actually hitting worse with runners in scoring position than the 1962 Mets, one of the most awful teams in baseball history.

You can believe that’s a lack of skill, not bad luck. I strongly disagree. Consider that the 2015 Reds are one of the 20 worst teams with runners in scoring position on that list, but they’re one of the best teams with RISP this year. You know, because of all those huge free agent additions the Reds made in the offseason. Maybe Bryan Price just had a really effective talk with everyone in spring training.

Things will get better for the Mets on this front, if only because they have to.

It’s actually remarkable that the Mets are in this position despite the bad luck with runners in scoring position. I don’t know if they’re the favorites for a wild card spot now, not until we know when Matz and deGrom are coming back. but they should have been threatening this whole time.

St. Louis Cardinals

Games back of second wild card
They’re a half-game back with 23 to go.

Odds of reaching the postseason
100 percent. They’re the Cardinals.

Fine, I’ll check with FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus.

FanGraphs: 48.3 percent
Baseball Prospectus: 50.2 percent

Lies. It’s like that Lord of the Rings quote, "Never tell me the odds, kid."

Should they be here?
Of course. They’re the Cardinals. Let’s check back when we looked for the most interesting players of the NL Central before the season started:

You've seen the Cardinals dig pieces of Almond Roca out of overflowing litter boxes. You've seen it again and again and again, and (Jedd) Gyorko fits in with this plan perfectly. It's not like he stumbled in from the cold and the Cardinals decided to give him a good home. They targeted him. They acquired him on purpose because they thought he was an undervalued asset, and they have an uncanny way of being right with their hunches.

Jedd Gyorko has 26 home runs in 330 at-bats. The top two home run hitters on the Giants have 27 combined home runs in 918 at-bats. But we don’t want to waste all of our Giants factlets in the Cardinals’ section! Just know that the Cardinals are infuriatingly good at what they do. It looks like devil magic, but it’s just skill. I give up.

The Cardinals are the kind of team that looks at Jedd Gyorko — one of the worst players in baseball over the past two seasons — and thinks, "We can fix that." And they’re often right. Of course they should be here.

Why aren’t they running away with their division?
The Cubs, obviously. But their starting pitching has been an incredible disappointment, with Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Mike Leake, and Michael Wacha all posting ERAs in the mid-4s. They’ve been astoundingly mediocre, at best, and they’ve all made more than 20 starts, which has helped them spread the mediocrity around.

Before you feel too bad for them, here’s a list of Cardinals hitters with an adjusted OPS better than the league average: Brandon Moss, Jeremy Hazelbaker, Greg Garcia, Tommy Pham. Also, Moss has 25 home runs. Are we still doing that shrug-emoticon thing?

They’ll be fine. They’ll have six games against the Cubs, which will be fascinating, as well as three in Coors Field with that wheezing staff, but they also have eight more combined games against the Reds and Cardinals, as well as a four-game series against the Giants, who are trash.

We should probably move on to the Giants now.

San Francisco Giants

Games back of second wild card
A million.

Odds of reaching the postseason
Exactly zero.

Grant, calm down and do your job better

Games back of second wild card
They’re actually a half-game up in the wild card race with 23 games left. Twenty-three horrible, humiliating games.

Odds of reaching the postseason
FanGraphs: 75.8 percent
Baseball Prospectus: 73.5 percent

These numbers are also lies.

Should they be here?
I don’t understand what happened. I don’t understand anything. I’ve devoted my life, my career, to explaining the drunken riddle of a giggling old seer. What a sham.

See, the Giants are having their worst second half in franchise history. Worse than all of the times they finished in last place. Worse than the time they lost 100 games. This, right here, is their worst half. And it came after finishing the first half with the best record in baseball. It makes no sense. I’ve watched every game. It makes absolutely no sense.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the first half is longer than the second half, so it’s better to do it this way than the other way. They squirreled away enough wins to maintain a postseason spot throughout their death spiral, and they’re still leading the wild card race, somehow.

Why aren’t they running away with their division?
I picked the Dodgers to win the division because they had just a smidgen more talent, and I’ll stand by that, even if they’ve pulled ahead in an unexpected and unconventional way. But the Giants were running away with their division, and then they stopped doing anything well. They were swept by the Padres right out of the break, and then they lost series to the Phillies and Reds shortly after. They’ve blown two ninth-inning leads in their last four games, adding to their sad legacy of ninth-inning doom that’s also unparalleled in franchise history.

Things aren’t going so well for the ol’ Giants.

And yet! They’re still leading the second wild card race, and they have a little say about what happens. They play the Cardinals for four, and they’re still within spitting distance of the Dodgers, even if it would take an Olympic loogie with just a couple dozen games left. If they want a way to be optimistic, they can remember that they blew a five-game lead in just over 20 games. They did it over the past month. So it can be done.

That’s probably not a good way for them to be optimistic.

To borrow my own analogy, the even years are like seasons of 24, with the writers having to come up with wackier, less believable plot points to raise the stakes. By the third season, Jack Bauer was throwing helicopters at people and fighting Galactus. Probably. It’s been a while.

That would be this season if you truly believe. And in 2018, the Giants will lose their first 62 games, only to rally back for the final 100. Pretty sure 2020 will involve a mechanical dragon and a mad scientist.

If you are "logical," however, and don’t truly believe — probably the smart way to go — the Giants are probably a mediocre baseball team. It’s the only explanation. Best record in the first half. Worst in the second half. Put ‘em together and average them out. So even though the odds are in their favor, I’m skeptical.

Three teams for two spots. That's fun! We'll probably know in a week if any of the other three teams will join them, but it should be a pip, either way.