It’s Never Too Early to Look at the Standings

We just wrapped up the first week of regular-season baseball. It’s always one of the most blissful weeks of baseball, because the games count again, but people aren’t yet really nervous. It’s like when you first dip into a hot tub. The immediate sense of relaxation just washes over you, and you feel like you belong right where you are. The first stretch of the season feels like a transition period, in between pointless baseball and real baseball. It’s comfortable and mostly anxiety-free, because a team still has the whole season ahead of it. I’m here now to make you feel more anxious. Sorry. Stress never sleeps.

I write this post early in every season. Literally this exact post. So the idea is anything but original, but the point is always this: Yeah, it’s absurdly early, but guess what! The games matter! The playoff races don’t start developing in July and August. They start developing last week. You want your team to make the playoffs, right? You want your team to be competitive? Well, it’s never too early to look at the standings. It’s never too early to start stressing out. Sure, the leverage of the season is only going to go up, but we’ve already seen shifts in the playoff picture. Don’t believe for a second that we haven’t!

I’ve prepared a simple chart. If you’ve been reading FanGraphs for a while, you’ve already seen this in previous seasons. We have here a Playoff Odds page, updated daily. It takes the current standings and projects out. All right, simple enough. From the Playoff Odds page, you can also navigate to a previous date. So what I’ve done is calculate the difference between current playoff odds and preseason playoff odds for each team. It just captures the impact of what’s already taken place, in the first three percent or whatever of the season. I know this feels like a ridiculous exercise. And I know this is only as good as the math that goes into it. There’s just no getting around the general point. It’s always better to hit the ground running.

change-in-playoff-odds

Obviously, many teams have hardly budged. That’s what you’d think. A dozen teams have moved less than three percentage points. And, 19 teams have moved no more than five percentage points. But that means 11 teams have moved more than five percentage points. The Orioles and the Royals are the runaway winners here — they’ve won a combined nine of 10 games, and their odds have gone up about 14 percentage points, each. At the bottom, the Twins are down eight points, which can happen when you’re winless in six. The Astros are down about nine points. And the Rangers are also down nine points. The Astros and Rangers are a combined 4-8, and it certainly doesn’t help Texas to be without Shin-Soo Choo and Robinson Chirinos for a while. Those injuries are factored in here, and though neither is crippling, they add on to what was a rough first week.

The Orioles have more than doubled their odds of making the playoffs. I can say the same about the Royals. This comes with the caveat that, if you didn’t believe in our Royals preseason projection, then these numbers are a little off. If you liked the Royals a lot more a week ago, then they haven’t done this much to improve their own standing. But I can just report on the numbers I’m looking at. Not to be lost, the Yankees and Pirates are up a bit over seven percentage points. The Pirates did well to start by sweeping the Cardinals. The Cardinals did well to rally by sweeping the Braves. The Braves are winless, but their odds have barely budged, because they were practically zero to begin with. But I can say this: The Phillies have closed to within a game of the Braves in projected final record. The Braves have already improved their chances of getting that first draft pick.

One more time, this is partially tongue-in-cheek, because it is too early to really stress. Every team has more than 150 games left to go. Next time you’re outside, take six steps in a straight line. Then take another 156 steps. Look back to see how far you’ve come. There’s almost the entire season to get better or get worse, but the parallel I like is that the start can be like a first-pitch home run. If you go to a game, and you sit down, and the first batter goes deep, you know the game is far from over. One team hasn’t even batted yet! Yet the run counts. It shifts the win expectancies by about 10 percentage points. A leadoff home run is — no question — an advantage, or a disadvantage.

Take, I don’t know, the Diamondbacks. If you ask the Diamondbacks if they’re worried about starting 2-5, they’ll look at you and scoff. They might laugh and end the interview. 2-5? Who cares about 2-5! It’s not even the middle of April yet. And there’d be nothing wrong with that perspective, except, if you gave them the choice a week ago, of course they wouldn’t choose to start 2-5. They’d choose to start 5-2. No they wouldn’t. They’d choose to start 7-0. They’re not morons. They know it all matters. Given a choice between two days, you’re likely to have a better day in the one where you don’t wake up with a headache. You can recover from a headache, but you’d prefer not to have to.

Apologies to the Diamondbacks. And, hey, credit to the Reds. A week in, they have similar-looking odds of making the playoffs. A few weeks from now, this could all look completely different. Some of it certainly will. But there’s no such thing as a game that doesn’t matter. That’s one of the best and worst parts.

We hoped you liked reading It’s Never Too Early to Look at the Standings by Jeff Sullivan!

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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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OutOfTheBox
Member
OutOfTheBox

The thing I find interesting is that if you flipped a coin 162 times and 8 out of the 1st 10 turned up heads, we could expect the results to be 84 heads and 78 tails. If a team projected to be .500 starts off 8-2, can we really expected them to be 84-78? Obviously the 8-2 start should increase wins, but don’t we have to factor in that teams (and players) go on hot and cold streak and the 1st week could just be one of them?

mike sixel
Member
Member
mike sixel

If you think their true talent is a .500 team…..that over a long stretch of games that HAVE NOT yet been played, they will win half, then yes, you’d expect them to finish 6 games over .500, if they have already banked that.

Pale Hose
Member
Pale Hose

Mike is correct. The only thing that would change playoff odds is strength of schedule over the first 10 games, but that would be a marginal adjustment. Factoring in that the first week is a “hot streak” or “cold streak” is the gambler’s fallacy.

Walter
Member
Walter

Depending on how good or bad individual players looked in those games though, it might move the needle just a little on those true talent estimates though too. Maybe not enough to change an 81-81 true talent a whole game, but hey its something.

CM52
Member
CM52

Story has gained about 10 points of wOBA on his zips. I assume that’s about the possible extreme for a player, so I can’t imagine any team has had their true talent estimate vary much.

CM52
Member
CM52

Excluding injury, of course.

Walter
Member
Walter

Well sure, I said it wouldn’t move the needle much.

The O’s went from .478 to .484 in rosW%. Royals from .479 to .489. That’s about 1 extra win over 162 games.

MajesticOwl
Member
MajesticOwl

A team six games over .500 at the trading deadlines is more likely to make a big trade than a .500 team, too. I doubt that’s factored into the playoff odds, though, since it’s still probably almost impossible to predict.

And, of course, as someone else mentioned, injuries (to a team and/or to the team’s competition) matter more than just about everything else.

hebrew
Member
Member
hebrew

@ mike sixel

that’s not really how projections work. when you project a team to be .500, you’re not necessarily giving them a 50% chance to win each game.

a year-long projection is just that: year long. For the most part, it already considers possible hot and cold streaks. A team you expect to win 81 games that starts out 10-0 isn’t “projected” to now win 86.

They’re still expected to win 81 games.

Jason B
Member
Member
Jason B

“A team you expect to win 81 games that starts out 10-0 isn’t “projected” to now win 86.”

That is completely false. A team ‘expected’ to go .500, absent any new information, would be projected to go 86-76 (or 76-76 the rest of the way) after a 10-0 start.

What you’re saying is that a roulette wheel should be “expected to” come up black more often after five reds in a row, to “even things out”.

Known for that reason as the gambler’s fallacy, a/k/a “why casinos put those boards up showing the past roulette numbers”.

CM52
Member
CM52

8-2 is in the past at that point. By expecting them to go 84-78, all you are saying is that you expect a 76-76 record in the next 152 flips. If you don’t think that is a fair over/under for a fair coin, I would love to gamble with you.

Don’t be one of those guys at the roulette table waiting for a streak of red so he can bet on black…

piddy
Member
piddy

I think the question has more to do with the assumption of independence between game outcomes over the course of the season