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State of the playoff races: mid-August

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The ides of August are upon us

Cleveland Indians v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

For better or worse, at the trade deadline the front office bet heavily on making the postseason in 2021, such that falling short would now be not only disappointing but at some level represent a failure. Accordingly, down the stretch, it behooves us to periodically to a deep dive on where the Blue Jays pursuit of the postseason stands.

Note: This was largely completed intended to be posted yesterday (8/17), so while most is updated for last night’s (actually quite significant) developments, the first and last sections are unchanged.

What the Jays did

In a flashback to six years ago, the Jays came storming out of the deadline, sweeping Kansas City before taking three-of-four from both Cleveland and Boston to complete a 9-2 homestand. They stumbled on their swing out West at 3-4, and while another win would have been optimal overall winning 12 of 18 would be at the high end of reasonable expectations (if modestly disappointing compared to before the road trip)

AL East Race

While the main thrust was clearly about snagging one of the two wild cards, given that division winners get a guaranteed series rather than single game, ripping off a 2015 style run at the division had to have been in the back of the mind. On July 30th, the Jays sat 9.5 games behind Boston in the division standings, albeit with five games in hand and only seven behind in the vaunted “loss column”.

But the bigger factor that had FanGraphs placing the Jays odds of the division at only 2.5% was the presence of a second team just off the lead at 1.5 games behind but 7 in front off the Jays. As I wrote at the time, outplaying one team by ~150 points of winning percentage over 2+ months is not impossible, but outplaying two by that order of magnitude is much more implausible. You need two simultaneous collapses, and even a white run run requires both playing below their season-to-date level.

Sure enough, Boston stumbled into a hard tailspin, going 6-10 before yesterday’s doubleheader sweep at the hands of the Yankees and allowing the Jays to more than halve their deficit against them in under two weeks.

Unfortunately, Tampa not only has not stumbled in tandem, they’ve essentially matched the Jays with a similarly hot run of their own (and dose of Oriole ineptitude). At peak a week ago, the Jays odds had quadrupled to about one-in-nine with the gap down to 7 games. But the gap is now basically back to where it was, 9 games behind Tampa last night, but critically with one-third less runway left. Even with a stronger roster, that lost time offset has the odds back around 2.5%.

A further kicker: even if Tampa epically stumbled, there’s two other teams halfway in between, so the Jays would not only have to outdo Tampa by about 220 points the rest of the way, but two others by about 100 points as well.

Wild Card Race(s)

On July 30th, the Jays sat 4.5 behind Oakland for the second wild card spot. Again, the big issue here wasn’t the gap to that second spot (or a similarly sized chasm of the first spot comfortably held by Tampa), it was the fact that there were two other teams between them, n Seattle and New York, and further Cleveland and Los Angeles not that far behind. The more teams in the mix, the greater the chance that even if you play really well. someone else matches it or comes close enough to prevent the ground from behind closed.

Let’s start with the good news: Cleveland has faded while the Angels continued limping along around .500, and they’re both essentially out of the picture. Seattle too has treaded water and fallen to right alongside the Jays, still nominally in the picture but they never seemed like much of a threat given the smoke and mirrors nature of their season. That leaves a four horse race for two spots.

Which leads to the bad news: the others horses have more than kept up the pace. Oakland has gone 10-6, such the Jays have only netted half a game, and never got closer than 2.5 games. The Yankees sadly have been the most torrid of all, at 15-4 they’ve actually added distanced themselves from the Jays and caught Oakland. The silver lining is having seven games left head-to-head; it is within the Jays destiny to make up a good amount of ground.

It is only the aforementioned Red Sox who’ve slid, not only out of the division lead but after last night technically percentage points behind the Yankees and Athletics for the two wild card spots. But they had the biggest cushion, still leaving them four up on the Jays. And so that’s the state of the play: over the last 42 games, the Jays have to make up four games on two of Boston, New York and Oakland. That is to say, win one more game of every 10 over two of them.

The odds? On the morning of the trade deadline FanGraphs had them at 26% for a wild card or better (23.5% for just a wild card). Adding Berrios and winning that night put them up to 30%, peaking just shy of 50% a week ago, That had already ebbed to 31% yesterday, and the loss plus a pair of Yankee wins sent it tumbling down to 21%, below the pre-deadline for the first time. They haven’t lost ground, but they’ve down to seven weeks rather than nine weeks and 10 weekends to make it up, and that’s the big cost.

Upcoming

This week presents an opportunity to make up ground, with two midweek games against the rebuilding Nationals before returning home against Detroit (who are 18-12 in their last 30). Going 3-2 feels like the minimum required to keep pace; while two or fewer wins would not be a death knell, it would make the path even steeper and the odds ever more marginal. And while expecting four wins in five is unreasonable, it would certainly go a long way.

After that the Jays finish out August by hosting the White Sox for four and then hitting the road for a return trip to Detroit followed b three in Baltimore. This too represents reasonably fertile schedule, with a minimum baseline of 6-4 to keep pace (9-6 total). Less than that, and they’ll be lucky not to lose further ground even before considering losing one third of the remaining calendar. Getting to double digit wins almost certainly would mean making up ground, and that has to be the target.