The late writer Hunter S. Thompson once said, “with the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as objective journalism.” While that’s a debate we’ll (perhaps wisely) leave for another day, it is fair to assume that if Thompson would have thought to include “baseball standings” in that formulation, he would have. That is the beauty of the standings page, after all: It simply tabulates who wins or loses, and that's it. “You are what your record says you are,” said legendary NFL coach Bill Parcells, who probably was not friends with Hunter S. Thompson. The standings are pure, unadulterated facts.
They do, however, fail to tell the whole story. They require some context. So when you look at a team’s place in the standings, remember that you are seeing a fixed point in a perpetually shifting landscape, a freeze-frame that’s going to change immediately. And there are ways to tell how that story might change. You have to take into account run differential, schedule difficulty, seasonal context and, of course, those pesky projection systems.
Thus: Here are seven teams (listed alphabetically) whose spots in the standings might look a certain way right now but might look very different soon. You have to look past the standings to see the whole picture: You have to see where the standings might be lying.
Run differential: +32
Like a lot of divisions, the AL West is a bit of a mess right now, and the Astros are right in the middle of it, two games above .500 but in third place. But using Simple Rating System, a formula that takes into account the competition level of teams already played and yet to be played, as well as run differential, the Astros have been the best team in baseball so far. Their SRS number is 0.9, which means they’d beat an average team on a neutral field by an average of 0.9 runs (or, uh, “one run”). A quicker way to say that is that they’re a run better than the average baseball team. This definitely makes sense: They’ve outscored their opponents by a number of runs that would imply a record two games better than they have … and they haven’t even gotten to play the Rangers yet.
Run differential: -5
And here’s the downside of that Astros scenario. It’s not difficult to see why the A’s record -- their first-place record -- might not be the best indicator of what kind of team they are so far. After all, they started their season horribly, then turned it around to win 13 games in a row. The team they are is obviously somewhere in the middle. But there’s reason for Oakland fans to worry that the club is closer to the team it was at the beginning. The biggest thing is that the A's still haven’t outscored their opponents, which is a legitimately difficult thing to do when you have a 13-game winning streak on your resume. SRS thinks they’re not only worse than the Astros, it thinks they’re worse than the Mariners.
Run differential: -2
During their first two wins against the Dodgers over the past weekend, it sure looked like the Brewers were establishing themselves as the class of a somewhat muddled division. And while they and the Cardinals may be on the cusp of putting some distance between themselves and the three teams chasing them, there are reasons to be skeptical. The numbers do not see Milwaukee's incredible starting-pitching numbers thus far to be possible for anyone to pull off for a whole season, and the struggles of the offense, even with Christian Yelich's return, have been well-documented. (Particularly now that Omar Narváez is hurt.) SRS believes the Brewers are a step behind the Cardinals and moving forward. It is also worth noting that SRS is actually higher on the Reds the rest of the way than it is on the Cardinals.
Run differential: +4
Good luck making heads or tails out of the NL East at this point. Just when you’re ready to write off the Nationals, they’re in first place and you’re not sure how that possibly happened. But the one thing the metrics all agree on is that the Marlins are a lot better than their record is showing right now. They’re the only team in the division with a positive run differential, and, in fact, no one else in the division is particularly close. (Fun fact: Heading into Monday, the Orioles had a better run differential than every non-Marlins team in the NL East.) Unfortunately for Miami, that run differential has been distributed in a way that has them five games under .500. The good news is that if they can crawl their way back to .500, in this division, that might just get them to first place.
Run differential: -11
There isn’t much to be joyous about in Colorado right now -- though that All-Star Game is going to be a blast -- but you should know that, all told, the Rockies aren’t quite as bad as their record shows. Colorado was eight games under .500 heading into Monday, but its run differential, like the Orioles’, was also better than all the non-Marlins teams in the NL East. The key to this has been the Rockies' pitching, which has not been bad so far, at least from some spots in the rotation. They have the second-best strikeout rate in franchise history so far, and they’ve gotten more contributions out of hitters like Ryan McMahon, Dom Nuñez and C.J. Cron than you might have expected so far. The bad news is that they’re in the stacked NL West, and thus, even if they improve, it might not matter.
Run differential: -5
No team exemplifies the fungible nature of the standings more than the Royals, who, entering play on Monday, had the best record in baseball. Having the best record in baseball is great: It’s all you could possibly hope for! But Kansas City is really dancing between the raindrops here. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Royals are the first team in the Modern Era (since 1900) to have at least a share of the best record in MLB while having a negative run differential at least 25 games into the season. The prior most games into a season for a team to have MLB's best record and a negative run differential was 23 games into the season, by the 1926 Dodgers (who had a -1 run differential at that time). This is another way of saying, “The Royals may very well be playing far, far over their heads right now.” The Royals have a one- or two-game lead -- depending -- on the White Sox. It would behoove them to add to that lead as much as they can, while they can.
Run differential: +14
And now is the point when we attempt, perhaps foolishly, to calm Yankees fans. Sure, New York required a sweep of the lowly Tigers over the weekend just to get back to .500. But even as sluggishly as the Yankees have played so far, SRS still sees them as much better than a .500 team, and they haven’t even gotten everything clicking yet. If anything, they should actually have a win or two more than they do already. They should be trending up. The only bad news about that: the Blue Jays and the Red Sox -- the two teams above them in the division -- should be, too.