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Six Takeaways From Our 2024 Playoff Odds Release

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Hey there, FanGraphs reader. Great news! Our playoff odds just went up for the 2024 season. These odds, as always, are mostly enlightening, but also a tiny bit mystifying. The model itself remains simple: We take projections for each player, aggregate them up to the team level based on playing time projections, and then use that to create expected team run scoring and prevention numbers. From there, we simulate out the season 20,000 times and note what happened in each instance. The odds are just a summary of those simulations.

As simple as the process is, it’s also inscrutable. How good are the projections? We think they’re very good, as they’re a combination of ZiPS and Steamer. But those projections inevitably differ from people’s perceptions of both individual players and teams. So in what’s become an annual tradition, I’m going to give you a guided tour through the projections and point out the notable points in each division, then explain how our model got there and what I think of it.

The AL East Is a Buzzsaw

My goodness, this division is good. Our model simulates the actual schedule, but to do that, we first forecast team strengths in a vacuum, and the AL East has four of the top 10 teams in baseball, and four of the top six teams in the American League. If we played in a weird counterfactual world where instead of facing each other, every team played a hypothetical .500 team 162 times, our model projects that the AL East would outscore their opponents by a combined 218 runs. The second-best division in baseball is the NL East… at 44 runs.

The Yankees sitting in first place might surprise some people, but they finished above .500 last year despite some bad injury luck, and both the model and I absolutely love what they’ve done to the team since then. They backfilled the rotation with Marcus Stroman, who should provide bulk innings with reasonable quality, something the team sorely lacked last year. They acquired three different outfielders better than every Yankees outfielder aside from Aaron Judge, and one of those was Juan Freaking Soto. There are certainly still reasons to worry – depth and aging being the top two – but our odds agree with bookmakers and other similarly constructed models that they’re the team to beat in the division. They might not win 95 games because the division is so tough, but this iteration of the Yankees looks legitimately great.

The Orioles and Rays are in a dead heat for second, which might surprise some – the O’s just won a billion games, after all. But they outperformed their raw statistics meaningfully, and we’re projecting their competition to get tougher this year. Adding Corbin Burnes is obviously great, and we think they’re now one of the best run prevention teams in baseball, so mission accomplished there. Still, this is the projection of a club just below the game’s elite tier, which contains four teams: the Braves, Dodgers, Astros, and Yankees. The system simply doesn’t care that the O’s won 100 games last year; it projects each player individually and goes from there.

The Rays have generally been underrated by our model because their depth does an incredible job covering for injuries. That may yet be the case this year, but they’ve also accumulated a gaudy assortment of above-average hitters and pitchers that mean they stack up well against the rest of the league when comparing starter to starter. Add in their usual depth, this time headlined by a bumper crop of prospects, and things look characteristically rosy in Tampa Bay. By BaseRuns, which strips out sequencing and context from the statistics each team puts up, they finished 11 wins ahead of the O’s last year (but two games behind in real life). We’re projecting a healthy dose of regression for them, but they’re just so good that it’s hard to imagine them falling further than this.

Lastly, the Blue Jays and Red Sox are no slouches. We have the Jays as the seventh-best team in baseball, but think they’ll win the 12th-most games. We think the Red Sox are above average and yet will finish with a losing record. Either of those teams would stand a good chance of winning one of the two central divisions. What a wildly competitive group.

The Twins Stand Alone

It’s really hard to project as having a 50% chance of winning your division. Baseball is inherently volatile and teams are bunched up. Only four teams in the entire majors hit that mark, and three of them are the consensus best three teams in the sport: the Braves, the Dodgers, and the Astros. The fourth is the Twins, who we think would be the fifth-best team in the AL East if everyone played the same schedules.

Here’s the thing, though: the AL Central is awful this year. Dylan Cease and Luis Robert Jr. might still be on the roster, but the White Sox are fast approaching the point where they move past the “trade everything that’s not nailed down” part of their teardown and start trading the nails. The Royals lost 106 games last year, and while we think they’re going to be a lot better in 2024, they’re still a bad team. The Tigers and Guardians are going to struggle to score runs, though both will do a fairly good job of preventing them.

The Twins aren’t exactly the second coming of the 2001 Mariners or the 1927 Yankees. We project them in the bottom half of baseball offensively, though we do love their pitching staff. But when you win your division by nine games and none of your opponents do much to improve their rosters over the winter, it’s easy to come out on top again. At least, that’s what our odds think, and I tend to agree. For what it’s worth, betting markets do too: In perfect agreement with our odds, the Twins are one of only four teams who are more likely than not to win their division.

Look at the Mariners and Rangers

Dunking on the Mariners for their payroll-reducing ways has become a fun offseason pastime. They sent Eugenio Suárez away for very little, then traded away Jarred Kelenic with a few bad (but still relatively minor) contracts for nothing in return. Even bringing Mitch Haniger back into the fold was as much about Robbie Ray’s salary as it was reinforcing the outfield. Combine those moves with the team’s murky RSN picture and the goal is pretty clear: This winter was about long-term financial savings.

It’s definitely a bummer to take a team that’s right on the fringes of the playoffs and subtract pieces to balance the books. But Jerry Dipoto and co. have done a really good job of maximizing the team’s 2024 chances while doing so, and our odds show it. Sure, they’re in a tough division – the defending World Series champs aren’t even the favorites. Sure, they traded away some players who looked like important contributors. But they did a lot of adding around the edges, and even if I didn’t like the big picture thinking behind a lot of their trades, I think they did really well tactically in most of their deals. Their offense still isn’t going to light the world on fire, but their pitching remains elite. They barely missed the playoffs last year, and they might be a better team in 2024 than they were in 2023.

As for the Rangers, their challenge will be getting to the playoffs. Three of their top four pitchers will miss the first half of the year, which is impacting their full-season run prevention projection. Their bullpen remains sketchy at best. But if they’re still in the thick of things when Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, and Tyler Mahle return, watch out: Our depth charts give that trio 17% of their starter innings, but that number might be above 50% by September. Our full-year forecast simply can’t account for that late-season change.

It’s Always Sunny in… Atlanta

Yeah, the Braves are ridiculous. We think they’re the best team in baseball by a wide margin. Their offense is ludicrous, of course. They lit the majors on fire in 2023. But their pitching should be better this year with a full season of Max Fried and some valuable innings from Chris Sale. They even shored up their bullpen, which now ranks among the best in baseball. Last year was no fluke; this team is just stacked across the board.

No one else is realistically playing for first in the NL East. That’s not because the Phillies are awful; we think they’re more likely than not to make the playoffs thanks to a top 10 offense. But they’re just not the equal of Atlanta, at least in the regular season. You can tell that the Braves agree; their offseason was built around addressing their lack of dominant postseason pitching. I also enjoy the Marlins/Mets face-off in the middle of the division; we think both teams will get to .500-ish records in extremely different ways.

The Brewers Might Have Miscalculated

The Brewers are trying to thread a delicate needle by trading Corbin Burnes while bringing up Jackson Chourio. They’re working on setting up their next five years while also keeping 2024 in play. That “next five years” part is looking pretty good – they infused an already promising young core with more talent by trading Burnes – but they’re no longer the favorites in the NL Central after losing their ace.

That position falls to the Cardinals, who finished last in the division in 2023. But they’re the Cardinals, and they focused their entire offseason on shoring up their biggest weakness: pitching. We still think they’re not a very good pitching team; they have the 11th-worst run prevention projection in baseball despite playing in a pitcher’s park. But they were much worse than that last year, and their offense is loaded.

The Cubs might end up being better than they look at the moment — they’re reportedly still considering adding a marquee free agent. The Reds have a Cardinals-esque pitching staff without the run-suppressing home stadium, so they’re going to get in a lot of shootouts, but their hitters will win their fair share of them. In 2023, Milwaukee easily walked away with this division. In 2024, we think that it’ll be a melee with the Brewers starting from a disadvantage. They’re not down and out by any means, but they’re coming into the season in a weaker position than Wisconsinites are used to.

The Giants are Confusing

Okay, fine, the Dodgers are really great. We and pretty much everyone with a pulse agree that they’re one of the best teams in baseball. I don’t think that’s an interesting takeaway from our odds, though. It’s just obvious on its face. Yeah, the team with Freddie Freeman, Mookie Betts, and Shohei Ohtani is good. That’s all you’re going to get on them in this article.

The down-ballot portion of the division is considerably more intriguing to me. The Diamondbacks unquestionably overperformed expectations last year; they got outscored on the season and made the World Series anyway. This offseason, they doubled down on their success by shoring up weaknesses both in the field and on the mound, and they’re coming back with a stronger core around Corbin Carroll, Ketel Marte, and Zac Gallen. We think they’re more likely than not to make the playoffs.

My biggest “whoa, what?” of the entire odds run, though, is the position of the Giants and Padres. 2023 was supposed to be San Diego’s last stand. They lost a ton of contributors from that team via free agency and trade, and spent the offseason reducing payroll instead of reloading. The list of their offseason moves mostly reads like a minor league waiver wire. We’re projecting their payroll to drop by $90 million this year, a huge tumble.

We still like them more than the Giants, who are spinning their wheels without accomplishing much of anything. They didn’t sign many free agents this year after talking a big game about rebounding from missing out on Aaron Judge by making a huge push for Shohei Ohtani. They’re also spending much less in 2024 than they did in 2023; they’re down nearly $50 million in payroll. They have a below-average infield and a league average outfield, even with the addition of Jung Hoo Lee. Their pitching staff is thin — it’s Logan Webb and then a lot of question marks. Their bullpen is hardly an asset; it’s been intermittently good in recent years thanks to swingmen bulking it up, but a lot of those guys left this winter. Robbie Ray’s eventual return will help, but even then, I don’t like the construction of this team much at all.

Surely, this isn’t how the Giants planned it. Their 107-win 2021 campaign was clearly a high-water mark, but it wasn’t supposed to be the last time they contended. Right now, though, this team looks lost at sea. A sub-Padres projection is a fitting indictment – even the team purposefully trading off its best players to shrink the budget looks better on paper. The farm system’s not great, either. The San Francisco doom loop narrative irks me to no end as a resident; I think the city is great and that reports of its decline are a ridiculous culture war talking point. But on the baseball field? Now there, I have to admit it looks pretty doom-y.

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