A glance at the most likely playoff teams in our MLB prediction model shows a lot of the usual suspects from before the season began. Teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins and Houston Astros were all supposed to make the playoffs, and all have either clinched spots or are overwhelmingly likely to do so now. But not every team in the playoff picture was destined to make it on opening day. So let’s break down the most surprising teams in this year’s postseason race based on how unlikely they were to be here from the start — and grouped by what their own expectations for contention might have been heading into the season.
Nobody expected much more than another rebuilding season from the Marlins in 2020, given the strength of their division, their low payroll and their lack of established talent. Still fewer thought they could rally after they were MLB’s first high-profile instance of a team significantly sidelined by positive COVID-19 tests. And yet, here Miami is, poised to make the playoffs for the first time since winning the World Series (as the Florida Marlins) in 2003. Seemingly out of nowhere, the Marlins have gotten strong seasons from shortstop Miguel Rojas (4.2 wins above replacement1 per 162 games) and a host of pitchers including Pablo López (4.2), Yimi García (1.9), Elieser Hernández (1.8) and James Hoyt (1.5), plus a breakout from prospect Sixto Sánchez (3.3). Miami has also gotten pretty lucky: Based on run differential, the Marlins have won 4.3 more games than they “should” have. That’s easily the largest windfall in MLB this year — and easily enough to make the difference between a playoff berth and an early end to the season.
The Giants aren’t guaranteed to make the playoffs, but that they are even in the mix this late is a surprise. After losing manager Bruce Bochy and ace Madison Bumgarner over the offseason, and seeing catcher Buster Posey opt out over COVID-19 concerns, San Francisco looked bound for the NL West basement. But the projections didn’t count on outfielder Mike Yastrzemski playing like an MVP candidate (6.6 WAR/162), nor did they foresee the total quality of a lineup powered by rejuvenated franchise standbys (Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford) plus a procession of castoffs and journeymen (Austin Slater, Donovan Solano, Darin Ruf, Wilmer Flores, Alex Dickerson and Mauricio Dubón). As a result, the oldest team in baseball2 is battling for the NL’s final playoff spot in — yes, that’s right — an even-numbered year.
Ahead of schedule
Young, talented teams always have the potential for a breakout, but the Blue Jays seemed more likely to make a splash in 2021 and beyond. However, despite its recent struggles, Toronto has secured a playoff spot sooner than expected — and it’s been about more than just the kids. Although 25-year-old second baseman Cavan Biggio has played like an All-Star (4.0 WAR/162), fellow up-and-comers Bo Bichette (2.5) and Vlad Guerrero Jr. (1.1) weren’t the team’s very best players. (Bichette missed half the season with a knee injury, and Guerrero has improved only incrementally this year.) Instead, Toronto’s playoff run has been powered by great performances from veterans Hyun-jin Ryu (7.0) and Teoscar Hernández (4.4), an elite bullpen (fifth in WAR) and — like the Marlins — good fortune. With 2.9 more wins than expected based on run differential, the Jays have been baseball’s third-luckiest team behind Miami and the Tampa Bay Rays.
We thought the Padres had a coin flip’s chance at the expanded postseason on opening day. Instead, they’ve been the second-best team in all of baseball by run differential (behind the divisional-rival Dodgers). The obvious driver of their success? The MVP-caliber emergence of shortstop Fernando Tatís Jr., who has 7.5 WAR per 162 games even after fading recently. But San Diego also has a stunningly complete ballclub, from a stacked lineup with four other batters (Manny Machado, Trent Grisham, Wil Myers and Jake Cronenworth) playing at a 4.7-WAR or above pace per 162, to a dominant rotation headlined by Dinelson Lamet (6.6) and Zach Davies (3.8), to the imposing late-game tandem of Drew Pomeranz (3.5) and Trevor Rosenthal (2.2), who have allowed just five combined earned runs3 in nearly 40 innings this season. And not for nothing, but the Padres also have been giving off the best vibes in MLB for most of the season — the perfect ingredient for a team to wildly exceed expectations and take the league by storm.
Aspirations to contend
Chicago has been steadily building talent for years — and, especially after MLB’s new playoff format was installed, it was clear the rising White Sox would have a serious chance at ending the franchise’s 12-year playoff drought. What wasn’t clear was just how great they could be. With the help of a historic Cuban connection (José Abreu, Luis Robert, Yasmani Grandal and Yoan Moncada), the excellent play of shortstop Tim Anderson (6.3 WAR/162) and left fielder Eloy Jiménez (4.0), top-tier starters Dallas Keuchel (5.5) and Mr. No-Hitter Lucas Giolito (3.9), and a sturdy bullpen led by closer Alex Colomé (2.0), Chicago looks like one of the playoff teams opponents will least look forward to facing. We can’t say it’s a surprise to see the White Sox in the postseason, but the emphatic way in which they got there has been remarkable to watch.