The Seattle Mariners won their fourth straight game on Friday night, picking up four runs against the Chicago White Sox’ one. Hisashi Iwakuma and Jose Quintana started out locked in a tight pitcher’s duel, but then Mike Zunino and his three-run homer happened in the bottom of the fifth. The Mariners beat a team they never seem to beat, twice in a row, and seem to have revitalized their efforts to make the postseason. Thing is, they’ve picked up no ground with their hot streak.
Kansas City won their fifth straight game last night to keep up their own winning ways. The Royals have been holding tight to the last wild card spot, if only by a tiny margin. The New York Yankees won another game as well, making it three in a row to keep pace with the M’s. Toronto lost to fall a whole game back, which seems like a lot more than one game given the closeness of these four teams. Seattle’s winning streak hasn’t pushed them any closer to the playoffs – they’ve merely kept their heads above water.
Using run differential to project the outcome of the wild card race makes one thing clear – the Mariners are still favorites. As they should be – they’ve got elite run prevention, and none of the Toronto/New York/Kansas City trifecta really has elite anything. Seattle’s run differential points to them being the best team in the race. FanGraphs hosts playoff odds projections that are a bit more advanced in their formulation, and sure enough, the Mariners are far and away the favorites for the AL’s last playoff spot. The math is on our side. But the math isn’t everything.
Projections can not, should not, and do not factor in random variation and luck to their calculations. There are ways of telling what is more or less likely to happen over a series of games, but there’s no way to know. Weird stuff happens all the time. Baseball is a strange, crazy game. But you knew that, of course. It’s just a quirk of the sport we know and love: over 162 games, anything can happen.
The Mariners need to play up to their strengths and get a little lucky along the way. Right now the Kansas City Royals, a team who just started Erik Kratz at DH, are winning every day and propelling themselves into playoff position. The Blue Jays have Munenori Kawasaki and Ryan Goins going for them nearly every day. The Yankees entire starting rotation is on the DL. But the M’s are lucky to have been winning with the likes of Endy Chavez and friends for so long, so it’s not hard to say all the WC2 contenders have been benefiting from random chance.
Tonight at 6:10 the Mariners will throw James Paxton against Hector Noesi. Noesi’s been terrible against every team in baseball in his career except – you guessed it – the Mariners. It’s always a nice surprise when the Mariners beat the White Sox, but this game feels like a particular long shot. Because Noesi’s the worst pitcher they’ll face, something strange is gonna happen. Because Noesi was famously bad with the Mariners, he’s almost certain to crush the Mariners.
The Yankees and Blue Jays already played today, with New York losing and Toronto winning. KC’s got James Shields on the mound, so odds are the Mariners are going to need a win to stay within a game. If the Royals lose and the Mariners win, the Mariners would be in sole possession of that last playoff spot. Which would be kind of cool.