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Don't buy the win-loss records of these teams

@williamfleitch
April 25, 2019

We are far along enough in the season that checking out the standings isn’t an exercise in absurdity. If your team is in last place, it doesn’t mean the season’s over by any stretch of the imagination … but it’s maybe time to start kicking matters into gear. Teams have

We are far along enough in the season that checking out the standings isn’t an exercise in absurdity. If your team is in last place, it doesn’t mean the season’s over by any stretch of the imagination … but it’s maybe time to start kicking matters into gear. Teams have roughly played 15 percent of their games. We’re in the thick of it now.

But while the standings are enticing at this stage, they can also be deceiving. Bill Parcells might have said “you are what your record says you are,” but teams know that isn’t entirely true; the Tigers might be only 1 1/2 games out of first right now, but they’re probably not going to make “win-now” trades anytime soon.

So, today -- one-sixth of the way through the season -- we take a look at teams whose records may be a bit deceiving at this particular standings snapshot, using both teams’ run differentials and Baseball Reference’s Simple Rating System, which accounts for strength of schedule. Records, after all, are not always what they seem.

Here are four teams that are probably better than their record, and four that might be worse. And then there are the Red Sox … we’ll get to them. (Records and run differentials listed in parentheses.)

BETTER THAN THEIR RECORD

Angels (9-16, -15 runs): It certainly isn’t ideal for the Angels to celebrate their Mike Trout extension by being in last place in the American League West, already 6 1/2 games out of first, tied for the largest deficit in the Majors. But their Simple Rating System (SRS) number is -0.1 -- SRS tracks a team's run differential against a league-average team -- which essentially puts the Angels as a slightly below .500 team. (They’ve played an unusually difficult schedule so far.) Of course, the Angels have higher hopes than that, so there is still a lot of work to do. As usual, Trout is everything for this team; he has a higher WAR than the next four best Angels players combined.

Blue Jays (11-14, +2 runs): The Blue Jays weren’t considered a particularly serious AL East contender heading into the season, and they’re already five games out of first place. But they shouldn’t be under .500. They’ve actually outscored their opponents this season, thanks largely to a rotation that has been much better than expected. That might be a little inflated, though, considering their best pitcher so far, Matt Shoemaker, tore the ACL in his left knee and is out for the season.

Cubs (12-10, +23 runs): The Cubs’ nightmare start stoked fears that the season would spiral out of control, but they have steadied the ship and now look as formidable as they usually do. They have the second-best run differential in the National League, and they’ve won seven of their past eight games. Key to their resurgence have been strong bounceback campaigns from Willson Contreras and Jason Heyward, who have overcome rough 2018 seasons to leap out to the best starts of their careers. As usual, the Cubs aren’t going anywhere.

Reds (9-14, +3 runs): Few teams undertook a more radical offseason makeover than the Reds, who brought in Yasiel Puig, Sonny Gray, Matt Kemp, Jose Iglesias and Tanner Roark to inject some life into the franchise. Unfortunately, Cincinnati stumbled right out of the gate, losing eight of its first nine games. The Reds have been slowly crawling out of that hole since, and they’ve been streaky: somehow, just 23 games into the season, they have a five-game winning streak, a three-game winning streak, an eight-game losing streak and a four-game losing streak. That all evens out a +3 run differential. The Reds have had a difficult early schedule, as well, though that is beginning to look like an occupational hazard in the NL Central.

WORSE THAN THEIR RECORD

Brewers (13-13, -14 runs): Lost in the monster start by Christian Yelich is how wobbly the rest of Milwaukee's roster has looked. Yasmani Grandal, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas are hitting, but Ryan Braun, Travis Shaw, Orlando Arcia and especially Jesus Aguilar (who is hitting .132/.231/.162) are not. Zach Davies has been the only effective starting pitcher, and that vaunted bullpen that nearly got the Brewers to the World Series last year has sprung a few leaks. (Even Josh Hader has given up three homers already.) The Brewers have lost four in a row to drop to .500, and they have the worst run differential in a brutal division.

Mets (13-11, -12 runs): The Mets are in first place! Huzzah! Alas, the underlying metrics hint at potential doom. They’re the only one of the four NL East contenders with a negative run differential, and even that is buoyed by a blowout of the Phillies on Tuesday. The offense, often the issue for the Mets the last few years, hasn’t been the problem; just about everyone in the lineup is performing at or above their career norms, and even Robinson Cano has started to heat up. But the rotation has been a bummer, particularly Noah Syndergaard, who somehow has a 5.90 ERA. The Mets are probably going to remain in the playoff race deep into the season, but if they don’t get that pitching figured out, they won’t be in first place for long.

Padres (14-11, -13 runs): The Padres are a team that everyone wants to be good. They’re young, they’re exciting, they’re emergent. They are, however, not as good right now as their record implies. Despite being just a half-game out of first, they have a worse run differential than the last-place Giants. There’s a learning curve here, and maybe the Padres will be better in September than they are now, but they have not, so far, demonstrated the fundamentals of a winning team.

Tigers (12-11, -15 runs): It’s just fun to see the Tigers over .500, with Matthew Boyd baffling guys, Spencer Turnbull and Tyson Ross doing their thing and Shane Greene suddenly looking like the most dominant closer in the sport. But this can’t last. The Tigers’ run differential is almost exactly the same as that of the White Sox and the Royals, and they’ve already won four one-run games. The good news is that players like Greene and Ross are upping their trade value, which will likely end up being their most lasting contributions.

A final note here on the Red Sox, the defending champs, who have stumbled to a 10-15 start. Know that their run differential will provide no solace. At -36, Boston's record should probably be worse. In fact, if you use Bill James' old Pythagorean method of using run differential to predict a team’s record, they should be 9-16.