Bryce Harper was in the news a couple weeks ago. It had nothing to do with his performance — in 2015, he hadn’t yet performed. It had nothing to do with his health — in 2015, he hadn’t yet gotten injured. It had everything to do with his words. Harper generates three kinds of stories, and this was another one about him not hiding his confidence. Harper spoke openly about how much he believes in his current cast of teammates, and while every player would claim to believe in his cast of teammates, Harper has a way of drawing extra attention, and he didn’t beat around any bushes. Harper went so far as to talk about the disadvantage of facing the Nationals’ starting staff in the playoffs.
Of course, while we like our players to be humble, it’s not like Harper was talking about anything we hadn’t already thought and said ourselves. The Nationals do seem like a juggernaut. The Nationals do seem like they should take the NL East running away. The Nationals do have a rotation that would be terrifying to face in October. Say what you will about Harper’s personality, but he just said what most people already believe. There’s no such thing as a playoff shoo-in this early in the year, but the Nationals are about as close as it gets.
A year ago, the Nationals won 96 games. Their closest division rival won 79. Actually, two rivals won 79, and this offseason one of them got a little better, while the other got substantially worse. Now, the Nationals were expected to win the East. Preseason projections had them winning their division by six or seven games. Right here, we gave the Nationals a 74% chance of winning the division. Those were the highest division-winning odds in baseball, by about 10 percentage points.
This year’s playoff odds were recently published, and they update every day. They update on account of events like injuries. For example, the Blue Jays had about 42% playoff odds a few days ago. That’s dropped to 31%, with news that Marcus Stroman will be out all year. How do the Nationals look? We have them with an 87% chance at the division. Those are the highest division-winning odds in baseball, by about 14 percentage points. Our playoff-odds page has the Nationals projected to lead the East by 13 – 14 games. It’s a massive advantage they have, and it’s not even controversial. Steamer backs it up. ZiPS backs it up. PECOTA backs it up. Clay Davenport backs it up. All the authorities agree: the Nationals are positioned to win their division by a landslide. It’s difficult to conceive of a situation in which the Nationals are even seriously challenged.
This got me wondering about projection history. So, we see the Nationals are projected for a huge advantage. Have we seen bigger projected advantages in the past? How much of an advantage is this, historically? Some time ago, I gathered team projections going back to 2005, based on whatever I could find. It’s not perfect, and projections have presumably improved over time, but data is data, and I went back to my data.
What we don’t have are historical playoff odds. Not overall playoff odds, and not division-winning odds. So I did something simple: I calculated, for each division in each year, the projected gap between the best team and the second-best team. This gave me 60 numbers, and you’ll see them represented by the following histogram. As expected, most divisions have been projected to be pretty close. Nearly 82% have been projected to be decided by no more than five games. Nearly two-thirds have been projected to be decided by no more than three games.
We have the Nationals projected to win the NL East by more than 10 games. You can see just how uncommon such an advantage has been. One other time since 2005 has a team been projected to win its division by more than 10 games. There’s one instance of a projected 10-game margin, and one instance of a projected nine-game margin. There are four projected eight-game margins, and one projected seven-game margin.
That gives the Nationals’ advantage some historical context. And, we can add a little more detail. The one other projected margin of more than 10 games? That was in 2005, the first year in my sample, and the year where I have the least confidence in the numbers. The projected 10-game margin was in 2006. The projected nine-game margin was in 2005. The eight-game margins came in 2008 (twice), 2010, and 2013, so here we get more recent. But the Nationals’ advantage is more than eight games, as of today.
We can say, at least, the Nationals have the biggest projected division advantage in a decade. The one bigger gap was all the way back in 2005, and even if you trust those numbers, that sure was a while ago. No other division since has seemed this lopsided, according to the forecasts. So Harper’s confidence is more than justified. It would’ve been justified even before the Max Scherzer signing. Now? There are ways for things to fall apart. There are ways for division rivals to surprise. But, a lot would have to get weird. The Nationals are sitting on the highest of perches.
I guess I can end with some caution, though, just so it doesn’t seem like I’m issuing a guarantee. The team projected to win by 17 games did ultimately win, by 11 games. The team projected to win by 10 actually won by one. The team projected to win by nine did not win its division. The team projected to win by seven did not win its division. Two of the four teams projected to win by eight did not win their divisions. The sample is small, so it’s virtually meaningless, but what meaning there is is worth keeping in mind — more can go wrong than you think. The Nationals are the most obvious of the postseason shoo-ins. When it’s March, there’s no such thing as a postseason shoo-in. There are only numbers that exist in a virtual form.
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.