A Side Effect of the Super-Team Era

Again, I don’t know how we define a “super-team era,” but it sure feels like we’re in one. At the moment, seven teams are projected to win at least 90 games in the season ahead. Just about every division appears to have a clear favorite, with the exception of the AL East, and that one’s only unclear because two teams are really good. There’s an argument to be made that having so many strong teams has slowed down the market. After all, what hope could the other teams have?

And yet, there’s an opening. It all comes down to setting a goal. If you’re one of the non-super-teams, you can do only so much to climb into the tier. It’s tremendously difficult to turn a decent team into a great one over the course of one offseason. But what if the goal is to simply make the playoffs? Five teams from each league make it every year. Each league doesn’t have five obvious favorites. From one point of view, the playoffs are nearly random, and once a team makes it in, anything can happen. And, you know, when the best teams are winning so many games, the barrier for playoff entry can actually be lowered.

I can use some numbers to support this. I have that spreadsheet of preseason team projections going back to 2005. Now, since 2005, the lowest actual win total for an American League wild card is 85. That was achieved by last year’s Twins. And, since 2005, the lowest actual win total for a National League wild card is 87. That was equaled by last year’s Rockies. Right now, the projected second AL wild card is the Blue Jays, at 87-75. More importantly, the projected second NL wild card is the Giants, at 82-80. You presumably recognize that 82-80 is not a very strong projection. Here are 14 years of preseason team projections, showing the lowest wild-card win totals for each league.

You can see how getting a wild-card spot got easier in 2012. That’s obvious — in 2012, each league added a second wild card, thereby allowing two worse teams into the playoffs. We’ve come to terms with that. But check out the red line, showing the National League. The current projected wild card would be the worst of all the projected NL wild cards. Through last year, the average projected wild-card win total was 86.4, and since 2012 it was 86.1. The Giants are about four wins below that. The only worse projected wild card in either league since 2005 would be the 2016 Yankees, also at 82-80. In the National League in particular right now, a door appears to be open. It’s only a door to a one-game playoff, but that one-game playoff could provide access to the rest of the tournament.

Projections are imperfect estimates. That much, you know. And projections differ in different places. For example, here are the current PECOTA projected standings. PECOTA identifies the same three NL division favorites, but its second wild card is the Cardinals, at 85-77. Take everything with a grain of salt. I’m making use of our own numbers because they’re the same numbers I’ve used for the past several years.

It should also be noted that the actual wild-card winners win more games than the preseason projections. Since 2005, in the AL, the lowest playoff seed has averaged 89.4 projected wins, and 91.8 actual wins. In the NL, the lowest playoff seed has averaged 86.4 projected wins, and 89.8 actual wins. It requires a certain amount of overachieving to make it into the playoffs. Every year, teams overperform and underperform, and there’s little you can do to know which it’ll be.

Yet let’s go back to looking at this situation specifically. I’ll leave the AL alone. The second projected NL wild card, again, is the Giants, at 82 wins. A playoff hopeful doesn’t necessarily have to think about getting to 90. Just has to think about being a hair better than the Giants. And this can probably explain some current rumored behavior. Here are NL projected win totals, from the Giants on down.

  • Giants: 82 wins
  • Diamondbacks: 82
  • Mets: 81
  • Rockies: 79
  • Brewers: 78
  • Pirates: 76
  • Phillies: 74
  • Padres: 73
  • Braves: 72
  • Reds: 72
  • Marlins: 65

The Giants can’t easily do anything else. They’re right up against the competitive-balance-tax threshold. The Diamondbacks, too, are basically out of money, and the Mets are presumably finished with all of their free-agent tweaking. The Rockies worked hard to beef up their bullpen. The Brewers are rumored to be interested in free-agent starters like Jake Arrieta and Alex Cobb. The Phillies, too, are rumored to have the same interest, and they have a lot more money to spend than the Brewers do, now and in the future. We could even connect this to the Padres and Eric Hosmer. The Padres still aren’t good, but Hosmer makes them better by a handful of wins. Odds are, those wins won’t be too terribly important in 2018, but there is a real chance, because contention isn’t that far away. It’s not about any of these teams trying to be as good as the Dodgers or the Cubs or the Nationals. The competition is more about the Giants, or the Diamondbacks, and those teams seem to be far more catchable. Give the Phillies another quality starting pitcher and he could make a difference as soon as this very season. The Phillies just aren’t that far away, not if the goal is a 163rd game.

If you don’t agree with the projections, you probably won’t agree with this analysis. Like, the Brewers just won 86 games, and they added Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich, so it’s strange to see them where they are. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were better than this. But in general, in theory, this would all still follow from having a tier of elites. If some number of teams is hoarding a whole bunch of wins, that means there are fewer wins available for everyone else. And that would make it easier to be the best of the worst, so to speak. Every year now, ten teams make the playoffs, but right now, there are fewer than ten super-teams. A few non-super-teams are going to sneak in, and you couldn’t blame, say, the Phillies, if they felt like they had a real opportunity. I don’t believe that they’d be fooling themselves.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

If the Rockies miss out on a return trip to the playoffs, the offense is likely to be the culprit. And they added nothing this offseason despite what appear to be at least a couple of obvious fits (Jay Bruce, in particular, to replace CarGo in RF).

5 years ago
Reply to  BobbyJohn69

It sure seems like the Rockies are really committed to their prospects, specifically McMahon at 1st and Tapia in the outfield. Maybe they’ve seen enough to know these guys are ready to bring it, or maybe they’re just overly confident from their rookie starting pitchers’ performances last year. That Lucas Duda signed for $3.5M and the Rox never made a nibble (at least not that I heard of) was a sure sign to me that they think McMahon is the answer at 1st. We’ll see.

Edit: Forgot about Dahl, he may be in the mix as well.

5 years ago
Reply to  BobbyJohn69

If they get 2017 Iannetta (120 wRC+), instead of ’15-’16 Iannetta, he immediately becomes their 3rd best hitter. But yeah, disappointing they haven’t signed another bat.

5 years ago
Reply to  Tulo2low

Ianetta was the most underrated free agent upgrade of the winter in my opinion. The Rockies’ catchers were horrible last season and Ianetta was well above average, with 2.2 WAR in only 316 PAs.