Not only does hope spring eternal in MLB, it springs all the way into the summer.
This time last year, the eventual World Series champions were languishing below .500 at 25-26. On the morning of June 1, FanGraphs gave the Atlanta Braves a measly 23.8% chance at making the playoffs and just a 1.5% shot at doing exactly what they did — winning it all.
In fact, the eventual champions have entered June under .500 in each of the past two full seasons, as the 2019 Washington Nationals famously started 19-31.
Odds can only glean the path ahead based on the current situation. Those already daunting numbers couldn’t factor in Ronald Acuña Jr.’s eventual season-ending injury for the Braves. And they certainly couldn’t foresee general manager Alex Anthopoulos’s bold trade deadline blitz.
So they aren’t predictions or visions of the future, and they aren’t denigrating your favorite team’s chances. Instead, they should be viewed as measurements of the steep climb ahead. As the calendar changes, several projected contenders have followed in the 2021 Braves’ early footsteps this season — including … the 2022 Braves.
Are any of them set up to blaze a path to World Series glory? Let’s assess their chances.
23-27, 6.1% World Series odds, 60.6% playoff odds
Well, well, well, look who’s here. The defending champs are running it back in stressfully similar fashion.
Even with Acuña returning and hitting well, the Braves are again hurting in the outfield. Their outfielders’ batting line (by offensive metric wRC+) and overall value (by WAR) are the worst in the majors. A single glaring issue can almost be a good thing — it makes for an easy area of focus. Anthopoulos threw four new options at a three-position group last year and it worked. The 2019 Nationals pulled off a similar transformation with a bullpen that had been dragging down the team. The first potential solution in 2022 will be an internal one, as top prospect Michael Harris got the call to the majors.
Perhaps count that as a reason to believe in the Braves. Another reason: MLB’s expanded playoff format will help someone out, and Atlanta looks like a good candidate. There is an additional wild-card spot available now, which means entry into October looks fairly likely for a team that entered with division aspirations.
The chances of winning the division and getting a bye are sinking, as the New York Mets have soared to a 34-17 start. Of course, if you have any recollection of NL East history, maybe that’s a reason to believe, too.
Boston Red Sox
23-27, 1.3% World Series odds, 31.4% playoff odds
The Red Sox have a very solid reason to think they might be better in the months ahead: The numbers say they HAVE been better than their record indicates. Way better.
Their Pythagorean record, based on run differential, should lead to a 27-23 team. After early offensive struggles — especially by offseason addition Trevor Story — the lineup has broken out. They are up to sixth in the majors in runs per game behind Rafael Devers, JD Martinez and Xander Bogaerts. Oh, also Story belted nine homers in May.
Like the Braves, they have an easy sore spot to address. The starting rotation is top-heavy and unreliable, and now leaching off the bullpen by absorbing the talented Garrett Whitlock. A healthy Chris Sale would help, but trade deadline moves could seriously change the outlook for a squad that can really hit. In the American League, they may be the most likely beneficiaries of the new playoff format.
Chicago White Sox
23-24, 2.9% World Series odds, 64.7% playoff odds
It’s tempting to search for those signs of hope in slow starters — the underlying metrics, the record that should be. A word to White Sox fans: Don’t go looking.
Even that disappointing, injury-marred record is MLB’s luckiest, by Pythagorean record. They have the run differential of an 18-29 team.
Much of the trouble stems from a lineup with half a dozen hitters severely underperforming. Yasmani Grandal, Yoan Moncada, AJ Pollock and Josh Harrison aren’t just missing their usual marks; their batting lines are so gruesome they should be censored by scream emojis.
Now Tim Anderson, one of the few White Sox stars who was hitting, is on the injured list. They are entering dangerous territory, even if the projections still like their chances.
21-29, 1.2% World Series odds, 19.1% playoff odds
Speaking of dangerous territory, the Phillies’ comically abysmal defense has turned the entire field into dangerous territory for its pitching staff.
In a sign of how things are going for a star-studded team once again pinned down by suboptimal holistic team-building decisions, Phillies Twitter has transcended being angry about the string of botched defensive plays, and is now fuming over an assertion that manager Joe Girardi should not be fired.
So, things are not great. If you want a way this could turn around, there’s certainly a critical mass of urgency here to make changes. That could mean coaching changes. It could mean wild Dave Dombrowski wheeling and dealing. It could mean the umpteenth bullpen makeover in the past five years. Something will probably change. So maybe that will work. Probably not, though.
21-24, 0.2% World Series odds, 14.1% playoff odds
The Guardians came into the season with far lower expectations than the rest of these teams, and they have a lower ceiling now, but don’t write off their chances of surging into October. They’re on the opposite end of the spectrum from the White Sox, with a record that should be better.
Long known for stellar pitching development, the Guardians are now rolling out an interesting lineup of contact hitters — they have the second-lowest (read: best) strikeout rate in baseball — that should continue to benefit from the shifting offensive environment. They play excellent defense. If they can get a couple more pitchers on track — the currently injured Aaron Civale seems like a strong candidate — they could become interesting. Like the Braves, the task they most need to complete is one they have proven capable of accomplishing.