The race for two National League Wild Card slots is about to round third base, pound down the line and make a head-first slide at home plate.
If the Nationals, Dodgers, and Brewers hold on to their Division leads over the next seven and a half weeks, three NL teams have a great shot to grab one of two Wild Card slots: the San Francisco Giants, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Three other teams– Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Miami– will need to somehow find fifth gear to force their way into the mix.
Of all the factors that can influence the Wild Card outcomes in both Leagues none is bigger than the match-ups each of the top contending teams will face in August and September. And that’s where the San Francisco Giants have a huge advantage over the Cards and Pirates.
Between Friday August 8th and the end of the regular season the Giants have 47 games remaining, Pittsburgh will play 48 games, and St. Louis 49 games. Broadly rating their opponents in those games clearly shows the big advantage San Francisco will have and the particularly difficult challenge facing the Pirates.
The Giants will play 15 of their remaining games with what I have rated “A” level teams (the Nationals, Brewers, Tigers, and Dodgers)– 32%. They will play 6 games against “B” rated teams (White Sox and Kansas City Royals)– 13%. And a whopping 26 games against “C” rated teams (Phillies, Cubs, Rockies, D’Backs, and Padres)– 55%.
St. Louis is looking at playing 16 of their remaining games with “A” teams (Baltimore, the Pirates, and Milwaukee)– 33%. Against “B” rated teams (Miami and Cincinnati) the Cards play 13 times– 26%. And against “C” level teams (Philadelphia, D’Backs, Padres, Cubs, and Rockies) they’ll play 20 games– 41%.
The Pittsburgh Pirates, on the other hand, have a daunting task ahead.
They play “A” rated teams (Detroit, the Nationals, Milwaukee, and St. Louis) 19 times– 40% of their remaining schedule. The Bucs face “B” teams (Atlanta, the Reds, and the Red Sox) 16 times– 33%. Against “C” teams (Padres, Cubs, Phillies) they play 13 games– 27%.
When you look at the “A” and “B” teams combined, the schedule looks to give Giants an even bigger break. They have 21 of their remaining 47 games with “A/B” team– 45%. The Cardinals are looking at 29 “A/B” games– 59%.
And Pittsburgh is looking at 35 “A/B” games between August 8th and the end of the season– fully 73% of the total games left to play.
As always, the potential mitigating factors to any projected “on paper” analysis are legion. Injuries can still take a toll on all three teams; extraordinary performances are possible from any number of Major League players, especially during a playoff drive; and a surge by any of the three “second tier” teams could skew the whole prospectus.
The fact that Pittsburgh and St. Louis are both in the Central Division is another major consideration. They play each other six times in seven and a half weeks, and the Pirates also play the “second tier” Reds and Atlanta 13 times.
If the Bucs get off their game for any significant stretch the next month and a half, they’re likely cooked.
St. Louis will give the Cincinnati Reds their chance to move up when they play each other 10 times the rest of the season– the largest number of head-to-head meetings among all six potential Wild Card teams.
Despite the level of their competition this won’t be a stroll in the park for the San Francisco Giants. They have six games with the Los Angeles Dodgers and seven games with the San Diego Padres. If those series go south, the Giants could be buried up to their necks in the NL West.
It’s one thing to look at every game, every opposing team, as inherently challenging– it’s the Major Leagues. But on the whole, the San Francisco Giants are looking at a strong advantage over their top NL Wild Card rivals.
Now it’s all about execution.