There’s a guy who emails me every month to remind me that I picked the Orioles to finish in fourth place before the season. As if preseason predictions aren’t always a mess. As if it’s weird to look at a .500 team that lost its most reliable pitcher and think they might get worse. As if I still didn’t hedge my bets like a weenie:
Chances of (the Orioles) winning the (AL East): Decent. Better than decent?
I wish I cared about anything as much as this guy cares about making sure that I know that I picked the second-place Orioles for fourth place. If you ask him, the Orioles weren’t a surprise at all. They were the best collection of baseball talent he’s seen this generation, give or take. To me, though, they’re a minor surprise. Not a big surprise. But I thought they would be merely okay, and it turns out they’re pretty good.
This comes up now because the Orioles just might be the most surprising contenders in baseball. And they’re not very surprising at all. It’s August, and every contending team is a team that everyone probably expected to contend.
Welcome to the season without fluke contenders. As a fluke fetishist, this is just killing me.
There are surprise teams going in the other direction, of course. The Mets are struggling to stay above .500, even though they had a revamped lineup and full starting rotation. The Royals have been an injury-riddled mess for most of the year. Even though the Diamondbacks were probably a little over-hyped after their big pitching moves in the offseason, there’s no way they should have been contenders for the first-overall pick next June. There are surprisingly disappointing teams, for sure.
But there aren’t any surprise contenders. Oh, maybe the Orioles really are blowing you away, or maybe you weren’t giving the Marlins any credit before the season started, but there isn’t a team absolutely stunning the world with an improbable postseason chase. Here’s a list of every team that’s within five games of a postseason berth, roughly ordered from most surprising to least surprising:
- Red Sox
- Blue Jays
That’s a list of 17 teams, all of which you could have made an argument for before the season started. Except for maybe the Marlins or maybe the Orioles, that is, but even then, those both looked like solid picks to finish .500. And once a team has enough talent to win as often as they lose, it’s more of an incremental step to get in a postseason chase from there, not an exponential one.
Last season, the Rangers went from 95 losses to a division title. They were fighting with the Astros, who made the postseason after 92 losses the year before. In 2014, the Angels finished with the best record in baseball after an under-.500 season. In 2013, the Red Sox went from 93 losses to 97 wins. The Orioles and Pirates emerged from the dank cellar of misery and shocked the world. Every season has a didn’t-see-that-coming.
Except for this season. Before the year started, I wrote about how predictions were always wrong and we should feel bad about making them.
A team you think is awful -- unimpeachably, objectively awful -- will make the postseason in 2016.
Hey, a third of the league makes the postseason every year now, so maybe we shouldn't be surprised. Except we will be surprised. By August, we'll be used to them. And then, when the postseason rolls around, we'll have to pretend like nothing is weird.
Here's why (team that should have been completely awful) has a chance to advance to the (NLCS/ALCS).
So which teams should be awful? Take a stab at it.
The Rockies have a bright future, and they’re still on the fringes of the fringes of the wild card race, but they’re still well under .500 and now without Trevor Story. The Padres are bad. The Braves are bad. The Phillies are right there on the fringes with the Rockies, somehow. The Brewers are bad. The Reds are bad. Just like we all expected. And in retrospect, that list was missing the A’s and Twins, who are both different shades of lousy.
Next year, one of these bad teams will contend and stun the heck out of us. I’ll go with the A’s, if only because they’ll make 30 moves between now and March that we weren’t expecting. It’s easier to guess that a completely different roster will have completely different results.
We’ll always have the Phillies in April. Those were some wild weeks, alright. Other than that, though, there haven’t been any surprise contenders. There are just solid teams performing solidly, which is exactly what we expected back in March. Where’s the 95-win Reds team? Where’s the unexpected Brewers season of pure bliss? Where’s the Phillies wild card surge over the final month of the season?
That last one still might happen, but it’s unlikely. That leaves us with an Orioles/Marlins World Series matchup as our last hope for the didn’t-see-that-coming fans among us. It will have to do, because we’re a long way from the Rangers/Astros battle from last year. We're a long, long way, and it's an absolute shame.