The ZiPS Projections Midpoint Roundup of Triumph and Shame: The American League

MLB passed the halfway mark of the 2021 season over the long holiday weekend, providing a convenient spot to take a break, look back over the preseason projections, and hopefully not cringe too much about how the predictions are shaking out. Since this is the big midseason update, I used the full-fat ZiPS model for individual players in addition to the normal depth chart reconfiguring, with all the high-fructose algorithms rather than the leaner one used for daily updates.

Let’s start with the American League standings.

ZiPS Projected Standings – AL East
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% #1 Pick Avg Draft Pos
Boston Red Sox 92 70 .568 46.8% 34.2% 81.0% 8.4% 0.0% 24.3
Tampa Bay Rays 91 71 1 .562 35.1% 38.5% 73.5% 6.8% 0.0% 23.4
Toronto Blue Jays 87 75 5 .537 11.7% 29.6% 41.3% 2.9% 0.0% 20.2
New York Yankees 86 76 6 .531 6.4% 21.4% 27.8% 1.8% 0.0% 18.8
Baltimore Orioles 59 103 33 .364 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 20.4% 2.4

I was making a “do not panic” argument on behalf of the Yankees back when they were 5–10 and some people were digging for their doomsday preparedness kits, and while it might not be time to find where you left those water purification tablets, the situation is bleaker now than it was three months ago. Not that the team is actually worse; New York has been on an 88-win pace in the games since that reference point. But an 88-win pace isn’t nearly enough to get out of an early-season hole in a division where there are three other teams with more than detectable pulses. Even projected to play solid baseball the rest of the season, the Yankees have gone from the favorite to the projected fourth-place team.

ZiPS still has some skepticism about the Red Sox, but a lot of that is a rotation depth issue. In the simulations where the rotation basically remains healthy, they have enough room to hold off the Rays, and the Jays and Yankees don’t get even close. In the simulations where the rotation doesn’t, they fade quickly. You can say that for pretty much every team — very few of them have a whole extra staff of starting pitchers hanging around — but in the projections, it’s a larger factor for Boston than for other teams.

The Rays aren’t as strong as they were last year; any team is going to take a hit after losing Blake Snell. But they’re good enough to compete, though it’s likely that the winner of the AL East this year will be well off Tampa’s 108-win pace from last year.

Toronto appears to be working on the supposition that getting back George Springer is a de facto pennant drive pickup, and while that’s right, offense isn’t really the team’s problem. Surprisingly, neither is the starting rotation. Instead, there’s a huge dropoff in bullpen talent after the first couple of options (Jordan Romano and Tim Mayza), largely because of a rash of injuries. Our depth charts projected the Jays with the fourth-worst bullpen over the rest of the season, and ZiPS isn’t much more optimistic, ranking them 25th overall.

As for the Orioles … well, we didn’t have their preseason playoff probabilities at 0.0% because we hated Old Bay (I’m from Towson, and I put that stuff on everything). Even a Cedric Mullins breakout wasn’t going to power this team to playoff relevance. The O’s are in a long rebuild, and I’d argue they were one of the teams most hurt by the lack of a minor league season, given that they’re still in the sorting-out phase of development. Hercules only cleaned the Augean stables in a single day; he didn’t turn it into a crab house.

ZiPS Projected Standings – AL Central
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% #1 Pick Avg Draft Pos
Chicago White Sox 92 70 .568 98.1% 0.1% 98.2% 11.4% 0.0% 24.3
Cleveland 78 84 14 .481 1.3% 1.0% 2.3% 0.1% 0.0% 11.9
Minnesota Twins 77 85 15 .475 0.6% 0.3% 0.8% 0.0% 0.0% 10.7
Kansas City Royals 73 89 19 .451 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 7.8
Detroit Tigers 72 90 20 .444 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 7.8

Losing Eloy Jiménez before the season and Luis Robert early in it were massive blows to the White Sox, but they’ve also received some good fortune, as none of the other teams in the division have put much pressure on them. I’m as sad as anyone that the celebration of Yermínalia has ended with his fall back to earth and subsequent demotion to the minors, but he did provide some fun early-season heroics when Chicago had lost two very talented young players. As my colleague Ben Clemens wrote last month, the White Sox still need to find a Nick Madrigal replacement, but winning the division doesn’t seem like a difficult challenge.

Cleveland was only two games out in late June — well ahead of where I expected the team to be at this point in the season, as losing basically the entire rotation in the span of a few weeks was a huge hit — and has been lucky to lose only two additional games in the standings during a seven-game skid that’s still active. Zach Plesac is scheduled to return on Thursday, which is something, at least. Even with a healthy rotation, it would be hard to make up ground against the White Sox with half the lineup very predictably struggling.

I wrote a month ago that the Twins were running out of time to compete in 2021. That time has just about run out, and in the interim, Minnesota has done just about nothing to improve its chances at a shocking comeback, unless you’re a huge fan of Sean Gilmartin. Last month’s 3.7% projected chance of making the playoff has fallen below one percent, so the Twins are down to a new choice: retool for next season or waste this one.

It’s hard to rag on the Royals given that they actually tried to make things interesting in the offseason, but they’re now far enough behind the pack that they’re one of four teams with playoff probabilities that round to zero, at least by ZiPS. Suggesting they trade Salvador Perez or Whit Merrifield is just beating a dead horse at this moment, but they should at least explore trading Danny Duffy and Carlos Santana.

The Tigers are showing an impressive pulse this season, but they’re also in a weak division and have a run differential suggesting a record three games worse than their current 39–46. Playoffs are an extreme longshot, but we’re starting to see the outline of what could be a decent rotation in 2022. I think a lot of teams would be very happy to have a Casey Mize/Spencer Turnbull/Tarik Skubal/Matthew Boyd top four next season, with Matt Manning hopefully making a better second impression in the majors.

ZiPS Projected Standings – AL West
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% #1 Pick Avg Draft Pos
Houston Astros 95 67 .586 79.8% 15.5% 95.4% 13.9% 0.0% 26.9
Oakland A’s 90 72 5 .556 19.1% 49.1% 68.2% 5.3% 0.0% 22.8
Los Angeles Angels 83 79 12 .512 1.0% 9.4% 10.4% 0.5% 0.0% 15.9
Seattle Mariners 78 84 17 .481 0.1% 0.9% 1.0% 0.0% 0.0% 11.7
Texas Rangers 65 97 30 .401 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 1.9% 4.3

Houston was only projected to 88 wins this year because of questions about the rotation, but at 10th in WAR and boasting a 3.32 ERA despite their personnel losses in recent years, the starters been an impressive group. There were fewer questions about the offense, and Carlos Correa‘s revival and Yordan Alvarez’s health have more than made up for the offseason loss of Springer.

As usual, Oakland’s successfully MacGyver’ed its way to a solid pitching staff despite Jesús Luzardo’s struggles. The A’s are close enough to the Astros to remain threatening, but shortstop, right field, and designated hitter are messes without obvious (or good) in-house options to remedy that situation. It’s unfortunate that they didn’t even extend a qualifying offer to Marcus Semien, instead deciding to go with the puzzling Elvis Andrus option. The good news is that the win threshold for a wild-card spot looks like it will be lower than usual in the AL.

Fourth place was hardly the plan, but it’s still a bit of a victory for the Angels that they were able to do it with Mike Trout missing half the season so far. He ought to return in the near future, and the team’s .500 record is far from a hopeless one. One of the other elements for Angel success — Shohei Ohtani healthy and rocking the dual role — has been more than met, with Ohtani a serious MVP contender (he’d have my vote right now). ZiPS is optimistic about the rotation pitching much better in the second half of the season; I’m less optimistic about the Angels addressing their holes.

ZiPS continues to be meaner to the Mariners than I am; I wonder if Evan White tried to erase it or something. I expect J.P. Crawford’s solid year to continue; I didn’t select him to my preseason breakout list by random. But the Mariners remain a team in need of another bat, as Ty France and Mitch Haniger can only cover half of 1B/LF/RF/DH in any given game. I still expect Jarred Kelenic to solve one of these problems very soon, as it’s too easy to panic about a month of a player’s season, and he’s destroying Triple-A pitchers. Jake Bauers, however, won’t.

Adolis García is a fun story, but ZiPS still expects his batting average and on-base percentage to come down because of his plate discipline issues. Joey Gallo’s been terrific, but given that the rest of the offense is non-existent outside of him, García, and Nate Lowe, he’s probably more useful to Texas in the form of a trade (which I don’t expect will actually happen). Dane Dunning is one of my top picks for a second-half breakout, and Kyle Gibson has been shockingly good, but this group is still far too thin to make up for the team’s myriad offensive flaws.

ZiPS Playoff Probability Changes Since Start of Season
Team W Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% #1 Pick
Boston Red Sox 13 45.1% 26.7% 71.8% 7.9% -0.1%
Houston Astros 7 39.6% -3.5% 36.2% 8.4% 0.0%
Chicago White Sox 3 58.7% -25.4% 33.2% 5.2% 0.0%
Tampa Bay Rays 4 20.3% 7.1% 27.4% 3.4% 0.0%
Oakland A’s 2 -22.3% 30.2% 8.0% -0.3% 0.0%
Baltimore Orioles -6 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.9%
Texas Rangers -1 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% -13.7%
Detroit Tigers 2 -0.1% -0.1% -0.2% 0.0% -5.2%
Seattle Mariners 5 -0.6% -0.1% -0.7% 0.0% -1.3%
Toronto Blue Jays 0 -2.3% -1.3% -3.6% -0.3% 0.0%
Kansas City Royals -4 -1.8% -3.8% -5.5% -0.3% -0.3%
Cleveland -1 -2.2% -5.7% -7.9% -0.4% -0.1%
Los Angeles Angels -1 -16.7% -6.2% -22.9% -2.0% 0.0%
New York Yankees -9 -63.2% 2.4% -60.8% -10.3% 0.0%
Minnesota Twins -14 -54.7% -20.4% -75.1% -8.2% 0.0%

 

ZiPS Win Targets – American League
To Win 10th 20th 30th 40th 50th 60th 70th 80th 90th
AL East 90.3 91.6 92.6 93.4 94.2 95.1 96.0 97.0 98.6
AL Central 86.4 88.2 89.6 90.8 91.9 93.0 94.2 95.5 97.5
AL West 91.4 92.9 94.0 95.0 96.0 96.9 98.0 99.2 101.0
AL Wild Card 1 88.8 89.9 90.7 91.3 92.0 92.6 93.4 94.2 95.4
AL Wild Card 2 86.5 87.5 88.2 88.8 89.4 89.9 90.6 91.3 92.3

The Red Sox have enough wins in the bag that a .500 record gets them to 92 wins, the 50th-percentile projected win total for the AL’s top wild card and 87th for the second spot. In other words, playing just .500 ball probably gets them to the postseason. Even though the A’s have lost five wins vis-à-vis the Astros since the preseason projections, their playoff probability has actually improved, with no AL East teams looking like juggernauts. Only the Orioles, meanwhile, have seen their shot at the No. 1 pick go up; the league can thank the Diamondbacks and their awful season for that one.

Tomorrow, we’ll dive into the National League standings and rest-of-season projections.





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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Jason B
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Jason B

Really like this mid-season look back. Interestingly, the AL has picked up a small but perceptible chance of winning the World Series (+ 3.1% in aggregate) while dropping nearly 20% of a chance at having the worst record in the league. The slight improvement in World Series chances probably has as much to do with the top-end of the NL (LAD and SDP) still being very good but looking a bit less like world-beaters than expected; likewise the NL having a much greater chance at the worst record in the league seems a balance of TEX and DET being a little better than expected coupled with COL and ARZ being really, really terrible. Colorado expectedly so, Arizona a bit surprising how badly they have bottomed out. As you point out, Baltimore is the only AL team with a better chance now at having the league-worst record, and then only marginally so (< 1% increase).

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Arizona lost Gallen, Weaver, and Bumgarner to injury. Now a lot of teams have had a lot of injuries but they really only had four starters to begin with, and Merrill Kelly is the fourth and he’s on the trade block. If the injured players have trouble coming back they could have a pretty bad back half of the year too.

They don’t have a lot of other players to trade aside from Merrill Kelly, Escobar, Calhoun, and Cabrera. That’s kind of unfortunate (at least for people who like baseball history) because right now they’re on pace to finish juuuuust a bit above the 2003 Tigers. Because it’s likely that least some of Gallen, Bumgarner, Marte, and Carson Kelly are going to come back and be healthy it’s going to be hard for them to make it under that 43 win threshold. But they’re still probably the favorites to finish last in MLB, more than the Orioles or Pirates.

Nats Fan
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Nats Fan

I honestly like watching the Pirates and Orioles games, but no one fun is on AZ right now. They are just pathetic. Locastro had been watchable for his oddness, but now…,..

Nats Fan
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Nats Fan

It’s weird but the Pirates are a bad team with two legit all stars and a closer, Rodriguez, who is playing like a legit All Star. 3 stars is not a common thing for a last place team. Although I’m not sure how uncommon. Maybe someone here could do that work for me.

ackbar7
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ackbar7

If I were to guess about the AL’s improving World Series odds it would be that ZIPS doesn’t think much of the Giants, and the 4 teams that aren’t the Marlins in the NL East all look worse than anticipated.