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Why Each MLB Playoff Team Will—and Won’t—Win the World Series

Eight teams have a solid case to lift the Commissioner’s Trophy, but baseball’s playoff format makes even the best of the best vulnerable

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to playoff baseball, where the “best” team wins the championship far less often than in other sports. To wit: According to Baseball Prospectus odds, no team in the 2021 playoff field has better than a 20 percent chance to win the World Series. With eight deserving teams ready to do battle, let’s dive into the reasons each particular team might beat the odds and hoist the trophy—or fulfill the odds and fall short at some point this month.


San Francisco

Why They’ll Win

Well, they were the best team in the majors in the regular season, so why not extend that dominance for another month? In the Giants’ worst month this season (a 15-10 July), they still won as often as a 97-win team. Game 1 starter Logan Webb hasn’t lost a game since May 5, going 10-0 with a 2.40 ERA in that span.

Beyond the regular-season record, home-field advantage, and much-ballyhooed resurgence of veterans like Brandon Crawford and Buster Posey, the greatest reason for Giants optimism is the bullpen. San Francisco has six different relievers who pitched at least 50 innings with an ERA below 3.00. That’s twice as many as any other team. And that count doesn’t include Camilo Doval, who tallied a 3.00 exactly in 27 innings and might have the best stuff of the bunch. Doval didn’t allow a run in 14 1/3 innings in September.

San Francisco’s Dominant Bullpen

Pitcher Innings ERA
Pitcher Innings ERA
Tyler Rogers 81 2.22
Jarlin García 68 2/3 2.62
José Álvarez 64 2/3 2.37
Zack Littell 61 2/3 2.92
Jake McGee 59 2/3 2.72
Dominic Leone 53 2/3 1.51
Camilo Doval 27 3.00

Why They Won’t

Because MLB no longer reseeds the playoff bracket to avoid pitting division foes against each other in the LDS—as it used to until the introduction of the second wild card—the 107-win Giants have to play the 106-win Dodgers to begin their playoff journey. That’s not an easy introduction: The teams were so closely matched in the regular season, both overall and head-to-head, with the Giants going 10-9 but being outscored 80-78, that a best-of-five series between the teams might as well be a coin flip.

While the Dodgers are suffering from some injuries, the Giants aren’t entering this showdown whole, either. Brandon Belt was the team’s best hitter this season (158 wRC+) but will miss the NLDS with a broken thumb, and closer Jake McGee is back but hasn’t pitched since September 12 because of an IL stint. Moreover, the rotation beyond Webb has looked a little leaky of late: Kevin Gausman’s ERA rose from 1.73 in the first half to 4.42 in the second, while Anthony DeSclafani’s rose from 2.68 to 4.03.

Los Angeles

Why They’ll Win

San Francisco beat the Dodgers by a game in the win column, but L.A. was the best overall team this season via underlying numbers, in both run differential and total WAR. The Dodgers’ strengths suffuse the roster: Mookie Betts, Corey Seager, and Trea Turner form the best top of the order of any playoff lineup; Walker Buehler, Julio Urías, and Max Scherzer lead an elite rotation; Kenley Jansen looks like his old self again with an 0.63 ERA and 11.9 K/9 since August 6 (counting his scoreless inning in the Dodgers’ wild-card win). The Dodgers have a realistic chance to become the first repeat champions since the Yankees won three in a row from 1998 through 2000.

Why They Won’t

As that last Yankees stat suggests, the playoffs involve so much luck that it’s hard to win multiple titles in a row even if the team’s overall talent remains the same. And the Dodgers, like the Giants, are missing key players as they pursue the title. Both Clayton Kershaw and Max Muncy suffered elbow injuries in the final weekend of the regular season. Kershaw’s absence weakens both the starters and the bullpen, as it forces another pitcher away from a swingman role and into the rotation.

And without Muncy in the middle of the order, the Dodgers’ only real hopes for lefty power are Corey Seager and a time machine for Cody Bellinger, who needs extraordinary help after slashing .165/.240/.302 in the regular season. The lack of balance could prove especially costly against all the right-handed hurlers in San Francisco and Milwaukee. That final bit is the main reason the Dodgers will struggle to repeat: They have to face the Giants right away, so one of the two best teams in baseball must lose before the NLCS.

Milwaukee

Why They’ll Win

The dream for any team in the postseason is to ride a resplendent rotation to a title, and Milwaukee has the best chance to do so this October. Corbin Burnes deserves to win a crowded NL Cy Young race, but he’s not the only one who’s had a sparkling season—the top 11 Brewers in innings pitched all recorded better-than-average ERAs.

Milwaukee’s Most-Used Pitchers

Pitcher IP ERA ERA+
Pitcher IP ERA ERA+
Brandon Woodruff 179 1/3 2.56 166
Corbin Burnes 167 2.43 176
Freddy Peralta 144 1/3 2.81 152
Adrian Houser 142 1/3 3.22 132
Eric Lauer 118 2/3 3.19 134
Brett Anderson 96 4.22 101
Brent Suter 73 1/3 3.07 139
Brad Boxberger 64 2/3 3.34 128
Josh Hader 58 2/3 1.23 348
Devin Williams 54 2.50 171
Hunter Strickland 36 1/3 1.73 247

While Burnes, Woodruff, and Peralta front the rotation, the bullpen is almost as impressive, with Hader enjoying his best regular season in the closer role with a cast of capable setup men in front of him. The addition of either Houser or Lauer—whichever one doesn’t stick as the no. 4 starter—should only supplement the pen further. And Craig Counsell, one of the game’s best tactical managers, can be counted on to deploy them in the right situations (even if the three-batter minimum means the Curly Ogden–Wade Miley maneuver is no longer possible).

Milwaukee’s greatest advantage, however, comes not from its own roster but from its bracket situation: While the Giants and Dodgers destroy each other early, the Brewers will be matched against the weakest first-round opponent in the field in Atlanta. Milwaukee should be able to romp to the NLCS before facing truly stiff competition.

Why They Won’t

Playoff history is littered with dominant rotations that failed to produce a title. See, for instance, the 2011 Phillies, and never forget that the 2014 Tigers were swept by the Orioles in the ALDS despite starting Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and David Price against Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, and Bud Norris.

Milwaukee’s starters can’t win 11 games all by themselves—the team has to score runs, too, and in the regular season, the Brewers had by far the worst offense of any of the eight remaining teams. Most alarming is that former MVP Christian Yelich hit just nine home runs all year—he hit more than that in each of three consecutive months spanning 2018 and 2019—en route to a league-average slash line.

Milwaukee’s Lagging Offense

Team Runs/Game wRC+ (Pitchers Removed)
Team Runs/Game wRC+ (Pitchers Removed)
Houston 5.33 117
Tampa Bay 5.29 110
Boston 5.12 107
Los Angeles 5.12 113
San Francisco 4.96 114
Atlanta 4.91 104
Chicago 4.91 110
Milwaukee 4.56 97

Nor is the bullpen unimpeachable. Devin Williams will miss the postseason after punching a wall and breaking his hand, which deprives Milwaukee of its best setup man. And although Hader has served as a multi-inning menace in past postseasons, it’s worth wondering just how capable he is of repeating that feat this time around: In the regular season, Hader didn’t go more than a single inning in any game.


Atlanta

Why They’ll Win

Atlanta has the least imposing roster and the fewest regular-season wins of any playoff team, but postseason baseball is a crapshoot and even the worst team has a chance. Two factors provide some reason for Atlanta optimism. The first is the rotation: This group can’t match Milwaukee’s arms in the first round, but Charlie Morton, Max Fried, and Ian Anderson form a mighty trio of their own. Fried in particular dazzled down the stretch, putting up a 1.46 ERA and 7-0 record after the trade deadline.

The second is the lineup’s power because, contrary to myth, home runs are not less important in October than in the regular season. The infield quartet of Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, and Austin Riley cleared 25 homers apiece, and Adam Duvall and Jorge Soler combined for 30 dingers after moving to Atlanta on trade deadline day. As a team, Atlanta ranked second to the Blue Jays in home run percentage after the deadline.

Why They Won’t

See: Atlanta has the least imposing roster and the fewest regular-season wins of any playoff team. Even with all those homers, the offense is closer to average overall, with Ronald Acuña Jr. hurt; the bullpen isn’t particularly reliable; and Atlanta posted the worst winning percentage for any playoff team despite playing the easiest schedule in the majors. Against teams outside the NL East, Atlanta went 43-42—and unfortunately for Atlanta, there aren’t any NL East rivals in the playoff field.


Tampa Bay

Why They’ll Win

This is a strange Rays team. Tampa Bay is typically best known for its pitching, but Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell, and Morton are all gone from last year’s staff—Glasnow to injury, Snell and Morton to the National League—and none of the team’s new top three starters had started an MLB game before 2021. With Shane McClanahan, Shane Baz, and Drew Rasmussen scheduled for games 1 to 3 of the ALDS, the Rays will rely on one of the most inexperienced rotations in playoff history.

But the offense is a marvel: the best in franchise history, and the second-highest-scoring in the majors this year. The team enjoyed well-above-average production at every position, according to Baseball-Reference, except for first base (where Ji-Man Choi has excelled since returning from injury) and designated hitter (where Nelson Cruz filled the hole at the trade deadline). The Rays have so much depth they were even the best pinch-hitting team in the majors.

Yet it’s not as if the Rays are all depth without any star power. Brandon Lowe slugged 39 homers, Randy Arozarena is the AL Rookie of the Year favorite, and Mike Zunino had the highest isolated power mark in the majors (minimum 300 plate appearances). Most of all, 20-year-old rookie shortstop Wander Franco is poised to break out on the national stage after a .288/.347/.463 regular-season showing.

Oh, and the pitching staff is still plenty intimidating even without much playoff experience. Manager Kevin Cash has roughly a dozen formidable arms to call on, for an inning or three or five at a time, to piece together wins.

Why They Won’t

The Rays don’t have any holes as obvious as, say, the Brewers, but a few sore spots stand out. Starting pitchers are less important for Tampa Bay than any other team, but they still matter, and the Rays’ might be outmatched against a non-Boston opponent. On offense, the Rays struck out more than any other playoff team in the regular season, which could prove problematic against high-octane staffs later in October. And with Cruz at DH, forcing Austin Meadows to the outfield, there are now a few shaky defenders throughout the lineup.

Ultimately, Tampa Bay is the best team in the American League and the World Series favorite, per Baseball Prospectus, but as is the case with every other team, the Rays are less likely to win than lose. Thus is the nature of playoff baseball.

Boston

Why They’ll Win

With Kyle Schwarber, Rafael Devers, and Xander Bogaerts, Boston boasts a legitimately fearsome trio atop the lineup; that group reached base a combined seven times in the team’s wild-card win, slugging two homers and scoring five runs. Nathan Eovaldi was one of the AL’s best pitchers this season. And Chris Sale is an X factor, as Boston’s most talented pitcher generally threw well in nine regular-season starts (Game 162 aside) after returning from Tommy John surgery.

Manager Alex Cora has also never lost a postseason series in his coaching and managerial career. He won the World Series as the Astros’ bench coach in 2017 and did the same the following year as Boston’s manager. (No, those two teams had nothing else in common, why do you ask?)

Why They Won’t

Boston fans already won the most important bragging rights this postseason, thanks to the team’s wild-card win over the Yankees—and that’s probably all they’ll get, given how their roster matches up against the other AL contenders’. For one, with J.D. Martinez injured and José Iglesias ineligible for the postseason because he didn’t join the Red Sox until September, the back of Boston’s lineup looks rather shallow. And on the other side of the ball, there are two overwhelming areas of concern.

The Red Sox were the majors’ worst defensive team in the regular season, registering negative-38 outs above average, and outside of Garrett Whitlock (1.96 ERA in 73 1/3 innings), the bullpen is horribly exposed. Schwarber and Bogaerts might need to homer every game if the Red Sox want to win their fifth title this century.

Houston

Why They’ll Win

Houston doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses: The Astros combine a dangerous lineup, a deep rotation, and a dependable bullpen and could easily beat any other playoff team in a short series. In terms of run scoring, Houston posted the best park-adjusted batting line in the majors this season (116 wRC+) and the lowest team strikeout rate (19.4 percent). In run prevention, all four likely playoff starters recorded ERAs between 3.14 and 3.62, and Ryan Pressly remains one of the majors’ most potent relievers. Astros fielders also ranked second in the majors in outs above average in the regular season, at plus-43.

The Astros also boast plenty of playoff experience, with four consecutive ALCS appearances, and while the pitching staff is fairly new, the position player core from that run is largely intact. José Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, and Yuli Gurriel are all still around and mashing; George Springer is gone, but Kyle Tucker (147 wRC+) more than ably replaces him in the outfield. These Astros can win the pennant because, well, they’ve already done it before.

Why They Won’t

The Astros’ biggest problem is the schedule: To win the championship, they might have to beat the White Sox, Rays, and [insert great NL club here] in a row, a tall order for any team.

In terms of the actual roster, Houston’s starters are more good than great; in the ALDS, the White Sox likely have the advantage in every pitching matchup. The same goes for the rest of the Astros’ pen outside of Pressly. Even their midseason trade additions—Kendall Graveman, Yimi García, and Phil Maton—were better before the deadline.

Chicago

Why They’ll Win

Chicago doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses: The White Sox combine a dangerous lineup, deep rotation, and dependable bullpen, and could easily beat any other playoff team in a short series. Oh wait, that’s also true of the Astros—making their ALDS clash a hidden gem of the first round.

On the pitching side, the White Sox are the AL’s closest equivalent to the Brewers, with a mouthwatering rotation and electric bullpen arms. Between starters Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito, Carlos Rodón, and Dylan Cease, and relievers Liam Hendriks, Craig Kimbrel, Michael Kopech, Aaron Bummer, Ryan Tepera, and Garrett Crochet, the White Sox could have a pitcher who struck out at least 10 batters per nine innings on the mound for every important at-bat.

On offense, Chicago’s season-long numbers aren’t as impressive as Houston’s MLB-best figures, but the White Sox were also missing Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert for most of the season. Check out Robert’s ridiculous numbers for the 68 games he did play: .338/.378/.567, plus stellar defense in center field. When healthy, Robert was one of the half dozen best players in the majors this year; teammate Yasmani Grandal, who hit .240/.420/.520 as a catcher, wasn’t too far behind.

Most WAR Per Plate Appearance

Name PA fWAR fWAR/650 PA
Name PA fWAR fWAR/650 PA
Byron Buxton 254 4.2 10.75
Mike Zunino 375 4.5 7.80
Ronald Acuña Jr. 360 4.2 7.58
Fernando Tatis Jr. 546 6.1 7.26
Bryce Harper 599 6.6 7.16
Luis Robert 296 3.2 7.03
Buster Posey 454 4.9 7.02
Trea Turner 646 6.9 6.94
Starling Marte 526 5.4 6.67
Juan Soto 654 6.6 6.56
Tyler O'Neill 537 5.4 6.54
Brandon Crawford 549 5.5 6.51
José Ramírez 636 6.3 6.44
Yasmani Grandal 375 3.7 6.41
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 698 6.7 6.24
Among position players with at least 250 PA in 2021.

Why They Won’t

The White Sox’s biggest problem is the schedule: To win the championship, they might have to beat the Astros, Rays, and [insert great NL club here] in a row, a tall order for any team. Oh wait, that’s the same sentiment again! The point is: The Astros and White Sox are both terrific teams, and one of them has to lose in the ALDS.

The team’s main non-schedule concern is that Rodón is questionable to pitch as he suffers through shoulder soreness, which could deprive the White Sox of their best starter on a per-inning basis. Chicago also played more like a .500 team than a true contender for most of the second half of the season, going just 35-32 in its past 67 games. The rest of the AL Central was so terrible that the White Sox could afford to coast, and end-of-season momentum doesn’t correlate with playoff performance. But if the White Sox do lose early, that extended stretch of mediocrity will surely become linked to the team’s overarching narrative.