Fun Story or Real Contender? Making the Call on These 8 MLB Teams

Zachary D. RymerMay 25, 2023

Fun Story or Real Contender? Making the Call on These 8 MLB Teams

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    Who saw the Rangers as the best team in Texas coming?
    Who saw the Rangers as the best team in Texas coming?Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

    More than a quarter of the way through the 2023 Major League Baseball season, a few teams are still lingering higher than expected in the standings.

    So, for what may be the last time before it's no longer considered early in the 2023 season, let's weigh whether eight clubs are real contenders or just fun stories.

    This is a situation where neither perspective is totally invalid, so we made arguments for both. What we didn't do, though, was give equal weight to both sides. For each team, we put statistical analysis, historical precedence and good, ol' gut feeling into making the call on whether "real contender" or "fun story" carries more or less weight.

    Note: All playoff odds are according to DraftKings.

Detroit Tigers

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    Eduardo Rodriguez
    Eduardo RodriguezSteven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Record: 22-25 (2nd in AL Central)

    Playoff Odds: +1200

    The Case for Real Contender

    The Tigers? A contender? With that record?

    Look, we're not saying [Tony the Tiger voice] they're great, but their winning percentage is up 61 points from last season, and they're only 2.5 games behind the Minnesota Twins in the American League Central. And their remaining schedule? It's weak sauce.

    These are favorable circumstances for a would-be playoff contender, and the Tigers indeed have more good things going for them between the lines than just Eduardo Rodríguez's pitching. Namely, a defense that ranks fourth in MLB in efficiency.

    The Case for Fun Story

    When the St. Louis Cardinals made the playoffs in 2014, it was without much help from their offense. It produced only 3.82 runs per game.

    We bring this up because that's the lowest such figure by a playoff team since MLB expanded to 30 teams in 1998. It, uh, doesn't bode well for a Tigers club that's putting up 3.66 runs per game. And that, if you can believe it, is one of their offense's more flattering figures.

Miami Marlins

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    Jorge Soler
    Jorge SolerMegan Briggs/Getty Images

    Record: 25-25 (3rd in NL East)

    Playoff Odds: +250

    The Case for Real Contender

    The Marlins lost 93 games and finished fourth in the National League East last season. So, like the Tigers, you have to admire their progress if nothing else.

    As to more specific things to admire, how about Jorge Soler's slugging (14 home runs) and a pitching staff that has way more talent than its 4.38 ERA suggests.

    Sandy Alcántara (4.86) and Edward Cabrera (5.05) will have their ERAs come down eventually, and rookie Eury Pérez already looks like a keeper after just three starts.

    MLB Pipeline @MLBPipeline

    How about this for Eury Pérez's second career start?<br>5 IP<br>3 H<br>1 R<br>1 BB<br>6 K<br>Check out all of the <a href="">@Marlins</a>' top prospect's strikeouts: <a href=""></a>

    Also like the Tigers, Miami's remaining schedule is relatively favorable.

    The Case for Fun Story

    If you think the Tigers offense is bad, you should get a load of Miami's. Or rather, save yourself from crushing boredom and don't. It's posting an NL-low 3.62 runs per game.

    If the question is how the Marlins are playing .500 ball despite that, a 15-3 record in one-run games will answer it. It's just a matter of time before that pendulum swings back the other way and has a wrecking-ball effect on this team's contention outlook.

Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Austin Hedges (L) and Mitch Keller (R)
    Austin Hedges (L) and Mitch Keller (R)AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

    Record: 25-24 (2nd in NL Central)

    Playoff Odds: +700

    The Case for Fun Story

    The Pirates won 20 of their first 28 games but have since lost 16 of their last 21, so their season has already taken a "welp, that was fun while it lasted" sort of turn.

    Of particular note is how their offense has sunk like an anchor. They've averaged just 2.8 runs per game over their last 21 contests, thus underscoring a question that was always there: How is this team supposed to score?

    The Case for Real Contender

    Well, how about an NL-high 53 stolen bases and, by way of a .277 average with runners in scoring position, a solid clutch gene?

    Besides, the Pirates don't need to score runs in bunches as long as their pitching staff maintains the NL's second-best ERA at 3.77. They even have one of the league's hottest starters in Mitch Keller, who boasts a 2.59 ERA over his last 25 starts.

    Like the Tigers, the Bucs also have a light remaining schedule, thanks in part to playing in the NL Central. If they can even play slightly better than .500 ball the rest of the way, they'll at least stay in wild-card contention.

Boston Red Sox

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    Chris Sale
    Chris SaleBillie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

    Record: 26-24 (4th in AL East)

    Playoff Odds: +330

    The Case for Real Contender

    If nothing else, the Red Sox have proved that this year's offense isn't just Rafael Devers and a random assortment of randos. They rank fourth in MLB in scoring 5.24 runs per game.

    In the meantime, Boston's starting pitching has taken a turn for the better in May. Especially when Chris Sale, James Paxton and Brayan Bello have been on the mound, as they have a 3.26 ERA between them for the month.

    The Case for Fun Story

    It did, however, feel early in the season like Boston's offense was running too hot. Its cold spell since May 7, a span in which Masataka Yoshida and Jarren Duran have unsurprisingly fallen off after curiously hot starts, has felt inevitable.

    As for Boston's rotation, Sale, Paxton and Bello are really the only things standing between it and disaster. Other starters the Red Sox have run out in May have a 6.31 ERA and Corey Kluber was just sent to the bullpen.

    And then there's the club's AL East surroundings and remaining schedule. Neither are what you'd call "favorable," and neither the club's intra-division record (7-7) nor its record against winning teams (17-18) inspires confidence.

Los Angeles Angels

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    Mike Trout (L) and Shohei Ohtani (R)
    Mike Trout (L) and Shohei Ohtani (R)John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Record: 28-23 (3rd in AL West)

    Playoff Odds: +180

    The Case for Fun Story

    Yes, it's true. The Angels are trending toward their first winning season since 2015.

    Then again, that was also true last year as the Halos got off to a 27-17 start. Look how that turned out. One can already see how this year's club might suffer a similar fate, as it's just not getting much in the way of returns from the offensive depth it added this winter. Anthony Rendon, meanwhile, is still mostly injured and ineffective.

    The Case for Real Contender

    Ah, but there is one area where the 2022 Angels and 2023 Angels couldn't be more different. The former had a bottom-10 bullpen, whereas the latter has a top-10 pen.

    Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

    Carlos Estévez, 99mph Paint 🖌️🎨 <a href=""></a>

    Newcomers Matt Moore and Carlos Estévez have been huge parts of that, and Tyler Anderson has recently begun to live up to his $39 million contract in the rotation. His last five starts have yielded a 3.14 ERA.

    This is to say that the Angels are getting returns from their other new depth pieces, and it's probably about time we mentioned that Shohei Ohtani is still Shohei Ohtani and that fellow MVP Mike Trout is bound to improve on the relatively modest .891 OPS he has so far.

Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Zac Gallen
    Zac GallenAP Photo/Rick Scuteri

    Record: 29-21 (2nd in NL West)

    Playoff Odds: -105

    The Case for Fun Story

    Remember all that handwringing we did about the disparity of talent within the Red Sox's rotation? One can also do that with the Diamondbacks, for whom starters not named Zac Gallen or Merrill Kelly have posted a 5.79 ERA.

    Besides, the Snakes have been lucky. No, really. Per their good-not-great plus-15 run differential, their record should be more like 26-24.

    The Case for Real Contender

    Then again, let's not gloss over the fact that Gallen and Kelly have a combined 2.98 ERA and that the worst of the other starters Arizona has run out this year in Madison Bumgarner is no longer around. And from the sound of things, it was good riddance.

    You also gotta love the Diamondbacks' position players. They lead the NL with a .264 average and MLB in baserunning runs, and they have also racked up 18 Defensive Runs Saved.

    And as unlikely a contender as they seem to be, the D-backs already have cred as a dragon slayer. They're 12-10 against other winning teams, including 5-3 against the NL West Smaug that is the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Texas Rangers

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    Corey Seager (L) and Marcus Semien (R)
    Corey Seager (L) and Marcus Semien (R)Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Record: 31-18 (1st in AL West)

    Playoff Odds: -160

    The Case for Fun Story

    The Rangers just sort of feel too good to be true, don't they? A team that lost 94 games and finished fourth in the AL West is now on top of the defending World Series champion Houston Astros within the division? Come on.

    And this in spite of a lousy bullpen and ample time on the injured list for big-ticket signees Corey Seager and Jacob deGrom? Once again, come on.

    The Case for Real Contender

    At a certain point, you just have to hand it to a team for something it clearly does well. In the case of the Rangers, that's scoring runs. They're up to 310 through 49 games, which leads the majors.

    Codify @CodifyBaseball

    Adolis García has driven in 48 runs in the Rangers' first 44 games!<a href=""></a>

    Of the 29 teams that scored 310-plus runs through 49 games before them, 15 made the playoffs and eight won the World Series.

    Further, getting only six starts from deGrom hasn't held back the Rangers rotation, which has otherwise gotten nine starts each from four above average starters. With strengths like these, better relief pitching is more luxury than necessity.

Baltimore Orioles

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    Yennier Cano (L) and Adley Rutschman (R)
    Yennier Cano (L) and Adley Rutschman (R)AP Photo/Nick Wass

    Record: 32-17 (2nd in AL East)

    Playoff Odds: -125

    The Case for Fun Story

    There aren't many similarities between actual orioles and actual diamondbacks in the wild, but the baseball teams named after them have one thing in common in 2023: winning more games than they probably should.

    There would thus be a smell of unsustainability here even if the Orioles didn't also have a poor starting rotation. But as seen in its 4.89 ERA, they do.

    The Case for Real Contender

    When you win 32 of your first 49 games, you're in good shape. Each of the last 16 teams to do it before the Orioles (and Tampa Bay Rays, for that matter) made the playoffs.

    And starting pitching aside, what's supposed to be working for the Orioles is doing so. Adley Rutschman is pacing an offense that's in the top half of the American League in multiple categories, and the bullpen might be the best in MLB.

    Unlike, say, a certain team up in Toronto, the Orioles have also handled AL East competition to the tune of a 10-7 record. As such, what looks like a scary remaining schedule should be nothing they can't handle.

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.