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Another look at the changes in playoff odds

We are almost through two months of the season. Time for another look at changes in playoff odds. Who has risen the most? Who has fallen the farthest?

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

We are nearing two complete months of baseball in the 2015 season. After the first month I wrote about the movers and shakers in playoff odds, and here I take a look at how those odds have changed after another month. As mentioned in the first installment of this series, the standings won't necessarily end as they are now (in fact they almost certainly won't), but what has happened to date can be used to update the projections of where things will be. The playoff odds reports use each team's year-to-date record, year-to-date run differential, current roster, and playing time projections to simulate the season thousands of times. The end result is an estimate of the chances that each team will make the playoffs.

After two months of play there are a number of teams whose playoff odds have shifted by a considerable margin, from the beginning of the season and/or over the course of the last month. I compared each team's FanGraphs playoff odds (POFF - winning the division or winning a wild card spot; using the projections mode) on May 27th (yesterday) with those given on April 29th, and with those from Opening Day (April 5th). Here I check in on the biggest risers and biggest fallers of the last month (May 27th - April 29th), and note the season-to-date changes that are of interest.

Risers

POFF on April 29th POFF on May 27th Change
Royals 41.7 57.0 15.3

The regression that I suggested was in store for the Royals when they had the biggest positive change in playoff odds after one month has yet to show up. They are beating good teams (16-12 v. ≥ .500), bad teams (12-5 v. ≤ .500) and they are doing it in much the same way that they did over the first month. The Royals and their make-contact-offense are second in the AL in runs scored per game (4.7). Royals hitters are striking out in a league low 14.7% of their plate appearances, and are still finding holes in the defense when they make contact (.316 BABIP). To go along with their above average offense, the Royals have been tops in run prevention. They give up the second fewest runs per game in the AL (3.7). They may not be striking out many of their opponents (17.7 K% ranks 26th in the game), but they are limiting damage on balls in play (league low .263 BABIP). As was discussed ad nauseam last season, the Royals front office has assembled a very strong defense and if it can continue to support the not-so-great rotation then the Royals could be headed for another trip to the postseason. A group of Beyond the Box Score writers seem to be pretty confident that will be the case.

POFF on April 29th POFF on May 27th Change
Twins 1.9 18.8 16.9

The Twins have posted an 18-6 month of May, are 28-18 overall and just one game back of the Royals in the AL Central. However, according to BaseRuns (an estimator of how many runs a team should have scored and allowed based on component statistics) they are playing well above their heads. BaseRuns has them as a 19-26 team, which means that they have earned 8 wins through what amounts to luckily clustering hits. The offense has been below average (94 wRC+), and the pitching has been around average (99 ERA-), which, when combined, should not result in a .607 winning percentage. While they make the list as a big riser for the month of May, they still have the fourth lowest odds in their own division, trailing the Royals, Tigers, and Cleveland.

POFF on April 29th POFF on May 27th Change
Nationals 79.6 97.7 18.1

After a rough first month that had the Nationals on the biggest fallers side of the playoff odds report, a strong second month (17-6) has them back to the level at which they began the year (POFF on April 5th : 94.5). Having Denard Span (144 wRC+ in 132 PA) back in the lineup everyday, complimenting the other-worldly Bryce Harper (217 wRC+) has been a big boost. Overall the offense has been similar across April and May (103 and 113 runs scored, respectively), but the defense has been the real difference (107 and 84 runs allowed, respectively). The Nationals' rotation is arguably the best in the game, but the supporting defense hurt them in April. The 66.6% defensive efficiency they posted in April has jumped to ~ 69.9% for the month of May. This increased efficiency is reflected in unearned runs totals: in 23 games in April they had 24 unearned runs, and in the 23 games since they have only allowed 4 unearned runs. The Nationals are a really good team that got off to a slow start, but are now playing more like what was expected.

POFF on April 29th POFF on May 27th Change
Giants 12.9 40.0 27.1

The Giants were considered the third best team in the National League West before the season began. The Dodgers were the clear favorite and the Padres big offseason had them looking like a real contender. This expectation remained after the first month, as the Dodgers (13-8) and Padres (11-12) played better than the Giants (9-13). But in May the Giants have been a significant force (18-7). They have scored 129 runs, posting the best offense at 126 wRC+. Getting Hunter Pence back was a solid addition, but getting major contributions from Brandon Belt (81 wRC+ in April, 189 wRC+ in May) and Buster Posey (105, 170, respectively) has been critical for their success. It is also nice that Madison Bumgarner has bested Clayton Kershaw in each of their three head-to-head matchups, allowing only 3 runs in his 20.2 innings pitched against the Dodgers' lineup that has been as potent as the 1927 Yankees. Despite this being an odd year, the Giants and their 40% playoff odds (6th in the NL) look to be in the mix.

POFF on April 29th POFF on May 27th Change
Astros 32.1 62.9 30.8

The Astros were not supposed to win the World Series until 2017, and while they still could be there in 2017 they are making a real push in 2015. The Astros had the biggest jump in playoff odds in May, and own the biggest jump on the season (+ 48.3% from Opening Day). Overall the offense has been average (100 wRC+), but what they have done really well is hit the ball out of the park. The Astros have knocked 14.9% of their fly balls far enough to clear the fence for their 65 home runs, a mark that leads baseball. As their league-leading 47.37% Guillen Number shows, the Astros rely heavily on the home run for their run scoring, which could be a problem. But in this era of short(er)-sequence offense it may be just fine. If they can improve on their .304 on-base percentage (ranks 23rd in the game), they could really pile on runs. The thing that has really pushed the Astros to the top of the standings though is their pitching and defense. They have posted a 3.53 ERA, which is 11% better than average, and right in line with their fielding-independent number (3.55 FIP). In the offseason the Astros made a couple of additions to their bullpen that seemed to run counter to commonly accepted approaches to team building where the bullpen has often been a final piece of the puzzle. But so far those additions have looked great, as the bullpen has been dominant and a real key to the team's success.

Fallers

POFF on April 29th POFF on May 27th Change
Marlins 16.2 3.6 -12.6

Maybe the issue in Miami was not Mike Redmond. The Marlins were 16-22 under Redmond (.421 winning percentage), and since installing General Manager Dan Jennings as the manager have been 2-7 (.222 winning percentage). Now, obviously they will not continue to be a .222 team, but the performance in the nine games under Jennings at some level illustrates that the issue with this team is the players on it and not manager leading them. Jennings, the GM version, is responsible for adding players like Michael Morse (55 wRC+), Martin Prado (86), Ichiro Suzuki (92), Mat Latos (158 ERA-), and Jarred Cosart (105) to the team. They have all performed below average, and frankly it was not all that difficult to anticipate that this would be the case. I am not sure there was not much Mike Redmond could have done to make this group overachieve. After two months of play the Marlins are in a deep hole and Jennings, the manager version, will need to demonstrate the sort of wizardry in the dugout he apparently expects from a manager to make these players perform. If he can't, and it seems doubtful he can, they are headed for another disappointing season.

POFF on April 29th POFF on May 27th Change
Mets 53.0 36.8 -16.2

Last month all was well in in New York when it came to baseball-related matters, as the Mets and Yankees were both top risers in playoff odds. A month later the Mets find themselves on the biggest fallers list, and the Yankees are barely treading water in an ugly American League East. In Queens, the call-up of Noah Syndergaard was cause for excitement, but not too long afterward the news that of David Wright's medical condition that could jeopardize his season, and maybe career, brought things crashing down. In May the offense has posted a paltry .231/.294/.348 line that has led to a mere 76 runs in their 24 games this month. Lucas Duda is still hitting well, and Bartolo Colon is still getting batters out with fastballs, but otherwise they have been a middling bunch. The Mets 11-13 month, coupled with the Nationals strong play, has their playoff odds back to around where they were to start the year (32.2%).

POFF on April 29th POFF on May 27th Change
Padres 41.2 20.3 -20.9

Much of the Padres slide is related to the Giants rise. By wins and losses the Padres have had basically identical months: 11-12 in April, 11-13 in May. The Giants going 18-7 in May has really impacted the Padres outlook. They are now 5.0 games back of the Giants in the NL West standings, and clumped in with teams like the Mets, Pirates, Cubs and Braves in the Wild Card race. Much was made of the Padres after their wild offseason, but lost in a lot of that excitement was the fact that this team still has major problems, most notably on defense. It appeared as though the plan for building this team was to get guys who can mash, and hope the defense avoided being a total disaster. That plan could work, but it certainly won't if the mashing part does not happen, and so far it has not happened: the Padres offense has posted a 92 wRC+. They need to start hitting better to get those playoff odds turned back in the positive direction.

POFF on April 29th POFF on May 27th Change
Athletics 27.8 5.1 -22.7

The Athletics, Mariners, and Angels were expected to be the contending teams in the AL West. Then the Astros surged to the top of the standings, and the 17-31 Athletics have fallen to the bottom, already facing an ominous task to get back into contention. The Athletics run differential (-4) suggests that they have been unlucky, and should actually be a lot closer to a 24-24 team. According to BaseRuns the Athletics should be a 27-21 team. That is a difference of 10 wins! Basically the Athletics have not been good at turning their offensive events into runs, and preventing opponents' events from becoming runs. The A's are 2-14 in 1-run games, a record that is at least partly a result of a remarkably junky bullpen that has posted a 4.93 ERA (4.37 FIP), and had 27 meltdowns (shifts in win probability of at least -6%). Things like bullpen performance and clustering hits together appropriately are often very random, which makes looking for solutions very hard. It could bounce back for the Athletics, but they have really dug themselves a hole and the unexpectedly strong play of the division-rival Astros and Rangers has taken a huge chunk out of their playoff odds.

POFF on April 29th POFF on May 27th Change
Red Sox 65.9 40.5 -25.4

Full disclosure: I am a Red Sox fan and have watched almost all of their games. They are not fun to watch. They just got swept by the juggernaut Minnesota Twins, dropping them to 3-7 in their last 10 games. In May they have scored 2.8 runs per game, and allowed 4.16. David Ortiz looks old (.298 wOBA, 85 wRC+), Hanley Ramirez' shoulder is more hurt than he is letting on and it has sapped his power (.326 isolated power pre-injury; .044 post-injury), Joe Kelly can't harness his potential, apparently misses Yadier Molina, may be set for a demotion to the bullpen or even Pawtucket, and on and on I could go. But before I go much further down the rabbit-hole describing this team's deficient play, I should note that at 40.5% odds the Red Sox are still expected to be a contender. Unlike some of the other divisions, there is not a team in the AL East that has played well to put considerable room between it and the others in the standings, so the Sox can still emerge from the muck to play meaningful games in October. There are too many good players on the roster with solid track records for them to continue playing like they have.

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Playoff odds are an interesting way to get an overview of trends in performance. At this point in the season, preseason projections will still carry much of the weight in the playoff odds projection, but we still see the large shifts that can occur after only a month or two of ball. The next month will bring about another set of changes for these (and maybe other) rising and falling teams.

For a table with the playoff odds changes for all teams sorted by seaon-to-date change click here.

For a downloadable .csv with the data used in this article click here.

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Chris Teeter is a featured writer and editor at Beyond the Box Score. He is also a contributor at BP Boston. You can follow him on Twitter at @c_mcgeets.