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What To Watch For In The Wildest MLB Playoffs Ever

It seemed like baseball might never get here, but MLB’s regular season came to an end on Sunday, and the playoffs are at hand. And it’s going to get ridiculous: The postseason now has 16 teams — which should mean more chaos — and no home-field advantage for most of it,1 with neutral-site games in the division series through the World Series. And the schedule for the wild-card round alone will be enough to overload us with baseball for the foreseeable future:

Once the games start, the storylines will abound. Looking at our MLB prediction model, here are the dominant themes as we head into one of the wildest postseasons ever.

The Dodgers are heavy favorites

Although the 16-team format served to dampen the World Series odds for top teams, that hasn’t stopped the Los Angeles Dodgers from looking like far and away the best team of 2020. We currently give L.A. a 33 percent chance of winning it all, which is the highest pre-playoff probability for any favorite since we launched our predictions in 2015. (In fact, they’re the only team with a championship probability over 10 percent right now.) It’s tough to choose just one area of strength to highlight for the Dodgers; they rank among the top 10 in wins above replacement2 from batting, defense, starting pitching and relievers. But their lineup is especially terrifying, led by six starters — Will Smith, Corey Seager, Mookie Betts, Justin Turner, Chris Taylor and AJ Pollock — with weighted runs created plus (wRC+) rates of 130 or better. (And that’s without even considering Cody Bellinger or Max Muncy, who both reached that level last season.)

The biggest question is whether L.A. can finally capitalize on its championship potential after one of the most successful multi-year runs ever by a team with no titles to show for it. The only teams to win more regular-season games than the 2013-19 Dodgers in any-seven year span without a championship came from the latter half of the Atlanta Braves’ 14-season division title streak and the post-2000 New York Yankees. And remember: Even with this year’s Dodgers’ relatively high odds, the field still has a 67 percent chance of finding a way to thwart them yet again. But on paper at least, they are big favorites.

The American League is more wide-open

We knew the Dodgers were going to be dominant in the NL. But in the AL, our two preseason favorites — the New York Yankees and the Houston Astros (more on them later) — did not exactly have incredible seasons, even though each did make the playoffs. This left the door open for the Tampa Bay Rays to secure the AL’s No. 1 seed, and for the Oakland Athletics, Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians to move up the ranks as well. It also means there is no clear favorite in the AL postseason field. The Rays have the best World Series odds (10 percent) of any AL team — edging out the Yankees (8 percent) — and Tampa Bay is playoff-ready in theory, as the only team that ranked among the top five in WAR both on defense and in the bullpen. Yet they are slim favorites at best, with two other teams (New York and Minnesota) sitting within 3 percentage points of them in our pennant odds. If the Rays falter, a credible case could be made for practically every other AL team to represent the league in the World Series — from the mega-talented Yankees, to the powerful Twins and the pitching-rich Indians, to the exceptionally deep and balanced A’s, and beyond.

The Cinderellas have a chance

Some teams among the bottom half of their league’s seeds — such as the Yankees and Astros — cannot, in good conscience, be considered “Cinderellas.” Others — like the surprising Miami Marlins — probably aren’t good enough to realistically make a World Series run. But some lower seeds do have the potential to surprise. In the AL, the Chicago White Sox (2 percent) and Toronto Blue Jays (1 percent) have nontrivial chances to win the World Series; Chicago looks especially dangerous with its mix of hitting (No. 7 in WAR), defense (No. 7) and relief pitching (No. 10). Over in the NL, it’s not hard to envision the Cincinnati Reds (3 percent), St. Louis Cardinals (2 percent) or Milwaukee Brewers (2 percent) giving top seeds trouble; Cincy — led by Trevor Bauer and Luis Castillo — has the No. 3 rotation by WAR, while St. Louis has MLB’s best defense and Milwaukee ranked second in total pitching WAR behind only Cleveland. It will be harder for the Reds, Cardinals and Brewers to make the World Series with the Dodgers in their way, but each at least has the potential to deliver an upset.

Nobody knows what to expect from the Astros

The defending AL champs did not completely implode after the most tumultuous offseason in recent baseball memory. But they weren’t the Astros we’ve been used to seeing, either. Houston finished with a losing record (29-31), and its performance fell off across the board — most notably on offense, where the Astros’ wRC+ fell from No. 1 in 2019 to just 17th this year. Fair or not, any decline for Houston hitters this season was going to be seen as a referendum on the usefulness of their rule-breaking in the past. (That perception wasn’t helped by the fact that Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman, two of the central figures in the scandal fallout, each saw their wRC+ numbers fall by at least 45 points since last year.)

After down years by a few prominent batters and season-ending surgery for ace Justin Verlander, it’s difficult to take the Astros’ bid for a third pennant in four seasons seriously. But it’s also important to remember that 60 games is not a very large sample — which is why, according to Elo ratings (which change only incrementally after each game of the season, in a way that our testing has determined is best for predicting future results), Houston remains one of the better teams in MLB … in theory. (Hence, their 5 percent World Series probability, despite the mediocre record.) Whether that talent will suddenly manifest itself in the postseason, however, remains to be seen.

2020 could be the year of the breakout team — or the team finally getting over the hump

Two of the best storylines of this, um, unique MLB season have been breakouts for the Chicago White Sox and San Diego Padres, a couple of franchises that each ended playoff droughts of over a decade in 2020. These were not flukes, either — San Diego and Chicago finished the season ranked Nos. 2 and 4 in WAR, respectively. After three straight World Series featuring either the Astros or Dodgers (or both), there’s at least some chance we get an all-breakout matchup in the Fall Classic. And if ever there was a season that needed it, it might be 2020.

But if it’s not the White Sox or Padres, there are plenty of other top contenders who could finally get over the hump this year. The Rays (No. 3 in WAR) might be looking at their best chance yet to reach the team’s second-ever World Series. The Braves (No. 5) are looking for redemption after last year’s NLDS debacle. The Twins (No. 6) have their own tortured postseason history to overcome. The Athletics (No. 7) have been trying to crack the postseason code for two decades now. The Indians (No. 8) haven’t won it all since 1948. And of course, even the Dodgers haven’t actually won the World Series since 1988.

Whatever happens, these playoffs have a very good chance to give us a satisfying story at the end of a season that — for a long time — didn’t even seem like it might occur. And what we see along the way could make for the most entertaining postseason in a long time. Play ball!

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Such as it is. Home advantage did exist in 2020, despite the lack of fans: the home team won 55.0 percent of regular-season games, which was actually up from 2019 (53.1 percent). But we’ve also found that, unlike football and basketball, the home team in playoff baseball games sees no extra boost relative to the regular season, even under normal circumstances.

  2. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, for which you can download data every day this season.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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