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3 teams fighting for the last AL playoff berth

It’s a three-way fight in the American League for just one spot in the postseason

Detroit Tigers v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

There is less than one month remaining in the season and the hunt for October is well underway. Five teams from each league will end up playing at least one game more. The three division winners are guaranteed a five-game series, while the two remaining teams in the league with the best records will play against each other for the right to take on the team with the best overall record. That will begin Tuesday, October 4th.

This will be the fifth postseason in which the second wild card team is included. Brought about in 2012, the second wild card berth was introduced to make the playoff race even more exciting down the stretch.

In the previous four seasons, two wild card teams have made it to the World Series—the Giants and Royals in 2014. The Giants—the eventual winners—were technically a ‘second’ wild card team as well, showing that the inclusion of teams that wouldn’t have made it before has already bore fruit.

While there is still plenty of baseball left to play—roughly 15 percent of the season still remains—much of the postseason picture has already filled out. However, according to FanGraphs’ playoff odds, we can make the pencil at least a little bit darker on some teams.

According to FanGraphs, the Rangers have the best odds—as good as it gets in fact—with a 100 percent chance of making the playoffs. With due respect to the Astros, the likelihood of the Rangers winning the division is only slightly lower at 99.6 percent.

Next to the AL West, the AL Central is the most locked-up with the Indians holding a 91.1 percent chance of winning the division and 98.2 percent chance of making the playoffs.

In all likelihood, at least two postseason spots are spoken for by teams from the AL East. The likely candidates being the Red Sox at 84.3 percent and the Blue Jays at 82.7 percent. Despite the Orioles being just one game back, the Red Sox and Blue Jays combine for 87.3 percent of the division odds.

That’s four spots and there’s only one more the American League has to offer. Here’s how the race for that spot looks with just over 20 games remaining:

Detroit Tigers - 50.4 percent

At 75-63, the Tigers snuck up on the postseason conversation. When the calendar turned over to June, the Tigers were fourth in their division and had a .481 winning percentage.snuck up on the

Since then however, the team has gone 51-36 and, for a while, looked like they would present a formidable challenge to the upstart Indians for the division. FanGraphs pins the probability of the Tigers winning the division now at just 8.4 percent. While 4.5 games back from the division lead doesn’t sound like much, with just 24 games remaining, the Indians actually have a sizeable lead.

The Tigers have had great production from Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera, and J.D. Martinez at the plate. On the pitching side, the rookie sensation Michael Fulmer has dazzled while Justin Verlander is doing Verlander things again.

The Tigers’ remaining opponents are the Orioles, Twins, Royals, Indians, and their season concludes with inter-league play against the Braves—the last games that will be played at Turner Field. Depth Charts—FanGraphs’ projections—does include schedule outlook, so it is worth looking at ease of schedule down the stretch. Considering that 10 of the Tigers remaining 24 games will be played against the Twins or Braves, it makes sense that the probabilities seem to be in their favor.

Baltimore Orioles - 48.9 percent

The crazy thing about the Tigers having a higher playoff probability than the Orioles is that the Orioles currently occupy a postseason spot.

The Orioles have been leading the AL East—until very recently—pretty much all season. At 76-62, they are just one game back of both the Red Sox and Blue Jays who are tied for the division lead. Since losing the division lead on August 13th, the Orioles have remained in the race, but have never reclaimed the first-place spot.

While pitching has been an issue this season, the Orioles have outperformed their expectations and peripherals throughout the summer. The team leads the league in home runs at 218 though, and are slugging themselves to postseason relevance. Six players have hit 20 or more home runs for them this season with offseason acquisition Mark Trumbo leading the pack in one of his best seasons yet. Chris Davis is proving once again that 2014 was the outlier year, while Manny Machado is blooming as a legitimate MVP candidate.

The Orioles don’t have an especially difficult schedule ahead either, but arguably play in a tougher division than the Tigers. With 24 games remaining, the Orioles main opponents are the Tigers, Red Sox, Rays, Diamondbacks, Blue Jays, and their season wraps up in the Bronx against the Yankees. The Yankees have proven to be a difficult team since the trade deadline, and the Orioles’ playoff hopes could come down to that series. Over the past two series against each other, the Orioles and Yankees have split it even, 3-3.

Houston Astros - 24.2 percent

Ah, the Astros. The team that arrived one year early last year appears to be going through some growing pains. The narrative would be a lot different though if they just managed a mere .500 record to start the season.

After starting the season 7-17 in April, many pundits lost all hope in the Astros. Remember though, that’s the same month the Chicago White Sox—now 66-72 and all the way out of it—went 17-8. If the Astros managed just a .500 record in April, they would be sitting at 79-59 instead of 74-64. That would put them just 3.5 games back of the division lead, and firmly in the Wild Card lead.

Alas, the season doesn’t ride on ‘ifs and ands’. Thanks to a late season surge—or exorcism of bad luck depending on your outlook—the Astros look like the team we were expecting. Since May, they boast a 50-35 record, and appear to be in the conversation. Unfortunately though, it could be too little too late, as they have the lowest fathomable—though still believable—probabilities in the majors.

Jose Altuve has become a slugger now, Carlos Correa appears immune to the sophmore slump, and George Springer is continuing a steady arc toward stardom. On the pitching side, Dallas Keuchel is by no means his Cy Young form but is still excellent and Collin McHugh is battling some horrendous BABIP luck and mostly overcoming.

Down the stretch, the Astros will face the Indians, Cubs, Rangers, Mariners, Athletics, and Angels. To be clear, that’s three division leaders including the best team in all of baseball. That being said, their season wraps up with 10 of 13 games coming against sub-.500 teams. If the Astros get hot at the right moment, they could carry that momentum onward and upward. But it could be too little, too late.

Of course, these aren’t the only teams vying for playoff spots still. All three of the Royals, Yankees, and Mariners have non-zero odds; they just aren’t especially high. At 4.7 percent, the Royals have the best chance of upsetting this article’s premonitions. The Yankees are just a smidge lower at 4.6 percent, while the Mariners should be the choice for the fan with the rooting interest in the supreme underdog: their odds are at 2.1 percent.

Those probabilities largely amount to doomsday scenarios in which multiple teams fall completely out of contention with legendary losing streaks though. Regardless though, these will be the most interesting contests to watch heading into the postseason.