As season hits midpoint, which first place teams are for real? (Sorry, O's)
Capped by the historic Fort Bragg game, Sunday's slate of games pushed the 2016 baseball season into its second half, as the 30 teams have now played a combined 2,460 games, an average of 82 apiece. As the Fourth of July arrives, the date calls to mind the old baseball axiom that holds that a team in first place on this date will reach the World Series. More than a decade ago, I researched that claim, and found that it went back at least as far as a 1934 Time magazine cover story, which states that during the previous 25 years two-thirds of all teams in first place on Independence Day finished in that spot.
Eighty-two years later, the schedule has lengthened from 154 to 162 games, the majors have expanded from 16 teams in two leagues to 30 teams spread out over six divisions and instead of the leagues' respective pennant winners going straight to the World Series, the postseason now features 12 teams in a four-tiered system that includes the wild-card game, added in 2012.
While the playoffs themselves are something of a crapshoot, the axiom holds true: Teams leading their divisions on July 4 will win it roughly 60% of the time, and including the wild card, will reach the postseason more than two-thirds of the time. Here's the breakdown by era:
|Years||Divisions||Teams Leading on 7/4||Won Div (%)||Won Wild-Card (%)||Total %|
|1901 to '68||1||142 (6)||89 (62.7)||N/A||62.7|
|1969 to '93||2||101 (5)||57 (56.4)||N/A||56.4|
|1995 to 2015||3||133 (7)||77 (57.9)||15||69.1|
The numbers in parentheses signify teams tied for first and are included in the total. Neither the 1981 nor '94 strike years are included, nor are teams who were in the wild-card lead on July 4. For the four-year period with two wild-card spots, just 12 of the 24 division winners wound up holding onto first place, but five of those who slipped out still claimed a wild-card spot.
The overall trend for the era suggests that of the six first-place teams this season—the Orioles (AL East), Indians (AL Central), Rangers (AL West), Nationals (NL East), Cubs (NL Central) and Giants (NL West)—roughly four will reach the playoffs. Of that sextet, only Texas and Chicago got to the postseason last year, with the Rangers the only ones that won their division. That's a fair bit of shakeup, but then just two of the 2014 division winners repeated in '15 (the Cardinals in the NL Central and the Dodgers in the NL West). Including the current wild-card leaders in each league—the Red Sox and Tigers in the AL; the Dodgers and Mets in the NL—that's only four out of 12 teams from the 2015 slate returning to the postseason, the same as the year before. Among last year's leaders, the largest division lead squandered on July 4 was the Nationals' 4 1/2 game advantage over the Mets, while the largest deficit overcome was the 6 1/2 games by which Texas trailed Houston in the AL West.
Sabermetrics has bestowed more sophisticated means of predicting who will reach the playoffs, with the ability to account for the strength of the teams in the lead, the size of those leads, and the remaining schedule. The best-known system for this, the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds report uses a Monte Carlo simulator • that accounts for the strength of teams via its Pythagorean winning percentage (its record as predicted via runs scored and runs allowed) adjusted for park, league and quality of opposition (the full methodology is explained here). BP's odds estimate the percentage chance that each team will win its division or snatch a wild card spot.
Re-run daily, those odds suggest that besides the Cubs, who own baseball's highest winning percentage (.630), its largest run differential (+149) and the widest division lead (eight games), the current division leader with the best chance to hang on through the rest of the season isn't the Rangers (up by 8 1/2) but the Indians (up by five). More intuitively, the one most likely to slip out of first place is the one with the smallest margin, the Orioles (up by three).
Generally speaking it's the run differentials, and by extension the Pythagorean records, that take a bite out of the odds for the Rangers and Orioles, who respectively have the fifth- and sixth-best differentials, below the Indians, Mariners (+55), Blue Jays (+53) and Red Sox (+51).
Record: 51-30, +8 games in NL Central
Run Differential: +149
Odds: 96.0% (Division), 3.2% (wild-card); 99.2% (total)
The Cubs once looked as though they might challenge the 2001 Mariners' single-season record of 116 wins, bolting to a 39-15 start (a 117-win pace). Their winning percentage remained above .700 as of June 19 (47-20, a 114-win pace), but they've skidded to a 4-10 mark since, with the Cardinals sweeping a three-game series from them in Chicago and the Mets taking the last four games in New York. Over that 14-game stretch, the Cubs' pitching staff has been pounded for 5.79 runs per game and outfielders Dexter Fowler and Chris Coghlan have joined Jorge Soler on the disabled list, while ace Jake Arrieta has failed to complete six innings in each of his last three starts and five of his last eight. Chicago still has a comfortable margin in the NL Central race, with the odds of St. Louis (43-38) winning the division estimated at just 3.5%, but a chance at a historic win total is slipping from the grasp of Joe Maddon and company.
Record: 49-32, +5 1/2 games in AL Central
Run differential: +76
Odds: 88.1% (division); 7.7% (wild-card); 95.8% (total)
The upstart Indians have already made history. Cleveland recently reeled off a franchise-record 14-game winning streak that ended on July 2, and at 3.88 runs per game, it leads the AL in run prevention, with the best rotation and a resilient lineup that’s overcome the loss of Michael Brantley to injuries and Abraham Almonte and Marlon Byrd to PED suspensions. With the Tigers, White Sox and Royals all above .500, the Indians can't rest easy, though none of that trio of opponents has even a six percent chance at the division according to the BP odds. The best, at 5.6%, is Detroit (44-38), which is currently in a virtual tie for the second wild-card spot and has a 24.0% chance of holding on. Kansas City (43-38), the defending World Series champion, has been hit hard by Mike Moustakas' season-ending ACL tear, injuries to Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain, and a rotation in which only Ian Kennedy is preventing runs at a better-than-average clip. The Royals are in third place, six games back, with a 2.6% chance at winning the division and a 16.8% chance at claiming a wild-card.
Record: 50-33, +5 games in NL East
Run differential: +100
Odds: 83.6% (division), 12.4% (wild-card), 96.0% (total)
The Nationals own the majors' second-highest run differential but have been a streaky squad in recent weeks. They followed a 10-2 run with a seven-game losing streak against the Padres, Dodgers and Brewers, all on the road. Since then, Washington has taken seven of eight, including a three-game sweep of the Mets, who have battled numerous injuries but still rate a 13.6% chance in the division race and a 40.9% shot at a wild card spot. The Marlins (43-39) have been surprisingly strong despite BP projecting them for just 75 wins, as they've overcome Dee Gordon’s PED suspension and Giancarlo Stanton’s uncharacteristic slump. While Miami's division odds are minuscule (2.9%), it still has a respectable 17.3% chance at a wild-card spot.
Record: 52-31, +8 1/2 games in AL West
Run differential: +43
Odds: 76.0% (division); 14.4% (wild-card); 90.4% (total)
The Rangers owe some of their MLB-high division lead to an MLB-best 18-7 record in one-run games. The Astros and Mariners are both 8 1/2 games back, with the former having dug themselves out of a 7-17 April hole by going 36-22 since; unfortunately for Houston, Texas has gone 38-21 in that span despite losing three-fifths of its projected rotation—Colby Lewis, Derek Holland and Yu Darvish—to the disabled list. The Astros have an 11.1% chance at the division and a 29.0% chance at the wild card, while Seattle, which led the AL West for the better part of May but went 10-18 in June, is at 12.9% for the division and 29.2% for the wild card.
San Francisco Giants
Record: 52-32, +5 games in NL West
Run differential: +61
Odds: 58.8% (division); 30.8%; 89.6%
Like the Rangers, the Giants can point to a stellar record in one-run games, 20-10 in their case, as a main reason why they're in first place. They've overcome a slew of injuries; Hunter Pence, Matt Duffy and Joe Panik are all currently on the DL, and on Sunday, Gregor Blanco, Angel Pagan and Denard Span all sat out with more minor ailments, leading to a lineup that resembled a spring training split-squad. The Dodgers (47-37) have been decimated by injuries as well; last week they placed Joc Pederson, Kiké Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw on the DL, and they’ve yet to receive anything from outfielder Andre Ethier or pitcher Hyn-Jin Ryu (Brandon McCarthy threw a strong five shutout innings in his return from Tommy John surgery on Sunday). While Los Angeles has won 14 of its last 19 despite their various wounds, it has gained just one game on San Francisco in that span. The Dodgers still own the best playoff odds of any team not in first place, with a 40.9% chance at the NL West and a 42.1% shot at a wild card spot.
Record: 47-34 +3 games in AL East
Run differential: +39
Odds: 27.5% (division); 18.7% (wild-card); 46.2% (total)
Via the Odds report, both the Red Sox (44-37, three games back) and Blue Jays (45-39, 3 1/2 back) rate as more likely AL East winners than the Orioles, with estimated chances of 36.6% and 32.1%, respectively. That doesn't mean that Baltimore is doomed, but it should reflect the fact that this division is a toss-up. Boston boasts the game's highest-powered offense as measured by runs per game (5.54), on-base percentage (.357; best in either league by 11 points and tops in the AL by 25 points) and slugging percentage (.469, in a virtual tie with the Orioles), but it is second-to-last in the AL in run prevention (4.94 runs per game). While knuckleballer Steven Wright has enjoyed a breakout season at age 31, he and Rick Porcello are the only starters preventing runs at a better-than-average clip. Marquee free agent David Price (4.74 ERA) has been erratic, and Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly and Eduardo Rodriguez have been so bad that they've failed to hold onto rotation spots, with the last two of those currently in the minor leagues. The unit as a whole is 10th in ERA (4.82), and the bullpen is just eighth in ERA (3.88).
Toronto, meanwhile, has a fairly potent offense of its own (sixth at 4.88 runs per game, tied for second with 123 homers) and relatively strong run prevention (4.25 runs per game, fourth). However, the Jays have the league's second-lowest winning percentage in one-run games (.364, via an 8-14 record); level that out and they'd be half a game out of first.
As for Baltimore, it is second in offense (5.12 runs per game) and tops in homers (128, with six players in double figures led by Mark Trumbo's 24). Its oveall run prevention is decent (ninth, 4.64 runs per game) thanks to a very good bullpen (3.28 ERA, fourth) but the rotation has been dreadful (5.15 ERA, 14th), and only Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman have an ERA+ above 85. The Orioles will need some help at the trading deadline to hold on, but considering that Baseball Prospectus projected them for an AL-low 74-wins at the outset of the season, the Birds are still occupying a lofty perch. And what’s more, history remains on their side.