When I wrote about the playoff standings a couple of months back the National League picture did not look at all how we expected in the preseason. However, leading up to the All-Star break things have taken a turn for the familiar. The ‘big three’ so to speak have started to take control of their divisions with two leading and the third charging. So are the ‘big three’ now a lock for the playoffs? Can the other teams still win their divisions? If not who are the favourites to grab the two wild card spot?
The Los Angeles Dodgers have managed to get their noses ahead in their division. Entering the All-Star break they are only 0.5 of a game ahead of the Diamondbacks. However, seemingly with their struggles behind them it would be a tough bet to go against them to win this division. Looking at the Fangraphs.com rest of season projections, they have the Dodgers with a 77 percent chance of winning the division. Their high chances are due to their division leading run differential of plus-82 and their relatively weak rest of season schedule (.496).
Considering there are three other teams within five games of the division lead, this division should be up for grabs. However, the rest of the teams have at best a 15 percent chance of winning the division according to Fangraphs. The other teams in this division will be kicking themselves. The Diamondback and Rockies have had every chance to close the door on the Dodgers and they have failed. Now with the Dodgers’ pitching returning they should be left scrapping for the wildcard game.
Of those three the Diamondbacks have a 50 percent chance to make the playoffs, with the Colorado Rockies at 22.5 percent and the San Francisco Giants at 16 percent. The Rockies need their offense to go to historic levels and the Giants need Madison Bumgarner and a Johnny Cueto to be lights out for the rest of the season.
The Chicago Cubs now lead the Central by 2.5 games but due to cancellations are actually ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers by five losses. This, their NL leading plus-114 run differential and their rest of season schedule being significantly weaker make them clear favourites for the division. They appear to be in such a dominant position that Fangraphs give them an 89 percent chance of winning the division.
While it may seem weird to write the Brewers off their rotations weakness leaves them massively vulnerable. It is going to be hard for them to win games down the stretch if they cannot rely on their starting pitchers. The Brewers need to keep focusing on the division, but as the season winds down they will need to have half an eye on who may be their wildcard game starting pitcher. Right now their playoff chances are in the balance, at 49 percent. They need to have a strong second half from their offense and try and take games off the Cubs.
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The other two teams who are technically still in the race are the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cardinals have a 3 percent shot at the division and the Pirates have a 0.5 percent. In terms of playoff chances the Cardinals still have a slight chance 25 percent and replacing their manager may give them a rocket to make a push. However, I think it is unlikely either of these teams are still in contention are we get into late September.
This is the only division where the big team have not full asserted their dominance. The Washington Nationals are still 5.5 games back on the division leading Philadelphia Phillies. They are also five games back on the second place Atlanta Braves. Both the Phillies and the Braves have come to the party a year earlier than expected. However, they are not locks to win the division. The Phillies have a run differential of just plus-18 and are over performing their expected win/loss by three wins. The Braves have the best run differential of the division, plus-68 and are actually underperforming their expected win/loss by three wins. However, as a young team with a so-so pitching staff it is questionable whether they can sustain this down the stretch.
The Nationals themselves have a run differential of plus-30 and their expected win/loss is four wins higher than their current record. According to Fangraphs the Nationals have the weakest schedule of the three the rest of the way. This means that despite being 5.5 games back they are still favourites to win their division. Right now Fangraphs have a 45 percent chance the Nationals win the division. Behind them are the Phillies with 32 percent chance and the Braves with 23 percent chance.
In terms of the wildcard race all three teams have a greater than 35 percent chance of making the playoffs. However, it is starting to look likely that we may see just one team come out of this division.
The Final Word
It is by no means a lock we see the Dodgers and Cubs in the playoffs but the smart money is heading in that direction. The Nationals are the part of the ‘big three’ still in the balance but their class has every chance to shine through in that division. The next couple of weeks leading up to the trade deadline could be huge in deciding how the NL shapes up. If the Phillies can add serious talent they could really make the Nationals sweat. However, the Dodgers could make themselves clear World Series favourites if they can add some more talent to their offense. For what it is worth I feel the Brewers slip away and we see the Phillies, Nationals and Diamondbacks as two of the three wild card teams, with the other NL East team winning that division.