Last Thursday, in the second inning of a game against the Rockies, Brandon Moss hit a home run. It was the last run the Royals would ever score. The homer put them up 2-0, but the previous game was the last one they would ever win. In the 43 innings since that home run, the Royals have been outscored 35-0. They’re now two games under .500, and their Pythagorean record is 59-71.
They’re probably a bad team. And, of course, they still have a chance to win the World Series.
The Texas Rangers don’t have a poor Pythagorean record. Based on the runs they’ve scored and allowed, they should be 67-63, tied for the second wild card spot. Part of the problem is that they’re 11-21 in one-run games, which means it’s entirely appropriate to point out that a) yes, last year’s record in one-run games was a fluke, b) we told you so, c) some of you argued even though we were right, and d) we told you so. It’s gambler’s fallacy to think this kind of season was going to show up just because of last year, but it’s exceptionally good for I-told-you-so’ing.
More important than the Rangers’ record, though, is the fact that they traded their best pitcher. It was a sensible deal that brought in an outfielder who could dominate Arlington for a decade, and the organization should be praised for making such a risky decision.
The problem, of course, is that they still have a chance to win the World Series.
You can do this with every team fighting for the second wild card in the American League. The Twins have two starters they can trust and a sketchy bullpen that was made even sketchier when they sold at the deadline. They still have a chance to win the World Series.
The lowest FIP in the Angels’ rotation is 4.11, and even the pitcher with that mark is on the DL. Other than Mike Trout (193 OPS+) and Andrelton Simmons (111 OPS+), every single one of their position players to take an at-bat for them this year is a below-average hitter, according to adjusted OPS. Every single one of them, from the last guy on the bench, to the corner outfielders, to the first baseman, to the backup first baseman, to the fourth outfielder, to the third baseman, is worse than the league average. That’s 20 hitters, total. They still have a chance to win the World Series.
The Mariners can hit, but every one of their starting pitchers was eaten by a squid. They still have a chance to win the World Series. The Rays are a hilarious mashup of sluggers who thought Adam Dunn worried too much about making contact and under-appreciated arms, and their biggest problem is playing in a division without a horrible team. They still have a chance to win the World Series.
The Orioles are still using Ubaldo Jimenez and Wade Miley on purpose in 40 percent of their games. They still have a chance to win the World Series.
That’s the State of the Second Wild Card right now in the American League. It’s bad. I’m still pretty sure that the Rays and Mariners are the best teams, but that doesn’t mean a lot if they don’t actually win their baseball games.
Let me give you the State of the Second Wild Card in the National League: The Rockies are 11 games over .500, and they have a three-game lead over the Brewers for the second wild card spot. The Diamondbacks are 15 games over .500, and barring an unthinkable collapse, will be playing for the right to face the Dodgers in the NLDS. It’s just a matter of if they’ll face the Brewers, Rockies, the resurgent Marlins, or the sputtering Cardinals.
They’ll probably face the Rockies. The NL is mostly set.
Now that you’re caught up, my question is this: Should we be appalled at the AL wild card race, or should we be enamored of it?
The National League race clearly features better teams. The Rockies have been erratic over recent weeks, but they still have four or five starters who would make the Angels and Orioles better. The Cardinals are .500 and just barely relevant, but I would still take their entire 25-man roster in a straight swap with the Royals, and I wouldn’t spend a lot of time making the decision.
And yet it’s a boring race. It’s possible the Rockies will stumble, and we’ve seen wild finishes in which an unconscionably hot couple of weeks propels a team into the wild card spot at the last second (see: the 2007 Rockies). But the drama is muted because the closest team to the Rockies is actually closer to their division leader. They don’t have time to worry about the wild card.
The AL race is filled with teams that keep stepping on the same Lego bricks, over and over again, screaming at their luck, but never picking up the damned Lego, never putting on shoes. It bothers me. I look at the Orioles’ rotation, I look at the Angels’ lineup apart from Trout, and it bothers me. Aesthetically, when I inspect a contending team, I want to understand why they’re contending. I want to peek at a Baseball-Reference page and think, “A-ha, here’s what they’ve done right.” That’s not what the AL is offering right now.
However, after much soul-searching, I’ve come to this conclusion: The AL wild card race is the best race we’ll see for years. It’s a mix of roster decisions (should we sell or buy?) and on-field nonsense that combines the two best parts of baseball into one amorphous blob of second-guessing. It’s the drama of Chinatown with the inflatable emergency pilot from Airplane taking over for Jack Nicholson. It’s so dumb and so pure. I want it to last forever.
And the biggest reason to bless this mess is this: It’s not going to happen again for a long time. The freakiest part isn’t necessarily that seven teams are falling up the stairs together, it’s that there isn’t at least one of them that’s surging. Not one of these teams is blowing past their Pythagorean record or winning more than their fair share of one-run games. Not one of these teams has entered the montage stage of their season, where they shake off the cobwebs and stop stumbling. Every time a team looks like they’re about to separate themselves, they screw up.
In most years, there will be teams that don’t screw up. There will be races like the NL. Boring, uncomplicated races with conclusions that seem obvious from August. Those will be the default. And they’ll be fine enough, I guess.
So don’t look at the AL second wild card as a bunch of teams with rosters that are three-quarters empty. Look at them as teams with rosters that are one-quarter full! In another season, most of these teams would have explored ditching their veterans in post-waiver trades long ago.
In this season, they’re still hopeful. The Royals will never score another run again, but they still might win the World Series. After debating whether that’s beautiful or hideously ugly, I’ve decided that it’s both. This is the worst postseason chase I’ve watched in years, and I’m going to be so sad to see it go, everybody.