The Cubs won their 40th game on Monday. 40! That means many things, two of which are 1) the Cubs are a very good baseball team that is winning games at a very high rate; and 2) it's not the beginning of baseball season anymore. 40 is a nice, round number, and seeing it in the win column earlier this week really hammered home where we are in the baseball season. BABIPs are starting to normalize, players have stopped dressing like Arctic explorers for night games, and it feels not entirely unreasonable to start to talk about the playoffs.
Now, it's never too early to talk about the playoffs. Even before the season started, for example, we could tell just by looking at the Cubs that they were probably going to play in October, and the opposite was true of the Phillies. So really what I mean is that we can start talking about how the actual games that have been played this season should impact the preseason predictions. It's not a drastic change—those expectations (and the projections they're based on) carry a little less weight with each game that's played—but in June, they've diminished enough that we can start to talk about the changes that have happened as if they have meaning.
With that in mind, an exercise. The FanGraphs playoff odds graphs take all the things I imprecisely described above and distill them into a set of percentages, updated daily, that take into account the past performance of each team and the projection systems' estimates of their future talent level. The below chart describes where the odds in each division stood on Opening Day, and where they stood through Monday's games, with all the stuff in the middle excised.
Don't focus too much on the precise locations; these were made with what could generously be called inexpert photo alterations. The Nationals are up a bit, and the Mets are down a corresponding bit. The Marlins are hanging on, but also not far from where they started. The Braves and Phillies are the Braves and Phillies.
The aforementioned Cubs were expected to be very good, and they have been. The Cardinals have struggled a bit, and the Pirates have been unable to make up any ground. The Brewers and Reds are the Brewers and Reds.
The first ordinal movement comes in the NL West, with the Dodgers and Giants switching in the top spots. But while Arizona technically had a chance at the beginning of the season, this was always going to be a two-horse race, and it is still a two-horse race.
The AL East easily features the most movement so far, largely from the Orioles jumping and the Yankees falling. The Red Sox have built on their lead, though, and Toronto is still holding on to the second spot. Like the NL West, the overall feel of this division hasn't changed much, just as a five-team race rather than a two-team race.
Nothing has changed in the AL Central, basically. You know about the Twins' terrible, terrible start, and anything interesting about the Royals and projections has already been said several times over. Next slide.
With the AL West comes the payoff for this whole exercise, and, in a broader sense, this whole baseball thing: a division in chaos, and unlike the other divisions in chaos, chaos that looks nothing like we expected it to. On Opening Day, the Rangers and A's had nearly identical playoff odds of about 19 percent; today, the Rangers are sitting atop the division, just over 60 percent, while the A's sit at a measly five percent. The only team below Oakland is the team that began the season just above them, the Angels, but the loss of Garrett Richards and Andrelton Simmons have sent their playoff odds tumbling from 26 percent to three percent. In the middle are Seattle and Houston, and while they haven't moved too much in terms of rank, from first and second to third and second, Seattle's the one who has pushed upward, while Houston, the team that played in the ALDS last year, has seen its odds cut nearly in half.
This is not to say the other divisions haven't been fun. The whole reason for cutting out the process of getting from Opening Day to these points in the graphs above is to hide the fact that every division is fun. In the AL Central, the White Sox's hot start and recent struggles mean their full playoff odds most closely resemble a mountain, and calling that boring would be insulting to everyone. Similarly, the Nats and Mets haven't moved much because they've been battling each other for the top spot in a repeat of last year, which is, again, lots of fun. The AL West is special, though, because no one saw these battles coming.
You would be forgiven for looking at the Rangers' roster, for example, and thinking that they would be very, very bad. I touched on this in an article last week about Yu Darvish's return, noting that at the time, FanGraphs had the Rangers projected for the 20th-most position player WAR. Since then, they've rocketed upward to 19th, and are sitting at 16th in relief pitcher WAR and 15th in starter WAR. And yet, that's the team currently sitting on a 4.5-game lead in the division.
Another upside, one that might make people from some areas of the country unhappy with me: the Astros being bad! Not because I hold any personal enmity toward the Astros, but because the narrative structure of their last few years was getting a little too tidy for my liking. Team is terrible; team hires new, enlightened leadership; team gets even more terrible; team becomes good, and climbs linearly upward until winning the World Series precisely on schedule in 2017. That's not fun! Maybe it's fun for some people, but this version of history, where the Astros jump ahead of the curve in 2015 before falling back behind it in the beginning of 2016, leaving them with still the best projected WAR in the division but perhaps in too deep a hole to dig out of, is much more fun to me.
It is objectively good when baseball predictions are proven wrong. I am a big fan of projections, and think they're incredible tools that I am eternally grateful to have at my disposal. I also think they live up to their fullest potential when used as yardsticks for our own hubris, as a way for us to marvel at how little we know about this sport. Baseball is never not going to be fun, but the fun is more fun when it's surprising, too. Good thing we have the AL West; may it stay weird until the very last day.