The model is the 2015 Houston Astros. Or maybe it’s the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, or the 2005 San Diego Padres, or even the 1981 Royals.
You remember that team, right? They made the playoffs despite a 50-53 record in a strike-shortened season 36 years ago, the standard bearer for a team sneaking into the postseason. That was a strange year, of course. The players’ strike interrupted most of June and July. The owners elected to split the season, with the first-half winners facing the second-half victors in a best-of-five division series. The Royals, who finished 20-30 in the first half, took advantage of the bizarre setup, finishing 30-23 and snagging a playoff spot before bowing out to the Oakland A’s in three games.
In 2017, the Royals cannot count on a midseason change in the playoff format to help them make the postseason. But perhaps they can look to another unprecedented occurrence — a chaotic, anomalous American League wild-card race. The unpredictable affair included more than half the league as of Monday morning. It has created a path for mediocrity in October.
To look at the wild-card standings is to see a picture of American League parity — nine teams fighting for two spots, all within 7 1/2 games of each other. To gaze at the collection of teams hovering around .500 is to see opportunity: If ever there was a season to sneak into the postseason with a record just above .500, this could be it.
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“I know with the type of team that we have, if we can make the playoffs, then we can get on a run,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “So the whole goal is to make the playoffs, one way or another. Just find a way.”
The comments came on Sunday morning, in the hours before the Royals defeated the Cleveland Indians 7-4, salvaging a victory after losing the first two games of the series. As he sat inside his office, facing a collection of reporters, Yost emphasized that his focus remained on the AL Central Division race. The Royals (62-61) remained 6 1/2 games behind the Indians entering Monday. They still play Cleveland seven times, including another three-game series at Progressive Field this weekend. There is time to make up ground, he said.
“We’re a good week away from being in first place is the way I look at it,” Yost said, before being reminded of his team’s place, still 7 1/2 games out on Sunday morning.
“We’re a good week away from being a half-game out of the division,” he corrected. “So my mindset is always on the division.”
There is time to make up ground, but the math does not play in their favor. To win the division, the Royals would need to play seven games better than the Indians over the course of 39 games. It would likely require a historic finish from the Royals or an epic collapse from Cleveland. Yet the wild-card race represents what Yost terms as a decent “fall-back plan.”
In most seasons, a 62-61 record on Aug. 21 would not conjure thoughts of a playoff run. But this is not most seasons. The Royals entered Monday with a 22 percent chance to make the playoffs, including 21.1 percent to snag a wild-card spot, according to playoff odds calculations at FanGraphs.com. At Baseball Prospectus, another statistically-inclined site, the Royals’ chances were 15 percent to make the playoffs and 14 percent to win a wild card.
The odds are not overwhelming, but they account for a crowded wild-card picture. The New York Yankees (65-57) entered Monday with a 2 1/2 game lead for the first wild-card position. The Minnesota Twins (63-59) and Los Angeles Angels (64-60) sat tied for the second, 1 1/2 games ahead of the Royals and Seattle Mariners (63-62). Meanwhile, the Texas Rangers, Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays were all within five games of a playoff spot.
“We’re getting into crunch time now,” said Royals starter Jason Hammel, who has pitched for playoff teams in the last three seasons.
In moments, the Royals do not resemble a playoff team. The starters have faltered in August. The bullpen has been leaky. But then again, neither does the competition. The Minnesota Twins were so confident in their ability to make a run that they acquired starting pitcher Jaime Garcia from the Braves and then, six days later, traded him to the Yankees on July 30 following a poor stretch. The Angels feature the best player in the world in center fielder Mike Trout. They also are leaning on a rotation anchored by 25-year-old rookie Parker Bridwell.
So for now, it remains possible that a team could make the playoffs with 83 to 85 wins. The Royals could join a list of postseason teams that have trended toward mediocre. Since the inception of the second wild card in 2012, the 2015 Houston Astros (86-76) are the only team to make the playoffs by winning fewer than 87 games. But there are other recent examples, outside of the wild-card realm. The 2006 Cardinals won the World Series after winning just 83 games. One year earlier, the San Diego Padres won the NL West with a 82-80 record.
More than most teams, the Royals understand the value of a wild-card spot. Three years ago, they finished 89-73, earned a home game at Kauffman Stadium, and raced all the way to Game 7 of the World Series after defeating the Oakland A’s in an epic thriller.
There is value in reaching the dance, Yost says. Just find a way.
The March to October
To win a wild-card spot and make the postseason for the third time in four years, the Royals will likely need to win at least 84 or 85 games. That would require a record of 22-17 or 23-16 over their last 39 games, starting August 22 against Colorado. Here’s a look at their remaining schedule:
Cleveland Indians (7)
Minnesota Twins (7)
Detroit Tigers (6)
Chicago White Sox (6)
Colorado Rockies (3)
Tampa Bay Rays (3)
Toronto Blue Jays (3)
Arizona Diamondbacks (3)
New York Yankees (1)