We forget that every year, but the fact remains: A look at the ranking list is only a snapshot. On this day a year ago, the Chicago Cubs tied for 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 105+ games) was San Diego, and the eventual Champion Braves were under .500. In two months you will forget where everything was on May 24th.
So the ranking itself can be deceptive. This is for various reasons, but there are two main reasons:
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 the strength of the schedule, attempts to calculate how many runs a team would likely beat an average team by in an average game. The 1927 Yankees are expected to beat the average team by 2.1 runs; The historically terrible Tigers of 2003 would likely lose to them by exactly that amount. It can tell you who is better than the leaderboard suggests and who is worse.
And it can tell us a lot now. So, using the simple rating system (and a little common sense), here are four teams that are probably better than they appear on the chart and four that look worse.
Giants (0.8 SRS)
The Giants are third in the NL West, which, I have to say, is right where they were at this point last year. (And they ended with 107 wins.) So the assumption is that Giants fans aren’t worried too much, but if they are, they should stop. The Giants’ Pythag record matches their actual one, but they’ve also played against 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 these Padres despite having a higher SRS than these Padres (0.6). For what it’s worth, the Dodgers are only a half game ahead of the Padres despite having the best SRS in baseball at 1.9.
Cardinals (0.8 SRS)
OK, so you have to factor in the last two Sundays of St. Louis Cardinals baseball a bit. The Cardinals beat the Giants and Pirates 33-10 on those two days, but to be fair if they fielded anyone other than Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina in the ninth inning of those games it would have been 33-2. However, this has helped the Cardinals currently have 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 this spot? They’ve only played the Reds, Pirates and Cubs nine times (they’re 7-2); the Brewers have played them 18 times (they are 13-5). The Cardinals have nine more games to fatten up on these teams than the Brewers.
Phillies (0.8 SRS)
The Phillies feel like a team that should have a better record than it does, and SRS wholeheartedly agrees. They’re another team whose running difference belies their record of under .500, but their schedule was tough too. They’ve already played their seven games against the Dodgers — 4-3, no less — and they’ve also played half of their 19 games against the first-place Mets. And they didn’t play last place in Washington at all.
Marlin (0.6 SRS)
The Marlins are in fourth place, but they’re better than their record. The problem here isn’t timing: it’s run distribution. The Marlins have outrun their opponents by 17 runs, which would average them a 22-18 record rather than an 18-22 record. They just need their luck to equalize in the second half. That doesn’t mean that will happen of course. Only that would do in a just world.
Brewer (0.2 SRS)
The Brewers are off to the best start in their 40-year history and are on track to win 103 games. But the schedule has one much to do with. As mentioned, they’ve played over half of their games against the Reds, Cubs, Pirates, Nationals and Orioles. They have to play the Dodgers, Mets, Cardinals and so on very soon. They’re 2-2 with the Cardinals so far – they’ve got four more against them this weekend – and the division could boil down to all those head-to-heads.
Blue Jay (0.0 SRS)
So far, the feeling has been that the Blue Jays have stuttered but are still staying afloat… and that they’re on the verge of fleeing. That could very well happen, but their Pythag number actually argues that they’re not as good as they played. They’re two games over .500 but three games under 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 ten times. And they never played the Orioles once.
Rays (0.0 SRS)
It is a common assumption that all advanced metrics must break in the direction of the rays. How else do they do it? But the Rays have been an average team this year, according to SRS. Her problem was her schedule. They’ve played nearly 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). They’ve only played the Blue Jays three times since then and never played the Yankees at all. You must beat the Yankees to win this division. They will have ample opportunity to do so.
White Sox (-0.6 SRS)
For all the dismay there has been at Tony La Russa and his management style this year, you’d think this was a strong team that lost close games on the sidelines. But SRS thinks the White Sox are a far below average team, even worse than the Mariners, the Red Sox and, gasp, the Cubs. (They have the same SRS as the Orioles.) Considering that most of the White Sox’s most injured players will be back relatively soon, the fact that they still remain above .500 and remain in the race seems of crucial importance. Maybe La Russa will something right anyway.