A GameStop investor’s guide to the 2021 MLB season: Crazy picks that might just pay off

A lot of people have learned how a squeeze works lately, and not the kind where a runner bolts home from third on a bunt attempt. The GameStop saga, which originated with eager individual investors on the Reddit forum WallStreetBets and proceeded to roil financial markets, was fueled by what’s known as a short squeeze.

This is when the price of a stock, for instance, shoots up in such a way that forces investors who had bet against the stock to abandon their positions. They do so by buying to ward off further losses, and that leads to the stock’s price rising even further. In the case of GameStop, the Reddit investors banded together to fly in the face of common logic. All signs pointed to a business in decline: A brick-and-mortar purveyor of physical video games in the time of COVID-19 is not a reasonable horse to bet on. But their enthusiasm — and the short squeeze effect of institutional investors giving up on their conviction in GameStop’s decline — led to a huge spike regardless.

No amount of fan enthusiasm is going to make a bad baseball team good, unfortunately, but we are waltzing into a season following a pandemic-altered year that hampered our ability to create informed expectations.

Many of our perceptions may be proven off-base or incomplete. So yes, the reasonable path may be less of a sure thing than it usually is in baseball. These, then, are some picks for the 2021 MLB season that might be just crazy enough to come true.

FILE - Cincinnati Reds' Joey Votto reacts as he runs the bases after hitting a solo home run in the third inning during a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Cincinnati, in this Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, file photo. Votto is determined to be a power-hitter again. “I want to get back to being dangerous,” the 37-year-old first baseman said from Cincinnati Reds spring training complex in Goodyear, Arizona.(AP Photo/Aaron Doster, File)

Cincinnati Reds to win the NL Central

BetMGM odds: +325, third-best in division

Common logic: The Reds do not, on paper, look like they stand much chance of being better than they were in 2020. It was admirable, at the time, to put so many eggs in the basket of one season. Then it turned unfortunate when the pandemic shortened the shine of the most talented Reds team in some time.

Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer is gone, and the team cut some costs by diminishing the bullpen. Pre-2020 free agent signings Nicholas Castellanos and Mike Moustakas did not improve the offense, and what was once a slugging team with no pitching transitioned to a pitching-focused team with expensive underperforming hitters without ever landing on a happy, division-winning medium.

Reddit logic: The 60-game season did a disservice to the Reds because it kneecapped them at the moment they went all in, yes, but it also obscured the true talent of a squad that was likely the best of a mediocre NL Central. And well, both the mediocre division and most of the Reds’ core remains. Eugenio Suarez and Castellanos, especially, posted numbers far below their career norms and could easily rebound.

The pitching projects to be worse without Bauer, but there is real upside to be found as the Reds reap benefits from an investment in player development. Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray already project as the best one-two punch in the division according to the PECOTA system at Baseball Prospectus, and there’s evidence the arms behind them could exceed expectations.

After more than 200 middling major-league innings, 26-year-old Tyler Mahle completely revamped his repertoire and approach in 2020. Echoing Bauer, he steered hard into high four-seam fastballs and low, biting sliders. The early returns were sterling — his strikeout rate leapt into the upper echelon as hitters flailed. His contact rate ranked 11th in baseball among pitchers who threw at least 40 innings, just behind Gerrit Cole. An extreme fly-ball pitcher when hitters do manage to make contact, Mahle only stands to benefit from MLB’s attempt to slightly deaden the baseballs. Another arm to watch is Tejay Antone. A late-bloomer who showed up with big-time spin rates (a Statcast measurement that portends strong movement) in his first big-league action, the 27-year-old induced a promising blend of grounders and whiffs with a combo of sinkers and sliders that veer off in opposite directions.

In a division where every team is relying on a lot of things to break right, the Reds seem poised to be better than you might think.

As a bonus: Excellent Cincinnati reliever Amir Garrett memorably tried to take on the whole Pirates dugout by himself, which is a startlingly apt physical manifestation of how the WallStreetBets posters see themselves.

Washington Nationals to win the World Series

BetMGM odds: +3500, tied for 15th-best

Common logic: The 2019 World Series winners look to be on the downslope. Their trademark rotation is aging and/or fragile. Their lineup is riddled with holes beyond a few star-level talents. The farm system has little or no help on the way.

Despite the brilliance of Juan Soto, the club as a whole feels like it is driving in the opposite direction of the young, rising Braves and the new-look Mets.

Reddit logic: The case for Washington is less about the team as currently constructed and more a matter of incentive. Generational pitcher Max Scherzer, now 36, is in the final year of one of the most productive free agent contracts ever signed. Stephen Strasburg has plenty of time to go on his deal, but is entering his mid 30s. The time, so to speak, is now. No one should truly expect the Nationals to win the NL East, but that’s not what this prediction asserts. If they are anywhere close to postseason contention, GM Mike Rizzo’s only play is to throw everything at 2021, which could again make the Nats an October behemoth — or at least a scary dark horse.

And this team probably can stay in contention.

Soto, again, is all-world. Shortstop Trea Turner spiked a tremendous power season to go with his usual speed and average. If he is going to make a modest leap and whack 25 homers, much less slug .588 like he did in 2020, the Nats suddenly have two superstar hitters. They also went shopping for rebound hitters. Kyle Schwarber (non-tendered by the Cubs) and Josh Bell (jettisoned in a trade by the losing-on-purpose Pirates) have alternated between being serious power threats and middling disappointments. If the Nationals get the good end of that, the necessary trade deadline additions to paper over third base and/or second base become much easier.

The starting pitching is totally a matter of health. If Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin remain upright, it will probably be pretty good. The bullpen is, well, maybe a matter of cosmic cooperation. This team has fielded some truly horrendous bullpens, and also found ways to cobble together competence mid-season. Brad Hand was a smart, efficient winter pickup to go with the stable Will Harris who joined prior to last season.

All it takes to envision the Nationals again challenging the elite when rosters pare back for October is a few of these short-term bets coming up roses. And Washington has, helpfully, pulled off the trick recently. After all, the last time there was a full slate of baseball, they trotted out an aging rotation, a top-heavy lineup and a bullpen that seemed to be actively sabotaging the season … and won it all.

Who’s to say they can’t pull it off again and send Scherzer off with diamond hands?

SAN DIEGO, CA - OCTOBER 13:  Jose Altuve #27 of the Houston Astros celebrates after hitting a solo home run in the first inning during Game 3 of the ALCS between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Houston Astros at Petco Park on Tuesday, October 13, 2020 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
After a rough regular season, Astros star Jose Altuve came alive with five homers in October. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

José Altuve to win AL MVP

BetMGM odds: +5000, tied for 24th-best in league

Common logic: Frankly, José Altuve looked cooked last year. He spent the spring being scrutinized, criticized and theorized about over the Astros sign-stealing scandal, then absolutely tanked when the summer and the season came around. The 2017 AL MVP — one of the few players who has actually reached a level to snatch this award from Mike Trout — became the standard example used to explain the term “fall from grace.”

As The Ringer’s Michael Baumann succinctly put it, he “forgot how to hit during the regular season and forgot how to throw during the playoffs.” Not usually the path toward hardware.

Reddit logic: It’s true. Altuve forgot how to hit during the regular season. He also remembered during the postseason. After managing only five homers in the regular season, he whacked five of them in just 13 postseason games.

He’s seen a moderate decline in discipline and contact abilities since his stratospheric 2016-17 peak, but Altuve optimizes his pop. He pulls the ball at one of the highest rates in the majors, and uses the short porch in left field to pad his slugging percentage. (And even if he utilized the sign-stealing scheme, don’t put too much stock in whatever benefit he may have gained.)

There are surely players who have more upside, more untapped potential, and a better chance at tapping into it. Altuve, though, isn’t far removed from MVP-level performance, and maybe has more reason than anyone to chalk 2020 up as a singular nightmarish mirage.

Corbin Burnes to win NL Cy Young

BetMGM odds: +3500, 19th-best in league

Common logic: Milwaukee Brewers hurler Corbin Burnes suffers from a different sort of expectations problem. He was too good, too suddenly in the 60-game season for observers to really buy it. We’re talking a 2.11 ERA and a sixth-place Cy Young finish one year after an 8.82 ERA and a demotion. Too good, too sudden.

Conventional baseball wisdom says that is bound to level off, not somehow escalate further.

Reddit logic: I will again refer you to the GameStop affair. Sometimes huge, unreasonable rallies do keep going, at least for a while. Burnes’ miserable 2019 always looked like it was partially exacerbated by horrendous luck, but his ‘round the world journey to the other end of the leaderboards doesn’t appear flukey at all.

He began employing a stable of fastballs that are difficult to distinguish for observers and apparently hitters. His dexterity in manipulating the heater made him less predictable and less vulnerable against left-handed hitters. The use of a cutter that sits around 93 mph was particularly effective.

Against righties, he took the opposite tact and prioritized a sinker that drifts toward his arm side as the primary fastball, which took an already good slider and made it completely unhittable. More than 60 percent of swings at it resulted in whiffs in 2020.

Will he run back another 2.11 ERA? Probably not, but that doesn’t make the abilities and the pitches less real. These are dominant building blocks. So of all the candidates for irrational exuberance, Burnes may be among the most rational.

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