Every year we forget this, but it remains true: A look at the standings is just a snapshot in time. One year ago on this date, the Chicago Cubs were closing in on first place in the NL Central, the first-place team in the NL West (a division in which the Giants and Dodgers both ultimately won more than 105 games) was San Diego, and the eventual champion Braves were under .500. In two months, you’ll forget where everything was standing on May 24.
So the standings themselves can be deceiving. This is for a variety of reasons, but there are two major ones:
- Basic Pythagorean principles. You can often get a better sense of a team’s true talent level by looking at their runs scored vs. runs allowed than you can by looking at the standings themselves.
- Strength of schedule. On the whole, teams in the same division will, by the end of the season, have played similar schedules. But at the quarter-mark of the season, this is not necessarily the case. Some teams have played tough schedules; some have played easier ones. The standings cannot tell us this -- not yet.
These two concepts are accounted for in one of my favorite quick-and-dirty stats: Baseball Reference’s Simple Rating System. This number, which takes into account both runs scored/allowed and strength of schedule, attempts to calculate how many runs a team would be expected to beat an average team by in an average game. The 1927 Yankees would be expected to beat the average team by 2.1 runs; the historically terrible 2003 Tigers would be expected to lose to them by that exact amount. It can tell you who is better than the standings make them look, and who is worse.
And it can tell us plenty right now. Thus, using the Simple Ratings System (and a little bit of common sense), here are four teams, listed in order by where they rank in SRS, that are probably better than they look in the standings, and four who look worse.
Cardinals (0.9 SRS, 6th)
OK, so you have to account a little bit for the last two Sundays of St. Louis Cardinals baseball. The Cardinals outscored the Giants and Pirates 33-10 on those two days, though, to be fair, if they had pitched someone other than Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina in the ninth innings of those games, it would have been 33-2. Still, that has contributed to the Cardinals currently having the second-best run differential in the National League despite being 2.5 games behind the Brewers in the NL Central. Another reason they might be in that spot? They’ve played the Reds, Pirates and Cubs only nine times (they’re 7-2); the Brewers have played them 18 times (they’re 13-5). The Cardinals have nine more games of fattening up on those teams than the Brewers do.
Phillies (0.9 SRS, 7th)
The Phillies feel like a team that should have a better record than it does, and SRS very much agrees. They’re another team whose run differential belies their under-.500 record, but their schedule has been tough too. They’ve already played their seven games against the Dodgers -- going 4-3, no less -- and they’ve played half of their 19 games against the first-place Mets as well. And they haven’t played last-place Washington at all.
Giants (0.6 SRS, 9th)
The Giants are in third place in the NL West which, it must be said, is exactly where they were at this point last year. (And they ended with 107 wins.) So one assumes Giants fans aren’t fretting too much, but if they are, they should stop. The Giants’ Pythag record matches their actual one, but they’ve also played every other team in the National League with a winning record (the Padres, Dodgers, Cardinals, Mets and Brewers). They are 5 1/2 games behind those Padres despite having a higher SRS than those Padres (0.6). For what it’s worth, the Dodgers are only half a game up on the Padres despite having the best SRS in baseball, at 1.9.
Marlins (0.6 SRS, 10th)
The Marlins are in fourth place, but they’re better than their record. The issue here isn’t scheduling: It’s run distribution. The Marlins have outscored their opponents by 17 runs, which would, on average, give them a 22-18 record rather than an 18-22 one. They simply need their luck to even out in the second half. That doesn’t mean that will happen, of course. Only that, in a just world, it would.
Brewers (0.2 SRS, 12th)
The Brewers have gotten off to the best start in their 40-year history and are on pace to win 103 games. But the schedule has a lot to do with that. As mentioned, they’ve played over half of their games against the Reds, Cubs, Pirates, Nationals and Orioles. They'll have to play the Dodgers, Mets, Cardinals, and so on, very soon. They’ve split with the Cardinals 2-2 so far -- they have four more against them this weekend -- and the division may come down to all those head-to-head matchups.
Rays (0.0 SRS, 14th)
It is a generally held assumption that all advanced metrics must break in the Rays’ direction. After all, how else are they pulling it off? But the Rays, according to SRS, have been an average team this year. Their issue has been their schedule. They’ve played almost two-thirds of their games against teams under .500, including the Cubs, A’s (whom they’ve played seven times), Mariners and Orioles (whom they’ve played six). Meanwhile, they’ve played the Blue Jays only three times and they haven’t played the Yankees at all. They’ll have to beat the Yankees to win this division. They will have ample opportunity to do so.
Blue Jays (-0.1 SRS, 18th)
There has been a sense so far that the Blue Jays have sputtered but are still keeping their heads above water … and that they’re about to go on a run. That very well might happen, but their Pythag number actually argues they’re not as good as they’ve played. They’re two games over .500 but three games under by their Pythag number. It’s their schedule that allows them to break even: They’ve played the Yankees nine times, the Astros six times and the Rays and Red Sox a total of 10 times. And they haven’t played the Orioles once.
White Sox (-0.7 SRS, 24th)
For all the consternation there has been toward Tony La Russa and his managing style this year, you would think this was a powerhouse team losing close games on the margins. But SRS thinks the White Sox are a far below average team, worse, in fact, than the Mariners, the Red Sox and, gasp, the Cubs. (They have the same SRS as the Orioles.) Considering most of the White Sox’s best injured players will be back relatively soon, the fact that they are still staying above .500 and remaining in this race seems of vital importance. Maybe La Russa is doing something right, anyway.