The ZiPS (Almost) Midseason Update – National League

Welcome to the more interesting league. Back in 2015, ZiPS saw two very different leagues — an American League in which most of the teams were competitive, and a bifurcated National League that featured a stronger line between the haves and the have-nots than 1780s France. By mid-September of that year, just one team in the the American League (the Oakland A’s) was positioned to finish with a sub-.500 record; only two were on track to reach the 90-win mark. As for the Senior Circuit, ZiPS thought that six of baseball’s best eight teams resided there, as well as five of the six worst.

In four years, these positions have done a Freaky Friday switcheroo. The AL is now home to six of the eight teams with the best projected rosters and six of the eight with the worst, with only three AL West teams (the A’s, Rangers, and Mariners, in that order) representing the middle class. The average NL trailer is 9 1/2 games back in the division and 3 1/2 back of a wild card berth compared to the AL’s 14 games and 8 1/2 games respectively.

So how do the ZiPS in-season projections work? For the Big, Official projections, I use the full ZiPS model rather than the comparatively simple in-season version in an effort to get the best estimates possible. Each player receives a percentile projection, with ZiPS randomly selecting from each player’s distribution to get a range of the expected roster strength for each individual team. Then each team is projected against every other team in their schedule a million times for the rest of the year. All this has the benefit of getting more accurate tails, as opposed to the binomial distribution you get when you’re working with an assumed roster strength; one of the most important things about ZiPS is that on all layers, it’s designed to be skeptical about its own accuracy.

ZiPS Playoff Matrix – 6/21
To Win 10th 20th 30th 40th 50th 60th 70th 80th 90th
NL East 88.6 90.2 91.4 92.5 93.6 94.6 95.8 97.2 99.0
NL Central 86.3 87.7 88.7 89.7 90.5 91.4 92.5 93.6 95.3
NL West 97.7 99.7 101.1 102.4 103.5 104.6 105.8 107.2 109.2
NL Wild Card 1 85.4 86.4 87.2 87.9 88.5 89.2 89.9 90.7 91.9
NL Wild Card 2 83.3 84.2 84.9 85.5 86.0 86.6 87.2 87.9 88.8

According to projections, the eventual NL Central winner will be under 95.3 wins 90% of time, assuming a strange world in which we can play out the final three months of the season a million times. That barely gets you the home field-advantaged wild card spot in the American League half the time. If the National League doesn’t have an exciting trade deadline, maybe we should start to think that something’s up, given that mid-to-upper 80s in wins makes you a serious wild card contender. Only two teams in the league ought to actually be sure about throwing in the towel right now: the Marlins and the Giants.

ZiPS Mean Projected Standings – NL East – 6/24
Team W L GB PCT Div % WC % Playoff % WS Win % No. 1 Pick Avg Draft Pos
Atlanta Braves 93 69 .574 86.2% 10.7% 96.9% 8.4% 0.0% 24.5
Washington Nationals 86 76 7 .531 11.0% 45.8% 56.8% 1.9% 0.0% 19.1
Philadelphia Phillies 81 81 12 .500 1.5% 14.2% 15.7% 0.4% 0.0% 14.8
New York Mets 81 81 12 .500 1.3% 12.9% 14.3% 0.3% 0.0% 14.5
Miami Marlins 59 103 34 .364 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 7.1% 3.0

Back in April, this race projected to be the second most exciting in baseball after the NL Central, with four teams projected between 87 and 93 wins and the fifth projected to, well, complete the 2019 season without folding (I’ll leave the identities of these teams for you to figure out). Instead, with a 16-5 record in June, the Atlanta Braves have put some real daylight between themselves and their rivals. Dallas Keuchel is not a superstar, but he also represents the biggest addition to an NL East team so far, one which addressed a significant team worry. With the deepest farm system in the division and a likely willingness to add salary for the right player, the “intangible” projections may be even better than what my computer spits out.

The Nationals have shown a pulse in June, enough to get them within a couple games of second place in the division. ZiPS still sees Washington as the team with the strongest overall 2019 roster in the East, with an 11-point edge in winning percentage over the Braves in a theoretical world in which the teams played identical schedules. But that margin is smaller than it was at the start of the season and it’s simply preferable to be the team with the 8 1/2 game advantage than the one that’s slightly better on paper. Start the grandmaster out without a couple of pawns, and a highly-skilled amateur chess player will probably win. If anything, it makes the decision to make trades in July a little trickier; it’s easier psychologically to shop Anthony Rendon or Max Scherzer if you’re not competitive. And with a weak farm system, the Nats don’t have a lot of ammo. Perhaps they’d be well-served to stop giving away interesting relievers.

I’m Just Saying…
Player WAR
Austin Adams 0.5
All Nationals Relievers 0.1

As of this morning, the Mets were closer to the Marlins than the Braves in the division. The team made significant improvements in the offseason, but those moves also had the feeling of being half-measures, with team ownership still not wanting to spend money at the level you would expect from a team in a massive market (even if they do play second fiddle). The rotation’s 4.64 ERA left pitching coach Dave Eiland as the team’s designated scapegoat for its failings, but the real culprit here is the team defense. At -55 runs (if you believe the numbers from Baseball Info Solutions), a league-average defense would have the Mets at a 3.92 ERA, fourth in the National League. Even UZR’s less depressing estimates would place the Mets with a 4.27 ERA, better than the NL’s current 4.37 average. I’m sure threatening two or three more journalists will fix that right up.

I’m not going to fault the Phillies for Bryce Harper’s rather pedestrian offense. But I will fault them for their apparent disinterest in either Dallas Keuchel or Craig Kimbrel. While only one team could sign each player, none of the usual sources buzzing around the Phillies suggested that they ever had more serious interest than their public demeanor reflected. Losing Andrew McCutchen — even a post-star McCutchen — was a blow the team is ill-positioned to handle and one it can’t wait to address.

Caleb Smith is likely a real find, certainly more of one than I envisioned when the Marlins picked him up from the Yankees in 2017. Garrett Cooper is likely the only interesting player on the team’s offense (he’s 28, but a long way from free agency), which makes one ask the very real question of how Miami managed to get more for Mike King than for Chris Paddack, Josh Naylor, and Luis Castillo combined. Perhaps the Marlins tanking is somehow less depressing than the Marlins trying to contend?

ZiPS Mean Projected Standings – NL Central – 6/24
Team W L GB PCT Div % WC % Playoff % WS Win % No. 1 Pick Avg Draft Pos
Chicago Cubs 89 73 .549 56.2% 24.5% 80.8% 4.6% 0.0% 21.4
Milwaukee Brewers 87 75 2 .537 31.5% 32.9% 64.4% 2.8% 0.0% 19.7
St. Louis Cardinals 83 79 6 .512 10.7% 22.6% 33.4% 1.1% 0.0% 16.9
Cincinnati Reds 78 84 11 .481 1.5% 5.5% 7.0% 0.2% 0.0% 12.8
Pittsburgh Pirates 74 88 15 .457 0.1% 0.5% 0.6% 0.0% 0.0% 9.2

The Central feels a lot like the division that nobody wants to win. Four of the five teams have held first place for multiple consecutive days, and not just at the start of the season when you have a bunch of 2-0 and 1-1 records floating around the league. While nobody has achieved any permanent daylight, I still think the Cubs have the best chance of doing so. Kimbrel may not be at his peak, but his signing and the theoretical return of Brandon Morrow would address what has been the team’s largest hole.

While the Brewers aren’t a depressing franchise, their use of Keston Hiura and Travis Shaw is a real head-scratcher. At the start of the season, I felt the team’s best use of Hiura would be to start him in the minors and have him bash his way into the majors, allowing them not to worry about having to make a difficult decision. The first part of that plan seemed to work out, but even with Shaw struggling and Hiura slugging .531, the Brewers haven’t been able to make the hard choice to turn Shaw into a reserve and make the team better right now. Yes, Hiura’s strikeout-to-walk ratio in the majors didn’t exactly scream Joey Votto, but he’s actually hitting the ball once in a while. ZiPS estimates that starting Shaw instead of Hiura over the rest of the season costs the Brewers about a tenth of a playoff appearance. That’s not negligible.

Who would’ve thought the bullpen would be the best part of the Cardinals? Yes, Paul Goldschmidt should be hitting better and Matt Carpenter should be hitting better and most of the rotation should be pitching better, but there’s no such thing as a Should NL Central winner. The Cards are a hard team to upgrade, simply because there aren’t many obvious places to give out pink slips. ZiPS is down to believing the Cards are a .510 team.

The Reds are a better team than their record, but the math remains daunting. How damaging was the team’s 1-8 start? They’ve gone 35-32 since, have a 43-33 Pythagorean record overall, and their 7.0% projected playoff chance is still behind their preseason projection of 11.5%. But at least they’re actually putting their best possible lineup on the field, with Jesse Winker, Nick Senzel, and Yasiel Puig as a fairly stable outfield. It would have been nice if they had just committed to this group from the start rather than trying to get Matt Kemp at-bats and seeing more in Scott Schebler than a fourth outfielder. Derek Dietrich’s offense has been encouraging, but it’s perhaps his defense that’s been the bigger surprise. He could always hit, but his defensive numbers at second are much more adequate than they were in his Marlins days. Small sample size, of course.

As for Pittsburgh, I don’t think they have the arms to peek back over the .500 mark for any extended period of time this year. With a healthy Jameson Taillon, and Chris Archer looking more like the Cy Young threat he once was, the division’s middle-heavy enough that the Pirates could be a contender. I don’t think they are, though.

ZiPS Mean Projected Standings – NL West – 6/24
Team W L GB PCT Div % WC % Playoff % WS Win % No. 1 Pick Avg Draft Pos
Los Angeles Dodgers 104 58 .642 100.0% 0.0% 100.0% 19.6% 0.0% 29.0
Arizona Diamondbacks 80 82 24 .494 0.0% 12.3% 12.3% 0.3% 0.0% 14.2
Colorado Rockies 80 82 24 .494 0.0% 11.7% 11.7% 0.2% 0.0% 14.1
San Diego Padres 78 84 26 .481 0.0% 6.2% 6.2% 0.1% 0.0% 12.7
San Francisco Giants 69 93 35 .426 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 6.4

It’s only really a 100.0% chance to win the NL West because of rounding, but it’s hard to envision a scenario in which the Dodgers blow a 13-game lead. Maybe, if there was another top team in the division that was simply underperforming, you could squint your way to seeing some type of apocalyptic scenario in which a second place team goes 55-25 in the second-half while Cody Bellinger and Hyun-Jin Ryu are captured by brigands in a forest. You can’t even “But ’69 Mets!” here — that team maxed out at a ten-game deficit. Okay, the Bucky Dent Yankees, but who in the division has a Goose Gossage or a Reggie Jackson?

Suffice it to say, Goose Gossage might actually upgrade the Colorado Rockies bullpen. I don’t mean 1978 Gossage — I mean Gossage now. In truth, Colorado’s bullpen hasn’t really been that mad, but they tend to fail in the most spectacular ways possible, as seen in their three straight walk-off losses against the Dodgers. In typical Colorado fashion, the team ranks 22nd in position player WAR and 22nd in wRC+ and I’m not sure anyone in the front office realizes this.

The Padres are obviously not as good a team as the Dodgers, but they’re the most fascinating team to watch, simply because of the young talent that will inevitably reach the majors in the next few years. I remain at a loss as to why they’ve been so conservative with Luis Urias, who is likely to be part of the best possible lineup right now (and I say this as someone who is a fan of Ian Kinsler as a player). It’s hard to blame any fiduciary shenanigans given that the team pointedly decided to not play those sorts of games with Paddack or Fernando Tatis Jr. The team is obviously pleased to be wild card-relevant, though I don’t think they’ll do anything to jeopardize the real show, which should start as soon as next year.

The Diamondbacks continues to accidentally contend, but I still think they’re more likely to trade off the reasons for that contention rather than make any additions. I still don’t believe Zack Greinke finishes his contract in Arizona, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Robbie Ray go. I think either Greinke or Ray are potentially more impactful pickups than Madison Bumgarner would be and there’s an actual Bumgarner market. It’s hard to see the Diamondbacks as a good enough team to be able to turn down solid offers should they materialize.

Every year, there’s a team that’s rebuilding that doesn’t quite realize it. Right now, that’s the San Francisco Giants. Other teams have come back from deeper pits than 33-43, but most of those other teams were more talented. The Giants have already played 13 different players in the outfield and just claimed Joey Rickard on waivers. By comparison, the Yankees have had most of their desired starting lineup on the IL but have only used nine.

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

That would have to be one heck of a skilled amateur to beat a grandmaster with the grandmaster spotting a couple of pawns. My understanding is that if you start the grandmaster out a couple of pawns, he will still wipe the floor with the skilled amateur chess player.

Semi-Skilled Amateur Chess Player Who Has Repeatedly Gotten His Ass Kicked By His Candidate-Master (at least three steps below international grandmaster)-Level Friend Spotting Him Pieces Much Nicer Than Two Pawns

Jetsy Extrano
3 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Wikipedia suggests a knight is worth about 600 rating points when given by a grandmaster, so a low-end grandmaster at 2500 could give a knight and play about even with a high-end non-“master” player at 1900.

>>> A knight seems to be worth around a thousand points when the “weak” player is around IM level, but it drops as you go down. For example, I’m about 2400 and I’ve played tons of knight odds games with students, and I would put the break-even point (for untimed but reasonably quick games) with me at around 1800, so maybe a 600 value at this level. An 1800 can probably give knight odds to a 1400, a 1400 to an 1100, an 1100 to a 900, etc. This is pretty obviously the way it must work, because the weaker the players are, the more likely the weaker one is to blunder a piece or more. <<<

3 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Yeah, that comparison was slightly off. I think it’s more like a grandmaster chess player playing a high-masters-level chess player, and spotting him a pawn and a bishop.

3 years ago
Reply to  Bronnt

Only on Fangraphs would people debate the validity of the humorous analogy.

Jetsy Extrano
3 years ago
Reply to  B_Agate

And that’s what we’re here for!

3 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Oh, “without” a couple of pawns! I thought it said “with only” a couple of pawns, which made me think the statement was quite accurate.

I agree that it’s quite inaccurate with the way it’s actually stated.