The Hopefully-Not-Too-Regretful 2021 ZiPS Projections, National 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 of the projections 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 times a player might see. 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 is primarily 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.

Yesterday, we looked at the American League. Today, we’ll finish the ZiPS offseason with the final 2021 National League projections.

ZiPS Projections – National League East
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% #1 Pick
Atlanta Braves 91 71 .562 45.5% 30.0% 75.6% 7.1% 0.0%
New York Mets 91 71 .562 44.7% 30.1% 74.9% 7.0% 0.0%
Washington Nationals 83 79 8 .512 6.5% 13.7% 20.2% 1.2% 0.0%
Philadelphia Phillies 80 82 11 .494 3.2% 8.1% 11.3% 0.6% 0.0%
Miami Marlins 68 94 23 .420 0.0% 0.1% 0.1% 0.0% 7.1%

The Braves started the winter with a significant projected edge over the Mets, which the latter chipped away at, with a huge chunk of New York’s gains coming from the Francisco Lindor trade. It’s not quite as broad a stroke as bringing in Lindor; the Metropolitans also enter the season with better depth than they usual have, especially in the rotation. In past years, they’ve had a tendency to kick things off with a starting five that looks solid, but as soon as anyone gets injured, Plan B has been something like “dunno, maybe…errr…Walker Lockett?” This improvement is likely one of the key reasons ZiPS comes out as nearly even with the FanGraphs standings rather than being several games grumpier as in recent seasons. ZiPS sees Braves-Mets as a marquee race, the kind of tilt that might ultimately be decided by an in-season acquisition. Please don’t ask me to figure out how to model that in March.

Washington has a fairly large error range, as that their fate rests on comparatively few players. ZiPS projects exactly two position players as significantly above-average (Juan Soto and Trea Turner), and the other projection systems haven’t shown much in the way of disagreement. I have enough optimism about Kyle Schwarber to put him on my 2021 breakouts list, but these standings are ZiPS-based and not subject to my whimsy. After the big three in the rotation, things get, well, not-so-big. A Strasburg/Scherzer injury or an underwhelming performance from Patrick Corbin could knock the wheels off this apple cart quickly.

The Phillies will likely be better than they were last season thanks to an improved bullpen, but there are serious questions about whether they actually did enough this winter. J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius are significant additions, but they aren’t really additions, are they? The Phillies were basically a .500 team in 2020 with both of them, so bringing them back is just status quo ante. I actually think the Phillies are better than ZiPS does — I’d probably guess somewhere around 84-86 wins — but the team’s risking a lot by just reassembling the band, adding Archie Bradley, and hoping gravity takes care of the rest.

Miami’s rotation has a lot of interesting arms, and I’m personally very bullish there. But like ZiPS, I don’t have much confidence in the rest of the team. Last year, the Fish’s offense had to beat their projections by a significant margin as a group just to get to 11th in the NL in runs scored, and a full season of Starling Marte won’t fix that. The bullpen had a 5.50 ERA and a 5.65 FIP in 2020, and while they’ve jettisoned some of the unit’s worst performers and added Anthony Bass, they also got a solid performance from the departed James Hoyt, and it’s unlikely they get a combined 1.42 ERA from Yimi García and Richard Bleier again.

ZiPS Projections – National League Central
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% #1 Pick
St. Louis Cardinals 86 76 .531 48.1% 6.4% 54.5% 4.3% 0.0%
Milwaukee Brewers 83 79 3 .512 23.3% 6.5% 29.8% 2.0% 0.0%
Chicago Cubs 81 81 5 .500 15.3% 4.9% 20.2% 1.3% 0.0%
Cincinnati Reds 80 82 6 .494 13.3% 4.3% 17.6% 1.1% 0.1%
Pittsburgh Pirates 65 97 21 .401 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 16.3%

ZiPS and the Depth Charts have a meaningful disagreement over the St. Louis Cardinals. ZiPS sees the Cardinals as solid favorites in the division, though they’re far from invincible. As usual, St. Louis has a very stable roster and gets value from the entire thing rather than depending on two or three stars. That lowers their ceiling, but it also raises the floor.

St. Louis’ best weapon is the rest of the NL Central. For most of the offseason, the top free agents signed by NL Central teams were Daniel Robertson and Jace Peterson. ZiPS sees little separation in the division’s middle class. The Reds did nothing to replace Trevor Bauer’s contributions and spent the winter doing little to address the giant, gaping wound at shortstop. Instead of repairing the hole, they moved it. Eugenio Suárez playing short is admittedly creative, but how often do average defensive third basemen (and he leans to the negative side at that) suddenly become pluses at shortstop? Suárez wasn’t really sterling at short back when he played there regularly and that was five years ago. By DRS, he’s at -13.6 runs per 1,350 innings for his career there, and is -8.2 by UZR’s reckoning. If Suárez was manning short because the Reds had signed Justin Turner or DJ LeMahieu, I could understand risking it. But it’s unlikely Jonathan India will be worth this shuffle, at least in the short-term.

The Cubs are the Cubs, the richest paupers there ever were, and are largely reliant on bounce-back seasons from Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and Javier Báez to compete. The team’s biggest move sent their best-projected starter, Yu Darvish, to San Diego. Milwaukee may be the most interesting of the middle three teams, simply because they have a number of players with an unknown upside, like Keston Hiura, Luis Urías, Adrian Houser. I’d much rather be in their shoes than Cincy or Chicago’s.

Competing for the 2022 draft’s number one pick will be the Pittsburgh Pirates. Their on-field goal is to complete 162 games of baseball. They’ll do that, but except for Ke’Bryan Hayes, who ZiPS has swooned over for years, not much more.

ZiPS Projections – National League West
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% #1 Pick
Los Angeles Dodgers 99 63 .611 56.5% 41.1% 97.6% 14.8% 0.0%
San Diego Padres 98 64 1 .605 43.5% 52.4% 95.9% 12.4% 0.0%
San Francisco Giants 75 87 24 .463 0.0% 2.2% 2.2% 0.1% 0.7%
Arizona Diamondbacks 69 93 30 .426 0.0% 0.1% 0.1% 0.0% 6.4%
Colorado Rockies 63 99 36 .389 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 27.5%

It’s official: this is the most wins ZiPS has ever projected for the top two teams in a division, now going back nearly 20 years. The Dodgers and Padres are excellent, strong in most places, deep everywhere. Enough digital ink has been spilled on these two this offseason to refloat a stuck container ship, so there’s little reason to delve further.

Earlier this offseason, I wrote about San Francisco’s quiet rotation overhaul. If only San Francisco could relocate to the Central! Is that any weirder than Atlanta formerly being in the NL West? Just for fun, I re-ran the projections with the Giants and Pirates swapping places, and the Giants project with a 13% chance of winning the division! Beating out the Dodgers and Padres? Move the decimal point over a place. And then do it again. The problem is that the division is loaded at the top, so the team needs to fight for the second Wild Card.

Looking further down the rankings, we have the Diamondbacks. Zac Gallen is a nice place to start, but it’s unlikely that Arizona can muster enough scoring or pitching to be playoff relevant in 2021. Bringing up the rear are the Colorado Rockies. Rockies owner Dick Monfort famously predicted that the Rockies would win 94 games in 2020. If the ZiPS projection is correct, they won’t win 94 games in 2020 and 2021 combined. The problem with the Mile-High Mess is that while optimism is good, it’s not-so-good when it’s a result of misevaluation. I’ve talked about it in the past, but in Nick Groke and Ken Rosenthal’s recent piece for The Athletic, they provided the latest butcher’s bill of free agency: 19 free agents on major league deals for over $300 million who combined for -3.4 WAR. In other words, the team would have been better off if they gave every fan who entered the park in 2019 a hot dog served in a deep-fried hundred-dollar bill. Salary-dumping Nolan Arenado doesn’t make this wreck of an organization any better.

ZiPS Wild Card Matrix – National League
To Win 10th 20th 30th 40th 50th 60th 70th 80th 90th
NL East 88.9 90.8 92.3 93.5 94.8 96.0 97.3 98.9 101.2
NL Central 83.8 85.7 87.0 88.2 89.3 90.5 91.8 93.2 95.5
NL West 95.6 97.8 99.3 100.7 101.9 103.2 104.6 106.3 108.6
NL Wild Card 1 90.3 92.0 93.3 94.5 95.6 96.7 97.9 99.4 101.4
NL Wild Card 2 85.1 86.5 87.5 88.4 89.2 90.0 90.9 92.0 93.5

Padres versus Dodgers may be fun for general fans of baseball, but it’s not much fun for the teams that fall short in the NL West. ZiPS projects that the NL’s first Wild Card, usually the loser of the West’s two-way battle, will average 95.6 wins, more than the average wins of the eventual NL East or NL Central winner. That creates a tougher situation for the NL’s third-tier teams like the Nationals, Phillies, or most of the NL Central because they’ll all be fighting over a single Wild Card road game. At least it seems likely that the NL Central will avoid the ignominious achievement of having its winner finish below .500.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for 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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2 years ago

One of LA or SD is going to win roughly 100 games and their reward will be an elimination game against DeGrom. Ouch.