How each division race has already changed

August 6th, 2020

Two weeks in, the Wite-Out’s out.

In this shortened 2020 MLB season, what we think we know about a particular playoff race can be edited abruptly. Early events, outcomes and injuries are already providing reason for rewrites.

So let’s amend what we were saying on Opening Day by doing a little division revision.

Was: “The Yankees’ biggest threat is the Rays.”
Is: “The Yankees’ biggest threat is … the Orioles?!”

The Yankees are who we thought they were. No, wait, they’re actually even better than we thought they were, because we’re finally seeing what this lineup looks like when Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are at full strength.

I’m one of the many who felt the shortened season improved the chances of the Rays keeping the Yanks honest, but a brutal (and winless) season-opening road trip to Atlanta and Baltimore took a lot of shine off the Tampa Bay bandwagon and created a fun-but-in-all-likelihood-fleeting Baltimore bandwagon. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays have been wandering the country without a home (perhaps moving into Buffalo next week will finally give them some small sense of stability) and the Red Sox pitching staff is not safe for work. The Yankees might just waltz to the East title. And if the Rays’ offense ever plays to its potential, they still have the best chance (57%, per FanGraphs) of claiming second place and its accompanying postseason spot.

Was: “The Indians and White Sox both have a chance to take down the Twins.”
Is: “Nelson Cruz just drove in three runs, and the Twins aren’t even up to bat!”

Entering Wednesday, Cruz was 14-for-19 with 14 RBIs with runners on base, powering an offense that has been among baseball’s best … and yet really hasn’t kicked into full gear (new acquisition Josh Donaldson has dealt with a calf issue). The Twins’ pitching staff has been really good but will have to weather the current absences of Jake Odorizzi, Homer Bailey and Rich Hill.

Long story short: The Central still runs through Minnesota. Though the White Sox are showing us what all the fuss was about with regard to their new-look lineup (Luis Robert is the truth), they’ve had a recent crop of shoulder injuries (Reynaldo López and Carlos Rodón in the rotation and Nick Madrigal and Edwin Encarnación in the lineup) that will be difficult to manage. And the Indians have had superior pitching but very little offense (their outfielders had a disastrous .128/.250/.165 slash).

Things could still accelerate here. But for now, the Twins are in Cruz control.

Was: “The Astros have their challenges but are still the clear favorites.”
Is: “Who’s this guy pitching for the Astros?!”

The Astros have lost their ace (Justin Verlander), their closer (Roberto Osuna) and various other arms in-between. In their first 10 games, they had eight relievers make their Major League debut. There are maternity wards with fewer fresh faces than the Astros’ bullpen.

So Houston’s winning record, at this juncture, is sort of a minor miracle. Despite all the noise that was made about the noise that they made, the Astros’ bats remain among the best in the game. But how much can one team take on the pitching injury front?

An opportunity exists here for an upstart in the West, and right now -- with the Shohei Ohtani and Corey Kluber injuries looming as big factors for the Angels and Rangers, respectively -- the A’s are the only team that appears inclined to explore it. If the A’s continue to get the pitching it has had to date, then all it might to take for them to assert themselves as the West’s best is Matt Chapman, Matt Olson and Marcus Semien (all of whom have started slowly) performing to their capabilities. The Astros are still the favorites here, but the gap between them and the A’s has closed significantly. Get me rewrite!

Was: “This is the best division in baseball!”
Is: “This is a division in baseball.”

Between the Braves losing four-fifths of their original projected rotation, the Nationals playing their first eight games without Juan Soto, the Marlins and Phillies both missing more than a week of action due to COVID-19 protocols, and the Mets … well, just having a very Mets-like start … the NL East hasn’t been quite the barn-burner we hoped it would be.

Atlanta’s unforeseen rotation depletion hasn’t prevented the defending division champs from getting off to a strong start, and they went into Wednesday with a FanGraphs-calculated 55.3% chance of claiming the crown again (that’s a 26.9% jump from Opening Day). But patching those holes behind Max Fried will be difficult, especially in an environment not likely to produce much impact trade activity. And you haven’t heard the last from the Nats, Mets and Phillies (and even the Fish have been frisky in what little we’ve seen of them). So while the start has been especially bumpy in the NL East, the seeds of an entertaining race remain.

Was: “This will be a four-team race!”
Is: “This is a race to catch the Cubbies.”

The Reds’ aggressive winter made them media darlings, the Cardinals are the defending division champs and the Brewers always find a way to tinker their way to a competitive team. But it’s the Cubs who have stormed out the chute in the shortened season.

Having a veteran-laden roster of guys who have played together for a relatively long while seems to have benefited the North Siders, who have bought into the idea of protecting each other and (after a winter filled with trade rumors) making the most of whatever time their current core has left together. The Cubs have gotten unexpectedly exceptional pitching from Alec Mills and Tyler Chatwood to make the rotation a real strength, and that’s helped them overcome the shakiness we’ve seen from the bullpen (and Craig Kimbrel, in particular).

The Cardinals’ COVID complications, the Reds’ erratic start offensively and Lorenzo Cain’s decision to not play all affect the odds here. As of this writing, the Cubs have raised their FanGraphs-calculated chances of winning the Central from 30.2% to 65%.

Was: “This is the Dodgers’ domain.”
Is: “Hey, look, there are other teams here, too!”

An obscure stat that suddenly became relevant when the 60-game season was announced: The Rockies had a 37-23 stretch last season … and they also had a 16-44 stretch. With the team largely untouched in the offseason, it was fair to wonder which one would show up in the shortened schedule. We appear to have the answer. Thanks to Germán Márquez, Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela and Jon Gray, the rotation has seen a big bounceback after a severe regression last season. And the offense has been buoyed by an MVP-caliber start from Trevor Story and fun returns to prominence from Daniel Murphy and Matt Kemp.

Then there are the Padres, whose time may have finally come. Though the bullpen has been a surprising weakness so far, the rotation has been solid and the lineup (in which Fernando Tatis Jr., Wil Myers and offseason pickup Trent Grisham have stood out) has been substantially more disciplined.

This doesn’t really change the math for the Dodgers (their odds of winning the division have actually gone up), but it does make the race for that important second-place slot a lot more interesting.