Early returns set the scene for Tigers, Mets playoff runs

As April comes to a close, nearly every bit of information we have about baseball is useless. Over the course of a 162-game season, it’s a fool’s errand to try to make long-term predictions based on early season trends. However, early season madness can sometimes change the picture of a season in a meaningful way. This year, two crowded races — the battle for the American League (AL) Central crown and the struggle for the National League (NL) Wild Card — could have seen the favorites change due to some early season surprises.

Early season swings cause changes in close races. Say a team would normally be expected to win 81 games in a season. This would mean it wins 50 percent of its games. If that team wins its first ten games, their talent level did not change, but those games count. Now, instead of 81 games, that team is expected to win 86.

That random hot streak has an impact on the playoff position of that team.

Saying the hot streak will level out in the long run is true, but the season is not long enough to render those ten games irrelevant. Further, the team is not more likely to experience a random cold streak because they had a random hot streak. This is the gambler’s fallacy. The early season successes of two teams, the Detroit Tigers and the New York Mets, have massively improved those teams’ chances to get in on the MLB playoffs.

In the AL Central, four teams — the Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Cleveland Indians, and Chicago White Sox — all had their sights set on a division crown. While projection systems were less kind to the Royals despite their AL pennant from last season, the Tigers, Indians, and White Sox were all projected by Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA, Clay Davenport, and Vegas lines to finish with only a couple games between them. The Royals were projected to find themselves a bit back of the pack. However, with a fast start, the Tigers have pulled five games ahead of both the Indians and White Sox. The Royals, who have matched the Tigers so far, may have been underrated by the preseason projections.

Even if they were not, this random hot streak has put them in position to finish about level with the Indians and White Sox, putting them back in contention for the Wild Card race in the AL. This is not a big upset considering expectations, as the White Sox and Indians were relying on younger players taking a step forward. This doesn’t always happen, and it means that both teams are likely to improve as the season goes along. However, if both teams finish with the same record as the Tigers in a vacuum, that five game league is likely to hold over the remaining 145 or so games.

A stacked field featuring the San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs, Miami Marlins, and whoever between the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals misses out on the NL Central crown was supposed to have a season-long scrum for the two spots in the NL Wild Card playoff game. The Cardinals and Pirates were expected to finish with somewhere between 89 and 93 wins, but one of them would win the NL Central. That means that one spot would be left for the rest of the field, all of whom were often projected to finish in the 83 to 85 win range.

Just behind those four teams was supposed to be the Mets, a .500 team with some great pitching but little else better than average. The Mets had other ideas, however, as they burst out of the gate with a 13–3 start. Considering their projections, prorated to a whole season, the Mets would then be expected to follow that start with .500 baseball and finish with 86 wins.

With none of the other wild card teams performing according to expectations so far, the Mets’ 86 expected wins seems to have launched them not only into the conversation, but maybe even the pole position. The Marlins have been horrible out of the gate, and in a crowded race a cold streak can be death. Slow starts have left the Cubs and Pirates hovering around .500, so considering preseason expectations, the Cubs are likely an 83-win team and the Pirates an 87-win team. The Padres have been good to begin the season, but they did not project more than two games better than the Mets coming in and sit three games back right now. The Mets are being tested early with injuries to third baseman David Wright and catcher Travis D’Arnaud, but starters Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Bartolo Colon can help the team go a long way, and highly rated prospect, starter Noah Syndergaard, is waiting in the wings. These Mets might be able to put a playoff run together this season.

Of course, it’s only April, and small sample size wonkiness happens during every small sample over the course of a season. Injuries might derail the Mets, or all of those teams might go on even more impressive runs. Either way, what seemed like an exciting and close MLB season looks even closer one month in.