I’m not buying projection of less-than even playoff odds for Braves

(Gabe Burns / AJC)
(Gabe Burns / AJC)

In February, FanGraphs writer Dan Szymborski’s “ZiPS” statistical projection gave the Braves a 73% chance to make the postseason. That was when spring training was preceding as normal, and 162 games were on the MLB schedule. There were plenty of reasons to believe the Braves were built to win the National League East or one of two NL wild cards.

Now there's a 60-game schedule with an altered slate of opponents. Now Szymborski's numbers don't like the Braves' chances nearly as much. According to ZiPS, the Braves went from a heavy favorite to make the postseason during a full season to a virtual coin flip for the shortened campaign.

The new ZiPS projection gives the Braves a 48.8% chance of making the postseason. In the NL, only the Dodgers had a bigger drop in ZiPS postseason odds from February to now. The system projects a 34-26 record for both the Braves and Nationals. It sees those teams as roughly equal bets to win the NL East (31.3% vs. 32.4%) or a wild card (17.6% vs. 17.5%).

It's no surprise that a shortened schedule heavy on division opponents reduced the Braves' postseason odds. Fewer games hurt good teams the most. There's a larger chance of unexpected outcomes in a small sample (think of flipping a coin 10 times vs. 1,000 times). ZiPS reflects that reality.

The best teams had the biggest drop in postseason odds. The middling teams got a boost in their odds. It didn’t make much of a difference for the bad teams because, as Szymborski writes, they “just aren’t good enough to take as much advantage of” the smaller sample of games and make the postseason.

I also figured a higher ratio of games against division foes would make things harder on the Braves because the East looks tough again (Marlins excluded, again). In a normal year the Braves play 76 of 162 games (47 percent) against East opponents. This year they’ll face East foes in 40 of 60 games (67 percent).

The schedule outside of the East is tougher, too. The Braves were set to play 20 percent of 162 games against teams from the NL’s weakest division, the Central. Now they’ll play a third of their games against the American League East, which could be the toughest division in that league. The Braves will play World Series contenders New York and Tampa Bay four times each.

I understand why the new schedule reduced the Braves’ playoff odds. I saw them as relative shoo-ins when the talk was about expanding the playoffs to eight teams per league. It won’t be as easy with five NL bids after 60 games. I’m still a bit surprised that the altered schedule caused ZiPS to downgrade the Braves’ chances so much.

The Braves were a very consistent team in 2019. Per FanGraphs, no other NL team posted a record of .500 or better in rolling, 50-game samples. There are lots of reasons to believe the Braves will be just as good this season. And the Nationals, minus 2019 MVP candidate Anthony Rendon, are apt to take a step back after winning the World Series.

Granted, much of the Braves' consistency in 2019 was because of their hitters, and the lineup isn't as good with Josh Donaldson swapped for Marcell Ozuna. The Braves still should hit plenty. I won't go as far as general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who said the designated hitter will allow good hitters to leave the bench for the lineup. But the top three of Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies can carry them.

With Cole Hamels healthy, the Braves’ starting pitching should be at least as good this season. The bullpen is much deeper. That’s key for this year because starting pitchers will have shorter outings early in the schedule as they build up innings following four months away.

Braves manager Brian Snitker can call on three good, veteran relievers for the later innings: Will Smith, Mark Melancon and Chris Martin. I still like Luke Jackson, Shane Greene and Darren O’Day serving as bridges to those three. Kyle Wright and Sean Newcomb can be effective in a hybrid starter/relief role.

The circumstances for starting pitchers will hurt the Nationals. They have the NL’s best rotation, with a top three of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. But they won’t have as much impact in shorter outings. Washington’s bullpen is better after it was terrible in 2019, but it’s still not very deep. When the full schedule is released the Braves should hope the Nationals are on it early and often.

With a full season the Dodgers appeared to be a notch above all other NL teams. The Braves were alone on the second tier. ZiPS still has the Dodgers as big favorites in the NL with the shorter schedule. Now it projects a handful of teams to challenge the Braves.

The playoffs, if they happen, will be a crap shoot as usual. As you’d expect, ZiPS reduced the Braves’ chances of winning the World Series from 6.2% February to 4.95% now. However, the bookmakers didn’t change their mind on the Braves.

The Braves' 14-1 odds to win the World Series are the same now as they were in February (that's an implied probability of 6.7%). The Braves' current over/under wins total of 34 represents almost the exact same winning percentage over 60 games as the 92 over/under wins for 162 games in February. Washington's over/under wins also is 34.

The betting markets and ZiPS both project a tight race in the East between the Braves and Nationals. The people and the numbers are considering some unprecedented factors. There will be no fans in the stands. Injuries and randomness will have a much bigger impact with fewer games. And no one can predict which players will be sidelined by COVID-19.

I liked the Braves to win the East when 162 games were on the schedule. I still think they’ll do it even though nearly everything about the schedule has changed. It will be harder to do with the smaller sample of games, but the Braves are good enough to pull it off.

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