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

We 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.

I went through the American League on Wednesday, so now it’s the Senior Circuit’s turn.

ZiPS Projected Standings – NL East
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% #1 Pick Avg Draft Pos
New York Mets 89 73 54.9% 73.6% 2.2% 75.8% 6.9% 0.0% 21.9
Atlanta Braves 83 79 6 51.2% 14.1% 3.5% 17.6% 1.2% 0.0% 16.5
Philadelphia Phillies 82 80 7 50.6% 9.4% 2.3% 11.8% 0.8% 0.0% 15.4
Washington Nationals 79 83 10 48.8% 2.9% 0.7% 3.6% 0.2% 0.0% 12.9
Miami Marlins 71 91 18 43.8% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.1% 7.2

The Mets only averaging 89 wins in the update might feel a bit disappointing, but that negative inclination is misplaced. ZiPS actually likes the team’s talent slightly more than it did in March, with the difference being that the injury situation has been worse than expected. Use the preseason playing time predictions with the up-to-date player projections, and ZiPS believes that New York would have a 93-win roster, good enough to be the third-best team in the National League.

One rarely associates the Mets with good fortune, but they’ve received some in that no other NL East team has been even capable. Given that they’re in third place with a 42–44 record, ZiPS projecting the Braves to finish at 83 wins represents a significant faith in their abilities. I’m increasingly concerned about Atlanta’s rotation depth in the future, but it’s not a major impediment to their fortunes this summer. I also think Abraham Almonte’s plate discipline makes him at least a serviceable fourth outfielder, but given the high probability that Marcell Ozuna has played his last game in a Braves uniform (or maybe any), the team has to target outfield help by the deadline, the sooner the better. Put it this way: Orlando Arcia is getting time as a starter in left. A starting corner outfielder with a career wRC+ of 71 is… not ideal. I’d love to see Atlanta add Joey Gallo or Bryan Reynolds, but even a just-DFA’ed Adam Eaton actually has merit.

I’m no longer holding my breath waiting for the Phillies’ breakout season. The farm system didn’t develop the same amount of talent as the Braves while rebuilding during the same timeframe, leaving them more signing-dependent. Treating the luxury tax as a salary cap has left the organization with a rather expensive .500 roster that has to wait for old contracts to expire before making additions. J.T. Realmuto was a significant signing, but the Phillies already had him, so that deal only maintained their strength, not increased it. It’s likely that the peak of the 2018–24 Phillies is maybe 85 wins.

The Nationals went on a bit of a run a few weeks ago, winning 14 of 17 games, but slammed into a buzzsaw in the form of a spate of games against NL West teams. Washington’s front-end talent is impressive, but the depth is atrocious; I’m not sure the latter is better than what the Rockies have. That Washington apparently felt the need to acquire Alcides Escobar and use him as a starter tells you quite a bit about the quality of the organization’s Plan Bs.

Miami is probably the best last-place team in baseball, but that’s not much of a silver lining. The Marlins could theoretically turn things around and win 82–84 games, but in the NL this year, that’s not enough to get near the second wild-card spot. Even if I tell ZiPS that the Marlins finish with 86 wins, which requires a 101-win seasonal pace to accomplish at this point, that only results in a playoff spot about 3% of the time. The team has one of the most exciting young rotations in baseball even with Sixto Sánchez out for the year; if the season ended today, I’d likely vote Trevor Rogers as the NL Rookie of the Year. But the offense is decidedly meh, and two of the team’s three or so interesting offensive talents are in their 30s.

ZiPS Projected Standings – NL Central
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% #1 Pick Avg Draft Pos
Milwaukee Brewers 90 72 55.6% 79.3% 2.4% 81.7% 8.1% 0.0% 23.0
Cincinnati Reds 84 78 6 51.9% 13.0% 5.2% 18.2% 1.3% 0.0% 17.1
Chicago Cubs 82 80 8 50.6% 5.4% 2.5% 7.9% 0.5% 0.0% 15.1
St. Louis Cardinals 80 82 10 49.4% 2.3% 0.9% 3.2% 0.2% 0.0% 13.3
Pittsburgh Pirates 64 98 26 39.5% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 5.2% 3.7

I think most of us would have been shocked a few years ago if a rather unambitious visitor from the future used their time machine to visit and tell us that the 2021 Brewers had an awesome rotation that compensated for a middle-of-the-road offense. It’s looking increasingly likely that Christian Yelich will not return to his MVP peak, but he’s still a plus contributor when he looks like his pre-breakout Marlins-era self. Like the Braves, the Brewers could really use a corner outfielder, ideally one who can also at least fake center as a hedge for Lorenzo Cain’s health.

The Reds had an uninspiring offseason, but fortunately for them, the division was full of teams that largely sat on their hands. Jesse Winker looks like a legitimate star offensively, and Nick Castellanos‘ defense has improved to the point at which he doesn’t have to hit like a superstar to be a contributor overall (and he is, in fact, hitting like a superstar). The result: a team that’s second in the NL in runs scored, a notable improvement from 13th in 2020 and 12th in ’19. ZiPS at least is not surprised by Luis Castillo’s resurgence; in late May, it had him with the largest discrepancy between results versus ability among pitchers, with a zFIP of 3.07 compared to an ERA of 7.44. In nine starts since then, he has an ERA of 2.78 and is on a run of five consecutive quality starts.

An 11-game losing streak (now over) has drastically altered the outlook for the Cubs from two weeks ago. The team’s bullpen, which has been surprisingly solid this year (especially Craig Kimbrel), has struggled recently, but the full-season problem is a rotation that looks downright threadbare thanks to Chicago being chea… err… let’s just say “thrifty” the last couple of years. Of the team’s five most-used starting pitchers in 2021, Zach Davies has the best FIP at 4.81, suggesting that the team didn’t get the memo that offense was down this year. ZiPS now projects the rotation’s leader in WAR by the end of the season will be Kyle Hendricks at only 1.2. The Cubs could really use a pitcher like Yu Darvish….

To paraphrase a line from Anna Karenina, winning teams are all alike; every struggling team struggles in its own way. There’s no doubt the Cardinals are one of those struggling teams this year, and they’re doing it in a very un-Cardinals way, with poor depth as the culprit. Matt Carpenter may just about be done, the pitching is thin, and St. Louis couldn’t find a credible third outfielder while Harrison Bader was out with a broken rib. Paul Goldschmidt is looking more like the 2019 version than the resurgent 2020 one. Nolan Arenado has delivered as advertised, but most of the team has not.

Pittsburgh has had a wonderful revival, one that I’d argue has been the most successful of any of the Rust Belt cities. Contrary to the image of Pittsburgh in the old days as chock full of steel mills, it embraced modern technology businesses before they were cool. As you might guess, I’m trying to filibuster my own article so that I don’t have to touch on the 2021 Pirates. The only nice thing that can be said is that the players who are interesting on the roster — Ke’Bryan Hayes, Reynolds, Adam Frazier — have been a lot of fun to watch. Even the seasonal highlight of losing enough games to get the No. 1 pick appears to be dashed by Arizona’s surprisingly elite incompetence.

ZiPS Projected Standings – NL West
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% #1 Pick Avg Draft Pos
Los Angeles Dodgers 98 64 60.5% 60.7% 38.4% 99.1% 13.6% 0.0% 28.2
San Diego Padres 95 67 3 58.6% 27.7% 67.9% 95.5% 8.9% 0.0% 26.6
San Francisco Giants 92 70 6 56.8% 11.7% 73.9% 85.6% 5.9% 0.0% 24.5
Colorado Rockies 66 96 32 40.7% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 1.4% 4.6
Arizona Diamondbacks 56 106 42 34.6% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 66.8% 1.5

Unlike a few other times in recent memory, the Dodgers not being in first isn’t a product of underperformance, as they’re on a more-than-comfortable 98-win pace. They have been almost boring in terms of expectations; the great players are generally playing great, the good players are generally playing well, and the lousy ones aren’t on the roster. I have zero idea if Trevor Bauer ever pitches again, but the Dodgers will still coast to a playoff spot.

ZiPS still sees the Padres as passing the Giants and finishing second in the division, but by a much smaller margin (two wins) than was expected in March (23). As with the Dodgers, the team has mostly met expectations, with an exception or two in Chris Paddack and Blake Snell, both pitchers who should be just fine in the end. An upgrade at first base would be nice, but I’m not holding my breath.

Then we get to what might be the most interesting team in 2021: the Giants. ZiPS now expects them to beat their projections by 17 wins, a substantial margin of projection failure. As a divertissement, let’s see how they stack up to the most inaccurate ZiPS projected win totals since I started running league projections in 2005 (if they keep on their present pace):

Team Projected Wins Actual Wins Difference
2018 Baltimore Orioles 77 47 30
2021 San Francisco Giants (Pace) 75 102 27
2012 Baltimore Orioles 67 93 26
2017 San Francisco Giants 88 64 24
2012 Oakland Athletics 70 94 24
2005 Los Angeles Dodgers 94 71 23
2019 Detroit Tigers 68 47 21
2018 Oakland Athletics 76 97 21
2014 Texas Rangers 88 67 21
2012 Colorado Rockies 85 64 21
2011 Arizona Diamondbacks 73 94 21
2009 Florida Marlins 66 87 21
2009 New York Mets 91 70 21
2008 San Diego Padres 84 63 21
2014 Arizona Diamondbacks 73 94 21

In all, ZiPS has missed by at least 20 wins on 21 occasions over those 16 seasons, including the shortened 2020 (no team was on a pace that would have been a 20-win miss had it continued). That sounds like a lot, but you end up on the somewhat depressing side of making projections: proper calibration means that you’re supposed to be wrong by certain margins a certain percentage of the time, and projection percentiles that are too accurate are effectively a calibration error! The error bars for standings are massive, and even if you had perfect knowledge of a team’s probability to win every game, you’d still whiff by at least 10 games on about four teams a year.

Based on the teams projected since 2005, ZiPS expects a team to outperform or underperform its projected wins once every 231 team-seasons, or about every eight years. For the Giants, the odds against winning 102 games entering the season were about 225-to-1. I was optimistic about the team’s rotation, but I can make no claim that I thought the team would lead the NL in homers.

Not much has changed for the Rockies. They still have a lot of talent in the rotation, and Austin Gomber has worked out wonderfully (at least before going on the IL with the dreaded forearm tightness). But the offense is dreadful, and even Trevor Story is having a significant down year. Nor am I sure the front office actually realizes the straits the franchise is in here; the last time Colorado had a team wRC+ of even 90 was 2016.

If there’s any good news, it’s that ZiPS still sees the Diamondbacks as better than the Rockies. Arizona has enough talent that it’s unlikely to match the 1962 Mets, but with a solid four-game “lead” for the worst record in baseball, the Snakes are the heavy favorite to grab the top pick in next year’s draft. And that’s with the projections now putting them on a 67–95 pace for the rest of the season — a more prosaic level of ineptitude.

As of right now, the Diamondbacks seem to be more in a retooling than rebuilding mindset, so it appears that Ketel Marte will finish the season in Arizona. I’m pessimistic about Madison Bumgarner, but if healthy, I expect Zac Gallen and Luke Weaver to stop the team’s bleeding. The former, one of ZiPS’ favorite pitchers for years now, is close to returning from his hamstring injury; the latter’s return is more uncertain.

ZiPS Playoff Probability Changes Since Start of Season
Team W Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% #1 Pick
San Francisco Giants 17 11.7% 71.8% 83.4% 5.8% -0.7%
Milwaukee Brewers 7 56.0% -4.1% 51.8% 6.0% 0.0%
Los Angeles Dodgers 0 4.2% -2.7% 1.5% -1.2% 0.0%
New York Mets -2 28.8% -27.9% 0.9% -0.1% 0.0%
Cincinnati Reds 4 -0.2% 0.9% 0.6% 0.2% -0.1%
Philadelphia Phillies 2 6.2% -5.8% 0.4% 0.2% 0.0%
Colorado Rockies 4 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% -26.1%
Pittsburgh Pirates -1 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% -11.1%
Miami Marlins 2 0.0% -0.1% 0.0% 0.0% -7.0%
Arizona Diamondbacks -13 0.0% -0.1% -0.1% 0.0% 60.4%
San Diego Padres -4 -15.8% 15.5% -0.4% -3.5% 0.0%
Chicago Cubs 1 -9.9% -2.4% -12.3% -0.8% 0.0%
Washington Nationals -3 -3.6% -13.0% -16.7% -1.0% 0.0%
St. Louis Cardinals -6 -45.8% -5.4% -51.3% -4.1% 0.0%
Atlanta Braves -7 -31.4% -26.6% -58.0% -5.9% 0.0%

 

ZiPS Win Targets – National League
To Win 10th 20th 30th 40th 50th 60th 70th 80th 90th
NL East 85.6 87.1 88.1 89.0 89.9 90.9 91.9 93.1 95.0
NL Central 86.5 88.0 89.1 90.0 90.9 91.9 92.9 94.2 96.0
NL West 94.9 96.3 97.3 98.2 99.0 99.9 100.8 101.9 103.4
NL Wild Card 1 91.1 92.4 93.3 94.2 94.9 95.7 96.4 97.4 98.7
NL Wild Card 2 88.4 89.5 90.4 91.2 91.9 92.7 93.5 94.5 95.9

However the Giants got here, they’re here, and that’s bad news for the East and Central teams. Nearly everyone expected the Dodgers and Padres to make the playoffs comfortably, but San Francisco’s torrid pace leaves the rest of the league in a division-or-else footing. In 78.2% of simulations, both wild cards came from the NL West, and when either the Giants or Padres (and on rare occasions, the Dodgers) failed to make the playoffs, it was usually an epic collapse that led to the result, not an unexpected surge by a non-West team. In other words, the NL West runner-ups control their destiny; as long as they don’t completely bomb the last three months, there’s not much a second-place team in another division can do.

Next up: a look at individual players.





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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Ketel, not Starling?