Down to the wire for the MLB playoff race

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By the time you are reading this column the calendar will have advanced to September and MLB rosters will have expanded to 40 players. The end of the regular season is in sight as teams have roughly 25 games or so to play before the season ends on Sunday, Oct. 4.

September handicapping presents both challenges and opportunities as teams out of contention often look to the future by playing lineup blended with veterans and young players promoted from Triple A or Double A to give them the proverbial “cup of coffee” to get them accustomed to play at the major league level heading into the off-season.

At the same time, keep in mind that baseball remains a team game heavily predicated on individual performances, thus the accumulation of statistics will keep most players interested in giving their best efforts. This is especially true of players in the final year of their contract and about to become free agents as well as players who are about to become arbitration eligible.

Managers will often give players opportunities to achieve certain goals that enable contract bonuses to kick in if the player reaches contractually specified levels of achievement.

For the most part, however, handicapping the games does not change that radically but teams in contention will continue to field their best lineups and those managers will continue to make decisions geared toward doing all that is possible to win games and advance closer to making the Playoffs.

The most significant aspect of September baseball that is readily apparent is the increasing lines that must be laid when playing favored teams vying to make the Playoffs or improve their positioning. By definition, that also means underdogs, usually but not always, teams out of contention are also artificially inflated. This leads to opportunities to cash juicy tickets on teams that may be priced at +200 or more because it is September when those teams might be only +150 were that game played and priced in July.

Keep an eye on teams that continue to play hard despite being out of contention as you can often catch them in certain matchups that suggest the team is being generously priced.

Through Sunday night, after Jake Arrieta tossed the season’s sixth no hit game, only one Division leader, Kansas City in the AL Central, held a lead of more than 5.5 games (13). The narrowest lead belonged to Toronto in the AL East where the Blue Jays led the Yankees by just 1.5 games.

Rounding out the American League, Houston started this week with a 3 game lead over now second place Texas. Surprisingly, the team with the best record in baseball, St. Louis, has just a 4.5 game lead over Pittsburgh in the NL Central.

The closest NL race is in the West where the LA Dodgers lead San Francisco by 3.5 games. The largest NL lead is in the East where the Mets lead Washington by 5.5 games as the Nationals remain not one of baseball’s overrated teams but rather one of baseball’s most underachieving teams. There is a difference. The Nats still have a talented roster, even given the injuries. But that talent has, by and large, played well below their collective potential based on their results over the past several seasons since becoming contenders.

The Yankees currently control the first AL Wild Card with a 4 game lead over the rest of the field. Texas started the week holding the second Wild Card with a 1.5 game lead over Minnesota. The Angels are 3.5 games behind the Rangers with Tampa Bay another game back. Even Cleveland, 5 games behind Texas, can still make a late run with their above average starting pitching. The remaining half dozen AL teams range from Baltimore, 5.5 games behind Texas, to Oakland, 12 games out.

The NL Wild Card race is not as tightly contested. Pittsburgh holds the first NL Wild Card with a 5 game lead over the rest of the field. The Cubs hold the second Wild Card and are 5.5 games ahead of San Francisco. No other team is less than 8 games out of the second Wild Card.

Here’s a look at three series of interest this weekend, two of which involve contenders for the post season.

Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals have won 7 of 13 games against their NL Central rivals this season. Surprising, although both teams have been UNDER teams this season. Their matchups have been split evenly with 6 games going OVER, 6 staying UNDER and 1 push. The Pirates and Cards have averaged exactly 8.0 total runs per game in their 13 meetings. For the season the Cards are 71-48-10 to the UNDER and the Pirates are 62-54-13 to the UNDER.

Through 130 games the Cardinals are still allowing just under 3 runs per game (2.97)! Both teams are actually averaging more runs per game on the road than at home (an identical 4.3 rpg). But the strength of both teams has consistently been pitching, both from their starters and their bullpens. The Pirates start the week just 4.5 games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central, making this a series in which they can either narrow the gap by taking at least 2 of 3 or in which St. Louis can further extend its lead and get closer to clinching the number one seed in the NL Playoffs.

PLAYS: UNDER 7 or higher in any matchup; Pirates as underdogs of any price in a start by Gerrit Cole against any St. Louis starter; St. Louis -140 or less in starts by Lance Lynn, Carlos Martinez or Michael Wacha not facing Cole; UNDER First 5 Inning Totals of 3 or higher in a matchup of Cole vs. Lynn, Martinez or Wacha.

Texas Rangers at Los Angeles Angels: Both teams have ground to make up in the race for both the AL West Title and the second AL Wild Card. The Angels have won 8 of 10 meetings this season. The games have been high scoring as there have been 8 OVERs, 3 UNDERs and 1 PUSH with the Angels and Rangers averaging a combined 10.8 runs per game. Entering the week the Angels have been in a major slump dating back more than a month, going just 10-20 over their last 30 games while the Rangers have been almost the exact opposite, going 21-9 over a similar stretch.

Neither team has a true ace on their staff although Texas’ Cole Hamels has started to regain the form he displayed in Philadelphia after a shaky start following his trade. Colby Lewis and Yovani Gallardo have been serviceable and lefty Derek Holland is coming around following lengthy injuries although he’s averaged just 5.6 innings per start in his four starts. The Angels’ most effective starters have been Andrew Heaney and Hector Santiago but neither can be considered a “play on” starter.

PLAYS: OVER 8.5 or lower in any matchup; Either team as underdogs of +125 or more in any matchup.

Philadelphia Phillies at Boston Red Sox: Although both teams have struggled for most of the season and are well out of the Playoffs chase, both have also played better since the All Star break. The Red Sox have played exactly .500 ball over their last 60 games. The Phillies have gone 23-17 over their last 40 games, the equivalent of a quarter season. These teams opened the season in Philadelphia where Boston took 2 of the 3 games.

Both teams have been giving their younger players added playing time since they’ve each been long out of Wild Card contention and the results are reflected in their recent run of modest success. Both teams have weak pitching. The Phillies have been relying on young, up and coming arms. On balance the Red Sox have the more proven and reliable starters and the more veteran lineup. Expect a higher scoring series than the one that opened the season when the teams averaged just 7.3 runs per game yet still produced 2 OVERs and 1 UNDER.

PLAYS: OVER 8.5 or less in any matchup; Phillies +150 or more in any matchup; Red Sox -125 or less in any matchup.

Andy Iskoe, and his Logical Approach, provides his popular and unique handicapping statistics to Gaming Today readers and online visitors. He has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football. Contact Andy at [email protected]

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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