MLB Power Rankings: Which Teams Have Already Seen the Biggest Change in Playoff Odds?
More than two weeks into the season, baseball’s sample sizes are still small, but the first meaningful signs of stability are starting to emerge. For instance, Mike Trout’s name is finally in its rightful place atop the leaderboard for WAR … which means it’s time for this season’s first edition of SI’s MLB Power Rankings.
This year, we’re doing something a little bit different. Don’t worry, we'll still rank all 30 teams every week. Instead of providing one blurb for each club, however, we'll identify a theme for each edition, and we’ll dive deep on the 10 teams who embody it most. First up? A way-way-way-too-early analysis of 10 clubs who have gotten off to surprising starts. We're using the change in playoff odds as our guide here, both good and bad. (We’re using FanGraphs’ odds, and, as always, these early rankings rely just as much on a team’s performance so far as they do on a team’s roster potential.) To the list!
30. Kansas City Royals
29. Miami Marlins
28. Baltimore Orioles
27. Chicago White Sox
26. San Francisco Giants
25. Toronto Blue Jays
24. Texas Rangers
23. Cincinnati Reds
22. Colorado Rockies
Current Playoff Odds: 3.6% | Opening Day Playoff Odds: 16.7%
The Rockies’ offense hasn’t been simply bad. It’s been truly, stupendously, jaw-droppingly terrible. The .275 OBP begins to convey this. The .323 SLG does, too. These marks are just a start, though. A more illustrative one might be the 45 OPS+, meaning that this team has collectively hit scarcely half as well as the league average. Or -1.5 FanGraphs WAR, which is exactly twice as bad as baseball’s second-to-worst offense, Cleveland.
Or, in lieu of another metric, a “fun” fact (un-fun division): David Dahl is Colorado’s only player currently hitting at or above the league average. There isn’t a pinch-hitter who had a lone decent at-bat or a pitcher who lucked into a bloop in one of two appearances. Nope. There is Dahl, all on his own. Except, uh, Dahl is currently on the 10-day IL; in his absence, the team’s best active hitter is 35-year-old Mark Reynolds, who has been coming off the bench to post a 91 OPS+. So, really then, there’s … nothing. There’s a dreadful slump for Nolan Arenado, a marginally less dreadful one for Charlie Blackmon, and a regular ol’ slump for Trevor Story. And, for now, that’s it.
Time To Panic? As much as one can in April, yes. There’s no way that the entire team can continue to hit quite this poorly, but if at least a few key players don’t begin to snap out of it soon, they might not have many options going forward. The Rockies have already dug themselves into a fairly deep hole, and considering that they share a division with the consensus pennant favorite Dodgers, they can’t really afford to dig any deeper.
21. Arizona Diamondbacks
20. Detroit Tigers
19. Los Angeles Angels
18. San Diego Padres
17. Pittsburgh Pirates
Current Playoff Odds: 15.6% | Opening Day Playoff Odds: 10.1%
So far, Pittsburgh has the best pitching staff in the National League—definitely, yep, just as we all expected. A 2.61 ERA (176 ERA+) (seriously, what?!) puts them atop the leaderboards here, bolstered by strong performances from Trevor Williams and Jordan Lyles. Unfortunately for the Pirates, though, this has been complemented by a lackluster offense (83 OPS+), and most of their wins so far have come against the Reds, which … well, they’re wins, but how much do they really count?
Are They For Real? You know, don’t ask how long it will last. Enjoy it while it’s here.
16. Cleveland Indians
15. Minnesota Twins
Current Playoff Odds: 42.1% | Opening Day Playoff Odds: 35.8%
Let us gather ‘round and appreciate two players here: Jorge Polanco, Minnesota’s best hitter so far, and José Berríos, Minnesota’s best starting pitcher. Polanco's young career has seen him bounce from much-hyped prospect to potential bust to post-hype sleeper to … here. He's simply stopped hitting the ball on the ground. His groundball percentage has been cut in half, dropping his groundball-to-flyball ratio by a third, while his average launch angle has increased by more than five degrees. All this has translated to a 1.182 OPS, or 219 OPS+ (!), which has made him one of the five best hitters in the American League. Will this be sustainable in the long run? No. Well, at least not at this level. It sure has been fun to watch, though. As for Berríos, his first three starts have seen him looking as sharp as he ever has. With a 2.18 ERA, he’s walking fewer batters and giving up less hard contact. And, man, that curveball.
Are They For Real? Minnesota’s early playoff odds swing has as much to do with Cleveland’s struggles as it does with its own successes. The Twins have been seeing best-case-scenario outcomes from a number of their players so far—Polanco and Berríos, yes, but hello, slugger Mitch Garver and resurgent Byron Buxton and healthy Michael Pineda—and while all of those can’t bear out, some of them likely will, in one form or another. If Cleveland continues to be vexed by injury problems, it has good reason to be afraid … and, really, it might have good reason there, regardless.
14. New York Mets
Current Playoff Odds: 54.7% | Opening Day Playoff Odds: 39.6%
Pete Alonso’s true talent level does not look like a guy with a 244 OPS+. It just doesn’t, because no one’s does. (Okay, 2001-04 Barry Bonds, and 1920-21 Babe Ruth. That’s it.) So far, though, it’s just who the rookie has been. Some of this is small-sample-size messiness. Some of it is real substance. And all of it has helped the Mets’ 115 OPS+, the strongest offense so far in the NL East. (Other key contributors: Michael Conforto, Jeff McNeil, Statcast darling J.D. Davis.)
Are They For Real? On one hand, if everyone stays healthy here, what’s going to stop them? On the other hand, they’re the New York Mets; staying healthy is not their strong suit, and being stopped by baffling factors that come out of nowhere is.
13. Philadelphia Phillies
12. St. Louis Cardinals
11. Boston Red Sox
Current Playoff Odds: 61.7% | Opening Day Playoff Odds: 90.3%
It’s looked bad. It has. It’s looked really, really, really bad. The rotation has been a disaster; Chris Sale’s velocity has disappeared, Rick Porcello has been a general nightmare, David Price hasn’t been especially sharp. Their 8.78 ERA is the worst in baseball, and it isn’t close. Boston’s bullpen has been better—how could it not be?—but it can only do so much, and the offense hasn’t exactly put the team in a place to succeed, either, with an 89 OPS+. (It’s hardly the biggest problem here, but it’s almost impressive that Eduardo Núñez managed to enter Friday with the rarely seen 1 OPS+. That’s not missing a digit. 1.) Basically, nothing is right, and everything is varying degrees of wrong.
Time To Panic? Well, panic is strong. The foundation of last year’s championship team is still here, after all. And beginning the season on a lengthy road trip might have made matters look worse than they would have otherwise. But there’s not too much room for error in a division shared with the Yankees and Rays, and if the rotation doesn’t right itself soon, Boston will be looking at an uphill battle. Let’s put it this way: The 1910 Pittsburgh Pirates (86-68) hold the record for worst season by a team who won 105 or more games in the previous year. Right now, it doesn’t seem crazy to think that could be matched by the 2019 Boston Red Sox.
10. Chicago Cubs
Current Playoff Odds: 39.2% | Opening Day Playoff Odds: 64.2%
This, too, has looked bad. But Chicago’s situation is different than Boston’s. It isn’t a case of struggle across the board. In fact, there hasn’t been any notable struggle here at the plate. The Cubs actually have one of the strongest offenses in the National League, second only to the Dodgers in OPS+. Their pitching, however, has been another story. With 5.03 BB/9, the rotation has allowed more walks than any other. With 2.61 HR/9, it’s given up more dingers than any except the Red Sox’s. Meanwhile, the bullpen has offered relief in name only. By FanGraphs WAR, the pitching staff has collectively been worse than every other besides the Orioles, which … yikes.
Time To Panic? It’s statistically unlikely that the entire pitching staff will continue to be this bad. It should get better. Or, at least, one pitcher should get better. Hopefully. Still, while they’re waiting, there’s only so much solace to take in the offense, and this division doesn’t allow much in the way of wiggle room. So, no, it’s too early to panic. But it’s perfectly reasonable to feel the uneasy itch of growing concern.
9. Milwaukee Brewers
Current Playoff Odds: 35.8% | Opening Day Playoff Odds: 27.9%
The Cubs’ losses have been the Brewers’ wins. (Both directly, in two out of three games in the clubs’ one series so far, and indirectly, in, well, everything else.) Milwaukee’s position atop the division looks rather precarious, though. It has the worst run differential of the five teams, despite holding down first place. Sure, run differential can easily be misleading in April, with just one blowout needed to put the figure out of whack, but … Milwaukee’s offense (103 OPS+) has been only slightly above league average, and its pitching (91 ERA+) has been below it. This doesn’t bode particularly well.
Are They For Real? The Brewers’ rotation appeared to be a likely weak spot this winter, and so far they’ve proven that true. (See: 5.64 ERA!) Unless they see a speedy return for Jimmy Nelson, or run out to grab Dallas Keuchel, there isn’t reason to believe it will get much better. That’s a tough spot to be in—and while this offense has the potential to carry them quite a bit, it can only do so much.
8. Oakland A’s
Current Playoff Odds: 21.2% | Opening Day Playoff Odds: 32.3%
Seattle’s early surge has knocked a sizeable dent in Oakland’s odds. The A’s have been perfectly fine (114 OPS+, 103 ERA+), certainly much better than they were at this time last year, but they haven’t been anything more than that, and “perfectly fine” just isn’t good enough for the AL West—even when, or if, Seattle starts to cool down. There’s plenty to enjoy here (Khris Davis’s home runs, Ramon Laureano’s arm, Blake Treinen’s slider) but, so far, there just hasn’t been enough to set them apart.
Time To Panic? Nah. It’s not necessarily the best place to begin the season for a team looking to grab a second straight playoff spot, but it’s decent enough, and there’s no specific problem area crying out for attention. Beyond that, Oakland has to believe that a window of opportunity will be coming at some point, even if there’s no guarantee that the team will be able to capitalize on it: The Mariners, eventually, will have to begin obeying the laws of space and time and baseball. (We think.)
7. Washington Nationals
6. New York Yankees
5. Atlanta Braves
4. Seattle Mariners
Current Playoff Odds: 16% | Opening Day Playoff Odds: 2.3%
It does not make any sense that this team has done what it has. Domingo Santana, Daniel Vogelbach and Ryon Healy should not be the anchors of an offense that looks like a record-breaking slugging machine. Jay Bruce should not be on pace for 87 home runs. Tim Beckham should not be in the running for the best position player in baseball so far. Perhaps most overwhelmingly, this pitching staff—minus James Paxton and Edwin Diaz, plus a year on the calendar for Félix Hernández—should not be able to support any of this. And, yet, all of this has been happening, and Seattle has the best record in baseball.
Are They For Real? Are the Mariners better than they were expected to be, after the front office’s winter announcement of an upcoming rebuild? Yes. Are they this good? Ehhhh … Well, if they probably won’t have a 158 OPS+ forever, they definitely won’t have a 108 ERA+ forever.
3. Tampa Bay Rays
Current Playoff Odds: 59.7% | Opening Day Playoff Odds: 28.2%
The pitching staff that had to invent an entirely new role to overcome its limitations in 2018 is, so far, the gold standard for 2019. The Rays’ 1.98 ERA is the best in baseball—just like their 214 ERA+, 2.64 FIP and 4.59 K/BB. With the development of Tyler Glasnow, the addition of Charlie Morton, and the continued success of 2018 AL Cy Young Blake Snell, this rotation hasn’t just taken a major step toward being, well, an actual full rotation … it’s taken a step toward being an excellent one. Throw in bullpen ace José Alvarado, and this pitching staff is looking remarkably strong. (Its strength juuuust gives the team the edge here over Seattle.) The offense’s early success hasn’t been quite so radical, but with a 103 OPS+, it’s been perfectly solid, bolstered by strong starts from Austin Meadows and Yandy Diaz. The Rays (probably) won’t have every aspect of their club stay this sharp for the rest of the year. If even half of them keep it up, though? Watch out.
Are They For Real? The Rays’ standing in the division has, of course, benefited heavily from the Red Sox’s struggle and the Yankees’ injuries. Will Tampa Bay stay on top of the AL East? Possibly, but it isn’t likelier than not. Will it keep things close, remaining, at the very least, a serious contender? Definitely.