Today’s the last day of May, which means we are about to finish the second month of the baseball season. Memorial Day, two months of games, one-third of the season — however you want to express it, it’s about time that we begin to understand MLB’s standings and leaderboards as something more than amusing, random number-generators.
We’ve reached the season’s first real checkpoint. And at this checkpoint, we want to understand how teams have done thus far as actual occurrences — things fans and players have experienced for 60 days or more — while understanding that those trends might or might not continue. We want to take the vitals of each team’s 2023 campaign.
What better way to do that than with a more-calculated-than-it-needs-to-be metric of performance compared to spring forecasts? To that end, I assembled a mixture of big-picture tracking metrics and concocted a blend to gauge the trajectory of the season so far, with a hint of forward-looking rationality mixed in.
The numbers involved include:
Current postseason odds
Actual win percentage vs. FanGraphs projected win percentage
Change in rest-of-season projected winning percentage
I’m dubbing the resulting number BAE, or Baseballing Against Expectation, just to make sure we don’t take this too seriously. (Really, please, don’t take this number seriously.) It is expressed in percentage points — positive for better than expected and negative for worse than expected.
Below, the teams are ranked in order of BAE, their BAE through May. Let’s get underway.
Don’t wake me up, I’m dreaming
40.1% BAE or better
Texas Rangers: Sporting the league’s best run differential and second-best record despite intermittent appearances from headlining superstars Jacob deGrom and Corey Seager, the Rangers edge the best team in baseball for the best start compared to expectations. They are getting the deGrom experience from Nathan Eovaldi while showing huge gains on the player development front. They still have to hold off the Astros all summer, but the first two months have been one big, cathartic flinging open of this team’s contention window.
Tampa Bay Rays: Now bursting at the seams with actual young stars such as Wander Franco and Shane McClanahan, in addition to their usual mind-boggling array of useful baseball Tetris pieces, the Rays opened 2023 with an attention-grabbing winning streak and haven’t really stopped. If there’s anything to feel down about, it’s a plague of pitching injuries and the fact that Tampa Bay’s MLB-best 39-18 record would go a lot further in pretty much any other division.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Outfielder Corbin Carroll was the top prospect in baseball, and now he’s the best rookie in baseball — batting .285 with plenty of walks, nine homers and 16 steals. Zac Gallen looks like he’s ready to mount a full-season attack on the Cy Young race, and the D-backs are getting huge contributions from shortstop Geraldo Perdomo and offseason trade addition Lourdes Gurriel Jr., continuously adding to their dark-horse potential as teams such as the Padres struggle.
Take the money and run
40% to 10.1% BAE
Los Angeles Dodgers: Look, the Dodgers are going to have a hard time wowing anyone by leading the NL West. But this was a season in which they were thought to have serious competition in the Padres. So far, though, despite major injury depletion, they have the best record in the muddled National League, with Freddie Freeman, Mookie Betts and Clayton Kershaw all turning in excellent starts. It’s good to be kings.
Minnesota Twins: Sonny Gray is the only qualified pitcher in baseball who hasn’t given up a home run, a fun fact cherry-on-top of a complete revelation by a pitching staff also getting great outings from Joe Ryan and Pablo Lopez. Meanwhile, buy-low flier Joey Gallo has launched quite a few homers in a return to form. Of course, if that were the whole story, the Twins would be higher up this list. In reality, they are struggling to separate from the dismal AL Central as Carlos Correa and Byron Buxton wade through subpar stretches.
San Francisco Giants: Count me as surprised that the rather anonymous Giants rank this highly, but their 7-3 run over the past 10 games has them over .500 and thoroughly in the mix of the NL playoff picture. What you might’ve missed if you glossed over Gabe Kapler’s crew while watching the rise of the D-backs or the fall of the Padres: Michael Conforto has turned it on in May, and LaMonte Wade Jr. is putting on a plate-discipline clinic to bolster the offense enough to help the Logan Webb-led rotation.
Atlanta Braves: Ronald Acuña Jr. is on pace for 32 homers, 65 steals and (if that keeps up) his first NL MVP Award. Headlining offseason addition Sean Murphy has been a top-five player in baseball by FanGraphs WAR. The Braves have the biggest division lead in MLB, despite injuries to Max Fried and Kyle Wright.
Houston Astros: A lot has gone wrong for the Astros — Jose Abreu’s bat disappeared, Luis Garcia went down for the season, Jose Altuve missed more than a month — yet they remain virtual playoff locks who are only three games back in the AL West.
New York Yankees: This season’s Aaron Judge missed a few games due to injury but otherwise looks … a lot like last season’s Aaron Judge. The AL East is a constant clash of titans, but the sometimes-panicky Yankees are nonetheless the stalking horse within reach of the Rays and Orioles.
Miami Marlins: The current version of the Marlins can’t honestly be described as “good.” Their -46 run differential is worse than that of the Washington Nationals, who have the NL’s worst record. But the Marlins have used a tremendous bullpen and some clutch hitting to bank 28 wins in their first 55 games. Keep that going a little longer, add some more offense around the indefatigable Luis Arraez, and we’ll see what happens.
Please describe this glass of water
10% to 0.1% BAE
Pittsburgh Pirates: Count the Pirates as a version of last year’s Orioles or Diamondbacks. This won’t be their year, but — behind Mitch Keller and a newly extended Bryan Reynolds — they have shown enough flashes to ratchet up optimism for next season and beyond.
Detroit Tigers: Under new management, the Tigers aren’t good, but they suddenly have some pretty appealing summer options. They could hope for gains from their overwhelmingly youthful roster and make a run in the AL Central — they are two games back despite being 25-28 — or they could bolster their near-term ambitions by dealing ace Eduardo Rodriguez, who just hit the injured list due to a finger injury but boasts a 2.13 ERA.
Milwaukee Brewers: Remember the Twins? Good job being in first, bad job taking advantage of the hand the baseball universe dealt them with a whole division of slumping rivals? Yeah, it might be an upper Midwest thing. The Brewers get downgraded here for missing an even more surprising opportunity.
Cincinnati Reds: The Pirates showed off in April before returning to Earth. The Reds might yet have something to show. One recent call-up, Matt McLain, has been scorching hot in his first 13 major-league games (.357 with two homers), while fellow shortstop prospect Elly De La Cruz is belting Twitter-highlight homers every night in Triple-A, banging down the door to Cincinnati.
"This ball is destroyed. ... Elly De La Cruz will be one of the faces of baseball, someday soon."
The top-ranked @Reds prospect obliterates a 117.7 mph, 450 ft. wallop for the @LouisvilleBats: pic.twitter.com/DqQnWcqT0x
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) May 26, 2023
Colorado Rockies: They have the National League’s worst run differential, so they should probably trade a few of the promising relievers they’ve developed. This being the Rockies, they probably won’t.
Washington Nationals: Worst record in the NL really doesn’t capture the vibe of the frisky Nationals. This league is so bunched up that the Nationals could be in wild-card contention after a hot week. Their young core — largely assembled in the Juan Soto and Max Scherzer/Trea Turner deals — is holding its own, led by starting pitchers MacKenzie Gore (29.8 K%) and Josiah Gray (2.77 ERA).
Chicago Cubs: The Cubs are 24-30 in a season in which they might start to pop out of a rebuild, and no one really knows how to feel about it. Allow ZiPS projection system creator Dan Szymborski to illustrate.
In the same 30 day period, I got a DM from someone furious that ZiPS was clearly broken because it didn't understand that the Cubs were awesome and from another furious person angry that ZiPS was clearly broken because it didn't understand the Cubs were horrible.
— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) May 31, 2023
Hope is the precursor to pain
0% to -24% BAE
Boston Red Sox: The Masataka Yoshida addition has been terrific. He is batting .313 and sparking one of baseball’s most dynamic offenses. But that creativity in team building has not panned out on the pitching side, where a motley crew of mid-30s guys and taking-their-lumps youngsters also turns any team the Red Sox play into one of baseball’s most dynamic offenses.
Seattle Mariners: There has been a bit of a hangover for the Mariners after last season’s triumphant run to October, but they might be kicking into gear. Jarred Kelenic and the young rotation have been excellent. Lately it looks like reigning AL Rookie of the Year Julio Rodriguez is joining the party after an April slump.
Philadelphia Phillies: Minus the firing the manager part, perhaps the Phillies are replicating last season’s “slow start, roaring finish” formula.
Toronto Blue Jays: Somehow, the Blue Jays can’t quite crack the upper echelon of the AL East. This season, they have mostly fixed the long-struggling Jose Berrios, but 2022 AL Cy Young finalist Alek Manoah suddenly looks broken. Matt Chapman is slugging his way toward a huge free-agency payday, but George Springer can’t get out of first gear.
Los Angeles Angels: Same story, new twist coming. The ever-middling Angels have about a month-and-a-half to figure out how serious this team is about October before the Shohei Ohtani question becomes all-consuming.
Kansas City Royals: Years late in showing fruit from a pretty grisly rebuild, the Royals owe the A’s a gift basket for taking all the heat for playing awful baseball.
New York Mets: The Mets are very much still in position to eventually claim a playoff spot, but it’s not at all a guarantee, and that’s sort of the floor for the most expensive baseball team ever assembled. What’s worse is they have repeatedly procrastinated on turning to better, younger options such as Francisco Álvarez and Brett Baty. This is the sort of waffling spring inertia that can lead to a devastating freefall later.
Look away, I’m hideous
-25% BAE or worse
Oakland Athletics: Yes, this might be the worst MLB team ever, but it was also designed to be something approximating that, as the A’s ownership group tries to pull off a cynical, cash-greased exit to Las Vegas. The pitching staff is all-time levels of bad, but the lineup has some bright spots — namely, Esteury Ruiz is stealing all the time, and Brent Rooker is bashing enough to bring back something nice at the trade deadline.
Cleveland Guardians: Last season’s feel-good, contact-hitting winners are this season’s reminders of why every other organization tries to build around more well-rounded offensive skill sets.
Chicago White Sox: At this point, success might mean getting enough resurgent June lines to make the trade deadline useful for the 2024 and 2025 White Sox teams.
San Diego Padres: The Padres, in fourth place at 25-29, are thrashing to keep their heads above water as Manny Machado tries to return from injury and break out of a skid. With Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. playing well, it has become perhaps more grimace-inducing to figure out where the solutions will come from for San Diego. The Padres have a lot of talent, but the drop-off on the roster is too steep.
St. Louis Cardinals: The tailspin has stabilized a bit since they reinstalled Willson Contreras as a catcher, but the early swerves in St. Louis have taken their season way, way off course. A watered-down division means they could still surge into playoff contention, but this is a team that — based on preseason talent evaluations — should be sailing in first. BAE doesn’t even know about the drama, but it recognizes this last-place team as a brutal disappointment.