What do we really know about this season?
The All-Star Game is the holy line of demarcation between the first and second half of the season. Dip your toe ever so gently across it and you’ve entered the second half of the season. Beware, friend! This is the time when we know who is good and who isn’t, who should sell at the upcoming trade deadline and who should buy. It’s all cut and dried, like beef jerky. Just look at the standings and, like listening to Donald Trump, all the secrets of the world will be revealed! By now, we know a lot about the season, much more than we did in March. Except, actually no, not really we don’t.
Last season’s standings featured the Orioles, Tigers, A’s, Nationals, Brewers (yes, seriously, the Brewers), and Dodgers in first place at the All-Star break. During the second half of the season, the teams with the best records in those divisions were the Orioles, Royals, Angels, Nationals, Pirates, and Dodgers. There are certainly some similarities between those lists, but they’re clearly not the same either. The A’s and Brewers completely fell apart while the Royals and Angels got hot. Things aren’t always as they seem after one half season of baseball.
As FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan wrote here last week, pre-season projections are, on the whole, a better indicator of how the second half of the season will go than the games played in the first half. Even this late in the season, good projections can help us look past the noise in the data that comes from one half season of baseball. This is an important point because it’s so easy to look at the standings and start to cross teams off the list of prospective playoff contenders. Instead, we’re going to cast a larger net by looking at some projections for the rest of the season, and explore how they jive with what we’ve seen so far.
FanGraphs publishes rest-of-season projections on the site and, looking through them for this piece, I noticed the Boston Red Sox have the best projected record in the second half of any team in the American League. Only the Nationals and Dodgers are projected to beat Boston’s projected .538 second-half winning percentage. That’s a bit surprising for a number of reasons, but mostly because the Red Sox have been terrible.
Part of what has impacted the Red Sox record to date has been that their offense started the season in a team-wide slump. The last month of the season has seen them perform more like the good offensive team that was expected by scoring the third most runs of any team in baseball. With no significant long-term injuries (Dustin Pedroia is expected back in the lineup before the week is out), that stands a strong chance of continuing. However, Boston’s starting rotation has been a mess and their bullpen doesn’t have anywhere near the depth to cover for it. This is problematic.
The projections are based on the team’s depth charts so it’s likely they see rookie Brian Johnson stepping in effectively long term in one of the team’s back-of-the-rotation spots. That would give Boston a rotation of Eduardo Rodriguez, Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, Johnson, and if he’s healthy, Clay Buchholz of the 2.62 FIP leading the way. That’s not bad, and even better if Porcello remembers how to throw his sinker. If Buchholz can’t get back anytime soon- and this is a man who missed three months because he slept wrong on his shoulder – then it’s much easier to take a significantly dimmer view of Boston’s abilities.
Regardless of Buchholz though, the end result here is that the projections are reminding us, actually, this Boston team isn’t as bad as they’ve looked over the first half of the season. The problem is, even with the best record in the AL, it won’t be enough to overcome the 6.5 game hole they’ve already dug for themselves in the division. If the team hadn’t effectively taken May off they’d be in the thick of things, but seven-game deficits in the loss column are huge, even with 73 games remaining. It sounds strange to suggest the team with the best projected record in the second half should sell but that’s how badly Boston has underperformed to this point.
Moving to the National League Central division, the Cardinals are 2.5 games ahead of the Pirates and eight games ahead of the Cubs. Eight games is the difference between a basement apartment and the penthouse suite, but the second-half projections see all the teams as exactly equal, showing a .536 winning percentage for each between now and the end of the season. That does two things. It confirms the deficit between the three teams and it says that even though the Cardinals are eight games up on Chicago, their true talent level isn’t much different.
Over in the National League West, the Padres, havers of the most exciting offseason in the history of having off-seasons, are acting like they are your dad’s old Padres after all. As such, they’ve fallen 10 games behind the Dodgers in the National League West. The projections would have to hate the Dodgers with the heat of a thousand suns or one Florida summer to show the Padres catching L.A. And they don’t, so it’s time for all those “Padres: 2015 NL West Champs” t-shirts to get boxed up and sent to Zimbabwe (although the Brewers were a game up on St. Louis this time last season and finished eight games back so, this being baseball, the old ‘never say never’ cliche always applies).
Reports indicate the Padres have noticed this and are considering selling some significant pieces like James Shields who they just signed to a long-term contract this past offseason. Finishing the season 37-33 is hardly the stuff of champions after starting the season eight games under .500, but it should hearten Padres fans somewhat that the core of this team is a better one than they’ve showed so far this season and maybe wholesale changes, like dealing Shields, aren’t as necessary as the standings currently show.
It’s not that the end-of-season projections are always right, infallible, or some other such silliness. They’re not. Few saw the Orioles doing much last season and then again during the All-Star break it was time to remind everyone that, hey, the Orioles aren’t really this good, except as it turned out, the Orioles kept winning anyway. That could happen again. Perhaps the Twins can keep their ball rolling uphill or the Mets will continue to demonstrate that you don’t actually need to score any runs to win baseball games.
The point isn’t that those things won’t happen so much as that they are unlikely to happen, just as the Twins’ success, and the Red Sox pulling a reverse Twins, and the Cardinals winning big regardless of how many starters it seems like they pulled from Double-A were all also unlikely to happen this season. But then that’s baseball. A huge group of unlikely events. But it’s important to remember that, although it’s the unlikely events we’re more likely to remember, it’s the more likely events that are more likely to keep happening.