Tuesday, March 30, 2021

2021 Predictions

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but the 2021 season will be the hardest to forecast in recent times. While there weren’t people doing systematic forecasts as we would recognize them in the sabermetric era at the time, the last season that I believe would have posed a greater challenge to forecasters was the 1946 season in which so many players returned from military service. 2021 is hard to predict because we only had a sixty-game season on which to judge player’s current performance, and because there was no minor league season at all. The only season that would have been tougher to predict would have been 1995, if any poor sap had attempted that using the rosters as they stood prior to the labor ceasefire.

Of course, this does not pose any particular challenge to me in writing this, because I don’t do a systematic forecast of my unknown. I usually use publicly available player projections as a starting point, making my own seat of the pants adjustments for performance and playing time; because of the additional inaccuracy inherent to such an exercise in trying to predict 2021, I have eschewed that and just used team-level projections as a starting point. Since this is an exercise in fun (baseball is supposed to be fun) and not a serious sabermetric endeavor, cutting out the trappings of formal analysis will not harm it – you can’t go down any lower.

AL East

1. New York

2. Tampa Bay (wildcard)

3. Toronto

4. Boston

5. Baltimore

I’ve been cooler on this generation of Yankees contenders then perhaps I should have been, but they’ve always seemed to rely on paper thin rotations and relatively fragile offensive stars. They’ve also had strong divisional challenges from the Red Sox and the Rays, although rarely simultaneously. This year, it’s hard to develop a compelling case that they aren’t the best team in the AL on paper as the concentration of top teams seems to have swung to the NL. Their rotation remains dependent on fragile pitchers, but which AL team’s isn’t? The Rays remain the pick for second over the Blue Jays here as I think its easy to underestimate how big the gap between them was last year. The Red Sox contending really would not surprise me, although no one would deserve it less than their entitled fans who would rather ignore Alex Verdugo’s existence than consider that maybe trading a player with one year of control left might make baseball sense.  

AL Central

1. Minnesota

2. Chicago

3. Cleveland

4. Kansas City

5. Detroit

I was all set to pick the White Sox, then I looked more closely at the numbers and concluded that the Twins were a slightly better bet – even before Eloy Jimenez was injured. I have actually consumed more spring training baseball this year due to the circumstances of the times then ever before, and this has caused my opinion of the Indians chances to plummet, which may well be an overreaction. This team will need its pitching to be a strength, and it’s easy to glib and say that the rotation is strong. Upon introspection, it may dawn on you as it did me that they have precisely one starter who has completed an entire MLB season in a rotation. I can’t recall a past Indians bullpen that will rely so heavily on back end arms with good stuff but questionable control, and I actually think Phil Maton may be their best reliever. The offense remains cursed by the franchise’s inability to produce cheap corner bats who can contribute anything. Tribe fans and radio play-by-play announcers alike are contemptuous of the decision to clutch onto Jake Bauers and start him at first rather than put him through waivers, but as uninspiring as Bauers’ past two seasons have been (yes, he didn’t play last year but if you can function as a major league left fielder and were not called up to the horror show that was the 2020 Cleveland outfield, it speaks volumes), Bobby Bradley is not exactly Andrew Vaughn as a first base prospect. A Ben Gamel/Amed Rosario center field platoon? A pair of lumbering Padres castoffs being counted on as key cogs in the offense? And history repeats itself again with the farm system, as through development and trades the Indians have built up a fine collection of middle infield prospects (Andres Gimenez, Gabriel Arias, Owen Miller, Tyler Freeman, Bryan Rocchio) but corner bats remain elusive (a lot rides on Nolan Jones). It’s better than the opposite problem, I suppose, but oddly more frustrating as a fan. The Royals think this is their year because they always think this is their year; I think the gap between them and the Indians is pretty narrow but that doesn’t make you a contender. Will the media en masse ever consider AJ Hinch as a possible feel good story? I would guess not, but what do they know?

AL West

1. Houston

2. Los Angeles (wildcard)

3. Oakland

4. Seattle

5. Texas

Last year, the Astros were both the team hurt most by the sixty-game season and helped most by the expanded playoffs, where they provided evidence that they actually were still a decent team. The starting pitching is scary, the offense is weaker and more fragile than before, but they still stand out in this group of teams. I’ve picked the Angels as a wildcard many times during their upstream swims attempting to get back to Mike Trout’s natural habitat; I’ll probably regret it again, but the ChiSox are no sure bet and the East teams will have a tough schedule to overcome. Perhaps their biggest threat will come from the A’s, still a team that could have a scary rotation (and may have the other kind of scary rotation due to the unreliability of Manaea, Puk, Luzardo, etc.) and a couple offensive stars. This division appears to the epicenter of explicit six-man rotations, with the Angels and the Mariners. Do you think announcers will make a big deal of saying things like: “This is the first time a player has done X in Globe Life Park with fans in the ballpark for a Rangers game?” It seems like a preposterous suggestion but is it really that much more ridiculous than “The Red Sox haven’t won a World Series AT HOME since…”?

NL East

1. New York

2. Atlanta (wildcard)

3. Washington

4. Philadelphia

5. Miami

The 2020 season should have been hard to predict, although for different reasons than 2021. There was no issue with data – the same level of historical statistics was available for 2020 as for prior seasons. The issue of course was that a sixty-game season was subject to a higher degree of variance from expectation than a 162 game season is.

Yet something interesting happened – I did better on my predictions than I ever had before. This was not due to some special insight on my part – I thought the picks I made were pretty obvious and pretty chalky. One of the most interesting things about the 2020 season is how few flukes there were on the team level (of course, this arrogantly assumes that my assumptions were correct – one must acknowledge the possibility that the sixty-game season enabled my poor predictions to appear more accurate than they actually were).

In any event, I was right on five of six division winners, both pennant winners, and the identity of the world champion. I bring this up here because this is the one division I missed on – I picked the Mets, and I’m going to double down.

This division also features the team that I think is mostly to disappoint – certainly would have been, at least, before sabermetric thinking became widely diffused. The Marlins had horrible component statistics last year, should have been bad on paper, look like they are bad on paper again, but made it into the playoffs with a team with a reasonable number of young players, particularly on the mound. It’s exactly the kind of team that it would seem reasonable to think had a breakthrough if you weren’t wise to the fine print.

This is the consensus toughest division, and I don’t disagree – the top four are all real contenders. If you’re a fan of the deserved family of metrics from Baseball Prospectus, bet hard on the Phillies.   

NL Central

1. Milwaukee

2. St. Louis

3. Chicago

4. Cincinnati

5. Pittsburgh

This is the consensus weakest division, and again I concur, although I think the Brewers are very interesting with a high upside collection of pitchers. The Cardinals are getting a lot of buzz for acquiring Nolan Arenado, and I don’t see any reason he wouldn’t bounce back to something resembling his prior form, but in terms of helping them in 2021, I think there were a number of positions where an upgrade would have fit better with the current roster. The Cubs are probably being underrated due to the revulsion to a team that’s been a contender for the past six years seeming to enter a retrenchment, but the offense could still be a force. As shifts have come to the fore, we’ve seen a blurring of the line between second and third basemen, with Milwaukee’s usage of Mike Moustakas as one of the harbingers. Moustakas’ current team is also involved in some interesting infield moves, but bringing back the Howard Johnson as a shortstop strategy is considerably bolder than swapping the Moustakases and Travis Shaws of the world between second and third.

NL West

1. Los Angeles

2. San Diego (wildcard)

3. Arizona

4. San Francisco

5. Colorado

There’s not much to be said about the Dodgers – they are the model franchise of the day, arguably the model franchise of the entire free agency era. It was good to see them finally get a World Series trophy but frankly they deserve more. They would be more than worthy of being the first repeat champions in the last two decades. The Padres are fascinating in their own right, likely doomed to a one-game playoff no matter how much they invest in their roster. One interesting thing about the eight-team playoff structure used in 2020 is that the presumed #1 wildcard team is the only team that would qualify for the playoffs under the old system that clearly has their chances of winning the World Series increase as a result. The division winners all have to play a three-game series to advance under the 2020 system, clearly worse than an automatic berth in the LDS (although if there is a dominant #1 like the Dodgers, the #2 and #3 teams do benefit from a higher likelihood that they get taken out before a potential LCS matchup; it’s not enough to offset having to play a three-game series against a competitive opponent). #5 team would rather be in a one-game playoff with the #4 team than a three-game series, assuming that the team’s regular season records are indicative of their true strength. Of course the #6-#8 teams benefit. Last year San Diego lost the first game of their series with St. Louis; a one-game playoff with Atlanta (as I’m predicting) is a poor reward for all of that investment. The Diamondbacks, Giants, and Rockies are all in that terrible position of being older than you would think (especially San Francisco) and in a division with powerhouses that look to be set up for a few years at least.


Los Angeles (N) over New York (A)

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