MLB Playoffs 2021 Round-by-Round Picks and Predictions
It only took 186 days and 162 games to get here, but the 2021 Major League Baseball postseason has finally arrived. So, go ahead and break out the "And there was much rejoicing" GIFs.
With that done, it's now time to get serious about projecting how it'll all turn out.
There's no telling exactly what will happen throughout the 2021 postseason, but we can at least offer thoughts on how teams match up and, in turn, who will win the American and National League Wild Card Games and then the Division Series, Championship Series and World Series.
This involved looking at a veritable boatload of numbers but also consulting our guts about how they feel. Basically, what lies ahead is the horrid spawn of logic and hunches.
Read on, if you dare.
AL Wild Card Game: New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox
Season Series: BOS, 10-9
Matchup: Gerrit Cole vs. Nathan Eovaldi
When baseball's most storied rivals meet again on Tuesday at Fenway Park, they'll be continuing a season series that started one way before dramatically going another way.
The Boston Red Sox won 10 of the first 13 contests, but then the New York Yankees took charge by winning each of the last six. Most recently, Giancarlo Stanton powered a three-game sweep in Boston between Sept. 24 and 26.
And yet, if you squint you can see a pitching matchup that actually favors the Red Sox. Gerrit Cole and Nathan Eovaldi are different pitchers, but they have extreme velocity in common. Whereas the Red Sox slugged .411 against 95-plus mph heat, the Yankees only managed a .355 in that department.
What bodes less well for Boston is how its offense had become unpredictable even before slugger J.D. Martinez sprained his ankle on Sunday. The Yankees offense has been up and down in its own right, but it's a good look that Stanton and fellow giant human Aaron Judge went off for 20 home runs in September.
As seen in the two clubs' disparate performances in the last two weeks of the regular season, the Yankees will at least have an edge once the bullpens inevitably get involved. So even if everything else is equal, that along could tilt the scales in their favor.
NL Wild Card Game: St. Louis Cardinals at Los Angeles Dodgers
Season Series: LAD, 4-3
Matchup: Adam Wainwright vs. Max Scherzer
Even in spite of that, the Los Angeles Dodgers actually had a better winning percentage than the Cardinals between the start of September and the end of the season on Oct. 3. This, of course, was merely a fraction of a superior overall season that saw the Dodgers finish with 106 wins.
Between this and the reality that the Dodgers went an MLB-best 58-23 at home, there's little question that the Boys in Blue are heavy favorites to dispatch the Redbirds.
Perhaps the only real caveats are A) that the Dodgers likely won't have slugging All-Star Max Muncy because of an elbow injury and B) that Max Scherzer hit a wall by allowing 10 earned runs in his final two starts of the season. Adam Wainwright, meanwhile, had a 2.28 ERA in his last 14 starts.
But especially in the context of St. Louis' less-than-stellar performance against high velocity, we dare not bet against Scherzer. He's also just the guy to neutralize the strikeout-prone Tyler O'Neill, who otherwise paced the Cardinals' homer-fueled run during the season's final month.
AL Division Series: Chicago White Sox vs. Houston Astros
Season Series: HOU, 5-2
As they have all season, the Chicago White Sox sure look like a World Series contender on paper.
An offense led by Jose Abreu, Tim Anderson and, of late, healthy versions of Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez? Yes, please. And a rotation fronted by Lance Lynn and Lucas Giolito, with Liam Hendriks, Craig Kimbrel and Michael Kopech in the bullpen? Heck-to-the-yes, please.
Trouble is, the White Sox looked a lot less like a World Series-bound team as they went just 39-34 after the All-Star break. They've also been barely tested and didn't pass what tests they got by racking up a 27-29 record against winning clubs.
The Astros fared much better in that department at 45-32. That has a lot to do with how their offense, which led MLB in scoring, was actually better against winning teams (.790 OPS) than against losing teams (.778 OPS). The opposite was true of Chicago's offense, which was indeed generally inconsistent all year.
Houston arguably also has more stability on the mound right now, specifically to the extent that Lance McCullers Jr., Framber Valdez and Luis Garcia all pitched well down the stretch. Throw in home-field advantage at Minute Maid Park, and the ingredients for a relatively easy victory are there.
Prediction: Astros in 4
AL Division Series: New York Yankees vs. Tampa Bay Rays
Season Series: TBR, 11-8
Though the Tampa Bay Rays went 11-8 against both the Red Sox and the Yankees, they might prefer to face the latter in the American League Division Series because of how the runs were distributed throughout the two clubs' season series.
Whereas they only outscored Boston by two, the Rays had a whopping 48-run advantage on New York. Consider that a reminder that the Rays have the better offense between the two teams, and not just in the sense that they scored more runs this year.
Out of 13 hitters who took at least 200 plate appearances for the Rays this season, all but one cracked the 100 OPS+ threshold. For the Yankees, it was just four out of 13.
Depth is also in the Rays' favor on the mound. Cole would theoretically be the best pitcher on either side, but he had a 5.11 ERA against Tampa Bay this season. Comparatively, the Rays' next-man-up pitching staff had a 2.29 ERA against the Yankees. That was their lowest against any team.
This is also no contest defensively, as the Rays racked up 29 outs above average to New York's minus-18. So should they meet the Rays in the ALDS, the Yankees would be disadvantaged in terms of both their talent and their margin for error.
Prediction: Rays in 3
NL Division Series: Atlanta vs. Milwaukee Brewers
Season Series: Tie, 3-3
Atlanta won its fourth straight NL East crown, but the club would have finished even further behind the Milwaukee Brewers than the Cardinals if it had played in the NL Central.
Still, it's a reach to say that Atlanta is overmatched against Milwaukee.
One thing Atlanta can do that Milwaukee can't is hit the long ball, especially considering that it hit 25 more home runs than the Brewers since loading up on sluggers at the trade deadline. Brian Snitker's team also has a red-hot starter in the person of Charlie Morton, who finished with a 2.79 ERA over 16 starts.
There is, however, the matter of Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff. They finished first and fourth, respectively, among NL starters in ERA. Both of them can also bring the heat, which could be a major edge against an Atlanta offense that only slugged .329 against 95-plus fastballs after the deadline.
Because the Brewers can also give significant innings to Freddy Peralta, Adrian Houser and Eric Lauer—who had a 3.06 ERA between them—and ultimately hand leads to All-Star closer Josh Hader, their pitching frankly looks like the only advantage they'll need in this series.
Prediction: Brewers in 4
NL Division Series: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. San Francisco Giants
Season Series: SFG, 10-9
Never mind the Red Sox and Yankees. What this postseason really needs is another showdown between the Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. They won a combined 213 games this year and their season series was decided by all of two runs.
Offensively, you could pick your poison between these two clubs during the regular season. The Dodgers scored more runs, which is a good way to win games generally. Yet the Giants hit more home runs, which is the best way to win games in October.
It hurts, though, that the Giants probably won't have Brandon Belt for the NLDS because of a broken left thumb. At least with Muncy, the Dodgers have lost a hitter who had been cold. With Belt, the Giants have lost one of the hottest hitters in all of baseball.
Otherwise, it's hard to argue that the Giants can match up with Scherzer, Walker Buehler and Julio Urias. Because as good as Kevin Gausman, Anthony DeSclafani and Logan Webb were down the stretch, they didn't rise to the level that the former trio did in posting a 2.28 ERA after the deadline.
Oh, sure, we're well aware that the baseball gods weren't kind to those who underestimated the Giants during the regular season. But darn it if the Dodgers don't look more dangerous right now, so we'll go out on a limb and guess that the baseball gods are about to switch allegiances.
Prediction: Dodgers in 5
AL Championship Series: Houston Astros vs. Tampa Bay Rays
Season Series: HOU, 4-2
It was tons of fun when the Astros and Rays met in last year's ALCS, so why not look forward to a rematch in a few weeks' time?
Pitching was the deciding factor for the Rays in the 2020 ALCS, but they won't be able to replicate the exact formula they used. Not without Morton and Blake Snell, who both departed Tampa Bay after combining to allow only three earned runs over 19.2 innings in the ALCS.
Sans those two and Tyler Glasnow, who had Tommy John surgery in August, the Rays don't really have an ace to throw at Houston this time around. The Astros also aren't the Yankees offensively, as they're indeed the one and only team that outscored the Rays this season.
However, the "What have you done for me lately?" perspective of this matchup is a lot different. The Rays (47-25) were significantly better than the Astros (40-31) in the second half of the season, in no small part because their homer-happy offense was the best in baseball by way of a 120 wRC+.
If that trend holds true, the Rays would just need their pitching to keep from breaking completely. That's where they would at least have an advantage in the bullpen, as their pen outperformed Houston's even after the latter got a facelift at the trade deadline.
Prediction: Rays in 7
NL Championship Series: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Milwaukee Brewers
Season Series: LAD, 4-3
If the Dodgers can advance as far as the National League Championship Series, that's where the absence of Clayton Kershaw (left forearm discomfort) could really start to hurt.
Without the three-time Cy Young Award winner, the Dodgers don't really have a true No. 4 to back up their Big Three. By comparison, the Brewers really can't go wrong with how they sort Peralta, Houser and Lauer after the dynamic duo of Burnes and Woodruff.
The Dodgers should feel encouraged, however, by how well they weathered Kershaw's diminished presence down the stretch. Though he only posted a 4.70 ERA in four outings in September, that didn't stop the Dodgers from leading all of MLB with a 2.65 ERA after the trade deadline.
The club's Big Three had a lot to do with that, but don't discount a bullpen that likewise led the majors with a 2.42 ERA down the stretch. Especially in light of reigning Rookie of the Year Devin Williams' hand injury, that would be another thing in the Dodgers' favor even in spite of Hader's presence in Milwaukee's pen.
For the record, all these words on pitching are indeed necessary because there really isn't any comparison between these two offenses. Milwaukee's offense put up .600-something OPSes in three of the season's six months, whereas the Dodgers offense never went below .730 in any individual month.
Prediction: Dodgers in 5
World Series: Tampa Bay Rays vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
Season Series: N/A
The Rays and Dodgers didn't meet during the regular season, but they did see each other recently in...hmmm, when was it again...oh right, the literal, actual World Series just last year.
The Dodgers won that one in six games, mostly because they outclassed the Rays offensively by outscoring them 32-22 with a 147-point edge in the OPS category. The Dodgers also got 12 home runs from nine different players, compared to only nine from four different players for the Rays.
For the umpteenth time, the Rays offense is a lot better this year. Crucial for the Dodgers, though, is that they would nonetheless stand a chance of winning the home run battle. Even as dominant as Tampa Bay's offense was in the second half, the Dodgers still outhomered it 114 to 112.
The Dodgers are also one of very few teams that can hypothetically hang with the Rays on the mound, and you might even call the starting pitching matchup lopsided. Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen and newcomer Shane Baz make for a fun trio, but they're not Scherzer, Buehler and Urias.
Though the Rays won the division and the Dodgers did not, it's also worth noting that the Dodgers would have home-field advantage because of their superior record. Just another reason to believe that they could become the first back-to-back champions since the 1998-2000 Yankees.
Prediction: Dodgers in 6