Ness Notes: MLB 2021: A 4-Week Review

by Larry Ness

The 2020 season was limited to just 60 games and MLB decided to to expand its playoff field to eight teams from each league. The top two teams from each division, plus the teams from each league with the next two best records qualified for the postseason. The Houston Astros and Milwaukee Brewers (both with a record of 29-31) became the first teams to make the postseason with a record below .500 since the Royals did so in the strike season of 1981. MLB split that season into First Half and Second Half winners qualifying for the playoffs (note: Both the AL and NL had just two divisions back then, East and West). The Royals went 50-53 overall, but won the AL West in the Second Half with a 30-23 record. The Royals lost 3-0 to Oakland, winners of the AL West.

Milwaukee followed KC's path from 1981 last season, losing its best-of-three wild card series 2-0 to the Dodgers. The Astros became the first, and currently only, team with a record below .500 to win a playoff series. They defeated the Minnesota Twins in the Wild Card Series (2-0) and the Oakland A's in the ALDS (3-1), before losing the ALCS to the Tampa Bay Rays. In that series, Houston lost the first three games but forced a Game 7 before losing. Tampa Bay, in just the second World Series in franchise history, lost 4-2 to the LA Dodgers, who won their first title since 1988.

The Dodgers opened the current season having won EIGHT straight NL West titles and their eight consecutive postseason appearances is double that of the next closest team. The Astros and Yankees are tied for the second-longest active playoff streak, with four in a row. However, let me add that neither team would have qualified for last year's postseason without the expanded format, making LA's eight postseason appearances in a row look even more impressive. THREE double-digit playoff droughts ended in 2020, as the Marlins ended a 16-year drought, the Padres a 13-year drought and the White Sox an 11-year drought. Entering the current season, the Mariners haven't been to the postseason since the team went 116-46 back in 2001. Seattle tied the major league record for wins set by the 1906 Chicago Cubs and set the record for wins by an American League team in 2001. However, Seattle opened the 2021 season on a 19-year playoff drought. The second-worst current drought belongs to the Phillies (nine in a row), with the Angels and Tigers next with six straight non-playoff seasons. The playoff field returns to just five teams in each league this season and Wednesday April 28 capped the first four weeks of the 2021 season, a perfect time to take a quick peek at where things stand.

If the season ended last night (of course it's just four weeks old but play along), the only division winner from 2020 to stand alone atop that same division in 2021 would be the 15-10 Oakland A's of the NL West. The Dodgers, the defending World Series champs, have dominated the NL West (see above) and while their 16-9 record is tied for MLB's best with two other teams, one of those teams is the SF Giants, leaving LA tied for the NL West lead with their most-hated rivals. Yes, the same Giants who finished 14 games back of the Dodgers in last year's abbreviated 60-game schedule. What's more, SF finished 29 games back of LA in 2019, 18 1/2-games back in 2018 and a whopping 40 games back in 2017. Hard to make this stuff up. The other team at 16-9? How about the first-place Boston Red Sox (AL East). Now of course Boston owns four World Series titles since 2004 but the 2020 edition had a 24-36 record, finishing last in the Al East. 

The other three division leaders at the four-week mark are the 15-8 KC Royals of the AL Central and 14-10 Milwaukee Brewers of the NL Central, plus the NL East has a tie atop its division between the Braves at Phillies (12-12). The Royals haven't been to the playoff since appearing in back-to-back World Series in 2014 (lost) and 2015 (won). As for the Brewers of the NL Central, they've been to three straight postseasons. Over in the NL East, the Braves are the three-time defending champs, while the Phillies last made the postseason back in 2011. A few items about the above-mentioned teams are noteworthy. The Red Sox opened 0-3 but then ran off NINE straight wins, before going 7-6 their last 13. The Oakland A's opened the season 0-6 and after splitting their next two, ripped off 13 consecutive wins. However, they enter Thursday losers of three of their last four. The Phillies opened 4-0 and the Braves opened 0-4 but are both now 12-12, sitting atop a division without a winning team (Can you say NFC East?). The Dodgers opened 13-2 but are just 3-7 their last 10, while the "out of nowhere" Giants have reached 16-9 by owning MLB's best home record of 10-3.

With that out of the way, let's talk about moneyline winners and losers (does anything else really matter?), How have those 16-9 teams fared against 'the great equalizer?' The Red Sox are not only tied for MLB's best record but they also lead the moneyline standing at plus-$787 (at $100/game). That's an impressive 'daily double.' The Giants rank third-best at plus-$587 but Dodgers followers would be down $29 Y-T-D if betting $100/game on the defending champs. No one said betting/handicapping MLB is easy. The Dodgers own MLB's best run-differential at plus-37, while only THREE other teams in MLB are better than plus-20. The 13-11 Astros are plus-25 runs but-$169 vs the moneyline, followed by the Giants (plus-24 runs) and the Red Sox (plus-22 runs).

Taking a look at 2021's underachievers we have three teams playing less than .400 baseball. The Tigers have lost 10 of 12 and own MLB's worst record at 8-16 (.333), while the Twins have lost 13 of 16 to settle at 8-15 (.348). The Rockies own the NL's worst record at 9-15 (.375) due primarily to owning the worst road record (1-8) in MLB. MLB's three-worst moneyline records belong to the Twins (-$889), the 11-13 Yankees (-$589) and 10-14 Cubs (-$511). The Tigers own MLB's worst run differential at minus-35 runs but the outlook looks better for the Twins (minus-6 runs) and the Rockies (minus-8 runs).

This is just a quick 'snapshot,' as the regular season is not scheduled to end unto Oct 3rd. I'll take another 'peek' (update) on Memorial Day.

Good luck...Larry

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