Pretender or Contender: Which MLB Teams Are for Real in 2022?
Most of the top World Series contenders have revealed themselves as we've passed the quarter mark of the season.
Five current division leaders are legitimate contending teams, while others vying for a playoff spot within crowded divisions can also stake a claim to that group.
There are also teams showing flashes of potential, but not even an expanded playoff with two extra wild cards should fool anyone into overstating them.
In this exercise, we'll go through the pretenders and contenders to determine which MLB teams are for real in 2022. Teams bottom of their division haven't been included in the process, since their status goes without saying.
Let's start with the easiest.
For Sure Contenders
New York Yankees
There should be no question about the legitimacy of the top team in the American League. The Yankees lead the AL in home runs and have the third-highest OPS behind the Los Angeles Angels and Boston Red Sox.
Perhaps more surprisingly, the Yankees also have the third-lowest ERA in baseball, behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros.
While Houston's offense is not as good as it has been in the past, the Astros are still the class of the AL West on the strength of an excellent starting rotation and bullpen.
The Los Angeles Angels will challenge them, and the Texas Rangers are playing better as of late, but the defending AL champions figure to be right there in the mix with the best teams in baseball and could make another run at it if their bats ever wake up.
Who said they didn't have offense in Milwaukee? No one told the Brewers, who have the most home runs in baseball this year.
The Cardinals are Milwaukee's only competition in the NL Central, and both teams should be good enough to make the playoffs via a division crown or through one of the three wild cards available.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers have the highest run differential in baseball through 50 games and a 6-1 record against teams above .500. They also have the highest OPS and second-most RBI behind the New York Mets.
On the pitching side, Los Angeles has the lowest ERA in baseball and the second-lowest WHIP and opponent batting average. This is the most complete team in the National League.
New York Mets
No team has knocked in more runs than the New York Mets. Granted, the Dodgers have played two fewer games, but with New York performing at that level, you get the point.
This is flat out a prolific offense, trailing on the Dodgers in OPS and total runs scored. There are legitimate health questions about the Mets long term, but for now, they are the only NL East team with a winning record and one of only two NL teams with a winning record against others above .500.
Pretender: Chicago White Sox
The White Sox ended May with a series loss to the Boston Red Sox, a two-game split with the crosstown rival Cubs and dropping the series-opener against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Like Toronto, the White Sox entered this season with lofty expectations. They were favored to win the AL Central for a second consecutive season, even as others in the division made upgrades.
Instead, more than a quarter into the season, Chicago looks up at the Minnesota Twins in their division race as a shoddy defense and below-average offense hold them back.
Last season, the White Sox were seventh in OPS (.758), runs scored (796) and eighth in RBI (757). Going into Wednesday's action, only two teams had fewer runs scored; three teams had a worse OPS (.652) or fewer RBI (163).
Other than Michael Kopech's ascension as a starter, not much about the White Sox has been impressive.
PECOTA gives the Twins a slightly better chance of winning the AL Central. With the crowded AL East and an improved Angels team chasing the Houston Astros in the West, it's possible only the Central winner gets in, despite the added wild card spot.
Contender: Los Angeles Angels
This is finally time for the Angels to reach the postseason for the first time since 2014. They have slipped over the past couple of weeks, dropping six straight for the longest active losing streak in baseball.
The bullpen has been shaky lately, and Noah Syndergaard's most recent start against the New York Yankees was not encouraging.
But don't make too much of this rut. Their pitching overall has been solid, tied for the sixth-lowest WHIP and sixth-lowest opponent batting average.
Meanwhile, perennial MVP candidate Mike Trout is back healthy and has returned to form with the second-highest OPS in baseball as of Wednesday (1.038).
Between Trout, Shohei Ohtani and Jared Walsh, only the Yankees boast a trio with 10 or more home runs apiece.
This is a dangerous lineup and more than adequate starting rotation. The Angels' Achilles heel is their bullpen.
The odds of them winning the AL West, barring a Houston Astros collapse, are slim. But PECOTA still gives the Angels a 37 percent chance of making the playoffs, even if it's most likely one of the three wild cards.
Pretender: Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies had lost five in a row and seven of their last eight going into Wednesday's game against the San Francisco Giants. Now with a 22-29 record, it's become so concerning that manager Joe Girardi's job is under scrutiny in Philadelphia.
As The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal noted Tuesday, this roster has a club-record $228.7 million payroll and lofty expectations after the signings of Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber in free agency.
But instead of threatening for the NL East, they sit 12.5 games behind the New York Mets, who also made some bold moves this offseason.
The Phillies have been a model for underachievement. Their expected win-loss record based on runs scored and runs allowed is 26-25, slightly better than their actual record. This is largely because Philadelphia is 4-10 in one-run games.
There is still a decent chance for the Phillies to capture a wild card (PECOTA gives them a 32.6 percent chance).
But when you look at how deep the NL West is, with three legitimate teams, and the St. Louis Cardinals battling the Milwaukee Brewers in the Central, Philly is digging a hole.
Contender: San Diego Padres
If the Padres don't make their second postseason trip since 2006 this year, it would be even more of a letdown than last year.
Injuries and underperformance combined to put San Diego out of contention in 2021. Not this time.
Through 50 games, their pitching staff is tied with the Yankees for the lowest opponent batting average (.217). Their starters have the third-highest WAR, while the bullpen holds the joint-ninth-highest WAR, according to FanGraphs.
Luke Voit has been better the past seven games, slashing .269/.345/.500 with a pair of home runs after a slow start to the season. His OPS in May was .791, up from .482 in April/March.
Fernando Tatis Jr. is also expected to return from his surgically repaired left wrist later this month. The Padres have time to figure things out at the plate, especially if they are going to pitch like this.
Pretender: San Francisco Giants
This won't be like last year, when the Giants won a franchise-record 107 games to win the NL West. They are battling the Padres for second place to the Dodgers, who are clearly the class of the division.
The Giants' numbers suggest they are good, but not quite to last year's level. San Francisco has the sixth-highest OPS, the third-most runs scored and RBI and fourth-highest on-base percentage.
The pitching has largely underperformed, with an especially bad May seeing the staff tied for the second-highest opponent batting average (.277) and earned runs and in sole possession of the fourth-highest WHIP (1.45) and hits allowed (265).
Since the Giants are arguably the third-best team in their division and the pitching no longer matches up with their peers, it's difficult to take them too seriously.
Contender: Minnesota Twins
The Twins have been challenged in recent days with a lot of players suffering from injuries or COVID-19. They saw pitchers Chris Paddack, Kenta Maeda, Jorge Alcala and first baseman Miguel Sano all go on the 60-day injured list.
Star shortstop Carlos Correa, outfielder Gilberto Celestino and pitcher Joe Ryan all spent time on the COVID-19 list.
But when the Twins still hold a five-game lead over the White Sox and Guardians, with a plus-29 run differential.
They're 11th in OPS (.714) and runs scored. On the pitching side, Minnesota also has the seventh-lowest ERA (3.48).
PECOTA has the Twins and White Sox with similar chances to make the playoffs, whether by winning the division or a wild-card berth.
But given how unimpressive the White Sox have been, Minnesota unexpectedly looks like the AL Central's only playoff team.
Pretender: Texas Rangers
Give the Rangers some credit. They went 11-5 in their last 16 games in May, with a series sweep against the Angels before a two-game road split a week later, then another road series win against the lowly Oakland Athletics.
They also started strong in their home series against the Tampa Bay Rays before a 4-3 loss Wednesday.
Things seem to be coming together for the Rangers, but don't mistake them for a contender just yet. They are still behind the Astros and Angels in this division, even if their offense outperformed Houston's last month. Quietly, the Rangers also had the fifth-lowest ERA and tied for the seventh-lowest opponent batting average in May.
But PECOTA gives Texas a 5.6 percent chance of making the playoffs, and it would have to happen as a wild card, which is going to be difficult even with the extra slot.
Contender: Boston Red Sox
After a rough start to the season, the Red Sox went on a 13-6 run toward the end of May with an impressive plus-50 run differential.
The heart of their lineup—Rafael Devers (.341 batting average), J.D. Martinez (.360) and Xander Bogaerts (.323)—has been as good as any in baseball. Trevor Story finally picked it up last month and posted a .842 OPS for the month.
Boston's problem is being in a crowded and talented AL East, but it's possible the Red Sox are only looking up at the Yankees come the end of the regular season. Despite their lackluster performance through 51 games, sitting 11.5 games behind the Yankees atop the division, Boston has the second-highest run differential (plus-22) and the second-best expected win-loss record based on runs scored and allowed (28-23).
The Red Sox's loaded offense is good for the fourth-most runs scored and the fifth-highest OPS in baseball (.733).
Of the four serious AL East teams, PECOTA gives Boston the lowest chance to make the playoffs (38.8 percent). No other fourth-ranked team in a division has better than a 12.7 percent playoff chance, though.
It's difficult to see Atlanta's path to defending its World Series title. The Mets are winning the NL East and two teams (the San Diego Padres and St. Louis Cardinals) have far better chances at a wild card, according to PECOTA.
The San Francisco Giants have slightly worse playoff odds than Atlanta but appear to be a better team based on record and run differential.
Starting pitching hasn't been anything to write home about, either. The Atlanta starters have the seventh-highest ERA in baseball and are joint-15th in WAR. The bullpen, however, leads major league relievers in WAR.
When the offense is mediocre, the starting pitching is underwhelming and the bullpen is the only group to stand out, that's not exactly the recipe for contending.
Contender: St. Louis Cardinals
Milwaukee may hold the division lead, but there is not much separating the Brewers from the St. Louis Cardinals.
In fact, the Cardinals held a higher run differential through 50 games (plus-47) and are the only team in the division with a winning record against other teams with winning records, including Wednesday's 5-2 victory over the San Diego Padres.
Among NL teams, only the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets have a higher run differential than St. Louis.
The expanded playoff only helps a Cardinals team built to make it anyway, as they have the past three seasons.
Pretender: Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays should be contenders given how committed they are to excellent pitching. If the offense could catch up with it, maybe they would be.
The Rays have the third-lowest WHIP, joint-fourth-lowest opponent batting average and sixth-fewest hits allowed through 50 games.
Tampa Bay's offense has to improve before the team can be taken seriously in a division with the Yankees, Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays, though.
Only eight teams have a lower OPS than Tampa over the season. In May, only three teams were below Tampa in that category.
Shane McClanahan leading the league in strikeouts is a cool story and the Rays' pitching is a joy to watch. It might seem odd to label a team with 58.9 percent playoff odds as a pretender. But they aren't going anywhere without knocking in runs.
Contender: Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays have largely underwhelmed given their expectations going into the season. It feels like they are not playing up to their potential.
Part of this is due to regression from Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who was an AL MVP candidate last year. Bo Bichette has been performing well below his averages from a year ago as well.
Last year, Guerrero tied with Salvador Perez for the home run lead with 48. He also led the AL in OPS (1.002) and OPS+ (167).
This year, his slash line has gone from .311/.401/.601 to .249/.342/.438, and he is nowhere near the league lead in home runs with nine through 169 at-bats.
Bichette's OPS is down from .828 to .718, and his line has dropped from .298/.343/.484 to .257/.292/.426.
Still, the potential in Toronto is still evident. At 28-20 as of Wednesday, they only look up at the Yankees.
The Blue Jays are also one of only three AL teams with a winning record against teams above .500 (15-12), which should give a decent indication of how they stack up against the best. The other two are the Yankees and Astros, whom most expect to be in the mix come October.