MLB’s postseason field is almost set — key word: almost. Which means it’s time to start thinking about who will emerge from the October tournament as the ultimate champion, and whether you can see the winner coming.
The playoffs make us zoom in to the point where we often go cross-eyed. Every game is a referendum, every winning strategy a trend and every loss a colossal mistake. But the truth is much more nebulous — and in some ways less satisfying: Baseball is a game where greatness reveals itself slowly. Accumulating the 11 or 12 wins required to win the World Series is ultimately going to owe far more to randomness and happenstance than accumulating the 90+ wins it took to make the field did.
Still, there are real abilities and trends that do move the needle, and they can point us toward more likely champions. But not every colloquial or common-sense tip is a good one. Zeroing in on the most reasonable contenders — and best values — means filtering through that good, bad and thoroughly disproven advice until the best options emerge.
Los Angeles Dodgers, +325
Houston Astros, +475
Tampa Bay Rays, +700
San Francisco Giants, +700
Chicago White Sox, +750
Milwaukee Brewers, +750
New York Yankees, +1200
Atlanta Braves, +1400
St. Louis Cardinals, +2000
The Boston Red Sox (+2500), Seattle Mariners (+5000) and Toronto Blue Jays (+4000) are also battling for a spot.
But for now, we will focus on the teams most likely to get to the starting gate.
Don’t: Get caught up in late-season winning streaks
Sorry, St. Louis, but the concept of momentum has fizzled out over and over again in baseball’s playoffs. The 2017 Cleveland team that won 22 straight got bounced in the ALDS by a 91-win Yankees team. The Moneyball A’s, famed winners of 20 in a row, also lost in the ALDS.
Even late-season rallies that did roll into some playoff success have not usually amounted to actual World Series titles. The 2007 Colorado Rockies turned a furious burst of September wins into an NL pennant, but still wouldn’t have paid out as a World Series bet.
As Jay Jaffe points out in debunking this myth at FanGraphs, there’s really no evidence to support the idea that the Cardinals’ 17-game winning streak or any other team’s hot September has any bearing on playoff success.
The inverse is just as often true: The 2000 Yankees went 3-15 in their final 18 games, then kicked it into gear and won it all. Throw out the small-sample September records entirely.
Do: Look for teams with elite pitching
Traditional wisdom long held that the starting pitcher is king in October. Then, the 2014 and 2015 Royals had everyone flipping that around and trying to build an elite bullpen. But the reality — as demonstrated especially by the 2018 Red Sox and 2019 Washington Nationals — is that elite pitchers of any breed simply get more opportunities to work in October.
Really, you need not worry about the designation of a team’s best pitchers. Just try to find a club with several elite arms that can be deployed liberally with the postseason’s robust schedule of off days.
Obviously, the Los Angeles Dodgers are the betting favorites in part because of their absurd collection of arms — having to face Max Scherzer and Walker Buehler is borderline unfair. But the Milwaukee Brewers can at least rival them with Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta. Plus, with the Dodgers still desperately working to avoid the wild-card game, Craig Counsell’s Brewers will be better set up to leverage their elite starters. They did, however, lose world-beating reliever Devin Williams to an extremely stupid injury of the punching-a-wall variety.
On the American League side, the Chicago White Sox could be the ticket if they deploy Liam Hendriks in big spots and manage Carlos Rodon’s health effectively.
Don’t: Fade teams that rely on homers to score
The smallball narrative is not true, and never was. It is especially untrue in an era where scoring is more dependent on homers than ever.
Being good at hitting homers mostly just correlates to being good at scoring now, which is sort of the point of the game. The 2020 Rays were extremely reliant on home runs, and they wound up in the World Series.
Do: Take a gander at the teams that make the most contact
One more nuanced thing you could look at, though, is how often a team puts the ball in play. Limiting strikeouts does potentially mean more now as putting the ball in play has become harder than ever.
The actual effect is tricky to be sure about, but there are signs that being a better contact-hitting team is at least a bit of a playoff advantage. I took all the postseason teams from 1995 to 2020 and ranked them year-by-year based on their lineup’s strikeout rates, with lower being better. The average World Series champion ranked more highly in this category than in overall winning percentage, and that tendency has been especially true since 2015 — with no eventual champions ranking outside the top half of playoff teams.
That’s a very loose, back-of-the-napkin form of analysis, but it casts at least a little bit of doubt on the chances of the whiff-prone Rays, Yankees and Brewers. The best 2021 contenders in this realm? The Astros, whose vaunted offense has long been the best at avoiding the strikeout — including when they won the (sign-stealing marred) 2017 title. If the Blue Jays were to make the field, they have the game’s second-best mark.
Don’t: Go big on wild-card teams that worked harder to advance
There’s a notion that MLB watered down the field or inserted more underdog-favoring randomness by adding the second wild-card in 2012. And while that felt compelling when the 80-something-win Giants beat the 80-something-win Royals in 2014, it really has not proven true at all.
The favorites have been the benefactors of this change. A total of three wild-card teams have made the World Series since the one-game playoff was added in 2012, and only the 2019 Nationals have pulled it off since 2015.
As if it required any more reminders, the NL West race between the Giants and Dodgers has huge stakes.
Do: Put an emphasis on the teams with the best records
Here’s a seemingly obvious idea that could still drive serious value in 2021. Since 2012, the chaotic MLB postseason has produced a list of World Series champs that is anything but chaotic.
The median champion since the introduction of the wild-card game has had … MLB’s best record. Five of the last nine World Series winners entered the playoffs as the overall top seed, and another top seed made the World Series (the 2019 Astros) before finishing as runner-up.
Betting on the top seeds would usually be a boring plan, but the juggernaut race in the NL West has led Vegas to keep the second-place Dodgers as favorites right now. The Giants are tied for third with +700 odds, and the AL-leading Rays (also +700) aren’t the top choice from their league either.
There are good reasons to take a swing on any of the top contenders, but recent history suggests that those regular season wins mean more than Vegas is giving them credit for.