The Diamondbacks’ chances of making the playoffs took a big hit when the team went 1-3 against the Reds this week.  Cincinnati is currently in line for the second wild card spot in the National League, and had Arizona swept the series, they would have been just one game back.  Instead, Arizona gears up for its game against the Phillies tonight 7 games out of the playoffs.

It’s not like all is lost, however.  As of today, the playoff odds on generated by Baseball Prospectus give Arizona a 4% chance – but gives the team a playoff probability of 12.4%.  By either measure, Arizona’s chances are not very good, but stranger things have happened – like the Dodgers coming on in the span of two months to go from a 7% chance of making the playoffs as of June 21 to the 100% chance has them at now.

There are two ways for the D’backs to make the postseason, of course – by winning the division, or by picking up a wild card slot.  But winning the division does not seem like a realistic possibility.  With 36 games left to play, Arizona is 9.5 games back from Los Angeles (9 in the loss column), and even if Arizona pulled off an unlikely sweep of the 7 games left against the Dodgers, Arizona would not be favored to win.  So let’s tip our cap to Yasiel Puig and company, and focus here on out on the wild card.

The good thing about the wild card race is that Arizona need not be better than all of the teams ahead in the standings; it would be good enough if just one of those teams failed.  Arizona is one of just six teams in the NL with winning records, and gives the next-best team (Washington) a whopping 1% chance of survival.  Atlanta and Los Angeles will be in the playoffs – the real competition for Arizona is the NL Central collection of Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Cincinnati.

I’ll skip to the conclusion now – for Arizona to make the playoffs, it needs (1) to play quite a bit better the rest of the way, and (2) for someone else to fail.

As to Arizona playing better – losing Cody Ross hurts quite a bit, and Brandon McCarthy looks unlikely to simply shake off his recent struggles.  But despite walking about four guys more than you’d like, Trevor Cahill looked pretty damned good yesterday, and Martin Prado has come on of late to give the team a solid heart of the order with Paul Goldschmidt and Aaron Hill.  And even with 7 games left with L.A., the rest of Arizona’s remaining schedule looks like a feast – the other 29 of the 36 games left on the schedule are against teams with losing records (Phillies, Padres, Giants, Blue Jays, Rockies, Nationals).

As for another team failing – the good thing is that only one of the Pirates, Cardinals or Reds needs to stumble.  And because they’re all from the same division, they may beat up against each other.  Let’s run a few scenarios to see what that means.

Scenario 1

There are 6 Pirates-Cardinals, 6 Pirates-Reds, and 7 Cardinals-Reds games left this season, and all three of those teams have won less than 60% of their games.  The games they play each other mean that if they won 60% of their games against other opponents, they can’t win 60% of their remaining games overall, collectively.

The Pirates have 23 games against other teams.  If they won 14 of those games (61%), they’d be at 89-61.

The Cardinals have 22 games against other teams.  If they won 14 of those games (64%), they’d be at 88-61.

The Reds have 21 games against other teams.  If they won 13 of those games (59%), they’d be at 86-63.

But these teams can’t each win 60% of their games against each other; it’s a zero-sum game.  There are 19 such games, and the wins from those games will get distributed between the three of them (although no team can win more than 13, and the Pirates can win 12, at best).

Since Arizona only needs one of these teams to fail, let’s look at the worst-case scenario – that the three teams split those games as equally as possible.  And to make things worse for Arizona, we’ll give Cincinnati the tie-breakers, since they have the least-best record of the three teams.  That would mean a split of the Pirates-Cardinals (3-3) and Pirates-Reds (3-3) series, with the Reds taking 4 games to the Cards’ 3.  Now how do the records look?

The Pirates go from 89-61 to 95-67.

The Cardinals go from 88-61 to 94-68.

The Reds go from 86-63 to 93-69.

Those are good records, representing a somewhat-likely scenario in which no single team in the NL Central scrum gets beat on by the others, and each of those three teams wins about 60% of the games they have left that are not against each other.

To match the Reds’ mark in that scenario, Arizona would have to win 28 of their remaining 36 games (going 28-8).  That’s not impossible, but it’s not that likely, either.  Arizona could win all 11 of its remaining series and still fall short at 25-11.

Hence, Arizona probably needs things to go sub-optimally for at least one of the NL Central teams.  Scenario 2 is if the Reds lose all their remaining series against the Pirates and Cardinals.

Scenario 2

What if the three NL Central teams each win about 60% of their games not against each other (as in Scenario 1), but one of the teams (preferably the Reds) gets beat up by the other two?

Realistically, let’s say “beat up” means losing between 67-75% of those games.  And let’s be nice to Arizona this time, and make the team that gets beaten up the Reds.  That would mean the Reds take only 2 of their 6 games against the Pirates, and only 2 of their 7 games against the Cardinals.  We’ll say the Pirates and Cardinals split the games they have against each other.  Here’s how that would look:

The Pirates go from 89-61 to 96-66.

The Cardinals go from 88-61 to 96-66.

The Reds go from 86-63 to 90-72.

Well now we’re getting somewhere!  To reach the 90-win mark, Arizona would only have to win 25 of its 36 remaining games (25-11).  That would mean, essentially, winning all 11 of its remaining series, or dropping a couple but sweeping a couple others.  Again, not terribly likely; but quite a lot more possible than in Scenario 2.  I won’t run the numbers for the other two teams, but if, say, the Cardinals lost all 4 of the series they have against the Pirates and Reds, they’d be at 92 wins.  It kind of needs to be the Reds, unless either the Cards or Pirates just get demolished by the other guys.

Scenario 3

What if one of the NL Central teams starts losing a bunch of games?  What if one of the three teams wins only 40% of their remaining games?  Again, that’s not particularly likely, but it’s far from impossible.  Let’s run the numbers then (note: these are really three different scenarios; just like there are only 19 wins available in the games the NL teams play against each other, there are only 19 losses):

The 75-52 Pirates win only 14 of their remaining 35 games (40%), falling to 89-73.

The 74-53 Cardinals win only 14 of their remaining 35 games (40%), falling to 88-74.

The 73-55 Reds win only 14 of their remaining 34 games (41%), falling to 87-75.

Once again, the Reds possibility would be best for Arizona.  But while achieving any of those three records would be difficult for the Diamondbacks, none are impossible; 89 games means 24-12, or two-thirds.  87? Well, 22-14 doesn’t look so terrible, does it?  That would mean winning 61% of games the rest of the way, a relatively modest step up from the 52% winning percentage the team has had up to this point.


The outlook for the rest of the season is not so rosy for Arizona.  In even the most aggressive of predictions, the team still needs to win more than 60% of its games the rest of the way.  And the only way Arizona can win a wild card berth without some help from an NL Central team is to go 28-8 down the stretch.  Time to start watching the scoreboards; realistically, the Diamondbacks needs a pretty huge collapse from either the Pirates, Cardinals or Reds if they’re to avoid watching the NL wild card game from an airport.

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One Response to To Make Playoffs, Arizona Must Play Better — But Only Needs One of Pittsburg, St. Louis, Cincinnati to Fail

  1. Joe says:

    Nice analysis. Although its basically impossible that the NL Central will fail severely considering the Brewers and Cubs are involved in many games as well, its cool you have not given up hope.

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