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.
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.
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.