Let's Play Ball: Stats Insider's Season Projections for MLB 2021
Stats Insider’s Major League Baseball season projections are now live, which gives us the chance to sort through them and provide a roadmap as to what to expect from the 2021 season.
We have to start with the simple point that after a shortened pandemic season in 2020 – in which younger players and developmental projects didn’t get a full 162-game schedule in which to evolve – the growth curve for various rosters is not as easy to predict as it might have been in past seasons.
Part of the essential challenge of professional baseball is to go through the full grind of six months from the start of April through the end of September. A young player is going to go through slumps. “The dog days of summer” is a well-worn expression which doesn’t refer exclusively to baseball, yet anyone who operates in the world of professional baseball is keenly aware of that phrase.
This game humbles everyone who plays it. Legendary hitters fail to get a base hit 65% of the time, if not more. Pitchers know that one mistake – one hanging curveball in the eighth inning with two men on – can turn a great performance into a loss. Learning how to deal with a hitting slump, or two straight bad starts, or three straight blown saves, in the 162-game marathon known as the MLB regular season is a supreme test of mental toughness.
With that, let’s get into Stats Insider’s World Series futures for 2021 and use them as a starting point in analysing the coming season.
The Los Angeles Dodgers lead Stats Insider's win probability list with a 13.1% chance of winning the World Series. If there is a favourite, it’s very hard to go against the Dodgers, who have stockpiled quality depth throughout their roster and used it to win the 2020 title, breaking a 32-year drought.
The essential point to make about the Dodgers’ title run is that everyone stepped up. Cody Bellinger made a huge defensive play in the National League Division Series (NLDS) against the San Diego Padres, and hit the winning home run in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series (NLCS) against the Atlanta Braves. Mookie Betts gave the Dodgers a superstar presence in the batting order, and in the outfield, and he certainly was the ingredient that put the Dodgers over the top, though he had so much help.
Will Smith’s huge home run in Game 5 of the NLCS helped the Dodgers come back from a 3-1 series deficit against the Braves. Corey Seager was the team’s best hitter in the NLCS against the Braves. Kike Hernandezand Justin Turner delivered clutch hits, as did several other members of the Dodgers’ roster.
Clayton Kershaw, one of the great pitchers of his generation, finally won a World Series. He made a difference for the Dodgers, but he wouldn’t have won his elusive title without Walker Buehler, Julio Urias, Blake Treinen, and Brusdar Graterol getting large numbers of outs in high-leverage situations.
The Dodgers were loaded last year, they still are loaded this year. It’s logical to put them at the top of the World Series win probability list.
The rest of the Stats Insider top-five makes complete sense.
The Atlanta Braves are second with a 12.1% World Series win probability. They took a 3-1 lead over the Dodgers in the NLCS last year and will be very hungry to take the next step. They have a very deep pitching staff, and what’s especially notable about the 2021 Braves is that they will have staff ace Mike Soroka back after an injury in 2020. The Braves didn’t have Soroka against the Dodgers last October. If you were to say the Braves should be the National League favourite, you could make a very convincing case based on that fact alone. There are other good reasons to anoint the Braves as the class of the National League, but Soroka is the best one.
The New York Yankees are third on SI’s win probability list at 9.6%. The Yankees have improbably failed to make the World Series in each of the last 11 seasons, but have been a playoff regular, reaching the postseason in each of the past four seasons and five of the past six. The Yankees have made the American League Championship Series four times in the past 11seasons. They’re right there, knocking on the door, but haven’t been able to bust through.
The Yankees’ noticeable flaw has been their lack of situational hitting, attached to an inability to make solid contact with runners in scoring position. The Tampa Bay Rays’ pitching staff was able to get a swinging strikeout whenever it really needed one in last year’s ALDS. It’s not wrong to make the Yankees the American League favourite – they have the most talent of any team in the A.L. – but no one should view this team as a runaway choice.
The San Diego Padres are fourth on the list with a 9% probability of winning the World Series.
The Padres are the most interesting team in baseball this year. They entered 2020 having missed the playoffs in 13 straight seasons, from 2007 through 2019. General manager A.J. Preller has orchestrated an impressive rebuild – not flawless (Eric Hosmer is not giving them what they need at first base), but certainly aggressive and ambitious. The Padres would have had three elite starters this year if Mike Clevinger hadn’t been injured (he will miss the 2021 season due to Tommy John surgery). As things stand, the Padres still upgraded the top end of their rotation by trading for Yu Darvish and Blake Snell. They retained Fernando Tatis as their franchise slugger for the long haul. They are all-in this season, doing the maximum to challenge and overtake the Dodgers in the National League West. The back end of their rotation and their middle relievers will determine how far they go.
Fifth on Stats Insider’s 2021 World Series list are the Houston Astros, listed as a 7.4% probability. They won’t have George Springer in their lineup (more on him in a bit), but they still have lots of young arms, as well as the exceptional Jose Altuve at second base, while they came within just one game of returning to the World Series last year.
The difficult part of assessing the Astros in 2021 comes from the fact that they struggled in 2020. They didn’t even have a winning record, but with the expanded eight-team playoff format (which doesn’t exist this year), they snuck in the back door, got in the playoffs, and won two series against the Minnesota Twins and Oakland Athletics.
The big question with the Astros flows from 2020: Was this team aware that it didn’t have to be great in order to make the playoffs? Did the Astros simply coast in the season knowing they could still get in? Or, was this the beginning of a true erosion of Houston’s capacity as a ballclub, exacerbated by Springer’s departure? It will be fascinating to see how the 2021 season plays out for the Astros.
The second half of the Stats Insider top-10 is where season projections become really interesting, and a whole lot harder to predict.
The New York Mets are sixth on the World Series win probability list (7.2%), followed by the Chicago White Sox (6.7%), the Minnesota Twins (5.3%), the Boston Red Sox (3.2%), and the Toronto Blue Jays (2.8%).
The Mets acquired Francisco Lindor from the Cleveland Indians and are trying to negotiate the parameters of an expansive contract for the superstar infielder. The 1-2 punch of starters Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaardmakes the Mets a dangerous team if they can get into the postseason, but the hard part will be to get that far. The Mets are infamous for wasting deGrom’s starts – they are the king of the 2-1 loss when deGrom goes eight innings and strikes out 12 – and they will have to get production from the bottom of their batting order.
The White Sox are a lot like the Padres. They made the playoffs but did not go through the 162-game grind last year. The young and talented players on this team need to prove themselves over six months. The Twins have proven experience in the American League Central and should be seen as the favourite in that division. The problem with the Twins is not April through September, but October. The Twins have lost 18 straight postseason games. That seems impossible to do in baseball, where even a bad team will win 60 of 162 games in a regular season… but the Twins have done it. The White Sox could reasonably be viewed as the better choice to win the World Series, but the Twins are the better pick to win the division, with the White Sox being a wild card team.
The Boston Red Sox fell hard in 2019 and 2020 after winning the World Series in 2018. They traded away Mookie Betts and watched the star outfielder win a World Series with the Dodgers last year. Andrew Benintendi had a great 2018 season but then decided to bulk up his muscles. He regressed sharply, and the Red Sox let him go to the Kansas City Royals. David Price is also out of Beantown, now with the Dodgers (he didn’t play in 2020 due to pandemic-based fears). This is a mystery team, but it’s hard to be too confident in Boston entering 2021.
The Toronto Blue Jays are a fascinating team this year, and not just because they still can’t play home games in Toronto due to the pandemic. The Jays played home games in Buffalo last year and will play in Florida for the first two months of this season, but while that theatre of uncertainty is noteworthy, the Jays have upgraded their roster by getting George Springer from the Houston Astros. If Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette (both sons of legendary MLB players) have breakout seasons, it’s not a stretch to see the Jays in the wild card round.
That’s the Stats Insider top-10. You might notice some omissions from that list. Let’s hit on some highlights:
The Tampa Bay Rays came within two wins of the World Series last year. They lost Blake Snell to the Padres, which will hurt, but they bring back most of their pitching and hitting. They are never to be counted out because they maximise their resources better than any other team.
The St. Louis Cardinals had the Padres on the ropes in the playoffs last year, but their bullpen faltered. There are holes on this roster, but there is also a considerable amount of seasoned talent. The Cardinals are still a good choice to win the National League Central.
The Chicago Cubs are also in the mix in the N.L. Central, but they won’t have Yu Darvish, who is now in San Diego. The back end of their starting rotation is the key to their season. Zach Davies, Trevor Williams, and Adbert Alzolay need to help Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta.
The Washington Nationals still have Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer at the top of their rotation. With Jon Lester also in the fold, Washington has to be taken seriously as a playoff contender.
The Milwaukee Brewers have weak starting pitching, but they have Christian Yelich in a home-run-friendly ballpark. If one team is going to mash its way to the playoffs in the National League, this is it.
The Cleveland Indians appear to be the third-best team in the American League Central this year, behind the Twins and White Sox. It has been a long time since the Indians entered the season as a team unlikely to make the playoffs, but maybe they will revel in being free from massive preseason expectations.
The Oakland Athletics won a playoff series last year, snapping their streak of six consecutive losses in a postseason series, but they still fell short of expectations by getting knocked off in the ALDS by the Astros. Oakland has lost 12 of its last 14 postseason series. The A’s will try to return to October, but they will not be favoured if they go up against the Yankees. An A’s-Twins series would be supremely fascinating, since those two franchises have established historically remarkable track records of playoff futility this century. Between the A’s losing 12 of 14 playoff series and the Twins losing 18 straight playoff games, something will have to give if those teams meet in the playoffs.
If your favourite team hasn’t been mentioned yet, it either faces really tall odds in a loaded division (the Phillies and Marlins in a stacked National League East, the Reds in the N.L. Central, the Rockiesand Diamondbacks in the N.L. West) or it simply isn’t very good (Angels, Mariners, Rangers, Tigers, Royals, Orioles, Pirates, Giants).
The drama of the playoffs regularly envelops the Yankees, Twins, Athletics, and Braves. Those four teams regularly get to October but have not been able to get over the hump.
The drama of the regular season in 2021 revolves around the Padres, White Sox, Astros, Mets, Blue Jays (in the top 10 of Stats Insider’s World Series win probability list), leading a pack of teams whose prospects are uncertain, but whose ceilings are high if everything breaks right.
After the unprecedented 2020 pandemic season, Major League Baseball is about to embark on a 162-game roller-coaster in which we should be prepared for lots of surprises. The Dodgers, Yankees and Braves being excellent over the next six months should be assumed as near-certain scenarios.
Just about everything else is up for grabs.
Let’s play ball!
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