Does Your Favorite Team Still Have a Shot at the Playoffs?Craig Edwardson August 28, 2020 at 3:00 pm

When the season is just 60 games long, it can be hard to wrap your head around seemingly simple concepts like whether or not a team has a decent shot of making the playoffs. In a normal season, we’ve had four months to assess teams by the time we get to the trade deadline, and get two months after that to see them potentially reap the benefits of the moves they make. Halfway through this season, however, there hasn’t been much time for separation, and instead of having two months left to go, there’s just a single, month-long sprint to the finish. Add in the expanded playoffs, and there’s even more confusion regarding what constitutes a good shot at the playoffs. To attempt to provide some clarity, I’ll go through every team’s playoff odds in tiers and compare them to other teams in similar positions over the last half-dozen seasons.

First, here are the playoff odds for every team through Thursday with roughly a month to go in the season:

MLB Playoff Odds, Through 8/27
AL East W L Make Playoffs
Yankees 16 11 98.20%
Rays 21 11 99.70%
Blue Jays 15 14 66.10%
Red Sox 10 21 4.30%
Orioles 14 16 10.20%
AL Central W L Make Playoffs
Twins 20 12 99.20%
White Sox 19 12 98.40%
Indians 19 12 98.60%
Royals 12 19 6.20%
Tigers 13 16 11.00%
AL West W L Make Playoffs
Astros 17 14 97.30%
Athletics 22 10 99.90%
Angels 10 22 4.40%
Rangers 11 19 3.90%
Mariners 13 20 2.60%
NL East W L Make Playoffs
Braves 18 12 96.50%
Mets 13 16 61.40%
Phillies 12 14 56.20%
Nationals 11 17 18.70%
Marlins 14 12 32.70%
NL Central W L Make Playoffs
Cubs 18 12 94.80%
Reds 13 17 46.60%
Brewers 13 17 48.20%
Cardinals 11 11 63.50%
Pirates 9 19 0.60%
NL West W L Make Playoffs
Dodgers 24 9 100.00%
Padres 19 14 93.90%
Rockies 16 15 42.60%
Giants 15 18 30.40%
Diamondbacks 13 19 13.80%

And in graph form:

While percentages are helpful in getting a sense of a team’s chances, sometimes it can be better to frame those numbers in terms of real examples. Our playoff odds page goes back to the 2014 season, so we’ll look at the 2014-2019 seasons on September 1 and compare them to the end of the season. It is possible that having just one month of in-season data would (or should) make us less sure about a team’s present talent level compared to having five months’ worth in those other seasons, so if you want to mentally correct for even more randomness in this already wild season, feel free to do so.

Locks and Near-Locks (80%-100%)

Teams: Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland A’s, Tampa Bay Rays, Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox, New York Yankees, Houston Astros, Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres

We’ll start with the teams that have at least an 80% chance of making the playoffs this season. In the above group, every team’s chances are actually above 90%, which isn’t too different from the teams that have had odds above 80% historically. The table below shows the teams with at least an 80% playoff chance on September 1 since 2014:

Teams with 80% or Better Playoff Odds on September 1
Team Year Playoff Odds on 9/1 Made Playoffs?
Astros 2019 100.0% Y
Braves 2019 100.0% Y
Dodgers 2019 100.0% Y
Yankees 2019 100.0% Y
Angels 2014 100.0% Y
Cardinals 2015 100.0% Y
Royals 2015 100.0% Y
Cubs 2016 100.0% Y
Nationals 2016 100.0% Y
Astros 2017 100.0% Y
Dodgers 2017 100.0% Y
Indians 2017 100.0% Y
Nationals 2017 100.0% Y
Indians 2018 100.0% Y
Red Sox 2018 100.0% Y
Yankees 2018 100.0% Y
Pirates 2015 99.9% Y
Red Sox 2017 99.9% Y
Astros 2018 99.9% Y
Nationals 2014 99.8% Y
Cubs 2018 99.7% Y
Twins 2019 99.6% Y
Rangers 2016 99.6% Y
Blue Jays 2015 99.4% Y
Athletics 2014 99.2% Y
Nationals 2019 98.9% Y
Diamondbacks 2017 98.9% Y
Dodgers 2014 98.4% Y
Orioles 2014 98.3% Y
Dodgers 2016 97.4% Y
Cubs 2017 97.3% Y
Indians 2016 97.0% Y
Yankees 2015 96.7% Y
Dodgers 2015 96.5% Y
Cubs 2015 96.4% Y
Astros 2015 94.7% Y
Giants 2014 94.1% Y
Blue Jays 2016 94.1% Y
Cardinals 2019 89.5% Y
Athletics 2018 88.4% Y
Mets 2015 87.5% Y
Red Sox 2016 86.6% Y
Giants 2016 83.9% Y
Dodgers 2018 83.9% Y
Cardinals 2014 82.8% Y
Tigers 2014 81.4% Y
Average/Success Rate 96.5% 100%

While it might come as a surprise that none of the teams above blew their chances, given the small sample and the very high odds of half of those teams, all of them playing October baseball isn’t a huge statistical oddity. Plus, if we went back just a few more seasons, we’d see Atlanta, with playoff odds up over 95%, miss the playoffs. The 11 teams this season with 90%-plus odds aren’t guaranteed to make the postseason, but they’d have to really screw up over the next month to drop out of one of the 16 playoff spots entirely.

Good Chance (60%-80%)

Teams: St. Louis Cardinals, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Mets

There aren’t very many teams in the good-but-not-great chances area, but that mirrors what we’ve seen over the last few years as well:

Teams with 60%-80% Playoff Odds on September 1
Team Year Playoff Odds on 9/1 Made Playoffs?
Cubs 2019 76.2% N
Yankees 2017 74.6% Y
Rays 2019 73.3% Y
Brewers 2018 71.0% Y
Cardinals 2016 68.0% N
Cardinals 2018 67.4% N
Braves 2018 66.7% Y
Indians 2019 66.4% N
Royals 2014 65.1% Y
Rockies 2017 60.6% Y
Average/Success Rate 68.9% 60%

Last year’s Cubs team had the highest playoff odds on September 1 of any team to not make the playoffs since 2014. The Cardinals failed to make it twice in the last few years despite looked good heading into September, and last year’s Cleveland club also faltered. The Cardinals, Mets, and Blue Jays should probably make the playoffs, but there are a decent number of scenarios in which they don’t quite follow through.

50/50 (40%-60%)

Teams: Milwaukee Brewers, Philadelphia Phillies, Cincinnati Reds, Colorado Rockies

There are 14 teams ahead of this quartet, so the odds would dictate that we should expect two of these clubs to make the playoffs.

Teams with 40%-60% Playoff Odds on September 1
Team Year Playoff Odds on 9/1 Made Playoffs?
Rangers 2015 54.8% Y
Athletics 2019 52.2% Y
Brewers 2014 50.7% N
Tigers 2016 50.7% N
Phillies 2018 42.6% N
Twins 2017 41.9% Y
Average/Success Rate 48.8% 50%

The Rockies bring up the rear here but even in that lower 40% range, one of the two teams above made the playoffs. So far we have 17 teams all with a very healthy shot of making the postseason.

Not Great (20%-40%)

Teams: San Francisco Giants, Miami Marlins

There may be some doubt about what kind of chances these teams actually have with just a month to go. While whether to add or subtract at the deadline is a difficult proposition for teams at this level in normal years, perhaps history can help guide their view:

Teams with 20%-40% Playoff Odds on September 1
Team Year Playoff Odds on 9/1 Made Playoffs?
Diamondbacks 2018 37.4% N
Mariners 2014 36.5% N
Braves 2014 36.4% N
Pirates 2014 36.2% Y
Orioles 2016 31.7% Y
Angels 2017 31.6% N
Rockies 2018 27.6% Y
Astros 2016 26.1% N
Mets 2016 25.9% Y
Brewers 2017 22.9% N
Average/Success Rate 31.2% 40%

A 30% chance at the playoffs feels low to me, but seeing four of the last 10 and three of the last seven teams make the playoffs with those odds makes the chances feel a bit more real. One-in-three isn’t a long shot; it’s the odds of an average player reaching base in any given plate appearance.

Long Shots (5%-20%)

Teams: Washington Nationals, Arizona Diamondbacks, Detroit Tigers, Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals

These are the teams we don’t expect to make the playoffs, but that also aren’t totally out of it. It’s a bit odd to see the defending World Champions here, but losing Anthony Rendon to free agency and Stephen Strasburg to injury are pretty big blows. They, along with the Diamondbacks, have a lot of games to make up to get back in the race. It’s not impossible, though, and one team bucked the odds last season:

Teams with 5%-20% Playoff Odds on September 1
Team Year Playoff Odds on 9/1 Made Playoffs?
Twins 2015 18.4% N
Pirates 2016 17.9% N
Angels 2015 16.9% N
Cardinals 2017 16.9% N
Orioles 2017 14.8% N
Rays 2017 14.5% N
Nationals 2015 13.9% N
Brewers 2019 12.8% Y
Mets 2019 12.8% N
Mariners 2018 11.4% N
Royals 2017 11.1% N
Rays 2015 10.0% N
Indians 2014 9.4% N
Red Sox 2019 8.5% N
Yankees 2014 6.9% N
Indians 2015 6.9% N
Rangers 2017 6.6% N
Marlins 2016 6.1% N
Giants 2015 5.7% N
Yankees 2016 5.1% N
Diamondbacks 2019 5.0% N
Mariners 2017 5.0% N
Average/Success Rate 10.8% 4.5%

The Milwaukee Brewers’ odds of making the playoffs weren’t great at the start of September last year, but they benefited from the Cubs’ struggles down the stretch and made the postseason. The teams in this category aren’t likely to make the playoffs, and under normal circumstances, moving pending free agents for younger players might make a lot of sense.

Not Their Year (0%-5%)

Teams: Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Angels, Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, Pittsburgh Pirates

There have been 86 teams to enter the month of September with playoff odds under 5% since 2014, and none of them have ended up in the postseason. Of those 86 teams, only 11 were even at 0.5% or higher, so there aren’t a ton of direct examples for most of the teams in this tier this season. I should note that the 2011 Braves’ counterpart from the first group is the St. Louis Cardinals, who were under 5% at the beginning of September and managed to make the playoffs and then win the World Series.

I think there’s a pretty good argument that 20 of baseball’s 30 teams are definitely in the playoff hunt, with a handful of others that could potentially play their way back in to it. Only five teams are so far out of it as to start planning for 2021, though what that actually looks like at this trade deadline is unclear. We have about a third of the league that should be preparing for October, a third that’s still trying to get there, and a third that make intriguing trade partners for the rest.
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