Now that the Major League Baseball regular season has concluded, it’s time to dig in to see who has a chance to take the 2021 crown. The Manual is here to provide you with a wild card and divisional championship preview. According to Caesar’s Sportsbook odds, the Houston Astros, L.A. Dodgers, Tampa Bay Rays, and San Francisco Giants are the top four favorites to win it all. It’ll take around a month to conclude the festivities, so strap in to get a full analysis of October action. While you’re at it, check out the full 2021 MLB postseason schedule at ESPN+.
L.A. Dodgers/St. Louis Cardinals versus San Francisco Giants
Almost every forward-looking marker out there paints the Dodgers as baseball’s best team, except their division rival Giants won more games, and beat the Dodgers in the season series. L.A.’s expected record, based on run differential, equals about 108 wins, by far baseball’s best total.
Part of the reason for L.A.’s success stems from vaunted depth: the Dodgers outscored opponents by more than 100 runs in low-leverage situations, the most in baseball. According to ESPN, the Dodgers also led baseball in high-leverage and medium-leverage differential. In an era marked by unprecedented parity, the Dodgers are looking to become baseball’s first repeat World Series winner since the Yankees won three consecutive championships from 1998 through 2000. In order for the 106-win Dodgers to even have a shot, though, they’re going to have to knock off the hottest team in baseball, the St. Louis Cardinals, fresh off of a franchise-record breaking 17-game win streak that ended Sept. 29.
The Cardinals will send the resurgent Adam Wainwright to the mound on Wednesday, which gives St. Louis four-in-10 sports book odds. Dodger fans might really sweat when looking at Wainwright’s playoff performance: over 109 postseason innings, his ERA is nearly a half-run better than his regular-season numbers.
Still, the Redbirds also sport some alarming numbers when going into battle against baseball’s behemoths: Their pitchers rank bottom five in walks issued, but also in strikeouts on the season. They limit homers and play great defense behind the mound, but against disciplined teams with powerful lineups, their league-low strikeout rate may doom this Cinderella story.
Speaking of fairy tales, the mighty Giants take on the winner of the Dodgers-Cardinals wild card game. At the beginning of the 2021 season, prognosticators predicted that a .500 season would be an overachievement for a Bay Area baseball team rated in baseball’s bottom third. The team’s response: stringing together one of the more improbable seasons in history, finishing with a league-leading 107 wins, 52 games over .500. FiveThirtyEight found that among AL or NL teams that won at least 105 times, only two — the 1918 Cubs and 1946 Red Sox — had fewer wins per 162 in the previous season.
The biggest question now is whether the Giants can finish the job. Numbers indicate the team didn’t rely on luck to string this surprise season together. The Giants own baseball’s second-best base runs predicted record and second-highest WAR (wins against replacement). This arose from what became one of the most well-rounded rosters in baseball, ranking among the top five WAR for position players, starting pitchers, and relievers.
Even if San Francisco doesn’t feature the star power of the ‘Stros, Rays and Dodgers, they’re a team without many glaring concerns on paper — save for perhaps Brandon Belt’s late-season thumb injury.
Atlanta Braves versus Milwaukee Brewers
On the other side of the bracket, the Central Division-winning Milwaukee Brewers match up against an Atlanta Braves team that finally emerged post the July 30 trade deadline to take the East Division. Many analyst thought that the Braves were toast after they lost their All-Star outfielder Ronald Acuña, Jr. to a torn ACL in early July. The team had a 44-44 record after the game when the outfielder went down, and sat 4.5 games back of the New York Mets. Like the Cardinals, though, Atlanta’s burst onto the scene in September after chasing .500 for most of the season due to improved pitching and an historic-hitting infield.
On the July 30 deadline, Atlanta Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos sought to address that issue, acquiring outfielders Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall, and Eddie Rosario from the Kansas City Royals, Miami Marlins, and Cleveland Indians, respectively. Rosario has played well despite limited playing time due to an injury. Duvall has provided good power numbers in 31 games with the Braves. Soler, however, has provided the horsepower that the Braves needed. Playing in only 30 games, the 29-year-old Soler has hit .273/.372/.545 with nine home runs and 17 RBI.
Also post trade deadline, the team’s starters posted the third-best rotation ERA and fifth-best bullpen ERA in baseball. Given an explosive but inconsistent offense, the Braves have to keep pitching at a high level if they want to entertain any notion of playing deep into October.
Milwaukee’s Brew Crew, on the other hand, was built for a postseason run. After an up-and-down start, Wisconsin’s baseball club sports the MLB’s third-best record at 66-39 since June 1. One of the most consistent teams in the last five years and entering the playoffs for the fourth year in a row, the Brewers are armed with players that portend postseason success: a dominant rotation headlined by Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and Freddy Peralta; a strong bullpen and a star closer in Josh Hader, and the fifth-best defense in the league by WAR.
The consistent nagging issue for the Brew Crew is its offense, which ranks just 23rd in batting WAR. A thin lineup with underperforming leads in Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, and Jackie Bradley Jr. improved after acquiring shortstop Willy Adames midseason. The shortstop he has been in and out of the lineup with an injured quad, though. Milwaukee’s OPS is 10% worse than the league average in September, fueling concerns that a lack of hitting and home run power could derail a team with World Series aspirations.
Boston Red Sox/New York Yankees versus Tampa Bay Rays.
Few outside of the huge Northeast markets (beside sports channels and advertisers) are lamenting that only one of the biggest market teams in baseball will survive past Tuesday to face the AL East-winning Rays.
New York’s Gerrit Cole will match up with Boston’s Nathan Eovaldi when baseball’s most storied rivals meet again at Fenway Park, punctuating a dramatic see-saw season series. The Red Sox won 10 of the first 13 contests, but then the second-half surging Yanks ended Sam Adams’ reign, winning each of the last six matchups.
The Bronx Bombers late summer surge was led by Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge who powered a three-game sweep in Boston from Sept. 24 to 26. Both mashers are entering the playoffs on a roll where the pair ranks third and fourth in OPS among AL hitters since mid-August. They rank among the top three in RBIs over that span, sporting OPS’s over 1.000 with runners in scoring position.
No postseason club was more reliant on two potent hitters for offense, though. Beyond Judge and Stanton, New York’s offense has been maddeningly inconsistent. The Yankees’ take-and-rake approach resulted in the most walks of any team, but also resulted in the lowest swing rate and one of the worst rates of contact on balls in the strike zone.
The Red Sox, on the other hand, will send up seven of the top 25 MLB hitters by OPS, speaking to the depth and stability of one of baseball’s most prolific offenses. Beyond studs J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, and Rafael Devers, trade acquisitions Kyle Schwarber and Bobby Dalbec have been two of the hottest hitters in the second half of the season. What bodes less well for Boston is its unpredictable offense that now has a hobbled star in slugger J.D. Martinez who sprained his ankle on Sunday.
The Sox sport a slim edge in the pitching matchup. Cole and Eovaldi each feature extreme velocity, but Boston slugged .411 against 95-plus mph heat versus the Yankees who only managed a .355 average in that department.
As seen in the two clubs’ disparate performances in the last two weeks of the regular season, the Yankees will at least have an edge once the bullpens inevitably get involved. So even if everything else is equal, that alone could tilt the scales in their favor.
While Boston and New York dominate ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball and almost perpetually sit in the top five in MLB salaries, the winner of Tuesday’s matchup will face up against their polar opposite: The decidedly new-school Rays. Their East division rival takes a dissimilar track, almost always sitting in the bottom tier of baseball’s payroll. Led by a visionary executive team, the Rays are simply one of the best evaluators in the MLB, fielding a competitive team despite having about one-third the budget of top-paying teams.
Following up on their trip to the World Series a season ago, the Rays might be even better in 2021. Relative to the league, this squad team ranks higher in batting, base running, and relief pitching WAR while still maintaining an elite defense. The Rays scored runs at an elite pace during the regular season, but headed into the playoffs, the team is the third-most dependent on homers to get runs. This approach can work in the playoffs when stringing together rallies is challenging. The Rays will need to keep hitting the ball out of the park, however, because the regular-season version of its offense doesn’t have a lot of other options.
On the pitching side, postseason games often come down to which team wins the late innings, and this year’s Rays look particularly well-positioned to win tight contests. Tampa Bay’s deep relief core doesn’t just protect leads, but keeps them in games even when the team falls behind. It’s why the Rays ranked at the top of the charts in comeback wins all season.
Chicago White Sox versus Houston Astros
As they have since the beginning of the season, the Chicago White Sox look like a championship contender on paper. An offense led by Jose Abreu, Tim Anderson and, of late, healthy versions of Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez, a rotation fronted by Lance Lynn and Lucas Giolito and a bullpen lining up Liam Hendriks, Craig Kimbrel and Michael Kopech make for a tough team to run up against in the playoffs. Trouble is, the loaded South Siders looked a lot less like a World Series-bound team when they went just 39-34 after the All-Star break. They’ve also been barely tested and racked up only a 27-29 record against winning clubs.
The Astros fared much better in that department at 45-32. Their offense, which led MLB in scoring, was actually better against winning teams (.790 OPS) than against losing teams (.778 OPS).
The White Sox’s pitching staff will pose a stiff challenge for the ‘Stros. Chicago misses bats. The group posted the highest average pitch velocity among postseason clubs, and only the Brewers had a higher strikeout rate. The velocity is partly because the Sox have a lot of hard throwers, but it’s also because they lean heavily on high, hard stuff. Houston didn’t post great numbers against elite velocity this season. If Chicago’s starters can get into the middle innings in good shape, Tony La Russa can then lean on his ‘pen to protect a lead.
Chicago’s biggest problem might simply be the way the bracket sets up. While the White Sox have one of the MLB’s most diverse offenses, Houston has that same quality to a higher degree.
After a down 2020 regular season, the Astros have bounced back with a vengeance in 2021, leading all clubs in batting WAR, and ranking second in runs per game. The team’s core group of Carlos Correa, José Altuve, Yuli Gurriel, Yordan Álvarez, Kyle Tucker, and Michael Brantley all ranked among MLB’s top 50 hitters, and Alex Bregman could have been among that group if it weren’t for injury. Though Brantley has been dealing with a recent knee injury, the potent lineup is, for the most part, healthy, giving Houston a lineup that no opponent wants to face over and over during a series.
At the same time, the Astros have a flawed pitching staff with a mediocre bullpen (No. 18 in relief WAR) and a rotation that is short on previous postseason experience — particularly since Zack Greinke’s neck injury will likely limit him to relief duty. Aided by the MLB’s fourth-best defense, Houston still ranked sixth in ERA, but the Astros go into the playoffs as an offense-first ballclub. Houston arguably also has more stability on the mound right now, though, as Lance McCullers Jr., Framber Valdez, and Luis Garcia all pitched well down the stretch.