What Are the O’s *Actual* Playoff Chances?

submitted by Michael Vetter

0.0%. 

Any O’s fan who went onto Twitter the day of February 16, 2021 knows what that percentage means. For some of us, myself included, it was a brutally honest, somewhat hilarious statement by Fangraphs that there is absolutely no way that the Orioles will make the playoffs in 2021. For other fans, “0.0%” was a totally uncalled-for, direct attack against Baltimore…even though the O’s have been one of the worst five MLB teams for three straight years.

Look, I know how infuriating it is that over the past decade, the Baltimore Orioles have been extremely underrated by the national baseball community. My most vivid memory of this disrespect was from seven years ago, in March 2014, when Sports Illustrated ranked the Orioles as the 20th best team in the MLB. This ranking was totally unfair, because the 2014 O’s had a guy who had just had an MVP-caliber season (Chris Davis), budding stars (Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Kevin Gausman), solid veterans (J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Wei-Yin Chen, Nelson Cruz), and a dominant back-end bullpen (Zach Britton, Darren O’Day, Tommy Hunter, Brad Brach). Those O’s also had recent success that almost led to a 2012 ALCS berth. Luckily, we all know what happened later on and how despite being consistently overlooked for a decade, the Orioles managed to have the best record in the American League for half of that timeframe.

Jumping back to the present, it has now been almost five years since O’s fans have been able to even catch a glimpse of the postseason. Many of us are growing impatient, especially since we can all see the light at the end of the tunnel. Trey Mancini is finally back, top prospects are being called up to the big leagues, and even Adley Rutschman has cracked the Spring Training lineup. On the other hand, Orioles GM Mike Elias has seemed to indicate that the team is in for a long rebuild as he continues to cut payroll, and it is generally agreed upon in the baseball community that the O’s will not be competitive until at least 2023. Even so, it is tempting as an Orioles fan to dream of a 2021 season where all the fans come back, life feels somewhat normal, and our favorite team miraculously manages to reach the playoffs with a scrappy, young squad that will be the powerhouse of the AL East for years to come. 

While it is undeniable that some significant steps are being taken to lead us towards singing “We Are the Champions” together all the way down Pratt Street, only two-plus years of player development and trades for prospects cannot immediately resolve seven-plus years of ignoring analytics and international scouting. Not only that, but the 2021 projections are consistent across several sources, as ESPN’s simulations give the Orioles a 0% chance at the playoffs, and PECOTA projects a 0% probability of the O’s winning the AL East division.

Now, some of you may be saying, “you sound like Buster Olney!”, or a multitude of other national names who draw rage from O’s fans. While some baseball analysts do seem to take general stats and projections as Gospel without challenging their own assumptions, the truth is that sometimes facts are just facts, even when we disagree with them. That’s why it’s important to bring a larger and longer-term perspective into how we observe these 2021 Orioles by asking ourselves the following three questions:

Should we root for this team to make the playoffs?

Yes, absolutely! That achievement would mean that the rebuild is way ahead of schedule, as the young veterans (Mancini, Anthony Santander, John Means, Tanner Scott) and the MLB-ready top 30 prospects (Ryan Mountcastle, Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer, Hunter Harvey, Rutschman, Jahmai Jones, Rylan Bannon, Yusniel Diaz, Bruce Zimmermann, Michael Baumann) would be performing much better than we thought they could. This would bode very well for the Orioles’ near-future World Series hopes. Of course, we shouldn’t set ourselves up for disappointment by expecting a playoff appearance in 2021, but it’s not the responsibility of O’s fans to root for a top draft pick. Besides, Elias will probably take care of that for us by swapping some of our veterans for prospects at the trade deadline. Even though we want our 2021 playoff odds to be as high as possible, Elias has his sights set on a World Series title at some distant point in the future.

If the O’s don’t end up coming close to the playoffs this year, then why should I even watch?

Well, we tend to forget that baseball is supposed to be FUN. Too often, we obsess over winning and being the best. This will hopefully come with time for the Orioles, but at least for now, it’s healthier to remember to enjoy the upcoming 162-game season. After all, we will get to watch half of the O’s games take place in the ballpark that forever changed baseball. Instead of getting flustered over losses, we can choose to focus on loving each Oriole’s unique characteristics and storylines. We need to appreciate the hair that the players rock, King Felix’s electric personality, Ryan Mountcastle’s ROY pursuit, and Trey Mancini’s All-Star Game quest after enduring cancer treatments and the loss of a dear friend and an Orioles Hall of Famer, Mo Gaba. Despite a probable losing record, each player brings something important to the table. Still, this 2021 group is much more talented than the 2019 team, which only won 54 games during a full season. That’s why the .417 winning percentage (68 annualized wins) which the team achieved in a shortened 2020 season should not be out of reach in 2021.

Why do you expect the 2021 team to perform near its 2020 levels, despite several releases and trades of some solid players this offseason?

I have three main reasons for this expectation: First, the players that the Orioles have lost in the past year were truly not THAT valuable when compared to those who are being added in 2021. If you add up the annualized 2020 WARs contributed by the former Orioles to the club last year (Miguel Castro, Alex Cobb, Mychal Givens, Tommy Milone, Jose Iglesias, Renato Nunez, Hanser Alberto) and subtract that amount by the sum of the Fangraphs-projected 2021 WARs for the players that are coming back/being added (Mancini, Freddy Galvis, Yolmer Sanchez, Hernandez, Harvey), you will find that the Orioles’ moves this offseason lost nine annualized wins (0.054 of winning percentage) from 2020, resulting in an expected 59 wins for the 2021 season. By the way, it’s important to recognize that those three position players who left the Orioles all had wOBAs that were higher than their expected wOBAs in 2020, which indicates that they all probably over-performed in a shortened season.

Second, some of the progress that a couple of key bullpen arms made in 2020 should continue into 2021. According to Baseball Savant, both Tanner Scott and Paul Fry were near league-average or higher within every Statcast category in 2020, except for BB% in Scott’s case. Meanwhile, Fry was in the 94th percentile for opponent expected wOBA and Scott was in the 93rd percentile for opponent exit velocity. These advanced stats indicate that both of them should maintain their 2020 sub-2.50 ERAs into 2021, and help carry the bullpen to a league-average performance. Third, according to 2021 Fangraphs projections, the previously mentioned MLB-ready top 30 prospects should combine to contribute 5 wins to the big league club this year. When added onto the expected 59 wins that we previously calculated, the total of these individual projections results in the expectation of a 64-win season for the 2021 Baltimore Orioles. 

This is actually a conservative estimate, since Fangraphs has predicted a 12-win improvement over 2019 for the 2021 Orioles to end up with 66 wins. Sadly, this more positive outlook would still bring the O’s nowhere close to the playoffs. Although, I have noticed some significant flaws within these overall Fangraphs predictions (e.g. Davis playing more at 1B than Mancini), which have led me to revisit my initial question: 


What are the Orioles’ actual chances of making the playoffs in 2021?

Based on all the evidence, I will out-bid Fangraphs by providing an estimate of 0.0001% odds for the 2021 O’s to reach the playoffs. With a percentage that low, we’ll just have to hope that the Orioles have a one-in-a-million season this year.

So Orioles fans, let’s keep our chins up, enjoy Spring Training, stay safe, and go O’s!

(All jokes aside, Fangraphs is an incredible site for baseball fans, and it needs our support. Become a member using this link: https://plus.fangraphs.com/product/fangraphs-membership/)

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