The NL wild-card race has thinned out a bit since I last checked in on it. The Rockies, Brewers and Diamondbacks each suffered extended slumps in late August and early September to fall out of even marginal contention. The Braves’ chances are mostly on life support now that Chipper Jones, with whom they were a different team, is likely out for the season. Any chance they have comes down to going at least 5-1 this week on a homestand against the Phillies and Marlins.

The Braves’ situation indicates a key element in this race: the schedule. All wins count the same, of course, but at this point an edge has to go to teams that have the chance to make up ground directly on the leaders. That means getting to play the Padres, who have gone 14-7 since August 17 to establish a 2 1/2-game lead over the pack. Pitching and defense have driven that run: the Pads have allowed just 72 runs in those 21 games, with their bullpen in particular shutting down the opposition.

The problem for the six teams chasing the Padres is that the schedule doesn’t afford much opportunity to make up ground on them. After a trip to Cincinnati this week, the Padres do not play another wild-card contender this year. They have four games at Dodger Stadium–which will go a long way towards settling the NL West race–seven with the Diamondbacks and three each with the Pirates and Cardinals. It’s a difficult schedule: 14 of 20 games on the road, with only three games at home against the Pirates a soft touch, but it mostly keeps the Padres away from the other contenders. The Giants, who just took two of three from the Padres to move into a tie for second in the race, are similarly situated: they have no games with wild-card contenders, and three with the Dodgers on the last weekend of the season.

As you work down the list you see a few more games among the group, most notably six between the Marlins and Phillies and three Reds’ series with the Pads, Astros and Marlins. It’s just not as incestuous a closing schedule as you might hope for; it’s one that’s going to lead to a lot more scoreboard-watching and hoping than head-to-head confrontations.

Last week, I was asked on air who my pick was to emerge from the chaos. I hemmed and hawed, having buried the Diamondbacks without really settling on a favorite in their absence. I finally picked the Padres, mostly because they had a lead and were playing the best ball at that moment. Four days later, I’m inclined to stick with that assessment, albeit unenthusiastically. The Padres are certainly not a sexy team; they don’t feature any one great element that gets you excited about their chances, they’re an older team, and they don’t carry any notable storylines. And as with the rest of the candidates, they’re not that good a team: they’re on pace to win 84 or 85 games, which wouldn’t normally get a team to October but may be enough this year.

The Padres’ key strength is their bullpen. It’s second only to the Mets in the NL in Expected Wins Added and Adjusted Runs Prevented. Trevor Hoffman gets the saves and the accolades, but it’s the no-names around him that have driven the team’s success. Cla Meredith, Jon Adkins and Scott Cassidy have all been brought in for next to nothing and bolstered the back of the pen. If the Padres do reach October, a big part of the credit will have to go to the management team that brought these guys in and got good work from them. Their rotation has also been effective: second in MLB in Support-Neutral Value behind the work of Chris Young and Jake Peavy, whose peripherals are completely disconnected from his ERA this year. They’re not deep, although Clay Hensley has settled into the #3 slot and pitched well in the second half.

The Padres’ run prevention is helped by the best defense in the game, at least by Defensive Efficiency. There’s enough of a park effect in Petco that you can debate whether they actually have the best glovework, but it’s apparent that the Padres have an above-average defense. The additions of Mike Cameron and Adrian Gonzalez, along with having a healthy Dave Roberts all year, have all helped the team’s range.

At the plate, the Padres are essentially average, with a middle-of-the-pack VORP ranking. What they lack in big bats-their top hitters are clustered between two and three wins above replacement at the plate-they make up for in depth, as no current regulars are below a .263 EqA. Importing Todd Walker and Russell Branyan has upgraded the offense at third base while also allowing Bruce Bochy to sit Josh Barfield against tough right-handers and getting Vinny Castilla and Eric Young off the roster. The Padres were in position to trade some defense for offense, and getting Walker and Branyan on the field does that.

The Padres’ edge over the field is that they’re a complete team. While they don’t do any one things spectacularly well, they don’t have the reasons to pick against that show up throughout the list. The Giants are old and slow, and have OBP problems at a number of lineup spots; the Reds started Sun-Woo Kim last week…and at that, only because Jason Johnson couldn’t take his turn. The Phillies have a thin pitching staff and no third baseman. The Marlins’ collective youth is a concern; most of their roster is used to being home by now, and their pitchers are almost all above career highs in innings pitched. The Astros have too many lineup zeroes.

The Padres just run a decent lineup out there, get effective starting pitching and don’t lose games in the bullpen. It’s been enough to get them a 2 ½-game lead with 20 games to play, and if they can leave Cincinnati Thursday with that intact, it will be very hard for anyone to catch them over the last few weeks.

Here are the PECOTA-adjusted postseason odds for the seven teams remaining in the wild-card race:

             Division     Wild Card     Overall
Padres          27.2%         36.8%       63.9%
Phillies         none         14.5%       14.5%
Giants           3.4%         10.3%       13.8%
Astros          10.7%          2.4%       13.0%
Reds             8.0%          4.6%       12.6%
Marlins          none          7.4%        7.4%
Braves           none          2.1%        2.1%

Some percentages don't add up due to rounding.

As you can see, the Padres are a clear favorite, with a better shot at the playoffs than the six other teams combined. The Phillies, Giants, Astros and Reds are essentially tied, with the Marlins and Braves the long shots. The gap between the Phillies and Marlins may seem wide given that they have the same record, but remember that these are the PECOTA-adjusted percentages, which reflect that the Marlins have overperformed their projections all year long. There’s also the Phillies’ edge in run differential; they’ve outscored their opponents by 23 runs, while the Marlins have been dead even this year.

Just eyeballing the Adjusted Standings Report produces no surprises. Unlike in the AL, where the Indians are probably worth a two-part, Jazayerli-level analysis all their own, the NL teams are largely performing according to their underlying indicators, the Reds excepted. (Something in the water in Ohio, I guess.) The Padres are the leader in third-order record among the wild-card contenders, and in fact their edge would grow to 3 ½ games over the Rockies if the all that mattered was Clay Davenport’s computer.

All signs point to San Diego. I wouldn’t take that to the bank-not given the Padres’ schedule and the general unpredictability of three weeks of baseball-but as we come into the homestretch, they have to be the favorite.

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