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State of the playoff races: mid-September

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Division Series - Texas Rangers v Toronto Blue Jays - Game One Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/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.

Previous instalments: mid-August | early-September

What the Jays did

I’ll admit it: two weeks ago when I wrote the last one of these, I thought they were toast and that this would be largely a proforma exercise for completeness.

Instead of course, the Jays ripped off seven more wins in a row for a 12-2 run against three contenders who were ahead of them in the standings (and the Orioles). A remarkable torrid run at the most critical juncture maximized the gains in the standings. the minimum baseline of 10-4 was already a tall order; nonetheless they exceeded it by two.

AL East Race

Two weeks ago I described their division chances as dead, at 13.5 games behind Tampa and with FanGraphs accordingly pegging them at 0.0% for the division. Even just winning a few straight got their chances off the proverbial map, hitting 0.1% chance after the second win against Oakland on September 4th.

The Yankees sweep brought them to 0.6% and just 10.5 games back, the problem being that even with a torrid pace of making up ground they were almost as quickly burning through the remaining calendar and was barely exceeding required to theoretically catchup. After finishing off the Orioles Sunday and with Tampa stumbling in their weekend series, the lead was down to 9 games and the odds were up to 1.1%.

The extreme longshot is highlighted by the just completed series. Despite a big head-to-head win and cutting the deficit to 8 games, their odds are down to 0.7%. They cut 11% off the lead, but burned 16% of the remaining schedule.

With each team having 16 games left, any shot whatsoever at catching Tampa would start with sweeping them next week. That would leave five games to make up over the other 13—a very tall order, but not impossible. If the Rays go even 7-6 (with four against Detroit and three against Miami), it’s basically requires the Jay to be perfect. But they stumbled to 5-8 or even 6-7, the Jays could catch them by maintaining a similarly torrid pace.

Wild Card Race(s)

On their last off-day, despite having played quite poorly the Jays hadn’t actually lost much ground in the standings, instead burning critical weeks of remaining schedule. Technically, they were in the bottom half of the AL, 6.5 behind the juggernaut Yankees, 4.5 behind Boston for the second spot, 2.5 behind Oakland, and even a game behind Seattle.

So basically all the contenders treaded water over the last two weeks when they didn’t play the Jays, and the net effect is the Yankees lost their edge on Boston, and the Jays rocketed up into the three-way tie for the two wild cards, with the Red Sox percentage points (actually a percentage point) behind having played two more games. Oakland slightly lost ground on on their leaders, but the bigger blow to their chances was the Jays leapfrogging them as a third team ahead of them in the mi for two spots.

Having reached a nadir under 5% in late-August and just 10% two weeks about, the sweep over Oakland brought the Jays’ WC odds per Fangraphs to about one-in-six (18%), Completing the sweep of the Yankees took them above 50% for the first time this year and ahead of the Yankees for the first time since the brief zenith just shy of 50% after their torrid run in early August. With the odds now very sensitive to small changes, just like small poll changes a close election, they peaked over 70% after Monday’s win against Tampa. What a roller coaster...

Oakland and Seattle aren’t technically out of it, they’d need need a similarly torrid run to get back in it. Effectively then, it’s a three team, three week sprint for two teams (to play each other in a single game).

Upcoming

The Jays play three series through their next off-day, the last of the season. The two weekend series are home-and-away pair with Minnesota, who are relegated to playing for being spoilers (on a sidenote, I really dislike having the entire season series concentrated in a short window, even a bad team can have a couple hot weeks and create scheduling inequities).

In between is the weekend series in hell Tampa, which is only truly crucial if the Jays can finish super strong and make a longshot bid for the division. It would be great and helpful to take that series, but losing two-out-three wouldn’t be the end of the world.

I’d set the reasonable baseline at going 6-4. 5-5 wouldn’t even necessarily put them on the outside looking in, but it would disappointing with seven against a weak opponent. Even 4-6 wouldn’t be truly catastrophic. 7-3 would mean they’re likely in the catbird’s seat, anything better would make them prohibitive favourite and potentially the threshold of bigger aims (viz. the division).