The Hopefully-Not-Too-Regretful 2021 ZiPS Projections, American League

The teams are ready, and the rosters are (mostly) set, making it the appointed time for the electrons that make up the projections to dance in their required formations. This is the last run before the season starts, making these the Official ZiPS Projected Standings© for the 2021 season. Thursday starts the six-month marathon that determines which prognostications will achieve fame and which will attain infamy.

So, how do the ZiPS projected standings work? ZiPS makes baseline playing time projections heavily informed by our depth charts; after all, ain’t nobody going to beat Jason Martinez in this space. But rather than assuming that the baseline playing time is the playing time, I use a generalized model to estimate the range of playing time. So in some ZiPS simulations, Mike Trout will play 162 games. Sometimes he’ll play 130 games or 100 games; less often, he’ll play five games or even none. Then ZiPS fills in the “missing” playing time, giving a lot more playing time to Jo Adell and Juan Lagares in center in those injury seasons. Sometimes they’re injured, too; in projection No. 435,221, center field was mainly covered by Brandon Marsh and Scott Schebler. ZiPS then uses the percentile performance projections to (somewhat) randomize what versions of every player we get. There’s a generalized model here as well, as players will tend to get more time when they’re playing better and less when they’re not. After a million runs of this, using the actual schedules and opponents, ZiPS has its standings.

Let’s start with the American League.

ZiPS Projections – American League East
Team W L GB Pct DIV% WC% PLAYOFF% WS WIN% #1 PICK
New York Yankees 95 67 .586 69.6% 19.0% 88.6% 12.1% 0.0%
Tampa Bay Rays 87 75 8 .537 14.7% 31.4% 46.1% 3.4% 0.0%
Toronto Blue Jays 87 75 8 .537 14.0% 30.9% 44.8% 3.2% 0.0%
Boston Red Sox 79 83 16 .488 1.7% 7.5% 9.2% 0.5% 0.1%
Baltimore Orioles 65 97 30 .401 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 19.5%

The Yankees project as the favorite to win the division, as they did last year, but with a reduced win total. In the last run of pre-pandemic projections last year, New York was at 100 wins with an 82% chance of winning the division. This time around, those numbers drop to 95 wins and 70%. One could stretch how significant this is given that it’s the most wins projected in the AL and the highest divisional probability for any team, but it is a moderate decline. One of the key factors is that the rotation is quite volatile, given the players involved. If they stay healthy, the Yankees have a great chance at a top-five rotation. If the team rolls snake eyes, it could fall apart very quickly. Even Gerrit Cole isn’t invincible!

ZiPS agrees with the depth charts that losing Blake Snell is a serious hit for the Rays to take, but my methodology tends to favor deeper teams — part of my attempt to capture as much of a team’s variability in a simulation. The Rays don’t have an impressive ceiling for a team projected nearly at 90 wins, but the floor is very high. The Yankees have a tenth-percentile projection of 81 wins; for Tampa Bay, that’s only 80! Toronto’s improvements this offseason, meanwhile, were real and, in ZiPS’ eyes, enough to pull the Jays into a dead heat with the Rays.

The Red Sox are another source of disagreement with the FanGraphs projections, and I suspect that this is another place where the way I simulate depth causes a difference. Boston’s rotation could get ugly very quickly and with much more ease than a similar Yankees disaster.

ZiPS Projections – American League Central
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% #1 Pick
Minnesota Twins 91 71 .562 55.2% 20.7% 75.9% 8.3% 0.0%
Chicago White Sox 89 73 2 .549 39.4% 25.5% 65.0% 6.1% 0.0%
Cleveland 79 83 12 .488 3.4% 6.7% 10.2% 0.6% 0.1%
Kansas City Royals 77 85 14 .475 1.8% 3.8% 5.6% 0.3% 0.3%
Detroit Tigers 70 92 21 .432 0.1% 0.1% 0.2% 0.0% 5.2%

Even projected at “just” 2.5 WAR, the loss of Eloy Jiménez is a pretty big deal to ZiPS. How big a deal? It’s the difference in the projections between the White Sox holding a slight edge in the standings and a two-game deficit. Because of the relative amount of depth at their respective positions, losing Jiménez for, at a minimum, most of the season only hurts them slightly less in the projections than a similar injury to Fernando Tatis Jr., a better-projected player! The computer gives some serious side-eye to Leury García, and after he returns, Adam Engel. Both were adequate in 2020, but neither are young and neither have remotely established that as their baseline expectations. Risking Andrew Vaughn in left would look a lot better if Chicago had signed Nelson CruzJake Lamb doesn’t fix anything.

The Royals have a fun team, and it’s nice to see a team, you know, trying to win baseball games even though it isn’t very good. But from a cold, hard, numbers standpoint, the odds are still against Kansas City. Most of the name players added have a significant caveat: Andrew Benintendi’s coming off an awful injury year; Carlos Santana will be 35 and was dreadful in 2020; Michael A. Taylor is basically a fifth outfielder. The rotation has a lot of promise, but most of the offense is on the wrong side of 27. Kyle Isbel is one of the exceptions to that, but great spring aside, the last time he played professional baseball, he was dominated by High-A pitchers.

ZiPS is interested in Detroit’s rotation, but the offense remains a hard pass.

ZiPS Projections – American League West
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% #1 Pick
Oakland A’s 88 74 .543 41.4% 18.8% 60.2% 5.6% 0.0%
Houston Astros 88 74 .543 40.2% 19.0% 59.2% 5.5% 0.0%
Los Angeles Angels 84 78 4 .519 17.8% 15.6% 33.3% 2.5% 0.0%
Seattle Mariners 73 89 15 .451 0.7% 1.0% 1.7% 0.1% 1.3%
Texas Rangers 66 96 22 .407 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 15.6%

Houston’s offense has immense upside and remains packed with stars. Short of a series of vaudeville-esque misfortunes, it’s hard for an offense with Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, and Kyle Tucker to be that lousy. The rotation is paper-thin, to the extent that there’s a very real chance that it could be the worst group in the division (ZiPS says 26% odds!). That leaves a lot of opportunities for the A’s, who don’t have the same amount of star talent but are simply stacked deeper once you get past the headline names. The Angels have the usual problem — a pathological inability to build an 80-win team around Trout — but the Astros and A’s are likely going to be close enough that they don’t need to be that fortunate to have serious divisional odds.

The Mariners have edge-cases in which even they win the division. ZiPS is skeptical about players like Kyle Lewis and Evan White, but they do have significant upside, as does Jarred Kelenic. J.P. Crawford made my breakout list, and while it happened while nobody was watching, Kyle Seager stepped back from the precipice. I’m optimistic about Ty France hitting, and Seattle could luck into that James Paxton healthy year.

The Rangers exist — sort of. That’s a little too mean, as the pitching isn’t that bleak. The offense, however, could be worse than Colorado’s.

ZiPS Wild Card Matrix – American League
To Win 10th 20th 30th 40th 50th 60th 70th 80th 90th
AL East 89.7 91.6 93.2 94.4 95.7 97.1 98.5 100.1 102.6
AL Central 87.5 89.6 91.1 92.4 93.7 95.0 96.4 98.1 100.4
AL West 86.6 88.5 89.9 91.2 92.4 93.5 94.9 96.4 98.7
AL Wild Card 1 87.6 88.9 89.9 90.7 91.6 92.4 93.3 94.3 96.0
AL Wild Card 2 85.0 86.1 87.0 87.8 88.5 89.2 89.9 90.8 92.1

One can see why middle-class teams like the Royals and Angels feel optimistic. Winning 90 games gives you very good odds of making the playoffs, and it should take two-to-three fewer wins to have the same chance of grabbing a wild card as last year. There simply aren’t many juggernauts in the AL, which means that you’re less likely to have to compete for the wild card with the 95-win team that lost their division to a 97-win team. As you’ll see in the NL projections, the baseball version of the Overton window is shifted quite to the left here.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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soddingjunkmail
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soddingjunkmail

Feels like a shame that Cleveland couldn’t have kept the band together for a couple more years. I get that it’s a philosophical decision, but I can’t help but think that two more WS runs followed by a hard crash to the basement would have been better than the aggressive mediocrity they’ve opted for.

Left of Centerfield
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Left of Centerfield

To be fair, they haven’t achieved aggressive mediocrity just yet. They did go 35-25 last year and 93-69 the year before that. Which is better than most teams.

soddingjunkmail
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soddingjunkmail

Yeah, I mean, that’s exactly the point. They were comfortably above average and legit contenders. They probably could have held that together for another year or two. They chose not to, and I think that’s unfortunate.

Left of Centerfield
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Left of Centerfield

Still have to play the season. Wouldn’t take a whole lot to break right for them to win 90+ games again.