We have reached the point of the season when you have to start taking the MLB standings seriously.
We're essentially two weeks from the season's midpoint, and considering the last two months of the season often involve teams jockeying both toward and away from the top of the standings, this is the most pivotal time of the year. By June 20, you should no longer be talking about what your team could do, you should be talking about what they are doing.
But the problem with staring at the standings -- as I tend to do myself around this time of year -- is that they are a moving target. Each day in the standings, you see a mere snapshot of a moment in time that vanishes almost immediately. When a game is played, it's not a data point of just one game; you have to keep in mind the game's context. A Red Sox win over the Yankees is the same in the standings as a Red Sox win over the Marlins, except ... of course, it isn't. Of course it's more than that.
That's why, when I look at the standings, I use a little tool called Simple Ratings System (SRS), invented by the great minds at Sports-Reference.com, and initially designed to help predict NFL games.
The back-of-napkin explanation for SRS is that it attempts to predict how -- on a neutral field, in a neutral environment -- a particular team would do against a league-average team. If you have, say, an SRS of 1.0, you would be favored to beat an average team by one run a game; if you have an SRS of -1.0, you would be projected to lose to an average team by one run a game; if you have an SRS of 0.0, you are an average team.
That sort of "how many runs you'd win by in an average game" business has less utility in baseball than it does in football. But what I enjoy most about SRS, and what I find most useful, are the two primary components in calculating it: average margin of victory (in baseball's case, your runs scored vs. runs allowed), and strength of schedule.
We don't talk about strength of schedule much in baseball, but we probably should. The schedule is not only unbalanced, it also isn't constructed in a linear manner; the teams you play in the first two months of the season can look a lot different than the ones you play in the final two months. Schedule counts, particularly when you have the Trade Deadline, when everyone has to make some serious decisions with two months remaining.
The standings don't tell you anything about schedule. But SRS does.
It's a quick-and-dirty tool, absolutely, and it's not perfect. Like many run-differential stats, it gives too much credit for blowout wins, and many opponents look a lot different in September than they do in April. But as an additive to the standings, and a potentially predictive measure, I find it extremely helpful.
So, almost halfway through the season, here are five takeaways from looking at MLB teams' SRS numbers, observations you might not discover from the standings page itself.
1. The Astros are even better than you think.
Currently, the Astros have an SRS of 2.1, which is by far the highest in baseball; they would be expected, on a normal day, to beat an average team by two runs, which is remarkable. In fact, if they played the Royals -- who have baseball's worst SRS, at -2.1 -- they would be expected to beat them by four runs. That's not even a save situation.
How good are the Astros right now? The best SRS in 2017 belonged to the Indians, who had an SRS of 1.5. The 1961 Yankees had an SRS of 1.2. The best mark of the last 20 years? The 2001 Mariners at 1.9. The 1927 Yankees? 2.1.
The Astros are pretty good!
2. The Cubs are pretty clearly the best team in the National League.
They might be battling the Brewers for the top of the division, but long term, the Cubs look golden. They're at 1.3 SRS, which is the exact number they had in their storied 2016 season. The Brewers are at 0.6 -- good, but not in the Cubs' league.
And the other division competitor, their old rival, the Cardinals? Right smack in the middle at 0.0 -- average. After the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, many thought it was only the beginning of many years of Cubs dominance. It looks to be happening.
3. Average teams are not created equally average.
Speaking of those Cardinals, look at the teams all around the 0.2/-0.2 range, the "average" teams:
• Seattle 0.2
• Cleveland 0.2
• St. Louis 0.0
• Pittsburgh 0.0
• Oakland 0.0
• San Francisco -0.1
• Tampa Bay -0.2
• NY Mets -0.2
There is an infinitesimal difference between 0.2 and -0.2; it's a difference that could be wiped away in one or two days. But the difference between the Mariners' and Indians' chances of making the playoffs and the Rays' and Mets'? Not infinitesimal. Context is everything.
4. Cleveland is very lucky to be in the AL Central.
The difference between the Indians' 2017 SRS and '18 SRS is 1.3 runs a game, the sort of massive drop you'd expect after a team did a major selloff, not one that brought nearly everybody back for a World Series run.
But three of the six worst teams in baseball according to SRS are in the AL Central: The Tigers (25th), the White Sox (28th) and the Royals (30th). And the Twins are 21st. The Indians are the only above-average team in the division, and just barely at that.
5. The AL Wild Card race isn't likely to get any more exciting any time soon.
Surprisingly, the Angels, despite being 7 1/2 games behind Seattle in the Wild Card standings, have a higher SRS than the Mariners, largely because of the Mariners' good fortune in one-run games. (The Angels still have a better run differential than the Mariners.) But it's a long way down after those two; the only average team or better in the Wild Card "chase" is Oakland, at 0.0.
In other words: If you're looking for an underperforming team that's going to make a run, you're unlikely to find one. If there is one, it's probably the Angels.
• The Braves are one of the five best teams in baseball.
• The D-backs look stable after their huge dip in May.
• The Padres might be better than the Rockies.
But that's the beauty of SRS: You'll be able to find just as many oddities and curiosities in a month as you do now. SRS doesn't tell you everything, but the standings don't either. Together, you can get the full picture. From seeing what has happened, you can guess what will happen next.
Until we are all wrong again.
Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.