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MLB Odds: Breaking Down the Race for the Third National League Wild Card

In 1973, four years after divisional play was implemented and the postseason field doubled, the New York Mets were in last place in the National League East on Aug. 30 but won the division with an 82-79 record before making it to Game 7 of the World Series against the dynastic Oakland Athletics.

So the idea of mediocre teams vying for a berth in the ever-expanding Major League Baseball tournament is nothing new. But 50 years later, the race for the third and final NL wild card spot is comprised of uniquely…well, not great teams.

While the Philadelphia Phillies (76-61 entering today) and Chicago Cubs (74-64) seem safely ensconced in a playoff spot, the four-, five-, six- or maybe even seven- or eight-way race for the final wild card berth is an avert-your-eyes mashup of mediocrity.

The Arizona Diamondbacks (71-67) and Cincinnati Reds (72-68) are in a flat-footed tie at .514 for the final wild card berth, though the Diamondbacks have two games in hand. The Miami Marlins (70-67) are a half-game back with the San Francisco Giants (70-68) a game behind.

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The Diamondbacks and Reds are both on an 83-win pace, which would be by far the fewest number of wins recorded by a wild card team in a full season. But neither they nor anyone else in the race has done much to provide belief a September surge into the mid- or upper-80s is possible. 

Since June 1, the Reds have the sixth-best record in the NL at 46-39, which is an 87- or 88-win pace over a full season. The Giants (42-40) and Marlins (41-40) are barely over .500 in that span, with the Diamondbacks (38-44) well under the break-even mark.

The contestants have been even more underwhelming since July 1, a stretch in which the Washington Nationals (really) are the sixth-best team in the NL at 29-28 (really). The Reds are 28-30 while the Giants (24-32), Marlins (22-32) and Diamondbacks (22-33) are 12th through 14th in the NL standings. There are only 15 teams in the NL!

You probably saw this coming, but the over-.500 teams in the third wild card race haven’t been stellar since Aug. 1, either. Once again, the Nationals (17-14) are the sixth-best team in the NL over the last five weeks, with the Diamondbacks (14-17), Marlins (13-17), Reds (13-19) and Giants (12-19) ranking eighth, ninth, 12th and 14th, respectively.

There certainly seems to be a window for a team to emerge from the back of the pack and grab the final wild card spot. Except the San Diego Padres (65-74), Pittsburgh Pirates (64-74) and Mets (63-74) are all under .500 since June 1 and July 1 and only the Pirates are above .500 since Aug. 1 (at 17-16).

And for as steady as the Nationals have been since June 1, it hasn’t undone a poor start that leaves them behind all three teams at 62-76 overall and ahead of only the St. Louis Cardinals and Colorado Rockies.

As of Sept. 5, neither the Pirates nor Nationals even have playoff odds listed at FanDuel, which is probably more a reflection of their low national profiles than it is an endorsement of the chances for the highly touted but perpetually disappointing Padres and Mets.

So it’d be a very NL in 2023 thing if either Pittsburgh or Washington mounted a stirring, Mets-in-’73 type of run. Here’s a look at the other teams vying for the third wild card spot, with their odds and remaining opponents’ winning percentage in parentheses, followed by a prediction. 

San Francisco Giants (+172)

Remaining opponents’ winning percentage: .496

The Giants are concluding a stretch of nine straight series against teams in contention at the time they played San Francisco. (This stretch began Aug. 7 against the Los Angeles Angels, which feels like five million years ago) They need to beat the Cubs tonight and tomorrow to ensure they won’t go 1-8 in said series. Yeesh. The schedule eases up a bit with seven more games against the Rockies, but that’s balanced out by seven games against the Los Angeles Dodgers, which is a net negative for a team that has two qualified batters with a 100 OPS+ and two starting pitchers on pace to qualify for the ERA title.

Arizona Diamondbacks (+182)

Remaining opponents’ winning percentage: .473

Baseball’s infinite scheduling wisdom has Arizona playing all seven of its games against the Cubs this month and closing out the season against the defending World Series champion Houston Astros. But the rest of the slate (Rockies, Mets, Giants, Yankees, Chicago White Sox) is fairly unimposing for the Diamondbacks, whose hopes may hinge on No. 2 starter Merrill Kelly’s cramping issues not being a sign of anything more serious.

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Cincinnati Reds (+240)

Remaining opponents’ winning percentage: .482

It’d be a blast to see the young and exciting Reds in the playoffs, and they have just three more games — against the uninspiring AL Central-leading Minnesota Twins — left against winning teams after a series with the Seattle Mariners ends Wednesday. But thanks to a COVID-19 outbreak, Cincinnati is down to one healthy starting pitcher, rookie Andrew Abbott, who has made more than TWO starts for the team this season.

Miami Marlins (+255)

Remaining opponents’ winning percentage: .552

With a run differential of negative-44, the Marlins have overachieved to get this far. Now they’ve got to play 16 of their final 25 games — including 13 in a row beginning tonight — against the playoff-bound Dodgers, Phillies, Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers. As Elaine Benes would say: “NEXT!”

San Diego Padres (+3500

Remaining opponents’ winning percentage: .465

 There’s no better symbol of the Padres’ bizarre, nothing-is-at-it-seems season than their remaining schedule, which is, by winning percentage, by far the easiest of the wild card contenders. Except they’re balancing out games with the playoff-bound Phillies, Astros and Dodgers with nine games against the Rockies, Oakland Athletics and Chicago White Sox, all of whom are on a 100-loss pace. As the kids say: Perfect, no notes, 13/10.

New York Mets (+8000)

Remaining opponents’ winning percentage:.524

 This might be a little bias talking as a New York-area writer weaned on tales of various miracle Mets teams, but these Mets…might have a shot? Unlike everyone else in this race, they’ll have plenty of chances to make up ground via head-to-head matchups thanks to 13 games against the Diamondbacks, Reds and Marlins as well as six games over the final two weekends against the Phillies, who will almost surely be locked into a playoff spot by then.

The Mets are 23-15 against all the non-division leaders ahead of them in the NL wild card race.

Their top of the order has emerged from a post-tradeoff slump and they’re getting passable starting pitching (and more than that from Kodai Senga and Jose Quintana).

Of course, the best-case scenario is the Mets go no worse than 20-5 the rest of the way while none of the five teams ahead of them pulls away. It’s unlikely. But stranger things happened 50 years ago this month.

THE PICK

The Diamondbacks. Because someone’s got to win it.

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