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Baseball Will Be Weird This Year. But The Astros And Yankees Are Favorites In The American League … Again.

When Major League Baseball finally starts its 2020 season on July 23, it will be a very different kind of campaign than any we’ve seen in our lifetimes. Not only will it be much shorter than usual (60 games per team instead of 162) and feature a strange mix of division and interleague matchups, but it comes against the backdrop of a pandemic that continues to ravage the nation, which has caused players to question the wisdom of playing — or opt out of the season entirely.

And yet, MLB is back — and so are our predictions. To help make sense of the favorites and dark horses in this strange mini-season, we plugged the shortened schedule into our forecast model and simulated it 100,000 times, tracking each team’s expected record and its odds of winning the division or the World Series. Here’s what our model thinks of the 2020 American League:

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 1571 36 24 +58 78% 56% 14%
Rays 1539 33 27 +31 56 28 5
Red Sox 1511 30 30 +4 29 12 1
Blue Jays 1479 27 33 -22 13 4 <1
Orioles 1412 21 39 -85 <1 <1 <1

Based on 100,000 simulations of the 2020 MLB season.

Sources: Baseball prospectus, Fangraphs, Clay Davenport

Last year’s AL East was supposed to see a tight race between the defending champs in Boston and their bitterest of rivals in the Bronx. Instead, the New York Yankees overcame a rash of injuries to pull away for the division crown in the second half — and our model thinks the Bombers are clear East favorites again in 2020. New York added ace Gerrit Cole via free agency, which shores up a rotation that ranked just 16th in total wins above replacement,1 but an even bigger factor might be improved health for a club that saw players spend 3,192 total days on the injured list in 2019 — 36 percent more than any other team. If Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez, Aaron Hicks and Miguel Andujar can stay intact over the short schedule,2 the Yankees will be a major championship threat.

The Tampa Bay Rays gave New York a good fight early last season and were also a thorn in the Houston Astros’ side during the postseason. Maybe we should stop being surprised when they sneak up on much more expensive contenders every year! Losing Tommy Pham will hurt some in 2020, but this remains one of the best and most balanced teams in MLB (particularly if ace Blake Snell bounces back to his 2018 form). We think they’ll be nearly as good as the Yankees, with a 56 percent shot at the playoffs.

[Related: 60 Games Aren’t Enough To Crown The Best MLB Team. But Neither Are 162 Games.]

That’s better than our outlook for the Boston Red Sox, who had a terrible championship hangover last year and figure to take another step backward after firing manager Alex Cora in January, trading star right fielder Mookie Betts in February and watching ace Chris Sale undergo Tommy John surgery in March. Boston still has plenty of top-end talent (Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, J.D. Martinez) but also enough flaws3 that a run at the Yankees and Rays looks unlikely.

And the Red Sox could have competition from behind in the form of the Toronto Blue Jays, whose young core of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette should keep pushing the team’s rebuild forward. After acquiring Hyun-Jin Ryu, Tanner Roark and Chase Anderson4 to improve what was a bottom-five rotation by WAR, don’t be surprised if Toronto makes a run at .500.

Finally, the Baltimore Orioles should bring up the rear for a fourth straight season. With Jonathan Villar and Dylan Bundy now gone, the biggest question might be whether they’ll crack 20 wins in 60 games against the toughest schedule in baseball — we project them at just 21 wins for the season, the fewest of any team.

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 1544 35 25 +42 67% 48% 7%
Indians 1529 33 27 +29 55 34 4
White Sox 1496 30 30 +1 28 14 <1
Royals 1448 25 35 -43 5 2 <1
Tigers 1436 24 36 -53 3 1 <1

Based on 100,000 simulations of the 2020 MLB season.

Sources: Baseball prospectus, Fangraphs, Clay Davenport

The Minnesota Twins were one of baseball’s best stories in 2019, winning the AL Central as preseason underdogs and breaking the all-time single-season home run record in the process. Can they do it again? Well, we won’t know about the home run part without more information about how “juiced” the 2020 ball is. But in terms of division odds, Minnesota is still the favorite, if by a somewhat slim margin. The Twins didn’t rest on their offseason laurels, adding the likes of Josh Donaldson, Kenta Maeda and Homer Bailey without losing too much of note. But they will also probably regress to the mean after an unusually healthy season that saw their record improve by a whopping 23 games.5 The question will be how well the offseason activity — and 2020’s easiest schedule — helps counterbalance that regression.

Fighting to reclaim their old spot atop the division will be the Cleveland Indians, who let the Central slip away after three straight first-place finishes. The 2019 Indians weren’t bad, but they weren’t the elite club they’d been just a few years earlier; despite a star-filled lineup, they scored fewer runs than the AL average and never mounted a big charge after briefly catching the Twins in August. Our model thinks the Tribe still has a 34 percent shot at the division crown, despite losing World Series-era mainstays Corey Kluber, Jason Kipnis and Danny Salazar over the offseason, but the window might be closing on the Francisco Lindor era soon.

[Related: Our 2020 MLB Predictions]

The Chicago White Sox are a hot breakout pick heading into 2020, primarily because all the young talent they’ve accumulated over the years has finally arrived. Third baseman Yoan Moncada and starter Lucas Giolito took big leaps last season, while left fielder Eloy Jiménez and maybe even highly touted Cuban prospect Luis Robert seem poised to do the same this year. Add in offseason additions Yasmani Grandal and Edwin Encarnacion, and the Pale Hose should improve a lot on their .447 winning percentage from a season ago, even if it might not translate to a playoff berth quite yet.

As for the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers, both clubs figure to be deep in rebuilding mode yet again this year. Detroit actually made some offseason additions — Ivan Nova, Cameron Maybin, Jonathan Schoop, C.J. Cron, Austin Romine — that could lead to greater respectability this year. (Then again, it would have been hard to be less respectable than the 2019 Tigers were.) For their part, the Royals mostly treaded water. But our forecast thinks both teams should avoid challenging the Orioles for the mantle of MLB’s worst team, which is a welcome improvement from 2019, even if true contention is still far off in the future.

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 1570 36 24 +55 77% 59% 14%
Athletics 1527 32 28 +19 44 22 3
Angels 1503 29 31 -5 24 11 1
Rangers 1484 28 32 -18 16 6 <1
Mariners 1446 24 36 -53 3 1 <1

Based on 100,000 simulations of the 2020 MLB season.

Sources: Baseball prospectus, Fangraphs, Clay Davenport

Remember the Houston Astros? Sure, a lot of more important things have happened in the country since it was revealed that Houston engaged in a systematic sign-stealing scheme that left their 2017 title tainted, their manager and GM fired and the entire baseball world vowing revenge. But the Astros’ scandal hasn’t gone anywhere — and neither have the Astros themselves. Houston is still MLB’s third-most talented team according to our Elo ratings, headlined by the usual suspects: Justin Verlander, Alex Bregman, George Springer, Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, Michael Brantley, Zack Greinke, etc., etc. They also have a steady hand at the helm in veteran manager Dusty Baker. Although the Astros probably had the roughest offseason of any team (maybe ever?), losing Cole and several other key contributors on top of the cheating fallout, we give them a 77 percent chance of returning to the postseason, a 59 percent chance of winning the AL West and a 14 percent World Series probability — tied with the Yankees for the second-best of any team.

But if Houston does take a step back, the Oakland Athletics are right there waiting in the wings. Oakland won 97 games for the second straight season in 2019 on the strength of superstar performances from Marcus Semien and Matt Chapman — the rare pair of 7+ WAR teammates in MLB history — the solid play of Matt Olson, and unheralded contributions from the likes of Mark Canha, Ramon Laureano and Liam Hendrix. All of those guys will return for 2020, and while Brett Anderson, Bailey and Roark departed in the offseason, a talent pipeline that includes starters Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk and catcher Sean Murphy should help the A’s once again vie for a playoff appearance.

[Related: How Our MLB Predictions Work]

Coming up behind them, the Los Angeles Angels are one of 2020’s most intriguing teams. We all know about Mike Trout, but the offseason additions of ex-Cubs manager Joe Maddon, third baseman Anthony Rendon — perhaps Trout’s best-ever teammate — and pitchers Bundy and Julio Teheran, plus Shohei Ohtani’s return to two-way play, give Los Angeles plenty of upside. (Health permitting for some, obviously.) We still give the Halos just a 24 percent chance at the postseason, in part because they’ll face MLB’s ninth-hardest schedule, but they do have the talent to potentially make some noise.

Speaking of which, the Texas Rangers are another team capable of making the contenders work for every victory. Last year, the club won 78 games under new manager Chris Woodward and hung around the playoff race for a half-season, despite one of its best players (Joey Gallo) missing 92 games. Then Texas spent the offseason adding a few potentially useful names — Corey Kluber, Robinson Chirinos, Todd Frazier, etc. — to help christen a new ballpark. Of course, the 2019 Rangers also got very lucky, both in terms of beating their underlying stats and getting unexpectedly great years from 30-something starters Mike Minor and Lance Lynn. We rank them fourth in the division, though they are an interesting fourth at least.

And the Seattle Mariners are projected for last place, which is also where they ended up last season after cooling from an inexplicably red-hot start. Seattle has suffered from tremendously bad luck in its MLB-leading 18-year playoff drought, but our model gives that streak little chance of ending anytime soon. The joy and (mostly) tragedy of Seattle baseball was well-documented by SB Nation’s Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein in their excellent six-part video series this year about the team’s history; it will probably end up being the highlight of 2020 for the Mariners and their fans.


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Footnotes

  1. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

  2. And if the team gets back more recent injury victims like Masahiro Tanaka, who is recovering from a concussion.

  3. Have you seen that rotation? Yikes.

  4. Who is now injured but should return in August.

  5. In full seasons since schedules expanded in 1961, the average team that improved by between 20 and 25 games in one season got worse by 7.7 games the following year.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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