Updated 2021 MLB Playoff Predictions with Under 40 Games to Go

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterAugust 23, 2021

Updated 2021 MLB Playoff Predictions with Under 40 Games to Go

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    The White Sox are built to win it all...but will they?
    The White Sox are built to win it all...but will they?Paul Beaty/Associated Press

    With about 25 percent of the Major League Baseball season still left to play, only a fool would try to predict both the final playoff field and which team will emerge as this year's World Series winner.

    If so, well, then let us be fools.

    What follows are our updated playoff picks for the American League and National League and projected winners for the Wild Card Games, Division Series, Championship Series and, finally, the World Series.

    We did our best to read the assorted tea leaves, but there's no denying that hunches ultimately inform any exercise like this one.

    Read on, if you dare.

American League Field

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    American League East Champs: Tampa Bay Rays

    With eight wins in a row and 25 wins in their last 33 games overall, the New York Yankees have surpassed WR 102 as the hottest thing in the universe. And with crucial players like Corey Kluber and Gleyber Torres due back from the injured list down the stretch, they might not have even peaked yet.

    Nonetheless, the Rays hold a four-game lead in the division and have been nearly as hot as the Yankees amid a 20-9 run since July 20. They've been the best offensive team in baseball during this stretch, with Brandon Lowe and Randy Arozarena leading the way for a lineup full of red-hot hitters.

    As long as the Rays hitters can maintain some level of hotness, they should be able to keep downplaying their starting rotation issues long enough to hold off the Yankees.


    American League Central Champs: Chicago White Sox

    The White Sox hold an 11.5-game lead in the AL Central, and their plus-136 run differential is also the only one that isn't deep in the red.

    So, yeah, moving on.


    American League West Champs: Houston Astros

    Though the Astros have had first place in the AL West since June 21, they're only 18-17, dating back to July 8.

    This should be an opening for the Oakland Athletics, who recently won 11 out of 13 games between July 28 and August 12. However, the 3-5 step back they've taken since then is a variation of a hot-and-cold theme that's permeated throughout their entire season.

    While the two clubs still have six head-to-head matchups remaining, it also doesn't bode well for the A's that the Astros are already 9-4 against them. Likewise, not having center fielder Ramon Laureano (suspension) or ace Chris Bassitt (head) for the stretch run isn't exactly an advantage.


    Wild Cards: New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox

    Even if the Yankees don't ultimately catch the Rays, they've already played their way into the AL's top wild-card spot. Between their looming reinforcements and the excellent pitching they're already getting, holding on to that shouldn't be a problem.

    If so, the A's, Boston Red Sox, Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays will duke it out for the second wild-card spot. Of that group, the Red Sox have a couple of things going for them.

    Even as poorly as they've played of late, they've returned to full strength after getting ace Chris Sale and Kyle Schwarber off the injured list. Perhaps just as important, they have the second-easiest remaining schedule among AL teams.

National League Field

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    National League East Champs: Atlanta

    Three different teams have held the lead in the NL East just since August 5, so trying to pick out a winner for the division right now is very much an "oof" situation.

    But with losses in 16 out of 22 games and ace Jacob deGrom unlikely to return from an elbow injury, the New York Mets seem doomed. The Philadelphia Phillies have the advantage of an easy remaining schedule, but their pitching was a question mark even before Zack Wheeler hit a wall.

    Sans Ronald Acuna Jr., one can only have so much faith in Atlanta. But a 14-2 run since August 3 definitely has the team trending up, and there's no denying that the team did well to flesh out its depth at the deadline, particularly on offense, where the home runs are flying out in bunches right now.


    National League Central Champs: Milwaukee Brewers

    The Brewers have been alone in first place in the NL Central since June 23, and it's been about a month (July 25) that their lead was fewer than seven games.

    It hurts that one of Milwaukee's three aces, right-hander Freddy Peralta, had to go to the IL with shoulder inflammation on Thursday. But it doesn't sound serious, so much so that he's only expected to miss one start.

    In case anyone needs another reason to believe in the Brewers: Their remaining schedule isn't the easiest in the NL Central, but it is the third-easiest in the National League at large.


    National League West Champs: Los Angeles Dodgers

    The Dodgers have come close to the Giants but just haven't been able to run down those darn San Franciscans. The Dodgers 15-3 run since July 31 has gone for naught, as the Giants have kept pace with a 14-5 record of their own. Their lead in the division is 1.5 games.

    The Dodgers are, however, still favored to win the NL West by FanGraphs. Having Max Scherzer and Trea Turner in town is a factor, though the Giants should also feel threatened by Kevin Gausman's diminishing returns and potentially Anthony DeSclafani's ankle injury.

    Between August 27 and September 5, the Giants will run a 10-game gauntlet against Atlanta, Milwaukee and Los Angeles. If they falter there, the Dodgers will have their opening. 


    Wild Cards: San Francisco Giants and Cincinnati Reds

    Whoever doesn't win the NL West race is all but guaranteed to get the top wild-card slot as consolation. The Dodgers hold it now and with a whopping 10.5-game lead.

    Meanwhile, the San Diego Padres have faded with an 18-24 record since the start of July. Their injured list is a veritable bloodbath, and, oh yeah, they have the hardest remaining schedule of any team in the NL.

    At the opposite end of that spectrum are the Reds. They've won 16 of their last 24 games, and they have the easiest remaining schedule of any NL team. The second wild-card spot should be as good as theirs.

American League Wild Card Game

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    A showdown between the Red Sox and Yankees? At Yankee Stadium? In October? We've hit the hype jackpot, folks!

    However, the actual occasion would have the potential to be anticlimactic.

    Though the Red Sox boast a 10-6 record against their archrivals in 2021, they've lost two of the last three series that the clubs have played in the process of going 15-19 since the All-Star break. Their pitching has been a problem, specifically with regard to a bullpen that has a 4.97 ERA in the second half.

    The Yankees are in a completely different boat on the pitching ocean, as their starters have an AL-best 3.13 ERA since the break. So even if the Red Sox were to start Sale in the Wild Card Game, the Yankees would have more than a strong counter with Gerrit Cole and whatever other arms they need.

    To be fair, the Red Sox still arguably have the better offense. But assuming Torres does indeed return and that Joey Gallo eventually gets as hot as he was with the Texas Rangers, the Yankees could more than catch up to Boston offensively by October.

    Predicted Winner: Yankees

National League Wild Card Game

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    If the Giants and Reds do indeed face off at Oracle Park in the NL Wild Card Game, fans will be treated to two of the league's most powerful offenses.

    Mind you, the Reds have hit more home runs than the Giants or any other team since they got hot on July 27. They might also have the best pitcher on either staff, as fireballer Luis Castillo has long since moved past a brutal opening act with a 2.68 ERA over his last 13 starts.

    But even more so than in the AL Wild Card Game, this is where the venue could really matter.

    The Giants are, after all, an MLB-best 42-19 at home. Even though they've hit 20 more home runs on the road, they do their best hitting at Oracle Park, which underscores how they don't necessarily need to hit the ball over the fence to be at their best offensively.

    Plus, Castillo alone might not tip the pitching scales in Cincinnati's favor. Even if Gausman and DeSclafani are still on the fritz, the Giants could call on the underrated Logan Webb and any number of relievers from their significantly superior bullpen.

    Predicted Winner: Giants

American League Division Series

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    New York Yankees vs. Tampa Bay Rays

    See, this is where it's at. Not only are the Rays and Yankees trending toward the playoffs as two of baseball's hottest teams, but they've also split their head-to-head meetings with eight wins apiece.

    The Rays, of course, know what it's like to beat the Yankees in October after knocking them out of the Division Series in 2020. That was the Arozarena and (ultimately) the Mike Brosseau Show, and they're both still around.

    But you know who's not still around? Aces Charlie Morton and Blake Snell, who have new homes, and fellow ace Tyler Glasnow, who had Tommy John surgery earlier this month. The Rays have missed them recently, as their starters/openers have struggled with a 5.81 ERA in the second half.

    That may not be holding them back now, but it very well could in a short postseason series in which they'll be at risk of overworking their bullpen if their starters can't go deep. The Yankees don't have that problem, which may be the only advantage they'll need in a grudge match with Tampa Bay.

    Predicted Winner: Yankees in 5


    Houston Astros vs. Chicago White Sox

    The White Sox are undeniably good, but perhaps not as good as their overall record suggests. They've mostly beaten up on weak intra-division competition, otherwise going 21-25 against winning teams.

    Included in that stretch is a 2-5 record against the Astros. While Houston's calling card is their juggernaut of an offense, they don't get their due as a pitching powerhouse. Kendall Graveman's arrival on July 30 has stabilized what had been a volatile bullpen.

    Yet with Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert now back alongside Jose Abreu, Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada, the White Sox are also a dangerous offensive team in their own right. Yasmani Grandal's eventual return will add another potent bat to the lineup as well.

    Then again, the White Sox wouldn't necessarily have to outslug the Astros. If Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease, Liam Hendriks, Craig Kimbrel, Michael Kopech, Garrett Crochet and a presumably healthy Carlos Rodon do their job, Chicago could conceivably win the series with as few as three runs.

    Predicted Winner: White Sox in 4

National League Division Series

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    San Francisco Giants vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

    First, it was Red Sox vs. Yankees in the playoffs. Now it's Giants vs. Dodgers. Just in case anyone doubted that clicks are a priority here.

    In all seriousness, this would be awesome. These two rivals go back to ye olden days of baseball, and the season series between them in 2021 has been a dandy. It's not only tied at eight wins apiece but with exactly 68 runs scored for each side.

    There is one thing the Dodgers have that the Giants don't, however, and that's Scherzer and Walker Buehler atop their rotation. The former is just a three-time Cy Young Award winner, while the latter is perhaps the frontrunner for the award this year with his MLB-best 2.11 ERA.

    Also, the Giants wouldn't have home-field advantage in this series. That wouldn't necessarily be a big deal against any other team, but the Dodgers happen to be the team with the home record at 41-20.

    Predicted Winner: Dodgers in 4


    Atlanta vs. Milwaukee Brewers

    Even without Acuna, Atlanta's offense still has the potential to be a nightmare for opposing pitchers.

    There's Freddie Freeman, who needs no introduction. Dansby Swanson and Austin Riley are two of baseball's hottest hitters since July. Ozzie Albies will be a 20-20 guy, and Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson and Jorge Soler brought tons of power with them when they arrived at the deadline.

    But could even this Atlanta offense overcome Milwaukee's pitching?

    The Brewers are led by three aces (Peralta, Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes), who have a combined 2.35 ERA and a sextet of relievers (including Josh Hader and Devin Williams) with a 2.28 ERA. That's firepower that no team may be able to match.

    Predicted Winner: Brewers in 3

American League Championship Series

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Here we are at the American League Championship Series, in which that one pinstriped team would square off with that other pinstriped team.

    The Yankees have done their part to keep the White Sox's record against winning teams underwater, winning five of the six games the two clubs have played. Chicago's lone win came on Anderson's walk-off blast in the Field of Dreams Game in Iowa, which, while awesome, still only counts as one.

    It's otherwise hard to see any distinct matchup advantages when we place these two teams side by side. Both have talented rotations, ranking first and third in the AL for starters' ERA in the second half. And while neither offense has lived up to the hype this year, both pose a distinct long-ball threat.

    One thing that might make a difference for the White Sox, though, is velocity. Their pitchers have thrown over 1,000 more fastballs of at least 95 mph than any other team. The Yankees, meanwhile, have been decidedly bad at hitting 95-plus heat to the tune of a .218 average for the season.

    Because the White Sox are 42-23 at Guaranteed Rate Field, it's also not going to hurt if they indeed have home-field advantage in this series.

    Predicted Winner: White Sox in 7

National League Championship Series

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    The Brewers and the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series? Good. That'll save us all from having to travel back in time to 2018.

    Holding Christian Yelich to five hits in 28 at-bats is a key reason why the Dodgers won the '18 showdown, but the former NL MVP is plenty capable of shutting himself down these days. A .370 OBP isn't worth much when it comes paired with just a .358 slugging percentage.

    In part because of Yelich's downfall, it's hard to see any scenario in which the Brewers dispatch the Dodgers by outhitting them. They'd have to outpitch them, and mostly in hostile territory at Dodger Stadium, to boot.

    Fortunately for them, neither of these warnings is an outright death sentence.

    The Brewers are an MLB-best 42-21 on the road, and their spectacular rotation trio is plenty capable of matching up with Scherzer, Buehler and Clayton Kershaw. And as good as the Dodgers offense is in general, it's just average (i.e., a .659 OPS) against power pitchers like the ones Milwaukee has.

    Prediction: Brewers in 6

World Series

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    Bryan Woolston/Associated Press

    A White Sox vs. Brewers matchup in the World Series wouldn't be such a great thing to one extent: It probably wouldn't bring viewers back in droves after last year's dismally rated Fall Classic.

    But if you like pitching, well, this would be the World Series for you.

    Burnes, Woodruff and Peralta against Lynn, Giolito and Rodon? That might be a wash. The same might also be true of the late-inning reliever matchup, as Hader, Williams and company look just as capable as Kimbrel, Hendriks, Kopech and company.

    At least, this is the case on paper. What ultimately matters is what each team's offense does against the opposition, and that's where the Brewers could have a couple distinct advantages.

    For one, their hitters are good against heat and against power pitchers in general. For two, the White Sox would lose the designated hitter at American Family Field if the Brewers hold on to their superior record. That would likely mean lost at-bats for productive hitters like Andrew Vaughn and Brian Goodwin.

    You know that goose egg that the Brewers have in the World Series championship column? If all goes well (i.e., according to this particular much-too-early plan), it'll soon be time to change that to a 1.

    Predicted Winner: Brewers in 6


    Stats courtesy of Baseball-ReferenceFanGraphs and Baseball Savant.