Seven Takeaways From Our Playoff Odds

Earlier this week, as is tradition, FanGraphs founder David Appelman went into his garage, turned off all the lights except for some candles, and performed a dark and arcane ritual. Then he went back inside, pushed a few buttons on his computer, and now we have playoff odds for 2021!

Okay, fine, that isn’t exactly how it went down, but it’s close. Our playoff odds incorporate little pieces of a lot of features you’ve already seen on the website. We start with a blended projection that incorporates ZiPS and Steamer’s rate statistic projections. We add in playing time projections from RosterResource, which incorporate health, skill, and team situation to create a unified guess for how each team will distribute their plate appearances and innings pitched.

With playing time in hand, we use BaseRuns to estimate how many runs each team will score and allow per game based on our earlier blended rate statistic projections. That gives us a schedule-neutral win percentage for each team, because you can turn runs scored and runs allowed into a projection via the Pythagorean approximation. From there, we simulate the season 10,000 times, with an odds ratio and a random number generator determining the outcome of each matchup. Voila! Our playoff odds.

Why am I telling you all of this? First, so you can look at them. They’re accessible from the main page, but you can also click here to dive in. Second, because I’m going to walk through some projections I found interesting, as well as a few places where the gap between common perception and our odds merit an explanation. Let’s get started!

The Ultra-Competitive American League East

The Yankees are really good. We project them for 96 wins and a 70% chance at a division title. Some of that is because we’re bullish on their rotation, full as it is with injury-prone but talented pitchers. Most of it, though, is that we just think the Yankees are great. We think they’re a clear cut above the rest.

After that, things get murky. The Blue Jays’ offseason overhaul is real; we think that they’re more than 50% to make the playoffs, narrowly ahead of — wait, the Red Sox?? Turns out, starting your team with Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers gives you a high floor. We think the Red Sox have holes on their team — first base and right field look rough — but star power and a sneaky-good rotation (10th in our projections, with help from an optimistic view of Chris Sale’s return) go a long way.

That leaves the Rays, the defending AL champions, on the outside looking in. What gives? An inverse of what we project for the Red Sox. The Rays are deep, but they’re also low-ceiling, at least according to our projections; every spot in their lineup is projected for a WAR total between 1.3 and 2.8. The Red Sox have four positions with higher projected production than Tampa Bays’ 2.8 WAR second base number, and the Blue Jays have six. It’s hard to overcome a lack of top-end talent, though that does mean that the two teams ahead of them have more to lose from injury issues.

None of this is to say that the Rays can’t make the playoffs. They made the playoffs last year without an overwhelming individual offensive performance, though Brandon Lowe was excellent. But with Blake Snell and Charlie Morton gone, the pitching simply looks weaker than last season. However good the reinforcements are — and they’re excellent — their rotation to start the year looks like it will be Tyler Glasnow, Ryan Yarbrough, Chris Archer, Michael Wacha, and Josh Fleming. Not exactly what you’d hope for in a talented and competitive division.

A Note on Distributions

Now that I told you why our odds don’t like the Rays, here’s a follow up: I think we’re underrating the Rays. Why? It has to do with the way we construct our odds. We run the season 10,000 times, as I mentioned, but that’s only to determine the outcome of each game; the underlying talent is the same in each simulation. In other words, the Yankees are a true-talent .595 team every single time — they just get lucky or unlucky sometimes.

In real life, that’s not how things work at all. Players get injured or don’t. Prospects pop, and veterans sometimes unexpectedly decline. The Rays, for example, have about seven pitchers with a chance at being excellent this year. If one of them absolutely shoves, he’ll ascend toward the top of their rotation, and in that universe, their pitching will look better. We’re looking at an average outcome for each player, but that’s not how things will actually work in real life. Some players will get better, and some will get worse.

Similarly, the more depth you have, the easier it is to replace players lost to injury. DJ LeMahieu is getting 651 plate appearances in every single simulation, and Gerrit Cole always throws 200 innings. When we say the Yankees project to win the AL East 70% of the time, we aren’t including injury-related washouts in the equation at all. The Rays have a perfect storm of two factors — plenty of available and volatile prospects, and enough depth that injuries are less likely to scuttle them — that our odds don’t account for. We have the Rays at 19.3% to make the playoffs, but I think that’s as much a consequence of the way we build our odds as an indictment of their team.

The Twins Hang On

The White Sox got a lot better this offseason, but we still have them fractionally behind the Twins in the race for AL Central supremacy. At 39.7% to win the division, the White Sox aren’t pretenders or anything, but the Twins are deeper and more well-rounded than you might think. Eight of their nine positions (eight fielders plus DH) project for more than 2 WAR, and left field, where phenom Alex Kirilloff is taking over, isn’t far off the pace. The pitching is precarious — a few injuries could be worrisome — but this Twins team is no mirage.

The true surprise for me in the AL Central is how close the Royals are to .500. We think they’re only 8.6% to make the playoffs, the 10th-best mark in the AL, but they’re only three projected wins behind Cleveland, a remarkable turnaround from a few years ago. With exciting pitchers in the rotation and plenty of room to make additions if they’re in the hunt for a playoff spot in July (the whole outfield and bullpen, basically), the Royals might surprise some people this year. They also might not — again, we think they’ll only make the playoffs 8.6% of the time — but that’s a step in the right direction for a team that won 58 games in 2018 and 59 in 2019.

Trout Alert

I know, I know, the Angels never make the playoffs. This year, however, they just might. Oakland, the division winner in 2020, has spent the offseason doing a whole lot of nothing — Marcus Semien and Liam Hendriks have been replaced with bubble gum and hope. Houston lost George Springer. The Angels lost Andrelton Simmons, but other than that, they’ve had a solid offseason.

Raisel Iglesias is the best reliever they’ve had in years. José Iglesias is a cut-rate Simmons coming off a career offensive year. José Quintana’s floor is decent and his upside is an innings-eating monster. Dexter Fowler, Alex Cobb, Aaron Slegers, Juan Lagares, Kurt Suzuki, and Alex Claudio are useful pieces. As an added bonus, we’re projecting Albert Pujols for only 371 plate appearances this year, which would be the lowest number of his (non-2020) career.

Of course, we’re projecting him for -0.7 WAR in that limited playing time, so the Angels’ Pujols problem isn’t over yet. It’s smaller now, though, and the combination of less Pujols and more competent veterans does a lot to sand off the worst parts of the roster from years past. Sure, they’d be more interesting if they had landed another talented starter, but at long last, it appears that Trout has a puncher’s chance at a division title, or at the very least a Wild Card slot.

We Love the Mets

Sometimes it feels like FanGraphs and the Mets are in an on-again, off-again relationship. We laugh at their overall Metsiness, and we also cover their attempts at team-building more than we maybe should. They’re just so darn interesting, whether their planning works or not.

This year, we project that the planning will work. They aren’t head and shoulders ahead of Atlanta, but both teams look like the class of the National League East. The Nationals have too many holes (second base, rotation depth, and infield corners) for Juan Soto to carry them. The Phillies have a Nats-esque offense with a worse pitching staff. The Marlins had a fun run in 2020, but I didn’t need a projection system to tell me they’ll struggle to replicate that success this year.

The Mets aren’t without issues. They’re still defensively deficient — we have Dominic Smith getting 500 plate appearances in left field, Brandon Nimmo with nearly 500 in center, and J.D. Davis getting most of the time at third base, which is rough to say the least. They’ll hit enough to make up for it, though, and their rotation is both star-laden and deep. When we’ve poked fun at the Mets for not using their financial resources to go from intriguing to dominant, this is the kind of team we envisioned. It would be a shock if they don’t make the playoffs this year despite a deep division and strong Wild Card opposition.

Central Sadness

Wow, the NL Central projects poorly. The Brewers’ signing of Kolten Wong got them back even with the Cardinals… at a desultory 81.4 wins. We aren’t alone — pretty much any computer model in the world is going to be skeptical of a bunch of teams that haven’t played well in years and didn’t do enough adding to offset the effects of aging.

Milwaukee has a superstar, but that’s kind of it. Wong projects as their third-best position player, and while I think that’s too pessimistic of a view on Keston Hiura, it’s still not great. For comparison’s sake, Atlanta has six players who project for more production than Lorenzo Cain, the Brew Crew’s second-best projection as a hitter. It’s not like they make it up with pitchers, either; the Corbin Burnes/Brandon Woodruff top of the rotation is great, but the back end is a little dicey. One thing worth monitoring: with Josh Hader and Devin Williams anchoring the bullpen, the Brewers might be able to outperform their run differential with clever reliever usage.

In St. Louis, the problems are much the same. Nolan Arenado and the various Pauls (both DeJong and Goldschmidt) are the offensive highlights, and Dylan Carlson has a shot at being great, but the vaunted Cardinals depth has slipped a little bit in recent years; we don’t think Tommy Edman, Yadier Molina, or Tyler O’Neill will be average regulars, and that’s a lot of ballast to carry. The team is famous for its Devil Magic, so don’t count these guys out, but they combined to hit .232/.297/.363, good for an 82 wRC+, last year, so they’ll all need to excel on defense or surprise on offense to give the Cardinals a boost.

The Cubs have a shot, too. Their pitching staff is cover-your-eyes awful, even after adding a one win bump for the inevitable Kyle Hendricks underprojection (some things never change). They’re relying a lot on Shelby Miller and Tyson Miller. With such a low bar, though, their dynamic position player core of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Báez and friends gives them enough offense that we see them as 20% to make the playoffs.

The Reds are the clear fourth-best team in the division, and their offseason, as Dan Szymborski recently chronicled, did nothing to make things feel better. They’re projected for -0.6 WAR at shortstop, and even that feels optimistic considering the players they’re trotting out there.

Nick Castellanos was quietly disappointing last year. Joey Votto can only fight father time for so long. Shogo Akiyama was underwhelming in his first year in the majors. The offense has now been bad for two years, and there’s no one coming to save it. That puts too much pressure on the pitching, and while their pitching is good, it’s not that good. Despite that, we still give them a 14.7% chance at winning the division, which should tell you everything you need to know.

How bad is the NL Central? We project the Red Sox, only 12.8% to win their division, as more likely to win the World Series than the Cardinals and Brewers combined. We think the Blue Jays are as likely to win the World Series as the entire NL Central. On our projected standings page, you can see each team’s true-talent win percentage before accounting for their schedule, and all five NL Central teams are below .500. Not great!

Update: This article originally listed the Brewers as slightly ahead of the Cardinals in NL Central odds. They are now behind them, but in a statistical tie; the odds are re-run daily, so expect variance to continue to swap which of those teams has a higher win projection.

More Like NL Best

You didn’t need a projection to tell you this, so I’ll keep it brief. The Padres and Dodgers are ridiculous. They both have stars and depth all over. The Dodgers won’t have quite the position-player bounty that they’ve had in recent years unless they bring Justin Turner back, but they added Trevor Bauer and will presumably be getting David Price back as well. It’s silly.

Meanwhile, the Padres are weak at first base and wonderful everywhere else. Their pitching staff is ludicrous. They have superstars, sure, but they also have so much depth that Jake Cronenworth, Ha-seong Kim, and Jurickson Profar will all be scrapping for playing time — we think Cronenworth will get the most, but that none of them will hit the 500 PA mark. The Profar signing in particular gives them a high floor in case of injury. Both teams are juggernauts.

There’s plenty more to dig into in our odds, and the offseason isn’t over; as teams continue to sign free agents and make trades, their projections will continue to change. These seven things, however, have most caught my eye so far. Does something else grab you? Do you wonder why we hate your team, and love your rival? I’d love to hear it — baseball is just around the corner, and I’m having fun contemplating another season of it.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
3 years ago