Now that we’ve entered the month of July, the MLB season is half over. My plan was to make some predictions as to what the playoff field will look like by season’s end. But one of the main things that stands out to me when I look at what has happened in the first three months is how wide the gaps are between nearly all of the first place and second place teams in each division. In fact, the 35 game gap between each division leader and second place team is the third largest since baseball transitioned to six divisions in 1994, and the largest in over eleven years. So is there any reason to think that much will change from now until the end of the regular season?
On the surface, it would appear not. In general, teams that are ahead in their division are by no means a lock to hang on to first place. Since 2005, first place teams on July 4th have only managed to win their division roughly 56% of the time. However, of all those second place teams, the average gap they had to overcome was only 3.5 games. That means that the Red Sox, who are currently 3 games behind the Orioles, are in the best position to emerge as a division champion. The other teams, who are anywhere from 5 to 8.5 games behind, are not as likely.
Yet there is still hope for some teams. If we look at the thirteen clubs to overcome deficits of at least 4 games since 2005, eleven of them had above average pitching staffs according to WAR. Another important indicator is a team’s run differential: If a team is underperforming based on what their run differential says their record should be, then that team is likely to perform better in the second half of the season. For example, the 2010 Giants had a .506 win percentage on July 4th, yet their run differential indicated their win percentage should have been .542. They then went on to overtake the Padres, who were 7.5 games in front of them, and go on to win the World Series.
Interestingly enough, a few second place teams have some of the better pitching staffs in baseball. In particular, the Dodgers and Mets (both 5 games back in their respective divisions as of July 4th) are ranked first and second in WAR. The Cardinals and Tigers, who rank 10th and 11th in pitching according to Fangraphs, have pretty good arms as well.
Moreover, the two biggest underperforming teams also happen to be second place clubs. Even though they are both 8.5 games back in their divisions, the Mariners and Cardinals each have the largest discrepancies between their win/loss record and pythagorean win expectation. For that reason, I expect both to be two of the better teams in baseball over these next three months. Will it be enough to catch Texas and Chicago? Probably not. But stranger things have happened. The Athletics overcame a 9.5 game deficit in early July to catch the Rangers in 2012; so didn’t the Twins in 2006, when they came back from 9 games down to take the AL Central over the Tigers.
Having said all this, I don’t expect to see three second place teams come back and win their divisions like we normally do. But I will predict that there will be two comebacks. Before I say who those two teams will be, here are the clubs that I think are safe.
First are the Chicago Cubs. Yes they are slipping a tad, but they are still the best team in baseball right now. They’re first in hitting, sixth in pitching, and fifth in fielding according to Fangraphs. That’s a damn good combination. Another National League team that should feel confident about hanging onto their lead are the San Francisco Giants. Similar to the Cubs, San Francisco is stout in every facet and have two of the better pitchers in the NL in Madison Bumgarner (2.20 ERA) and Johnny Cueto (12-1 record). I doubt they will go on any prolonged losing streaks. In the American League, I think the Texas Rangers have a big enough bulge to stave off any pressure from Seattle and Houston. I also think the Cleveland Indians, who have the American League’s strongest pitching staff, are a great bet to win the AL Central.
That leaves two teams that I think will falter. The Baltimore Orioles, who I alluded to earlier, are the likeliest team to slip. Buck Showalter’s club is solid, but I don’t think their strong hitting will be enough to overcome a below average starting rotation (4th highest ERA among starting staffs at 5.15) and a suspect defense (22nd according to Fangraphs). They also have two of the American League’s toughest offenses, Boston and Toronto, breathing down their necks. I could see them still making the playoffs, but I doubt the Orioles win the AL East.
I’m also not very confident in the Washington Nationals. I can’t explain why exactly. After all, they have a very good pitching staff whose starting rotation and bullpen both rank third in ERA. However, I’m not crazy about their offense (17th in batting average in MLB) and I still have more faith in the Mets’ terrific pitching staff. Plus, with Stephen Strasburg’s health always a question mark and Max Scherzer continuing to eat up a lot of innings, the Nationals biggest strength might turn into one of their main weaknesses down the stretch.
Now it’s time for my predictions. As of today (July 5th), here are what the AL and NL playoff fields look like:
And here’s how I think the postseason field will look like by seasons’s end.
But the real fun part is making playoff predictions. Here’s what I think will happen.
Wild Card Round
The main reason I have Giants over Indians is because it was my exact preseason World Series prediction back in March. Why not stick with it? Even though though the Cubs are a juggernaut, we’re starting to see some chinks in their armor. San Francisco’s pitching staff is just as great and they also have valuable postseason experience to rely on. As for Cleveland, they have far and away the best pitching staff in the AL with the likes of Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, and Carlos Carrasco. Moreover, while all the other AL contenders have serious flaws, the Indians are the most well-rounded of the bunch. And how about this for irony: Another championship battle between the Bay Area and Cleveland. Only this time, the Giants will get revenge for what the Cavaliers did to the Warriors and win their fourth World Series in six years. It sounds too good to be true, right?
Jake Arrieta photo courtesy of CSNChicago; Team logos courtesy of sportslogos.net