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McGuinness: Taking stock of the MLB postseason race

There are few moments as exciting on the sports calendar as the final three weeks of an MLB season. The everyday nature of the sport captivates the emotions of fans and their teams whose destinations after the regular season ends on Oct. 5 remain unknown. Add in an extra wild card spot in each league to expand the number of teams still in the mix and the importance of finishing top-two in each league to avoid the expanded best-of-three Wild Card round, and there’s even more intensity than ever.

So, with just 20 days remaining in the 2022 season, now is as good a time as any to review where the key races stand. And there are a lot of them. Only one team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, has already punched their postseason ticket. A few others — namely the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros, and New York Yankees — are all but assured to join them. But even those teams have plenty to play for down the stretch.

The West divisions in both leagues are all the easiest to analyze. The Dodgers have officially clinched the NL West pennant, their ninth in the last 10 seasons. The Houston Astros, who have won the AL West four of the past five seasons, won’t be far behind. They currently lead the Seattle Mariners by 12.5 games.

Every other division race has at least some intrigue to it. The Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals are looking like the safest bets, with six and and seven game leads over the next closest teams, respectively. The Yankees rebounded in September after a brutal August that saw a once comfortable division lead start to shrink. The Cardinals have been playing outstanding baseball over the last few months, and there’s more drama around whether Albert Pujols can slug three more home runs to reach 700 for his career than their status for the postseason.

Meanwhile, the AL Central and NL East are total dead heats. Cleveland has been in control of the Central for a little while now with the Twins going cold. Meanwhile, the White Sox are looking to avoid being labeled the season’s biggest disappointment, winning 10 of their last 14 to pull within three games of the Guardians. Cleveland’s outstanding pitching could make them a tricky Wild Card round opponent, but the Guardians have to get there first.

Like their New York brethren, the Mets have seen a once comfortable division lead dwindle to almost nothing. However, it’s not that the Mets have fallen into a significant slump. Rather, the Braves look simply unbeatable for about the third extended period since May. Both old and new faces have capitulated the Braves up the standings. Plus, two-time All-Star second baseman Ozzie Albies could return from the IL soon. A three-game head-to-head series in Atlanta from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 could decide this race.

As is typical, the tightest races are for Wild Card spots in both leagues. The American League is largely about playing for seeding at this point, although that’s as important as ever since the best Wild Card team will host their first series. That would be especially significant for the Toronto Blue Jays, considering multiple teams have been missing players when going to Toronto throughout the year due to Canada’s vaccine mandate. Toronto’s also on a strong 7-3 run, which is tied for the third best record of any team in their last 10 games.

Just a half game separates Toronto from the Seattle Mariners and Tampa Bay Rays for Wild Card No. 1. The Rays have cooled off a bit after looking like legit challengers to the Yankees for a New York minute. Still, their depth is as outstanding as ever. And they’ll be even more dangerous if they get AL Cy Young contender Shane McClanahan back from injury soon.

Just getting in would be massive for the Mariners, who hold the longest postseason drought in the four major sports dating back to 2001. They came very close last year, missing by just two games. An aggressive offseason and infusion of youth looks like enough to push them over the top. The Baltimore Orioles are the only team within six games of the Mariners and Rays. And while it looks like the young O’s won’t have enough to make the postseason, this is still an incredibly encouraging year after losing 110 games a year ago. They could easily be on the right side of this mix in a similar article next year.

The loser of the Braves-Mets NL East race will almost certainly claim the first Wild Card spot. The other two, however, are still up for grabs. After years of not being able to make a big push from just behind the pack in September, it’s the Phillies who are currently in the best shape. Improved depth and production from their youth have pushed the Phillies, who hold the sport’s second longest postseason drought, to lead the Padres by 1.5 games and the Brewers by 3.5, holding the tiebreaker over both.

San Diego currently sits in the final Wild Card spot one year after missing the postseason in shocking fashion. The Padres are in a bit of a weird spot this year, too. They added star power in Juan Soto and Josh Hader (the latter ironically coming from Milwaukee) and quality depth in Josh Bell and Brandon Drury at the trade deadline. However, with Fernando Tatís Jr’s return spoiled due to suspension, the Padres aren’t as strong as they could be.

However, they’re still in a solid spot. The Brewers are as one-dimensional as any team still in the race. Their starting pitching is still outstanding and Devin Williams is lights out in the bullpen. But their offense lacks star power, with only one player (Hunter Renfroe) sporting an OPS above .800. Like the White Sox, that type of team can be very dangerous in the postseason if the right player or two gets hot. But they have to get there first.

Regardless of the results, it’s shaping up to be an exciting stretch run. At least three spots (AL Central champion, Wild Cards 2-3 in the NL) are undecided. And most of the other nine teams are in legitimate battles for seeding, which again is more important than ever under the new postseason format. All of it will somehow be sorted out in the next three weeks. What happens, of course, remains unknown. But whatever unfolds should be a blast to watch.

Contact Andrew McGuinness at amcguinn@nd.edu.

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Zwiller’s ZeLO Picks: Week 2

Well, Week 1 is officially in the books, and quite honestly, it could not have gone better. And yes, I include the Notre Dame loss in that, if only because ZeLO quite frankly nailed the pick. It still had Ohio State as a favorite, but by less than ESPN and (factoring in home-field advantage) had ND as a 10-point underdog. 

ND aside, ZeLO still had a solid performance. Through the model’s first eighteen games, it went 18-0, catching an unexpected stumble against Old Dominion (as did Virginia Tech). ZeLO closed the weekend going 65-18 and finished with a record of 73-21 (.776%), compared to ESPN’s 79-14 (FPI did not pick UCF). 

If you had told me that ZeLO would finish Week 1 only six games behind FPI, I would have taken it. The fact that the model is even competent is a win; I had no idea how this would go. And yes, ZeLO has some problems and shortcomings; I plan on discussing them later in a separate column. 

Right now, I want to give out some of the model’s picks. Last week’s picks went 3-1, so hopefully I can continue giving out some good ones.  

No. 1 Alabama @ Texas

I wish I could sit here and tell you that ZeLO did not think Alabama was all that impressive and that the spunky, underdog Texas team would knock off Saban’s NFL prep school. Even with home-field advantage (Texas ranks 13th), Alabama still has a 76% chance of victory.

Even though ZeLO has Texas covering, last weekend ZeLO picked a lot more underdog covers than anything else, and since this is Alabama, it would not shock me if Alabama beats the spread by the half. 

No. 24 Tennessee @ No. 17 Pittsburgh

This was a matchup I found interesting, if only because both ESPN and the gambling world were betting on Tennessee. The newly ranked Volunteers are currently a touchdown favorite over No. 17 Pitt. ESPN gives Pitt a 45.9% chance of winning, despite being ranked and at home. 

This is one of the few games — one of seven — where ZeLO disagrees with FPI and has the Panthers as the favorites with a 60.2% chance of victory. Not entirely comforting considering Pitt’s performance last weekend against WVU, but I digress. 

No. 20 Kentucky @ No. 12 Florida

Last week, after barely surviving Utah, the Gators are rewarded with an easier opponent … not much easier when you realize the opponent is also a Top-20 team. From a harder conference, but by poll logic, an easier team nonetheless.

ZeLO currently has Florida as a favorite with a 60.1% chance of staying undefeated, but the model does have Kentucky covering the +4.5 spread, so this should be a fantastic game. 

Arizona State @ No. 11 Oklahoma State

I picked this matchup only because ZeLO is pessimistic about Oklahoma State. 

While ESPN may have its golden child in Texas as the favorite to win the B12, ZeLO has Oklahoma State as one of the Top-3 finishers, with Texas closer to fifth or sixth. 

But as much as ZeLO likes OKSU, one of its more random favorites is Arizona State. Because Arizona State was not atrocious over the four-year sample ZeLO took, and because it had a positive Return+Recruit metric, the Sun Devils ended up being a solid team.  

But back to the game at hand: Considering we just saw OKSU look like it forgot how to play defense against Central Michigan, there might be an opportunity here. 

ZeLO has the Cowboys finding the win with a 50.1% chance of victory, but Arizona State finds a way to cover the 11-point spread. 

No. 9 Baylor @ No. 21 BYU

BYU has been one of the models’ favorite teams since I first started running it back in mid-June. So while I was surprised that BYU was a -3.5 favorite over a Top-10 team in the country, I was not as surprised as I should have been. 

And while this is one of those games where ZeLO seems to like Group 5 (and now independents) more than it should when they play Power 5 teams, ZeLO has BYU as a favorite to beat the Baylor Bears.

And not only is ZeLO giving the Cougars a 63.4% chance to beat Baylor, but it also has them as likely to beat their -3.5 spread.

Marshall @ No. 8 ND

I had two thoughts when I saw the graphic in last Friday’s edition of The Observer. The first was, “Wow, that graphic looks incredible.” The second was, “Good lord — I hope that pick is correct.”

The only way to lose credibility faster than picking against the home team in the home team’s newspaper is to pick against the home team in the home team’s newspaper and be wrong. 

Thankfully (or not, depending on how much you love ND), ZeLO was right and spared me the misfortune of picking wrong against ND. 

This week, though, to fulfill my contractual obligation of talking about ND, I must warn you that Notre Dame is facing … another loss. 

I’m kidding, I’m kidding; I just did that to see if you were paying attention. 

No, in reality, ND has a 62.5% chance of beating the Thundering Herd. And while yes, that seems low, that’s because I’m still working off my original projections for the season.

This is because in the past, when I have run ZeLO for the NFL, if you use Week 1 results your predictions get a little … weird. 

For example, last year’s Week 1 gave us the shocking result of Green Bay 3 and New Orleans 38. If I tried shoving that result into the model and the other random results (like the Eagles beating the Falcons 32-6), Week 2 would be bizarre. 

So, I trust my forecasting is somewhat good until four weeks into the season when hopefully, all the quirks have evened out. 

The same rule will apply here. So, ND is a little undervalued and Marshall is probably a little overvalued. ND should win, but Marshall should cover the 20-point spread. 

No. 10 USC @ Stanford

ZeLO already dunked on LSU once, so why not give it a chance to dunk on another team unpopular in South Bend? ZeLO has not once been a fan of the Trojans and will not become a fan until Week 4 at the earliest. I did not make a coaching adjustment this offseason, and USC has had no significant changes beyond its recruiting class adjustment. 

So while yes, ZeLO has a win for the Trojans, when they face a conference foe in Stanford, it will be a lot less likely than you think, 56.6%. Stanford does get the cover, though. 

Tom Zwiller

Contact Tom at tzwiller@nd.edu