FanGraphs 2020 Staff Predictionson July 24, 2020 at 1:00 pm

FanGraphs 2020 Staff Predictions

You were supposed to read this yesterday. Yesterday, when the playoffs consisted of just 10 teams and Mookie Betts hadn’t yet registered his first hit in Dodger blue. But as with a great deal else about this season, the 2020 playoffs will be something different than we initially expected. Mere hours before the first pitch of last night’s Yankees-Nationals tilt was scheduled to be thrown, ESPN’s Marly Rivera reported that MLB and the MLBPA had approved a deal to expand the postseason. This new structure will only be in effect for the 2020 season, barring further negotiations between the league and the players. The field will now feature 16 teams; every division winner and runner up will make the playoffs, along with the two teams in each league that have the best records beyond those six. They’ll meet in a three-game Wild Card Series that will be seeded thusly:

All of the games in the Wild Card Series will be played in the home ballpark of the more highly seeded team. In the event of regular season ties, mathematical tiebreakers will be used — MLB isn’t exactly keen to play games deeper into the Fall.

David Appelman and Sean Dolinar have already updated our playoff odds to account for the new format (they are wizards). You can poke around here, but the unsurprising takeaway is this: a lot of teams are a lot more likely to play October baseball than they were when yesterday began.

In a lot of ways, that makes this, our annual exercise in humiliation and ridicule, easier. Predictions can be tricky – baseball has a way of serving up surprises over the course of a 162-game marathon, and a 60-game sprint has the potential to tilt dramatically into the bizarre. Last year, 24 of us thought the Phillies were October bound; we thought Vladimir Guerrero Jr. would be the American League Rookie of the Year. We got the Cardinals and Brewers right; we whiffed badly on the Braves. Our parents were quite disappointed. And that was a normal year. But for all the fretting this season’s inherent volatility inspired, the sense that anything could happen went hand-in-hand with the realization that all of this counted a great deal more than it usually would. Each game, each pitch could be the difference. We were already in the stretch run! Now the stakes for each game have been reduced to a more familiar simmer, and with them, the anxiety of revealing oneself to be a real dummy with one’s predictions. Twelve teams have at least a 50% shot of making the postseason. It’s a less frenetic form of excitement, but also a decidedly more democratic one. This might be slightly less fun, but it’ll be that way for more people.

Of course, bizarro playoff format or no, we could still goof things up badly. But as it is our job to predict things, predict them we will. The writers of FanGraphs and RotoGraphs have weighed in; here is how the 2020 season will unfold. You heard it here first.

A quick note: All of the division tables, as well as the aggregate prediction tables at the end of the post, are sortable. Division tables are sorted by how many division winner votes a team received, which often lines up with which team has the most votes in aggregate, but not always.

The National League

In times of great uncertainty, I wonder if it isn’t natural to play it safe. To hew closely to the projections. To pick the Dodgers. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to like about the National League besides Los Angeles, from teams actively trying to improve their rosters in order to win to tight races in the East and Central (here I should mention that the East teams, which have to square off against the Yankees and Rays as well as each other, face a considerably harder strength of schedule than do the Central squads). But while the NL boasts many very good clubs and good number of interesting ones, creating a good deal more parity than in the AL, the Dodgers are a beleaguered forecaster’s dream, appearing on all 22 ballots and netting 21 division winner votes. Their playoff odds prior to last night’s win, but after accounting for the new postseason format, stood at 95%; the then-second place Nationals checked in at 76.7%. Kershaw’s back may be balky, but the Dodgers are the class of the league.

Beyond them, the writers spread their new votes across a number of intriguing young teams, many of which have actively tried to improve. Four teams received no postseason votes, but the East and Central each had four that received at least one to win the division. Comparing this year’s ballot to last year’s is a little tricky, as the sample sizes and populations are different, but the Reds, in first place in the Central on 10 folks’ ballots and in the playoff field on 21, received two votes in 2019; the Padres got one vote last year and 17 this year. The Diamondbacks, then preparing to select an historic draft class, received no votes last season; they got 18 this season.

You won’t have seen our pre-expanded playoff predictions (best laid plans and what not), but the shifts in voting are interesting, especially when thinking about the NL’s relative parity. Possessed of just two Wild Card spots, our staff still liked the Reds and Braves to win their respective divisions, but the three additional spots really opened things up for the Padres and Diamondbacks — two teams with exciting farm systems on the cusp of real contention, though San Diego is further along — as well as the Brewers, who our Depth Charts view as pretty middling in a lot of places, even as they are excellent in spots. Arizona and San Diego picked up 13 and nine votes respectively, while Milwaukee snagged 10. The Diamondbacks’ and Padres’ surge speaks to both the presence of the Dodgers and the almost-there quality of their rosters; with eight playoff spots, almost-there might well be good enough. Meanwhile, the Brewers’ bump is a reminder that someone must place second in the Central. Beyond those three, the Cubs, Cardinals, Mets and Phillies combined for 15 more votes than they did in the traditional Wild Card world. Our writers even worked their way into a tie that would need breaking, setting St. Louis and Chicago on a (mathematical) collision course. How dramatic.

The American League

Much like the NL, this year’s American League predictions made for an interesting comparison to last year’s. While the teams likely to play in October seemed as obvious as ever, there was a bit more disagreement about how the AL’s powerhouses would get there than there had been in 2019. A whopping 96.8% of our writers picked the Astros to win the West in 2019, while “only” 72.7% did in the pre-expansion version of this year’s exercise. We were less confident in Minnesota’s ability to emerge victorious in the Central (54.5%) than we had been in Cleveland’s in 2019 (78.1%). And we saw the AL East as a near-coin flip between the Yankees and Rays, where it had been firmly in New York’s grasp the season prior.

Now things are a touch more stratified, at least in the aggregate. Four teams — the Astros, White Sox, Yankees and Rays — appeared on every voter’s ballot, while the Twins received 21 votes, the A’s 20, and the Indians 19. The aggregate vote totals can be a little misleading, though. We have Minnesota as a comfortable favorite to win the division or come in second, so even though the team appears on one fewer ballot than the White Sox do, I think we can say that we view their playoff chances as more meaningful.

Six teams received no playoffs votes in our initial polling, a number that dropped to four with the addition of three more playoff teams. The biggest beneficiaries of the expanded format were the Angels, who went from having no votes at noon yesterday to 19 by the time the day was done, and the aforementioned White Sox, who fared better in our initial polling than Los Angeles but still managed to pick up 14 votes (Oakland and Cleveland were the other big gainers, picking up 11 and eight votes, respectively). Some of Los Angeles and Chicago’s support came in the division runner up spot, but the bulk of it was further down ballot, with 11 and 14 votes across the two remaining Wild Card Series spots respectively.

Individual Awards

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we had a hard time making up our minds when it came the NL MVP. With the exception of Nick Castellanos, who projects for 0.6 WAR per our Depth Charts, the rest of our selections exist across a one win spectrum from Cody Bellinger at the high end (2.4 WAR) down to Fernando Tatis Jr. (1.4 WAR).

Jacob deGrom’s back scare wasn’t enough to chase our writers off in their quest to award him a third consecutive Cy Young; Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux currently share the record for most consecutive Cy Youngs won at four. More exciting here to me is the emergence of Jack Flaherty, who had a 0.91 ERA and 2.22 FIP in 15 incredible second half starts last year. Dan Szymborski has Flaherty pegged to 1-in-98 odds of breaking Bob Gibson‘s 1968 ERA record in this shortened season, sixth in baseball. Those aren’t short odds, but they aren’t preposterously long either.

Just as deGrom’s briefly balky back wasn’t enough to put a damper on his Cy Young chances, Gavin Lux‘s demotion wasn’t enough to pull baseball’s No. 2 overall prospect off our writer’s prediction ballots.

It isn’t that other players can’t with the AL MVP. Mookie Betts did it in 2018, Jose Altuve the year before; Josh Donaldson managed it in 2015. Miguel Cabrera had his run. It’s just that even with the injuries, it’s hard to pick against Mike Trout because he’s the best player in baseball going into any given season. Even one like this.

Gerrit Cole wasn’t the Cy Young last season because of Justin Verlander. He became the most highly compensated pitcher in baseball history last winter because he’s an incredible talent. We expect that to carry the day in 2020.

Luis Robert signed an extension with the White Sox before he’d ever logged a major league at-bat, a sign that the team expects the game’s No. 7 overall prospect to perform and perform well. We agree, as it turns out.

We’ll wrap things up there. As we always do, we’ll check in when the season concludes to see who was right and who was wrong. You mileage may vary on the new playoff format. But me, I think I’m fine with it now that the playoff odds are sorted. It’ll be another strange artifact of 2020, and some not-so-good teams might get through, but in the end, that’s ok. Any version of this season played safely through to completion is a success, and any postseason set-up that puts Mike Trout closer to the field come October is alright with me.

Meg is the managing editor of FanGraphs, the host of FanGraphs Audio, and the co-co-host of Effectively Wild. Her work has previously appeared at Baseball Prospectus, Lookout Landing, and Just A Bit Outside.

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