The Upside of the Chaotic National League

On Effectively Wild the other day, I mentioned to Ben Lindbergh how so much recent news has been kind of depressing. Madison Bumgarner is super good, and now he won’t play for a while. Noah Syndergaard is super good, and now he won’t play for a while, either. Adam Eaton is super good, and he won’t play again for an even longer while. Shelby Miller is done for the season because of a torn elbow ligament. Starling Marte is serving a half-year suspension for inexplicable cheating. The Giants are disappointing, the Mets are disappointing, and so far everything I’ve mentioned directly involves the National League.

Yet for any one thing that goes wrong for a team, that can be spun as good news for rivals. Not that I think the Dodgers were specifically hoping for Bumgarner to get injured or anything, but, I’m losing track. There’s obvious downside in so many of the things that have happened in the NL. No one likes when good players can’t play. But on the plus side, doors have been opened. Thanks to the events of April and the first day of May, the National League is a lot less predictable. Which, to me, makes it a lot less boring.

Last year’s NL playoff teams were the Nationals, Cubs, Dodgers, Giants, and Mets. This year, the landscape was expected to be awfully similar. The FanGraphs staff, overall, predicted the same five teams to make the playoffs. Unsurprisingly, our projections foresaw the same. I had to submit predictions to a few different outlets, and I felt so lame, but I didn’t know what else to do. As much as I don’t care for predictions, I never want to *lie*. And I just expected the same division winners, and the same two wild cards.

Of course, now we’ve got different circumstances to evaluate. Time for plots! I split the National League into three groups — the top five preseason teams, the middle five preseason teams, and the bottom five preseason teams. In here, you see the average expected wins for each group the morning of opening day, and also as of right now.

On average, the top five teams have lost 3.3 expected wins. Four of the five teams are down at least a couple of wins, with only the Nationals looking better than they used to. The middle group is up an average of 1.5 wins, and the bottom group is up an average of 1.9 wins. The bottom teams are still the bottom teams, of course, but where the top and bottom used to be separated by nearly 23 expected wins, now the gap’s been closed by 23%. Pretty good tightening.

In addition to looking at expected wins, you can also look at the playoff odds. As I’ve noted before, I totally get that talking about playoff odds is ridiculous so early in the regular season, but I’m not bringing these up because of any one team in particular. I think this is just a useful way to demonstrate how the landscape has been changed by the events of the last month.

That last group still isn’t doing so hot. Their average playoff odds have gone from 0.9% to 2.1%. The rebuilding clubs still aren’t expected to collectively have a great season, because the talent just doesn’t seem to be there. The fun is mostly in the first two groups. At the start of the season, based on our playoff odds, there was a 31% chance the NL postseason picture would feature the same five teams as a year ago. Now that chance has dropped all the way to 6%, and the odds of the current five teams with the best shot all making it are 15%. There’s an extremely strong chance we’ll see at least one new participant. And if you look at the current favorites, there’s half the chance as before that they all get to where they want to be going.

It’s not hard to figure out who’s moved the most. One door has been opened because the Mets’ playoff odds have dropped by 24 points. Another door has been opened because the Giants’ playoff odds have dropped by 48 points. The only other team in the NL with any kind of drop is the Cubs, at -1.4%. At the other end, the Diamondbacks are up 29 points. The Rockies are right behind them, up 26 points. The Nationals have taken advantage of the Mets’ various woes, moving up 11 points. I think we all figured the Nationals would be there. The Diamondbacks and Rockies are fresher.

And that’s not completely it. Although the Cardinals have had a mediocre start, their playoff chances haven’t suffered. The same goes for the Marlins and Dodgers and Pirates. The Mets and Giants seemed to have such a firm grasp of things, but that was the appearance of a firm grasp before any games had been played, and it doesn’t take much for things to come undone. Now the Diamondbacks get to make a run in Year One of their new operation. And the Rockies also get to make a run, justifying their aggressive acquisitions of guys like Ian Desmond, Greg Holland, and Mike Dunn. I’m not saying the Rockies were geniuses, but there was criticism that they were a non-competitive team, acting like a team in contention. Here they are. They’ve already suffered plenty of their own health trouble, but they’re projected for the same final record as the Mets. They’re projected to finish three games better than the Giants. Barring a total collapse, the Rockies are already a near-guarantee for a meaningful stretch run.

This isn’t good news for everyone. Obviously, Mets fans think this sucks. Ditto fans in San Francisco. They weren’t expecting their teams to start a combined 21-31. Fans in Colorado and Arizona, similarly, probably didn’t expect their teams to start a combined 32-21. This has all been bad for a few specific groups, and good for fans who enjoy better and fresher races. The National League now looks far less predictable than it did just last month. And as much as we all try to pretend we can see the future, baseball is nothing without its surprises.

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

I think the league should start using the phrase “Inexplicable Cheating.”

I also think the Rockies look more suspect than the D’Backs. They have much better starting pitching, and I’m skeptical that Mark Reynolds continues to be this good.

Thanks, Jeff!

5 years ago
Reply to  JackS

At the same time Trevor Story probably won’t continued to be *this* bad, Ian Desmond will be back to do Ian Desmond things, David Dahl will be back soon along with Jon Gray. It probably looks like the Dodgers and Rockies at this point

5 years ago
Reply to  dbeattie

If we go on results so far the Dbacks have been much better. Third best run differential in the league and top 10 hitting matched with top 5 pitching in WAR. Meanwhile the Rockies have some good pitching but terrible hitting and a negative run differential.

5 years ago
Reply to  BenSharp

Good points both. It all really speaks to Jeff’s point in the article; I genuinely did not expect to be *this* interested in either the Rockies or the D’Backs!