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To exactly one of the Angels, Mariners, Orioles, Rangers, Rays, Royals and Twins: Congratulations! It's really happening!
For weeks, we've watched the seven of you fight for the American League's second wild-card spot. I wouldn't take any one of you in a race against .500, but chaos is a ladder, and in the daily re-scramble, Bud Selig's second wild-card scheme found self-actualization. Your playoff odds shifted faster than we could calculate each shift's significance; watching, say, the Angels rally against the Rangers in the ninth inning while the Royals tried to hold off the Twins could give an Orioles or Rays fan rooting vertigo. And now, despite (respectively) paying $26 million for the stale crusts of Albert Pujols' career/leading the league in blown saves/having the AL's worst starting-rotation ERA/trading your ace at the deadline/hitting under .230 with runners in scoring position/having the AL's lowest on-base percentage/trading your closer at the deadline, you're going to make the playoffs! You don't have to outrun the bear, indeed.
And there's even better news: All it takes to win baseball's postseason is to be present. Since the introduction of the wild card in 1995, backdoor admissions have gone 41-38 in their series. In the recent era, which has not produced many elite teams, the gap between the league's best teams and its just-pretty-good teams has been inconsequential. Five wild-card teams have won the World Series this century.
But I'm sorry to say: You will not be the sixth.
You're about to gain entry into one of the most talent-stuffed postseasons we've ever seen. If things break right -- or, for you, terribly wrong -- you will have to go through a gauntlet that is perhaps unmatched in baseball history. Put it this way: If all 10 postseason teams were equal, you'd have a little better than a 6 percent chance of winning the four coin flips needed to take the World Series. Instead, FiveThirtyEight's playoff odds give you about a 2½ percent shot.
There's a simple reason for their pessimism. This is what awaits you.
ROUND 1: You'll probably face the Yankees
At first glance, this doesn't look so bad! New York began the season with low expectations and a roster gutted from last year's trade deadline. After sprinting to a 21-9 record, the Yankees' division lead contracted, then disappeared, and the season turned into a lazy amble to the first wild-card seed. It was a nice surprise, but there is nothing exceptional about winning 88 or so games.
If you will, ignore the record for a minute. Wins are fine for measuring team success. But they are not necessarily the right measure for team strength.
Consider a hypothetical Team A that wins three games 13-1, then loses three games 1-0. That's a .500 team, and so is the Team B on the reverse of all six scores. But if you were Team C, wouldn't you rather face the team that scores one run per game and allows seven?
Of course, neither are runs a perfect indicator of team strength. Runs are built out of walks, hits and outs avoided, but unlike a soufflé recipe, the relationship between ratios and results is inexact and unpredictable. A homer followed by a single, a double and a walk might lead to only one run before the inning ends; a walk followed by a double, a single and a home run will probably mean four. Both sequences tell us almost exactly the same information about a team's offense but wildly different things about the score.
This is the Yankees. Their record is that of an 88-or-so-win team. Their run differential, though, is among the best in baseball, more consistent with a team eight or nine wins better. And their offense and pitching are even better than that run differential. The sequences of their hits, walks and outs avoided -- and, on defense, the reverse -- have been disastrously inconvenient. By FanGraphs' Clutch score (which measures a team's performance in high-leverage situations compared with its performance overall), the Yankees' pitchers have been the least clutch in baseball, by a massive margin. Their hitters rank 27th.
This isn't to say the Yankees deserve better. It's their job to win games, which means it's their job to be clutch, whether clutchness is a real skill or not.
It is to say that the Yankees have hit the stuffing out of the ball and pitched the snot out of it. In fact, by those measures -- if not by record, or even runs -- they have been something very close to elite. Baseball Prospectus uses a method of team evaluation called third-order winning percentage, which estimates how many wins a team "should" have based on its underlying offensive and defensive performances. The Yankees' third-order winning percentage through Sept. 12 was .637. That's better than every Yankees club since 1950 except the 1961 and 1998 squads; it's better than 13 Yankees teams that won the World Series in that time. This year's Yankees, according to third-order winning percentage, are closer to a 104-win team than an 88-win one. But they are among the 10 unluckiest/unclutchest teams in the past 68 years.
It is OK, second wild-card entrant, to tell yourself this third-order business is hokum. You might be right! Maybe the Yankees really do choke and always will. Maybe they're built to win 13-1 but lose 1-0. If wins are the sport's measure of success, perhaps "winning" is a skill in itself, set a little bit apart from simply making hits and getting outs.
But here's what I do know: In a wild-card game, you're hoping to face a team that's not very good. You're hoping to face a team that looks a lot like you. Instead, you'll face a team that hits better than you and pitches better than you. Yankees relievers throw an average fastball of 95.3 mph, the fastest in baseball; their starters throw an average fastball of 93.9 mph, the best in the American League. Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez have had stretches of almost unprecedented greatness. They might have the deepest bullpen ever.
And they're just the first boss you meet on your way to the World Series.
ROUND 2: You'll Likely Face The Indians
The Indians' third-order winning percentage was .675 through Sept. 13, which would be the sixth best since 1950. Their pitching staff will have the most strikeouts in the majors, the fewest walks in the majors and the fewest home runs allowed in the American League. They'll be the first team in history to strike out 10 batters per nine innings. Their ERA+ (ERA, adjusted for ballpark and era, and expressed relative to the rest of the league) is on track to be the best by any team since 1926.
In 2006, Nate Silver wrote in Baseball Between the Numbers that the "marginal economic value" of a win varies greatly depending on which win it is. Winning 66 games instead of 65 or winning 80 instead of 79 adds almost no revenue. Winning 89 instead of 88 might add millions, as that 89th win might be the one that gets a team into the playoffs, which brings both direct revenue (playoff tickets) and indirect revenue (next year's season-ticket sales, franchise value and so on). But Silver's curve dropped off dramatically around wins 92 to 95.
Baseball teams listened. "Sustainability" became the industry buzzword, as GMs tried to build teams capable of making the playoffs every year instead of capable of winning 108 games. From 2012 to 2014, no team won 100 games, the first time since the schedule expanded to 162 games in 1961 that three full seasons had passed without an "elite" team. There hasn't been a 105-game winner since the 2004 Cardinals, also the longest such drought.
But the 2016 Cubs might have changed the tide. At the July trade deadline, with a 7½-game lead and an 84 percent chance (according to FiveThirtyEight) of winning their division, the Cubs dealt one of the dozen best prospects in baseball for Aroldis Chapman. Their new closer would throw 26 regular-season innings, in games that had almost no practical impact on the Cubs' chances of winning the World Series, but 15 postseason innings, in games that absolutely would. Chicago had a 102-win team and spent a ton to make it a 103-win team. It was a radical reassessment of the value of building the best postseason roster.
Cubs president Theo Epstein once said that one thing is true of all World Series winners: The rest of the league tries to copy them. This year the Indians copied the Cubs. After losing to Chicago in Game 7 of the World Series, Cleveland had baseball's easiest path back to the postseason: weak division opponents and a roster that would return every key piece of the previous year's roster. Its No. 2 and No. 3 starters, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, would return healthy after missing most of the postseason. Cleveland could have coasted.
Instead, the small-market club unexpectedly signed slugger Edwin Encarnacion last winter. He'll be the Tribe's first 35-home-run hitter in more than a decade. And on Aug. 9, with an 85 percent chance of winning the division (according to FiveThirtyEight), they traded for Mets slugger Jay Bruce, taking on the $5 million he was owed. The Indians went 29-5 over the next five weeks, including an AL-record winning streak.
This makes two elite teams you have had to beat. Only halfway.
ROUND 3: You Could Face The Astros
The Astros have produced, simply, one of the greatest offenses the sport has ever seen. By FanGraphs' wRC+ (which compares a team's total offensive performance to the rest of the league), Houston's offense has been 20 percent better than the MLB average, the best in at least half a century.
Through mid-September, 83 percent of the Astros' plate appearances (including those by pitchers) were by hitters better than the league average. Their 7-8-9 hitters had been better than the American League's No. 3 hitters. Houston had the AL's highest OPS at four of the nine spots in the batting order. The Astros strike out less than any other team in baseball and hit for more power than any other team. They have more infield hits than any other team and more extra-base hits. No team hits righties better; only two hit lefties harder.
To beat them, you will have to outscore them. And you will face a starting rotation that added Justin Verlander with a literal minute to spare on Aug. 31. You'll face a team that spent four years planning every move with this moment in mind, collecting draft picks and live arms and payroll flexibility to win now while you were trying to win then. This is their plan, come together: a third-order winning percentage that, as of mid-September, was .620, a 100-win pace.
That makes three great teams, three teams with third-order records that put them among the 60 or so best teams since 1950. No team has ever beaten three teams this good, by third-order record, in one postseason. If you've made it this far, you've already run through a three-team obstacle course that has perhaps never been matched.
And it does not get better from here.
ROUND 4: The World Series
You might get the Cubs, who played at a 100-win pace after adding Jose Quintana at the All-Star break. You might get the Diamondbacks, with perhaps the NL's best pitching staff this year. Or the Nationals, who were on a 99-win pace even before their star-studded disabled list began to send reinforcements back to the active roster in September.
More likely, you will face the Dodgers. You watched the Dodgers lose nearly every game for two weeks down the stretch. That team looked beatable. Definitely tell yourself they are beatable.
Definitely don't look at the research that shows no relationship between September performance and playoff performance. When Jay Jaffe investigated the subject for Baseball Prospectus in 2009, he found that teams that limped to the finish actually did slightly better in the postseason, either by random chance or because better teams were more likely to have large division leads and rest their regulars or play with less urgency.
The Dodgers began their swoon with a 21-game lead in the NL West. That, more than anything that happened in late August or early September, tells us how scary they will be in October. The Dodgers spent a far larger part of the season utterly dominating: They produced the best record over a 50-game stretch since 1912 and an 82-game run that would put them among the best NBA teams ever. They lost 11 in a row and still emerged on pace to win more games than any team since 2004.
The Dodgers might be the deepest team ever. They are at least above average at every position, and they go seven-deep in their rotation. Like the Indians in the American League, Dodgers pitchers will lead their league in strikeouts while allowing the fewest walks.
Their third-order winning percentage dropped from a best-of-all-time .708 on Aug. 10 to just .648 through Sept. 13. But .648 still put them among the 20 best teams since 1950. No team has ever had a higher third-order winning percentage without winning at least 100 games. There are no .648 flukes.
IT'S BEEN, OBJECTIVELY speaking, a bad era for elite teams, until this year. The Yankees, a once-reliable great team, finally cleared the burdensome contracts that had weighed them down. The Astros and Cubs show the power of unapologetic rebuilding periods. The Indians, looking to be the next team to end a long World Series drought, chose dominance over sustainability. The Dodgers are baseball's ultimate Moneyball-with-money team. The Red Sox, Nationals and Diamondbacks have arguments that they're at this tier too.
Those eight teams make for one of the best lineups in playoff history. They had a combined third-order winning percentage of .613 through mid-September. Only one season since 1950 (2002) produced eight teams that were collectively better.
When a great team exists, there are three ways to enjoy it. One is to see that team comically dominate its opponents. This is Aaron Judge in batting practice, or the 250-pound sixth-grader in a viral Pop Warner clip, or Tiger Woods at the '97 Masters. It's the Usain Bolt model of enjoyment: The entertainment is in the space created. Your brain can't technically perceive how fast he's running, or the passage of two-tenths fewer seconds, but it can see the growing separation between him and the second-fastest men alive.
Our dear second wild-card team: This is why we will enjoy your presence. We will enjoy watching a great team deconstruct you.
The second way to enjoy a great team is to see it face another great team. This is how we'll likely enjoy the rest of October, the weeks that happen after you're gone. We'll watch great teams slam into each other and give not an inch. We will watch them probe each other for weaknesses and eventually smash each other into sand. Grab a seat -- once you're eliminated, of course -- and enjoy it with us.
Or prove us wrong. The third way to revel in a great team is to watch some woefully against-the-odds underdog somehow topple that team or, better yet, a series of them. The brutal truth, Angels, Mariners, Orioles, Rangers, Rays, Royals or Twins, is that we're counting you out. You have little hope.
Now go make us look dumb.