The easiest and most difficult roads ahead for MLB playoff hopefuls
With just over three weeks to go in the regular season, the wild-card picture remains unsettled. The same can be said for the races in the NL West and East. Many factors will determine what teams make the playoffs, but the schedule is one critical element.
The Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies have a favorable schedule, but on the other hand, the San Diego Padres, among others, face a brutal stretch of games.
Here's a look at the easiest remaining schedules (opponent winning percentage below .480) and the most difficult (opponent winning percentages of .520 or greater) for the September sprint to the finish.
Philadelphia Phillies (Remaining opponent winning percentage: .430)
Three-and-a-half games behind the Braves entering Friday, the Phillies have a dream schedule in their effort to win the weakest division in baseball. A division title might be their only chance at reaching the postseason.
The Phillies play only one more opponent - the Braves - with a winning record. Philadelphia enjoys three-game slates with the Orioles, Marlins, and Cubs, and a four-gamer with the Pirates - some of the worst teams in the majors. They also play a series against the Mets, who are hovering around .500.
Bryce Harper owns a 198 wRC+ over his last 30 days and is enjoying his best season since his 2015 NL MVP campaign. Perhaps he and a favorable schedule can carry the Phillies into the postseason where starting pitchers Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola could make the Phillies dangerous in a short series.
Cincinnati Reds (.449)
The Reds are not as talented as the Padres - Cincinnati has a plus-31 run difference to the Padres' plus-74 - but they have a much easier schedule and trail the Padres by just a game.
The Reds play the Pittsburgh Pirates nine more times this season - the benefits of playing in the NL Central - and also have a four-game set against the dismantled Washington Nationals. The Reds have the easiest path to facing the San Francisco Giants or Los Angeles Dodgers in the wild-card game.
Boston Red Sox (.460)
The Red Sox have been sputtering of late and are dealing with COVID-related absences, but they have six games left against the Baltimore Orioles and three games against the Nationals. The New York Yankees have their own issues after being swept by Toronto earlier this week, but face a slightly more difficult schedule (.489).
Toronto Blue Jays (.470)
The Blue Jays' recent surge combined with their remaining schedule places them in an excellent position to capture a postseason spot.
The Jays have 13 remaining contests against the Orioles and Minnesota Twins, games that could help them not just capture a postseason berth but line up Robbie Ray for a play-in game start. Capturing the top wild-card spot for home-field advantage at a raucous Rogers Centre would be meaningful.
Los Angeles Dodgers (.471)
While L.A. will make the postseason, perhaps what could push them ahead of the Giants (.483) is a slightly easier schedule. The difference between the two teams is the Dodgers get three more games against the lowly Arizona Diamondbacks and the Giants face the Padres 10 more times. Meanwhile, the Dodgers face the Padres six more times. L.A. has been an unlucky team, and their expected record suggests they should be six games better, but perhaps the schedule will allow them to catch up.
Atlanta Braves (.478)
The Phillies have the easiest path remaining, but the Braves entered Friday with a 3 1/2-game lead in the East and a favorable schedule of their own with games against the Diamondbacks, Rockies, and Marlins. FanGraphs.com gives the Braves an 80% chance to win the division and the Phillies 17%.
Most difficult schedules
San Diego Padres (Remaining opponent winning percentage: .602)
With their division chances lost, the Padres are fighting the Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals for the final wild-card spot. However, they have a brutal path to get there. They have the most difficult remaining schedule, facing the Giants 10 times and the Dodgers six, in addition to series against the Braves and Cardinals. They do not face a team with a losing record.
One silver lining? The Padres are 34-26 against teams .500 or better this season, the best mark in the NL.
St. Louis Cardinals ( .529)
The Cardinals are long shots and their remaining schedule won't do them any favors. St. Louis will face the Brewers seven more times this month alone. The Cardinals are also dealing with a number of injuries, including ace Jack Flaherty, who is back on the IL after tossing just 76 innings this year.
New York Mets (.522)
Another team perilously close to having their postseason bubble burst, the Mets are in tough the rest of the way. New York faces the Brewers, Red Sox, Yankees, Braves, Cardinals, and Phillies to close out the year. The only team they play with a losing record is the Marlins. The Mets will have to get through some of that stretch, at least, without ace Jacob deGrom (elbow), who is without a timetable to return.
Oakland A's (.510)
The A's made an aggressive move at the trade deadline, sending Jesus Luzardo - who seemed like an untouchable left-handed arm just a year ago - to the Marlins for two months of team control over Starling Marte. At the time of the trade, the A's had a 50% chance of making the postseason, according to FanGraphs - those have since plummeted to 10%. They lost emerging ace Chris Bassitt to a scary injury in August, and have 13 games left against the Astros and Mariners, who are also fighting for a wild-card spot and enjoy an easier schedule (.489).
Travis Sawchik is theScore's senior baseball writer.