The Seattle Mariners expect to be in the 2015 playoffs. Management and ownership have said as much, the players seem to feel poised to continue another year of success, and many of us who remember the bitter taste in our mouths after Oakland defeated Texas to secure a playoff spot on the final day of the season feel the same way. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Royals are in the playoffs for the first time in 29 years, playing in the most exciting division series since perhaps 2004, illustrating that unexpected success can translate into something meaningful, luck be damned.
Now the problem with all this is that none of it was supposed to happen. That doesn't undo anything, or make the Mariners or Royals undeserving of what they accomplished this season. But while the Mariners try to add a few pieces to the ship this fall, we are probably going to be hearing a lot about this year's near-unprecedented and outright bizarre collapse of the Texas Rangers, which seemed to leave a gaping crater unattended on the battlefield of the American League ripe for the taking. Or, at least, that's what my gut was telling me on the afternoon of Monday, September 29th.
Now the collapse in Arlington was, by all means, brutal and unrelenting. Even by conservative estimates, the Rangers were projected to be an 80+ win team. Fangraphs WAR projections had them estimated at 89. That's a full 22 wins redistributed throughout the league in a playoff hunt that, with the second Wild Card, goes even deeper than it has ever gone before. So what does this mean for the Mariners? To some, it means this year was a lucky break. That they had their once chance to strike while the Rangers were sleeping, that a team as flawed as they were only gets to sneak into the playoffs with luck and chance. I really don't want this to be the case.
So I thought I'd try a little mental exercise in light of all this. What would happen if we tried to vacuum up those 22 wins back up into the Rangers' bag? This is by no means scientific (if that is even possible), good math, or probably worth anything beyond a scribble on the back of a coaster after one too many consolatory beers following your favorite team's playoff elimination. But by plopping the Rangers back into their expected playoff position, I feel we should get at least a glimmer of an idea of what kind of position the M's would be in without an historic collapse from everyone's favorite division rival.
First, a brief methodological explanation. The Rangers' skid started pretty early, but it didn't get out of hand until a brutal eight-game (ha) losing streak in the middle of June. They were under-performing by the end of May following Prince Fielder's exit on the 22nd, so I started the win additions with June 1st as a clean cutoff date, and tried to end before their encouraging 13-3 end to the season (though I had to add two losses into that). I averaged out over the 106 post-June games to add a win around every five or so days, so the additions were both random and set to the schedule, favoring no one. I also avoided any interleague games because there is no way I'm doing all that math for a goofy thought experiment.
So here it is:
At first glance, it should be obvious that changes favored the AL West, and that few teams were dramatically impacted by redistributing wins. And this turns the AL West into that old familiar order of LAA/Texas/Oakland/SEA/Houston that we unfortunately have mapped out like it's carved into the back of the Rosetta stone. But it starts to get a little more interesting when you take the broader Wild Card picture into consideration. Here is what we would be looking at in this scenario, even though only a few teams were impacted beyond an absolute minor change in record:
Well this is interesting. All the Division winners remain the same, Oakland and Kansas City still hold Wild Card spots, and somehow, the Mariners still finished right next to the Wild Card just like they did in real life. Now, there are many reasons for ending up at this result: the impossibility of retroactively retooling a season, this being a stupid experiment, that wins should have been added up somehow differently, and perhaps most importantly, that the inter-division battles aren't nearly as important as they used to seem.
But still, this should be encouraging, and hopefully enlightening. There may be a strain of people warning about the Rangers coming back next year, and chalking this year's Mariners team up to the embodiment of luck and good timing. But even with the Rangers at their projected competency, in at least one possible scenario, the M's are still only three wins out of the playoffs. Three wins that can easily be added in this offseason, with ownership apparently ready to spend more money. Three wins that easily fall within the realm of statistical aberration that could end up putting the Mariners only one win out of the playoffs.
The above exercise ignores a lot of other contextual events that made 2014 what it was: an equally surprising Red Sox collapse, mediocre seasons from Tampa Bay and the Yankees, and so on. But good teams should be built to withstand a number of different outcomes rather than lucking into success: and it seems at least possible here that the Mariners are just that.
The Seattle Mariners expect to be in the 2015 playoffs. I think they may actually be closer than many people realize.