The Obscenely Late, Obscenely Early ZiPS Projected Standings

It seems like years ago at this point, but the last time we posted preliminary projections a month before the start of a baseball season, it went, well, you know, not great! Now comes our second attempt at preliminary standings projections, previewing what will likely be the oddest baseball season of our lives, at least until the robots take over and the league consists of 1200 Mike TroutBots.

The 60-game season is anything but familiar. MLB’s regional schedule has emerged victorious, with teams primarily playing their own divisions while also facing off against the corresponding geography-based division in the other league instead of their normal out-of-division games. Teams will play 10 games against each of their divisional rivals (40 total) and four games against each of the corresponding divisional teams (20 games total). The standings will work as they normally do, just with the odd twist of many of the teams that will compete in the Wild Card races not playing each other during the regular season. The designated hitter rule is universal for the rest of the 2020 season (and likely for the rest of baseball’s existence as a sport).

Not only will 60 games result in a more volatile season than 162 games would, there are factors that make it even more unpredictable than you’d expect. The injuries that every team suffers could really swing the numbers since the injuries themselves don’t “scale down” in a shorter season. Every injury that would normally place a player on the 60-day Injured List will essentially be a season-ending one, as will many less serious injuries, especially without the ability to play in rehab games in the minors.

And the injury effect that’s beyond the current reckoning of ZiPS is the unknown of COVID-19 itself. We simply don’t know how well the quarantines and safety protocols will hold up, how many players will test positive, or, most critically, how well players will recover. Even players who generally feel asymptomatic might experience subtle differences in the quality of their play. Since we just don’t know how COVID-19 will affect the performance of high-level athletes engaged in the rigors of a baseball season, even a 60-game one, I either have to tell you what I can’t do or just make it up, so I’ll go with the former.

One thing that seemingly will be familiar, at least, is the playoff structure. Without the agreement of the MLBPA to alter the format of the postseason and barring a new agreement before Opening Day 2.0, the usual playoff system will hold, with the six division winners advancing to the respective divisional series of their league and the four Wild Cards playing each other in winner-take-all games.

With the divisional alignments and the built-in inability of teams to play themselves, here’s the strength of schedule for each team’s opponents for the 2020 season:

ZiPS 2020 Strength of Schedule
Team SoS
Baltimore Orioles .525
Miami Marlins .522
Seattle Mariners .517
San Francisco Giants .516
Colorado Rockies .513
Philadelphia Phillies .509
Toronto Blue Jays .508
New York Mets .508
Detroit Tigers .506
Pittsburgh Pirates .504
Texas Rangers .503
Arizona Diamondbacks .503
Atlanta Braves .501
Washington Nationals .500
Kansas City Royals .499
Boston Red Sox .499
San Diego Padres .498
Los Angeles Angels .496
Cincinnati Reds .493
St. Louis Cardinals .492
Milwaukee Brewers .491
Oakland Athletics .489
Chicago Cubs .489
Tampa Bay Rays .488
Chicago White Sox .487
Houston Astros .484
Los Angeles Dodgers .484
New York Yankees .483
Cleveland Indians .481
Minnesota Twins .478

As expected, the Central divisions project to be the weakest overall, and without playing East/West teams, the expectation is that the actual win-loss totals (for eight of 10 teams) will come out above the projected strength of their rosters. This wouldn’t matter so much in a self-contained Central “league,” but does when Central contenders are competing for the same Wild Card spots as the East and West contenders that have tougher schedules. Of course, maximizing health and safety is more important than trying to squeeze out every last bit of competitive fairness.

Below are the projected standings by division:

ZiPS Projected Standings, AL East
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
New York Yankees 37 23 .617 46.5% 20.0% 66.5% 8.8%
Tampa Bay Rays 35 25 2 .583 34.1% 22.3% 56.4% 6.6%
Boston Red Sox 30 30 7 .500 13.9% 17.9% 31.8% 2.7%
Toronto Blue Jays 27 33 10 .450 5.1% 10.0% 15.1% 1.0%
Baltimore Orioles 19 41 18 .317 0.4% 0.9% 1.3% 0.1%

ZiPS Projected Standings, AL Central
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Minnesota Twins 35 25 .583 40.6% 17.5% 58.1% 7.0%
Cleveland Indians 34 26 1 .567 31.9% 18.3% 50.2% 5.5%
Chicago White Sox 31 29 4 .517 19.5% 16.8% 36.2% 3.4%
Kansas City Royals 26 34 9 .433 5.8% 8.3% 14.2% 0.9%
Detroit Tigers 23 37 12 .383 2.2% 3.5% 5.7% 0.3%

ZiPS Projected Standings, AL West
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Houston Astros 36 24 .600 44.0% 16.8% 60.9% 7.6%
Oakland A’s 33 27 3 .550 30.0% 18.7% 48.8% 5.2%
Los Angeles Angels 30 30 6 .500 16.6% 15.8% 32.4% 2.9%
Texas Rangers 27 33 9 .450 8.0% 10.7% 18.7% 1.3%
Seattle Mariners 22 38 14 .367 1.4% 2.6% 4.0% 0.2%

ZiPS Projected Standings, NL East
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Atlanta Braves 34 26 .567 31.3% 17.6% 48.8% 4.9%
Washington Nationals 34 26 .567 32.4% 17.5% 49.9% 5.0%
New York Mets 31 29 3 .517 17.3% 15.4% 32.7% 2.7%
Philadelphia Phillies 30 30 4 .500 15.6% 14.8% 30.4% 2.4%
Miami Marlins 24 36 10 .400 3.4% 5.0% 8.4% 0.5%

ZiPS Projected Standings, NL Central
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Chicago Cubs 32 28 .533 27.6% 14.5% 42.1% 3.9%
Milwaukee Brewers 31 29 1 .517 23.4% 13.7% 37.1% 3.3%
St. Louis Cardinals 31 29 1 .517 21.9% 13.7% 35.6% 3.1%
Cincinnati Reds 31 29 1 .517 20.4% 13.3% 33.7% 2.9%
Pittsburgh Pirates 26 34 6 .433 6.7% 7.1% 13.8% 0.9%

ZiPS Projected Standings, NL West
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Los Angeles Dodgers 38 22 .633 57.7% 15.2% 73.0% 9.7%
San Diego Padres 32 28 6 .533 21.4% 20.6% 42.0% 3.7%
Arizona Diamondbacks 30 30 8 .500 13.4% 17.1% 30.5% 2.3%
Colorado Rockies 26 34 12 .433 4.5% 8.5% 12.9% 0.8%
San Francisco Giants 25 35 13 .417 3.0% 6.0% 9.0% 0.5%

Even without the expansion to a 16-team playoff format, 2020 will go down as the season in baseball history when the relative talent of the teams was the least important in determining the playoff field and the eventual champion. The devastating circumstances of this strange season likely lend some valuable perspective on how important any of this is on a relative basis, but this year has to be a bit of a bitter pill to swallow for fans of teams like the Dodgers and Reds that largely bucked the trend of doing “just enough” last winter.

To get an idea as to how things have changed since late February, here are the teams ranked by the change in the percentage points of playoff and championship probability since that ZiPS run. This includes all the changes of the last few months, including the new schedule, the universal designated hitter, anticipated returns from injury, and new maladies that will keep players out, like Chris Sale‘s and Noah Syndergaard’s Tommy John surgeries:

Playoff/Championship Changes Since Feb.
Team Playoff Change Championship Change
Chicago White Sox 18.3% 2.2%
Arizona Diamondbacks 17.6% 1.8%
Texas Rangers 16.6% 1.2%
Toronto Blue Jays 14.5% 1.0%
Kansas City Royals 13.9% 0.9%
Los Angeles Angels 13.5% 1.8%
Pittsburgh Pirates 13.0% 0.9%
Colorado Rockies 12.1% 0.8%
Philadelphia Phillies 11.7% 2.3%
St. Louis Cardinals 10.0% 1.6%
Cincinnati Reds 9.4% 1.5%
San Francisco Giants 8.9% 0.5%
Miami Marlins 8.4% 0.5%
Milwaukee Brewers 6.7% 1.4%
Detroit Tigers 5.7% 0.3%
Seattle Mariners 4.0% 0.2%
Boston Red Sox 2.5% 1.1%
Baltimore Orioles 1.3% 0.1%
Cleveland Indians 0.3% 1.4%
Oakland A’s -0.1% 1.5%
Chicago Cubs -5.9% 0.6%
San Diego Padres -9.6% 1.0%
Tampa Bay Rays -15.1% 1.0%
Washington Nationals -16.1% -0.1%
Minnesota Twins -16.6% -0.9%
New York Mets -16.7% -0.5%
Atlanta Braves -23.7% -1.3%
Los Angeles Dodgers -25.8% -8.2%
Houston Astros -27.2% -4.1%
New York Yankees -31.2% -9.5%

The teams with the most positive change in their fortunes are the midwestern teams, and the teams that were on the very edge of Wild Card contention, such as the Rangers and the Blue Jays. The league’s basement dwellers’ playoff chances improve as well, but clubs like the Orioles and the Tigers just aren’t good enough to take as much advantage of it, in the sense of a binary playoff/non-playoff result, as these other teams. On the flip side, the elite teams and the coastal teams suffer the most. Every team that has seen their shot at the World Series trophy fade is a 2019 playoff team…or has Noah Syndergaard.

If baseball can get through 2020 with the players and team and ballpark personnel remaining healthy, it’ll be a victory no matter what the results are on the field. Flags fly forever, but freak flags only fly for 2020, so strap in and embrace the weirdness.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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3 years ago

NLC so tight

3 years ago
Reply to  zfzfz5

Every child slightly over average. And every game so important.

3 years ago
Reply to  vbjd1111

And then there’s the Pirates. At least they’re projected to be the best “Worst team in the Division”

3 years ago
Reply to  garpachi

The Pirates could surprise! Note that these projections show their chances of winning a playoff spot have increased more than any other NL team except AZ. And a projected 6 game gap between PIT and the division leader doesn’t seem like much. I also hope for a modest increase in pitching outcomes for this team with new coaching . And then there is randomness!

David Klein
3 years ago
Reply to  zfzfz5

As is the second nl wild card as zips has the Padres winning the second wild card by one game just ahead of three teams tied with 31 wins.

David Klein
3 years ago
Reply to  David Klein

Lol at downvoting this

3 years ago
Reply to  David Klein

Maybe they’re pedants who noticed there are actually 4 teams at 31-29 (MKE, STL, CIN, NYM)?