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2021 MLB Preview: Our Guide To The American League

Baseball returns this week for what we can all hope is a more normal season after last year’s abbreviated 60-game, expanded-playoffs pandemic campaign. Accordingly, we’ve launched our 2021 MLB forecast model, with win totals and playoff odds that look a little bit more regular than they did going into 2020. As always, we estimate each team’s preseason strength (in the form of an Elo rating) based on a variety of computer projections,1 and we simulate the schedule 100,000 times to track how often each team wins its division, makes the playoffs and emerges as World Series champions. Here’s what our model thinks is in store for the American League in 2021:

How Elo is forecasting the AL East race

Avg. Simulated Season Chance to…
Team Elo Rating Wins Losses Run Diff. Make Playoffs Win Division Win World Series
Yankees 1572 97 65 +147 83% 60% 14%
Rays 1533 88 74 +63 51 21 4
Blue Jays 1519 84 78 +24 34 11 2
Red Sox 1504 80 82 -9 23 7 1
Orioles 1436 63 99 -164 <1 <1 <1

Based on 100,000 simulations of the 2021 MLB season.

Sources: Baseball prospectus, Fangraphs, Clay Davenport

Although Tampa Bay came within two wins of a championship last season, it is not our AL East favorite for 2021. Instead, the Yankees claim that honor, having brought back the core of a scary lineup that ranked fifth in batting wins above replacement2 last season and revamped a pitching staff that ranked 16th. New York has a lot of talent on paper, though (as usual) its true potential depends on how much it can avoid the injury bug

Just like last year, the Rays are in line to capitalize if the Yankees do stumble. An eventful offseason saw them part ways with leading postseason pitchers Charlie Morton and Blake Snell, but maybe a full season from playoff dynamo Randy Arozarena can help offset the departures. Don’t forget — Tampa Bay has a history of beating expectations; its final Elo ranking has been better than its preseason mark for three years running. 

And the Blue Jays should be one of the one of the most improved teams of 2021, rising from 21st in Elo to 10th after signing George Springer and Marcus Semien. Those two will beef up what was already an imposing lineup (10th in batting WAR) in 2020, though their greater contribution might be in improving Toronto’s 28th-ranked defense. If the Jays’ offseason pitching tweaks help boost a staff that ranked 17th last year, Toronto has a lot of upside. 

The Red Sox are hoping to rebound from a nightmare campaign in which most of their key players regressed, and Elo thinks they should at least be better. Although Boston lost Jackie Bradley Jr. (one of the few Red Sox who actually had a great 2020) in free agency and dealt away Andrew Benintendi, the team added some interesting names to its lineup and bullpen. It also rehired former manager Alex Cora after a year spent suspended for his role in several sign-stealing scandals. Boston’s playoff hopes hinge on getting more from a starting rotation that ranked 25th last year — and on bounce backs from J.D. Martinez and Rafael Devers, both of whom turned in subpar 2020 numbers. 

As for the Orioles, there isn’t much to suggest they’ll be any better than usual. Although they were more competitive than their record suggested in 2020, they traded team WAR leader José Iglesias to the Angels for prospects in December.

How Elo is forecasting the AL Central race

Avg. Simulated Season Chance to…
Team Elo Rating Wins Losses Run Diff. Make Playoffs Win Division Win World Series
Twins 1538 90 72 +85 64% 47% 6%
White Sox 1516 85 77 +36 42 25 2
Indians 1513 84 78 +28 38 22 2
Royals 1470 74 88 -65 10 5 <1
Tigers 1446 68 94 -120 3 1 <1

Based on 100,000 simulations of the 2021 MLB season.

Sources: Baseball prospectus, Fangraphs, Clay Davenport

The two-time defending division champion Twins are favorites for a third-straight win, but this projects to be a tight race. Minnesota said goodbye to the underrated Eddie Rosario but picked up Andrelton Simmons to play shortstop and added starter J.A. Happ and closer Alex Colomé to the staff. The balanced Twins are counting on Simmons bouncing back to Gold Glove form on defense, though they could also use improved health from Josh Donaldson in a lineup that ranked 16th in batting WAR last year. 

Chasing Minnesota are the White Sox, one of 2020’s most exciting breakout teams. Elo sees them contending again under3 new manager Tony La Russa, particularly after adding Lance Lynn to the rotation and Liam Hendriks to the pen. But Chicago’s ascent could be slowed by a spring training injury to left fielder Eloy Jiménez, the loss of catcher James McCann and the simple reality of the Plexiglass Principle — which says teams that improve a lot between seasons tend to give some of the gains back the following year. 

The Indians are in the mix with the Twins and ChiSox as well, despite a multi-year talent drain that saw Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco added to the long list of stars who’ve left Cleveland since the team’s 2016 World Series berth. The Tribe still look like a contender because of their MVP-level performers — José Ramírez at third base and Shane Bieber atop the rotation — but beneath them (plus Eddie Rosario, starter Zach Plesac and maybe closer James Karinchak), the talent exodus is becoming apparent. 

Well below the top trio, the Royals nonetheless have potential to improve after a busier-than-usual offseason. K.C. non-tendered third baseman Maikel Franco (who signed with Baltimore) and bid farewell to retiring franchise icon Alex Gordon but lost little else of note while picking up reinforcements like Benintendi and Carlos Santana in the lineup and Mike Minor in the rotation. Will it be enough for the franchise’s first playoff bid since winning the 2015 World Series? Unlikely, but the Royals could at least make a run at .500. 

That probably won’t be the case for the Tigers, despite a lot of roster reshuffling over the winter. Detroit did hire a new manager (A.J. Hinch) and spruced up a core that hung around the playoff hunt surprisingly long last year. But that team played above its stats, and the offseason moves probably won’t be enough to improve much on Detroit’s No. 25 ranking in WAR from position players and No. 29 WAR ranking from pitchers last year.

How Elo is forecasting the AL West race

Avg. Simulated Season Chance to…
Team Elo Rating Wins Losses Run Diff. Make Playoffs Win Division Win World Series
Astros 1552 93 69 +107 73% 59% 8%
Athletics 1513 84 78 +23 36 19 2
Angels 1509 82 80 +8 30 16 2
Mariners 1469 73 89 -78 8 3 0
Rangers 1460 70 92 -98 5 2 0

Based on 100,000 simulations of the 2021 MLB season.

Sources: Baseball prospectus, Fangraphs, Clay Davenport

Last year’s AL West belonged to Oakland, which finished a full seven games clear of the underwhelming Astros. The postseason battle belonged to Houston, however — and so does preseason favorite status for 2021. Still, this division comes with plenty of questions. Chiefly: Why didn’t the Astros look like themselves for most of last season (before turning it on for a playoff run)? Blame it on the cheating-scandal hangover or simply a down year, but Houston might be the poster child for the dilemma of 2021 forecasters and how much emphasis to place on last year’s strange numbers. Houston lost Springer and didn’t add very much since last year,4 so the Astros’ projection is heavily relying on their pre-2020 track record. Yet, for what it’s worth, each of the four computer systems that go into preseason Elo considers Houston the class of the division. 

Some of that might also be owed to the Athletics’ offseason, which saw Oakland lose a number of contributors (Semien, Hendriks, Robbie Grossman) from a team that was probably not as good as its record in 2020. While 3B Matt Chapman seems primed to bounce back to MVP form after last year’s injury, and the bullpen gained some recognizable names in Trevor Rosenthal and Sergio Romo, the A’s starting rotation needs to pitch better than last year’s No. 18 WAR finish. 

The Angels are another legit contender in the West … on paper. Last year’s Halos were anything but that, though they did pick up their play in the second half of the schedule and made some definite improvements over the offseason. The 2021 edition needs a more Mike Trout-like performance from its biggest star, better production from Justin Upton and for Shohei Ohtani to deliver on the growing hype again after a dreadful 2020

Although the Mariners probably won’t break into the top three of the division, they did improve by three spots in our Elo ranking since the end of 2020. Seattle was MLB’s youngest team last year (weighted by player value), and it could claim that title again in 2021 — though it did add a couple of veterans like starter James Paxton, who’s looking to reclaim the form of his first stint with the Mariners after a rough 2020 with the Yankees. 

Seattle will likely be sharing the basement with the Rangers, who flopped to 22-38 (the equivalent of 59 wins per 162) after surprising with 78 wins in 2019. Texas has made a lot of moves since, mostly with an eye on rebuilding for the future. Though they still have some interesting players at the MLB level, such as Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Joey Gallo, the Rangers officially pressed the franchise’s reset button when they traded Lynn and longtime SS Elvis Andrus during the offseason.

Footnotes

  1. Our preseason ratings blend together a team’s mean-reverted Elo rating from the end of 2020 (33 percent) with a mix of ratings derived from projections found at Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs and Clay Davenport’s site (67 percent).

  2. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, for which you can download data on GitHub.

  3. In spite of?

  4. Not-inexpensive starter Jake Odorizzi joined in early March, but he won’t be ready in time for opening day and is coming off a terrible, injury-plagued 2020 season anyway.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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