Checking the crystal ball
The Giants and Twins have created a mess, but most other choices look solid
The dog days of summer — the steamy days of July and August — are nearly upon us. Winter is a vague, distant memory.
But I do retain one solid recollection of those cold, endless weeks in January and February. I remember deciding to join the crowd by issuing my predictions for the 2021 baseball season.
The typical analyst, of course, sifts through statistics from the previous season, weighs each club’s offseason transactions, and extrapolates performances to the upcoming schedule.
Not me. I decided to look firmly to the past. I developed a computer program that compared each team’s record during the past three seasons (2018-2020) against the corresponding marks for all 1,198 clubs that played during the era of free agency, which began in 1976.
The idea was to find parallels from the past that offered hints about the future, allowing me to forecast 2021’s standings. (That, anyway, was the theory.)
I promised to offer the occasional progress report on my predictions, and this seems an appropriate time. We’re nearly at the halfway point of the season, and the pennant races have begun to take shape.
The results don’t appear great on the surface. I haven’t nailed a single one of the six divisional leaders, though three asterisks must be hastily appended. The Cubs, my choice in the National League Central, are tied for the lead, though they technically fall to second place because of a tiebreaker. Two other selections, the Rays (American League East) and Athletics (AL West) sit within a half-game of the top.
And a pair of other misses are completely understandable, since the same miscues were committed by most of the nation’s expert prognosticators. The Giants leading the NL West? The Twins collapsing in the AL Central? Who envisioned either of those outcomes?
But enough of the excuses. Below is my division-by-division assessment. I start with my predictions, followed by the consensus of the experts’ preseason forecasts and then the actual standings as of yesterday. (Ties in those standings are broken by head-to-head records.)
There’s still plenty of baseball to play. And the teams I tapped to make the World Series — the White Sox and Dodgers — remain solidly in the hunt. Everything could still turn out all right.
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American League East
My predictions: 1. Rays, 2. Yankees, 3. Blue Jays, 4. Red Sox, 5. Orioles.
Experts’ predictions: It seemed that everybody picked the Yankees to win the division, with the Blue Jays as the popular choice for runner-up. The Rays and Red Sox were generally dismissed as also-rans, followed by the Orioles as the consensus pick for last place.
Actual standings (as of June 21): 1. Red Sox, 2. Rays, 3. Yankees, 4. Blue Jays, 5. Orioles.
Bottom line: My formula may have seemed foolish for giving the nod to Tampa Bay, but it looks sagacious now. The Rays sit just a half-game behind the Red Sox, whose title run is defying everybody’s predictions. The Yankees, the experts’ favorite, have been a bigger dud than even I expected.
American League Central
My predictions: 1. Twins, 2. White Sox, 3. Royals, 4. Indians, 5. Tigers.
Experts’ predictions: Conventional wisdom was divided between the Twins and the White Sox to take the divisional championship, though everybody anticipated a tight race. It was commonly agreed that the Indians, Royals, and Tigers would follow in that order.
Actual standings (as of June 21): 1. White Sox, 2. Indians, 3. Royals, 4. Twins, 5. Tigers.
Bottom line: The success of the White Sox comes as no shock. I predicted that they would win the World Series, after all. But what happened to the Twins? They’re languishing 12.5 games off the pace. The Indians are the other surprise, unexpectedly remaining on the tail of the Sox.
American League West
My predictions: 1. Athletics, 2. Angels, 3. Rangers, 4. Astros, 5. Mariners.
Experts’ predictions: The Astros won the division easily in 2017, 2018, and 2019, and the experts expected them to return to form in 2021. The Angels and Athletics both received considerable support for second place, with the Mariners and Rangers bringing up the rear.
Actual standings (as of June 21): 1. Astros, 2. Athletics, 3. Mariners, 4. Angels, 5. Rangers.
Bottom line: Everybody wins. The Astros, the experts’ choice, sit in first place. But my selection, the Athletics, are just .003 behind in winning percentage. I admit to overvaluing the Rangers, who are mired deep in last place, just where the experts put them.
National League East
My predictions: 1. Nationals, 2. Braves, 3. Mets, 4. Marlins, 5. Phillies.
Experts’ predictions: The Braves were given a slight edge to repeat as divisional titlists, with the resurgent Mets right on their heels. The Phillies were the general choice for third place, followed by the Nationals in fourth and the Marlins in fifth.
Actual standings (as of June 21): 1. Mets, 2. Phillies, 3. Braves, 4. Nationals, 5. Marlins.
Bottom line: Score one for the experts, who envisioned the Mets’ upswing, though they overestimated the Braves (so far). My forecast is in a shambles. But the Nationals are currently the East’s hottest team, creeping within five games of the lead. Who knows?
National League Central
My predictions: 1. Cubs, 2. Cardinals, 3. Reds, 4. Brewers, 5. Pirates.
Experts’ predictions: The Cardinals were installed as heavy favorites to win the division, though a few experts believed the Cubs had another title in them. The Brewers and Reds were expected to settle into third and fourth places, while the Pirates were picked for last.
Actual standings (as of June 21): 1. Brewers, 2. Cubs, 3. Reds, 4. Cardinals, 5. Pirates.
Bottom line: The Cubs are essentially where I expected. They’re tied for first, though they lose the head-to-head tiebreaker to the overachieving Brewers. The Cardinals, on the other hand, haven’t come close to living up to the experts’ predictions.
National League West
My predictions: 1. Dodgers, 2. Padres, 3. Giants, 4. Rockies, 5. Diamondbacks.
Experts’ predictions: There was little doubt here. Almost everybody picked the Dodgers to win yet another divisional crown. The Padres were the clear choice for second place, followed by the Giants, Diamondbacks, and Rockies.
Actual standings (as of June 21): 1. Giants, 2. Dodgers, 3. Padres, 4. Rockies, 5. Diamondbacks.
Bottom line: Nobody saw this coming. The Giants aren’t only the divisional leaders, they also boast the best record in the major leagues. That’s not to disparage everybody’s frontrunners, the Dodgers and Padres, who respectively sit second and third not only in the division, but in the entire league.