Are the standings upside down? A division-by-division look

May 18th, 2023

Projections, in many ways, exist to remind us not to get too carried away with what our eyes are telling us. The season may be one-quarter over, but as much as we might believe that one-quarter of the season is the totality of everything that matters, it isn’t. It’s only a fourth, after all. Projections are here to remind us of the three-quarters of the season we can’t see yet.

To try to make sense of all of this, we’ve selected two teams from each division whose current records are virtually opposite of what most of us expected, and use the most recent FanGraphs projections as our baseline. Will the updated projections (which account for preseason expectations and bake in what we’ve seen so far) prove to be correct? I’ll tell you what I think!

And because stories like this seem to often lead with the East divisions, let’s start out West.

American League West: Rangers-Astros
Current: Rangers up 2 games

Projected: Astros by 2

The Rangers have been one of baseball’s best stories, jumping out to the fourth-best record in the sport despite not getting all that much from Jacob deGrom and Corey Seager (though the star shortstop was activated from the IL on Wednesday). Meanwhile, the Astros, the defending champs, have been mostly middling, bouncing back and forth around the .500 mark while dealing with rotation injury issues and a lineup that’s not nearly as deep as we’ve all become accustomed to seeing an Astros lineup look. That has led to a two-game lead for the Rangers over their in-state rivals: In 2015, when they won the AL West, the Rangers never had bigger than a 4 1/2-game lead.

But these are still the Astros. Jose Altuve will be back soon, and the general sense is that the Astros will start to look a lot more like the Astros once he returns. The projections certainly have more faith in the Astros -- who are 2.5 games up on the Angels and three games up on the Mariners -- than they do the other teams in their division, putting them a full eight games up on both these teams in the final standings. The dispassionate projections aren’t supposed to look at the names on the front of team’s jerseys, but we sure will: We’ll believe the Astros will give up control of this division when we see it.

Believe the projections? Yes

American League Central: White Sox-Tigers
Current: Tigers up 4 1/2 games
Projected Standings: White Sox up 1

First off, yes, we know: These are hardly the top two teams in this division. But we’re focusing on them for two reasons. First, the projections are incredibly high on the Twins, giving them an eight-game cushion on the Guardians and a double-digit-game cushion on both of these teams. The real reason, though, is how different the expectations were for both the Tigers and the White Sox coming into this season. The White Sox were thought, with a new manager, to be legitimate AL Central contenders; the Tigers were just considered fortunate to have 2022 finally be over. But the Tigers have been plucky in the early going, spending most of the season in second place. The White Sox? The White Sox have not been plucky, let’s say that.

If the Tigers are in a position to finish higher than the White Sox -- a team that is farther along its hypothetical “contention window” than their Michigan counterparts -- that would say something very clear and fascinating about where this division is standing moving forward. But the tell here is that even with the White Sox’s supposed “surge” to catch up with the Tigers, they’re still projected for 74 wins. If the White Sox are running at that pace come the Trade Deadline, it’s fair to presume that they will look a lot different after Aug. 1 than they would before -- a lot worse. The Tigers probably aren’t a .463 team. But they sure look like the third-place team in this division. That is progress, anyway.

Believe the projections? No

American League East: Yankees-Orioles
Current Standings: Orioles up 4 games
Projected: Yankees by 5

Now this is what we’d call a gap. It is one thing to think that the Yankees are going to be a lot better in the final three-quarters of the season than they are now. It is quite another to think the Orioles are going to fall this far. The Orioles have the second-best record in baseball, but FanGraphs thinks they’re ultimately barely a .500 team: 84.5 wins. For what it’s worth, for the Orioles to end up with an 85-77 record, they’d have to play at a 59-63 pace. Please, Orioles fans, do not hit your computer with a baseball bat right now.

This makes this question two-pronged: Do you think the Orioles are this bad moving forward, and do you think the Yankees will be this good? (FanGraphs has them as an 89-win team, which would be the third-best record in the American League ... and this division.) It is one thing to be that optimistic about the Yankees, which is reasonable. It is quite another to be this pessimistic about the Orioles. Is it possible the Yankees will end up passing the Orioles in the standings? Definitely. But to be 5 games ahead of them by the end of the year? To be eight games better than the Orioles moving forward? The Yankees do not look eight games better than the Orioles from this angle -- to say the least.

Believe the projections? No

National League West: Padres-D-backs
Current: D-backs up 5 games
Projected Standings: Padres by 2

Another big gap here, though this says more about how the projections feel about the D-backs than they do the Padres. After all, the D-backs are a full 4 1/2 games ahead of the Giants -- a team few had targeted as a real contender this year -- but thinks they’ll only be one ahead of them by the end of the year. That’s kind of wild, when you think about it: FanGraphs thinks the Giants will be 3 1/2 games better than the D-backs moving forward. We’re not sure that checks out.

But we’re not talking about the Giants now: We’re talking about the Padres. For the Padres to get three games ahead of the D-backs by season’s end, they’ll have to be seven games better moving forward. That, so you know, only gets them to 86 wins, which, in this already-parity-driven season, would give them the No. 1 NL Wild Card spot. (Directly behind them: The Mets and Phillies, two teams the projections are feeling better about than their fans are.)

It shouldn’t be an insult to the D-backs to say that the Padres have more talent than they do; it’s certainly not out of left field that the Padres would be seen as currently in a low ebb. Seven games is a lot of games. But the Padres, we guess, are going to be seven games or more better than many teams moving forward ... including the D-backs.

Believe the projections? Yes

National League Central: Cardinals-Pirates
Current: Pirates up 5.5 games
Projected: Cardinals by 5

The gap between these two teams has been a big question since the beginning of the season, since the Pirates bolted out to their huge division lead. But probably all you need to know about what FanGraphs sees is that the Pirates were 10 games up on the Cardinals about a week-and-a-half ago and are now only 5.5 up. They lost four-plus games in 11 days. That’s a good sign that they may lose a lot more than that over the next four months.

The real question here is how hard it’s going to be for St. Louis to win this division ... or even make a race of it against the Brewers. FanGraphs thinks the Cardinals will be the best team in this division the rest of the way, 2 1/2 games better than the Brewers, which is not nearly enough to make up a 6 1/2-game current deficit. Is this division race already over?

Believe the projections? Yes

National League East: Marlins-Mets
Current: Marlins up 1 1/2 games
Projected: Mets by 3

It might be difficult to persuade a Mets fan that they’re still in good shape, but FanGraphs certainly thinks they’re in good shape. Or at least in better shape than the Marlins, who, for their one-game-over-.500 record, have been buoyed by an absurd and totally unsustainable record in one-run games (14-1). That should even out down the stretch, to say the least. And the Mets, well ... if they’re hovering below .500 moving forward like they have been so far, projections are the least of their concerns.

It definitely should be pointed out, though, that the Marlins have already cut into half of the Mets’ projected 10-game advantage they had over them at the beginning of the season. It was Mets by 10 on March 30. Still, though: The Mets are going to have an upswing moving forward; they have to ... right?

Believe the projections? Yes