Baseball’s Unusually Top-Heavy Landscape – FanGraphs (blog)

This is another post about the standings and the projections. We’ll do other stuff soon. Just not yet. All right, so, these are our current projected standings for 2017. The top six teams, along with their projected win totals:

  • Cubs, 95 wins
  • Dodgers, 94
  • Red Sox, 93
  • Indians, 92
  • Astros, 91
  • Nationals, 91

One quality representative from every division. That’s a pretty damn even spread. I also recently opened the team projections up to community debate. Earlier today, I analyzed the results, and here’s the community’s top six teams:

  • Cubs, 96 wins
  • Dodgers, 94
  • Red Sox, 93
  • Indians, 93
  • Nationals, 91
  • Astros, 90

There are some slight single-game shifts in there, but the level of agreement is strong. The projections identify six obvious favorites, and you, as a group, expect similar results. There’s nothing particularly strange about baseball having a tier of elites, but this time around we’re talking about six teams projected to win at least 90 games. That’s uncommon!

It’s true that these numbers could shift downward before the start of the season if, say, important players get hurt. Never forget that sometimes spring training has a certain nefarious quality. On the other hand, these are the general projected records, and they don’t yet take strengths of schedule into account. Once they do, I’d expect upward shifts, since a really good team never has to play against itself. Setting this stuff aside, let’s just look at a plot, which I whipped up after making use of my team-projection spreadsheet that dates back to 2005. That’s 13 years of team projections. That’s 390 team projections in all. Here’s the year-to-year number of teams projected before the season to win at least 90 games:

This is the first season of those examined to have six teams that qualify. There have been five on two separate occasions — once in 2005, and once in 2010. Overall, we have 45 teams in 13 years projected for 90+, and this season accounts for 13% of them. And you can also see here a fairly dramatic increase from the relative low of 2014.

And, say, that cutoff at 90 is arbitrary. All that is is a pleasingly round number. Our current projections don’t just have six teams at at least 90 wins — they have six teams at at least 91 wins. Although there have been those 45 teams projected for 90+, the sample drops to 37 projected for 91+. Again, this time around, there are six teams that meet that cutoff. The previous high was four. So, although there are always differences between projections and reality, this is our best preseason snapshot of the landscape, and this year the leading group is crowded.

I looked at something related to this in December, when I noted that we might end up not having a single exciting division race. Not a whole lot has changed since then, in terms of shifts among favorites. Back then, I asked which divisions might be decided by fewer than five games. The AL West got the most votes from the community, but it still got just 27% support. You all see the whole landscape in a similar way. There are the best teams, and there are the teams that will hope to play against them after the one-game playoffs.

I should say, of the 39 teams so far who’ve been projected to win 90+, 22 have gone on to actually win 90+. Another nine have won at least 86, while four of the teams finished below .500. Unpredictable things happen every season. Some teams emerge, and some teams collapse. The best teams have averaged 92.8 projected wins, with 90.4 actual wins. That’s worse! But then, the best teams also have a median of 92 projected wins, and 92 actual wins. I don’t need to belabor this. Odds are, one of this year’s projected best teams will disappoint, but good luck identifying which.

What does it mean when you have so many good teams? There are only so many wins to go around, and when a small group of teams gathers a lot of them, those have to come at other teams’ expenses. So, related to all of this, there are also four teams projected to win 70 games or fewer. That ties the previously-observed high, back in 2008. With a good number of strong teams, and a good number of weak teams, that implies a fairly wide spread. Indeed, that’s what we’re looking at, as you can glean from this plot of preseason win-total standard deviations:

The win-total standard deviation right now is the highest it’s been since 2008. We’ve talked so much before about parity and competitive balance, and baseball has taken some steps forward in that regard, but look at how dramatically that line up there has increased over the last few seasons. Between 2013 and 2014, there was a massive dip. And, since then, the line has recovered, now 34% higher than it was three years ago. The actual results have basically mirrored this — the standings in 2014 had the lowest spread since 2007. The spread got wider in 2015, and wider still a season ago. And so we move forward with known haves and have-nots. The landscape won’t always look like this, but if we’re going to take the time to acknowledge when the standings appear tight, we should also acknowledge when they don’t.

I don’t know what the underlying cause is for this. If I had to guess, it would have something to do with the wild card. When the expanded wild card was newer, it felt like teams were emboldened to try to at least be somewhere around .500. You didn’t have to make your team great, because just getting into the postseason gave you a chance. Since then, at least anecdotally, I’ve felt a philosophical shift, with teams trying to get as good as they can. Maybe they feel like the playoffs aren’t a crapshoot. Maybe it’s more about trying to win the division and avoid the one-game playoff altogether. You’ve got good teams that have acted aggressively, and you’ve got rebuilding teams that acknowledged they couldn’t get good enough before. It’s a line of thought.

It could also be a league-wide coincidence. All I’m doing is speculating. But as things stand today, the league feels less uncertain than it has in quite a while. Whether it will actually play out that way, I don’t know, but if it doesn’t, we’ll have some wonderful stories to tell.


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