So I like to talk about playoff odds. A lot. Playoff odds, though an inexact science, allow us to grasp the significance of May and June margins, and reinforce the notion that, while the first couple months are too early to set things in stone, those games still count and have a real effect on final standing. Fans of a team that's six back on Memorial Day can reassure themselves by saying that there's still a lot of baseball yet to be played, but playoff odds allow us to tell those fans that, yeah, there's a lot of baseball left, but you're still in a lousy position. Falling behind early is like giving the competition a head start. It's a disadvantage.
With that said, as much as I like citing the playoff odds, it's critical to remember that, while playoff odds are based on a series of simulations, the actual season is only played once. And funny things can happen when you're given a single run. 20% doesn't mean 20%. A team with playoff odds of 20% doesn't make the playoffs 20% of the time. A team with playoff odds of 20% either makes the playoffs or it doesn't, and the picture can change awful fast.
Consider the AL East. On May 23rd, the Rays held a six-game lead over second place, 8.5 ahead of fourth-place Boston. On May 23rd, the Rays were facing their best odds of the year. Since then, they've gone 3-6 while the Sox and Yankees have gone 6-2 and the Blue Jays have gone 5-3. In fewer than ten games, the standings have drawn much tighter, and Rays fans are sweating. The odds suggested that the Rays were once heavy, heavy favorites, but now, two weeks later, it's a whole new race.
Consider the AL Central. On May 20th, the Twins and Tigers were tied at 24-17. The Twins were the better team, but the odds had them at 60/40 to win the division. Since then, the Tigers have slumped, and the Twins now hold the largest lead in baseball.
Consider the AL West. On May 21st, the Rangers were four games up. Now they're tied with the A's, and both the Angels and Mariners have only drawn closer. What was once a 67% shot at the division is now down to a coin flip.
Consider the NL East. On May 17th, it was the Phillies with the largest lead in baseball, at five games over the Marlins. CoolStandings put their odds of making the playoffs at 75%. Now? 30%, thanks to the Phillies playing like the worst team in the National League, and the Braves playing like the best. Through May 17th, the Phillies were averaging 5.7 runs per game. Since? 1.8. No division has seen a more dramatic shift than this one.
Consider the NL Central. This one hasn't changed as recently, but on May 3rd, the Cardinals held a five-game lead, and on May 16th, they were overtaken by the Reds. Again, two weeks. Two weeks was all it took for a sleeper, for an underdog to make up a ton of ground against a team considered by many to be the class of the NL. The Cardinals saw their playoff odds drop from shoo-in to simple favorite.
And, finally, consider the NL West. The Padres have been in first place since April 20th. They've been holding steady at the top for more than a month, and they don't seem to be showing many cracks. But the Dodgers rallied from a six-game gap on May 8th to a tie on May 21st, and as of this writing they're only one back. A two week hot streak saw a challenger rise from the ashes of the dead, and that's turned into a race between four solid teams.
Playoff odds say a lot. They contain a lot of information. But playoff odds, though based on a rigorous and thorough series of calculations and simulations, aren't, in reality, very stable. Every single division has seen a lot of shifting around, shifting around that only took about two weeks to happen. Nobody wants to be in a hole right now, but because it's still early - because it's only June 2nd - there's plenty of time left for someone to catch fire, or for someone to fall apart. Streaks can change everything. And there are a lot of streaks yet to take place.
It's going to be a fun summer.
30. Houston Astros
SBN Blog: The Crawfish Boxes
2010 record: 18-34
Last week's rank: 30
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 30
As if the Astros didn't have enough problems, Roy Oswalt was the victim of a questionable ejection by home plate umpire Bill Hohn on Monday. MLB VP Bob Watson said league officials will talk to Hohn, but that doesn't do much good for Oswalt, who failed to record a quality start for the first time in 2010.
SBN Blog: Camden Chat
2010 record: 15-37
Last week's rank: 29
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 28
You have to feel bad for Orioles rookie pitcher Brian Matusz. His 5.28 ERA is pretty ugly, but that's not the whole story: He's been very unlucky (.359 BABIP) and his 3.98 FIP is nearly equal with Felix Hernandez. Perhaps if this Orioles offense kicks it into gear, Matusz will become a benefactor. Until then, the O's will continue to sit in the AL East cellar.
SBN Blog: Bucs Dugout
2010 record: 22-31
Last week's rank: 28
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 29
As if the Pirates, who are 9-19 on the road, didn't have enough going against them away from home, now they'll also get to be the first major league team to face Stephen Strasburg next week. Even Ryan Doumit is having a rough go of it lately: After hitting .324/.398/.514 in April, he hit .241/.348/.392 in May.
SBN Blog: Let's Go Tribe!
2010 record: 19-31
Last week's rank: 27
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 24
Cleveland is slipping into the Astros/Orioles/Royals-zone, that is if anyone still remembered the Indians existed. A weird development this season has been Travis Hafner's transformation to Jon Olerud. Hafner has shown no power, but is still working the count and getting on-base often, posting a .387 OBP. Justin Masterson's tenuous hold on a spot in the rotation strengthened a bit on Sunday, when he shutout the Yankees for six innings, before allowing three runs with two outs in the seventh.
SBN Blog: AZ Snakepit
2010 record: 20-33
Last week's rank: 22
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 11
Have lost nine in a row, getting outscored by a combined margin of 38 runs, with a loss on a walk-off balk.. It's Arizona's pitching that's the problem, an ERA of 5.79 sitting dead last in the majors - that's due in particular to an awful bullpen ERA of 7.70. Only a couple of other teams in the NL are above five. The result? More blown saves (11) than saves (10), and Arizona's record is just 9-15 when they get a quality start.
SBN Blog: Royals Review
2010 record: 22-31
Last week's rank: 25
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 25
The Royals can hit singles with the best of them. They just can't do much of anything else. Kansas City is second in the AL in team batting average, but just ninth in runs per game. 1B Billy Butler is a part of that singles barrage, hitting .337 through Wednesday, at the tender age of 24. Butler could be the lone Royal All-Star if Greinke's perceived "struggles" continue.
SBN Blog: Brew Crew Ball
2010 record: 21-31
Last week's rank: 26
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 15
Brewer pitchers entered play Wednesday with a 5.40 ERA, but apparently there's a level to which even they won't drop: GM Doug Melvin said he wasn't interested in Dontrelle Willis, recently designated for assignment by the Tigers and subsequently added by the DBacks. The Brewers are interested in any other pitcher with a pulse, though: In the last week they've signed Jeff Bennett, Eduardo Morlan and Brian Bruney to minor league deals and added Chris Capuano and Kameron Loe to the major league roster. Capuano will start on Thursday, becoming the eighteenth pitcher to appear in a game already this season, and the ninth starter.
23. Seattle Mariners
SBN Blog: Lookout Landing
2010 record: 20-31
Last week's rank: 24
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 26
Slowly, quietly, the Mariners might be coming around - they're 6-5 in their last 11, and a dramatic collapse in Anaheim away from being a more impressive 7-4. The offense has averaged five runs a game over the past two weeks, and both Chone Figgins and Jose Lopez are finally showing signs of life. There are only two questions, then: (1) is it too late?, and (2) can they sustain it over a stretch of 15 games in 15 days? The M's have made up a game and a half over the last week, and sit seven out of first. Long, but not impossible.
SBN Blog: Federal Baseball
2010 record: 26-27
Last week's rank: 18
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 23
No matter what happens over the next several days, Stephen Strasburg will be starting in the majors leagues on June 8th. On the heels of said news is Roy Oswalt's word he'd waive his no-trade clause for Washington, something that didn't seem likely a year ago, given Roy Oswalt's career trajectory and the state of the National's organization. All considered, these next two months will be the most exciting time for Washington fans since maybe the 19th century.
21. Chicago Cubs
SBN Blog: Bleed Cubbie Blue
2010 record: 24-29
Last week's rank: 20
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 14
The Cubs were held to one run in four out of five games, so manager Lou Piniella tried something new Tuesday, benching Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Marlon Byrd and Ryan Theriot for the day. The Cubs responded by scoring two runs, but still lost to the Pirates, losing their fifth game in seven contests. One of those wins came from Carlos Silva, who might be baseball's greatest comeback story: The Cubs were widely mocked for taking on Silva's contract, but Silva is 7-0 with a 3.12 ERA as a Cub, and has won each of his last five starts.
SBN Blog: South Side Sox
2010 record: 22-29
Last week's rank: 21
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 19
The season-saving win streak still hasn't arrived, which is sad, because MLB is much more interesting when the White Sox are in contention. Then again, maybe the Sox will make headlines this year for trading away some of their assets. This is an old team with an odd roster. When do the "Buehrle deserves to finish his career with hometown Cardinals" stories start?
19. New York Mets
SBN Blog: Amazin' Avenue
2010 record: 27-26
Last week's rank: 23
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 22
Do the Mets want to be good? It's up to them. They can either cut Oliver Perez, Jeff Francoeur, Elmer Dessens, Gary Matthews Jr., and the rest of the anti-all star team loose, putting any decent AAA players in their place, or they can be the Mets and watch the worst dreck the majors has to offer drag down David Wright, Jose Reyes and Angel Pagan for a fourth straight season.
SBN Blog: Halos Heaven
2010 record: 26-28
Last week's rank: 19
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 27
On the one hand, the Angels are 5-2 since getting shut out by Toronto. On the other hand, three of those wins came against Seattle and Kansas City. Two dramatic, walk-off wins against the Mariners over the weekend lifted everybody's spirits, but you just have to wonder how this team's going to deal with the loss of its best hitter. They don't have a good back of the rotation, they don't have a good bullpen, they don't have a good defense, and they don't have a real potent lineup. The Angels are going to have to scratch and claw if they want to make it to the top. But then, there might be no team more adept at scratching and clawing than the Angels.
17. Detroit Tigers
SBN Blog: Bless You Boys
2010 record: 26-25
Last week's rank: 9
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 7
A 2-7 stretch against the Dodgers and the AL West has opened up some space between the Tigers and the division-leading Twins. After parting ways with Dontrelle Willis, Detroit got an impressive 14-strikeout start from Max Scherzer in his first start since returning from the minors. However, the Tigers still have problems in the rotation. It's June, and Rick Porcello still has an ugly ERA and his low strikeout numbers (4.2 K/9) make him look more like a random #5 starter than a supposed prospect.
16. Texas Rangers
SBN Blog: Lone Star Ball
2010 record: 27-24
Last week's rank: 11
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 9
Just when it seemed like the Rangers might finally take first place and run with it, they slipped, a sweep in Minnesota dropping them back to the pack. They're just 7-18 against teams with a .500+ record, and 20-6 against the weaklings. The good news is that, in a little over two weeks, they get to kick off a 22-game stretch against the likes of Houston, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cleveland, Anaheim, and Chicago. That'll give them a good chance to get firing on all cylinders. Until then, the mission is simple: survive. Boy, do they ever miss Nelson Cruz.
15. Florida Marlins
SBN Blog: Fish Stripes
2010 record: 27-26
Last week's rank: 14
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 13
The second Florida team to be the victim of a perfect game this season, the Marlins may still be the best team, non-Philadelphia division, to challenge the Braves for first place. Holding them back is their ability to stop the bleeding with Chris Coghlan or Cameron Maybin. Maybe if they find enough people willing to fake their place in history or stuff ballot boxes they'll finally have the money for replacements.
SBN Blog: McCovey Chronicles
2010 record: 27-24
Last week's rank: 16
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 16
Long-anticipated uber-prospect Buster Posey got the call this weekend, and didn't disappoint, going 6-for-9 with four RBIs. He helped the team sweep Arizona, part of a week where they won five of six, and the Giants sit 3.5 games back in the NL West. Matt Cain threw a one-hitter on Friday: as if more proof were needed of how poor wins are as a measure of starting pitching, he has a losing record, despite a season ERA of 2.50.
13. Colorado Rockies
SBN Blog: Purple Row
2010 record: 28-24
Last week's rank: 15
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 21
Swept the Diamondbacks, but then dropped the series against the Dodgers - they faced the Giants to open this week, with a marquee match-up that saw the unstoppable Ubaldo Jimenez beat two-time reigning Cy Young winner, Tim Lincecum, by pitching a complete-game shutout. Troy Tulowitzki and Miguel Olivo have kept the offense running, helping to make up for Dexter Fowler, whose .158, extra-base-hit-less May led to his demotion.
SBN Blog: Athletics Nation
2010 record: 28-25
Last week's rank: 17
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 20
The longer Texas goes without seizing control of the division, the better things look for Oakland, who's gotten this far with a rotation that hasn't looked quite as it was drawn up before the year. Now Brett Anderson is back from an elbow strain and threw 5.2 shutout innings against Detroit in his return, which bodes very well. With Rajai Davis finally hitting like a leadoff guy and Daric Barton getting on base all the time, the A's have the makings of an actual lineup, and though there's still a lot wrong with this team, there's a lot wrong with the challengers, too. Watching this division race is like watching track and field for the blind.
SBN Blog: True Blue LA
2010 record: 30-22
Last week's rank: 5
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 18
Los Angeles alternated wins and losses this week, first dropping two of three in Chicago, then reversing that against divisional rivals Colorado later on before taking the first two against Arizona. Will be happy with a 5-3 record, given they were outscored 31-26. John Ely continues to pitch well, the unlucky loser in a 1-0 defeat to the Cubs and then getting a no decision in a 1-0 win over the Diamondbacks, but Manny Ramirez was exactly at the Mendoza line for May, hitting .196 with an OPS of only .643 - the team as a whole had an OPS of .732.
10. Cincinnati Reds
SBN Blog: Red Reporter
2010 record: 31-22
Last week's rank: 10
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 12
In one of the National League's most unlikely turns of events, the Reds enter play Wednesday tied for the NL lead with 31 wins, and on top of their division by a game. If that news wasn't good enough, it turns out they might also be getting Homer Bailey back soon. Bailey is eligible to come off the DL on June 8. Meanwhile, rookie Sam LeCure took Bailey's turn in the rotation, becoming just the sixth pitcher to start a game for the Reds this season, and picked up his first major league win.
SBN Blog: The Good Phight
2010 record: 28-23
Last week's rank: 2
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 8
Since kicking off a five-game losing-streak May 22 against the Red Sox, the Phillies have averaged 1 run per game through 9 games. Somehow, they managed to win two of those nine, while only needing a perfect game once. While Jayson Werth and Ryan Howard, the primary culprits of the slump, will likely rebound, Carlos Ruiz, Raul Ibanez, and Juan Castro may all just be old. The key to Philadelphia's season now appears to be Jimmy Rollins returning and staying healthy, as there's no relief coming from the bench.
SBN Blog: Viva El Birdos
2010 record: 30-23
Last week's rank: 7
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 10
Baseball is a funny game sometimes: Entering play Wednesday, the Cardinals had scored seven or more runs in five of their last eight games, and one run or less in the other three. You can add Jaime Garcia to the list of "out-of-nowhere" pitching successes for Dave Duncan: Through ten starts, he's posted a 1.32 ERA and allowed just one home run in 61.1 innings.
SBN Blog: Gaslamp Ball
2010 record: 31-21
Last week's rank: 13
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 5
San Diego won series against the Cardinals and Nationals at Petco, but it's worth noting their 14-9 road record so far is the best in the National League. The pitching is at its best when it needs to be, holding batters to a .581 OPS in high-leverage situations, almost 70 points above average. Their defense is stepping up when it matters as well, with the Padres having allowed only one unearned run over the past 42 games.
SBN Blog: Over The Monster
2010 record: 30-23
Last week's rank: 8
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 4
The Red Sox finished May with an 18-11 record and put themselves right back into the thick of things in the American League. Just when things started to look good, however, things turned worse again. Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron came off the disabled list and then Ellsbury went back on. Now Cameron is sitting another game because of "abdominal soreness." The jury is still out if the Sox can put it all together with healthy pieces.
SBN Blog: Bluebird Banter
2010 record: 31-23
Last week's rank: 6
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 6
While the Blue Jays continue to pound out the hits like they are wearing pinstripes, their pitching is going unnoticed -- and it should be noticed. Ricky Romero (2.78) and Shaun Marcum (3.14) are 2nd and 4th, respectively, in the AL in FIP. While the offense seems to not want to go away, the jury is still out on the starting pitching. If these two can hang on and put up good numbers the rest of the way, the American League East will be a Wild West show through September.
SBN Blog: Talking Chop
2010 record: 30-22
Last week's rank: 12
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 17
Seven in a row, capped by a series-opener win against the Phillies, has the Braves in first place with an opportunity to solidify their lead. In baseball's only division with no lousy cellar dwellers, however, the lead is predictably tenuous and could be gone by the time you read this. Still, the Braves have all the makings of the top team in the East, including their best bullpen in many years. The Takashi Saito and Billy Wagner gambles are both paying off. Despite an average age of 39, the veterans have 66 strikeouts and 15 walks in a combined 44.1 innings.
SBN Blog: Twinkie Town
2010 record: 31-21
Last week's rank: 4
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 2
Not surprisingly, the Twins have received extensive praise for their glovework this season. Minnesota has long had a good defensive reputation and this year they've committed an absurdly low 13 errors. Nevertheless, the advanced stats suggest the Twins aren't running away from everyone by playing spectacular defense. The Twins are just fifth in the AL in UZR. The Twin outfield is especially weak. A player like Jason Kubel may not make many errors, but he also allows a higher percentage of balls in play to become singles and doubles.
SBN Blog: Pinstripe Alley
2010 record: 32-20
Last week's rank: 3
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 1
After losing the New York Series against the Mets, the Yankees came back and won two series against the Twins and Indians. The offense is still clicking as the team scored 37 runs in four games against the Indians -- but still managed to lose game two. The Yankees have any easy stretch coming up, playing three of their next four sets against the Orioles and Astros. The O's and Indians have already given them their first three-game winning streak since early May. This is a golden opportunity for the league's most expensive team to leapfrog the league's most efficient.
SBN Blog: DRays Bay
2010 record: 35-18
Last week's rank: 1
Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 3
It seems that Tampa Bay is finally starting to hit a rough patch. The Rays have gone 3-6 since winning back-to-back games against the Astros, and they very nearly lost again on Tuesday. The pitching has come down a bit (Garza was lit up for six runs against the Red Sox) while the offense still hasn't quite clicked. Still, they have the best record in the majors, so it's important to understand the difference between concern and panic. A Rays team with holes is still one of the better teams of the decade.