Why the Padres have become underdogs in the NL wild card race

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The San Diego Padres at this writing hold a one-game lead for the second NL wild card spot — i.e., the last NL postseason berth. Thanks to the impressive seasons from both the Giants and Dodgers, winning the division or climbing into the top wild card spot is nigh impossible for the Padres right now, so this is their only path toward a second straight playoff trip and the chance to make good on all their recent roster investments. Having a lead of any kind when you’re shins-deep in September is a good thing. For San Diego, such comforts are offset by the fact that the remaining schedule puts them at a serious disadvantage. 

The Padres have been operating under these conditions for a while — that’s the nature of playing an unbalanced schedule in a division as tough as the NL West — but things are perhaps even more extreme over the final 25 games of the season. Consider the following: 

  • In terms of opponents’ average win percentage, the Padres have the toughest remaining schedule in all of baseball. Per Tankathon, their average opponent the rest of the way has a win percentage of .592. In 2021 terms, that’s like playing the Astros or Brewers every game for the remainder of the regular season. 
  • For some context, the next toughest schedule belongs to the Diamondbacks, and their opponents have an average win percentage of .554. In other words, the Padres not only have the toughest remaining schedule, they also have the toughest remaining schedule by a wide margin. 
  • Specifics: The Padres’ 25 remaining games come against the Angels (two games), the Dodgers (six games), the Giants (10 games), the Braves (four games), and the Cardinals (three games). So after they wrap up with the Angels on Wednesday, they’ll play the two best teams in the NL for sixteen games, the NL East leaders for four, and the contending Cardinals for three. 
  • The Dodgers and Giants figure to be fighting it out for the NL West title the entire way, and the stakes for winning the division versus a wild card spot are very high. As such, the Padres probably won’t catch L.A. or San Fran in a diminished “rest up for the playoffs” state in many or even any of their games. 
  • Of those 25 remaining games, 16 are on the road. The Padres this season are 43-30 at home but just 30-34 in road games. 

But wait: It gets worse! Right now, the Reds trail the Padres by only one game in the race for the second and final NL wild card spot. The Phillies are next in line at two games back of San Diego. Speaking of those two squads, the Phillies have the easiest remaining schedule in all of baseball (opponents’ average win position is .445), and the Reds have the second easiest (opponents’ average win percentage is .450). Think of it, again in 2021 terms, as getting to play the Royals every game. 

This schedule disparity is why the SportsLine Projection System gives the Padres just a 21 percent chance of winning a wild card spot despite the fact that they’re in playoff position right now. The Reds, meantime, get a 43.3 percent chance of being a wild card team. Once you take into account the dockets left to play, the Padres are the underdog. If they defy those expectations and make the postseason, then they’ll have more than earned it. 

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