Expect the unexpected: Which MLB teams could surprise in 2023 and knock out presumed playoff contenders?
Opening Day has come and gone, and all of MLB’s teams are on to their second series, bringing the order of preseason expectations and projections into contact with the chaos of reality. In an era when the Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers or Atlanta Braves have featured in every World Series since 2017, it can be difficult to get past the icy certainty of who was good last year and who has been good the past several years.
Their dominance is such that the Philadelphia Phillies and San Diego Padres, spending roughly a bajillion dollars on stars, counted as surprise playoff teams in the particularly stratified National League in 2022. And when the baseball crew at Yahoo Sports predicted this season’s playoff field prior to Opening Day, four out of five chose the exact six NL teams to reach October that made it there last year. In the parlance of March’s other favorite prediction pastime, we went chalk.
But in baseball — like this year’s version of March Madness, at least — a year without a surprise would, historically, be the biggest surprise of all. Since the addition of the second wild card in 2012 — excluding 2020 and 2021 because of 2020’s anomalous field — 47.6% of postseason teams missed the playoffs the previous season. And 21.7% of postseason teams had losing records the previous season. There has yet to be a postseason in the wild-card era that didn’t feature at least one club coming off a losing season and at least three teams that missed the playoffs the year before.
Last year, in the first go-around with three wild cards per league, a full half of the postseason participants were coming off Octobers at home, and three teams made it after finishing under .500 in 2021.
Not to alarm already panicked Philadelphia Phillies fans, but the point is that odds are some favored teams will drop off, and some new teams will rise to claim tickets to the playoffs. Let’s consider who might be going which direction on baseball’s elevator of unpredictability.
Five surprise teams to watch in 2023
Using up-to-date projections at FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus, we can at least get a sense of which teams should be on the radar, even if the whole point of surprise teams is that you don’t see them coming. I took a simple average of the two systems’ playoff odds entering Tuesday’s games and used it to order these contenders.
Minnesota Twins (67.6%)
The best candidates for leaping into the playoff picture are the Twins and Brewers, which might say more about the lack of great teams in the AL and NL Central than their inherent surprise-y-ness. The Twins are one of two teams to pull off a 4-0 start, and they spent much of last season atop their division. Dinged by injuries and inconsistent pitching, they toppled out of contention and wound up finishing 78-84.
This season’s reinforcements have looked good so far. New ace Pablo Lopez threw 5 1/3 innings of shutout ball in his debut, with eight strikeouts, and reclamation project Joey Gallo already has three homers. The Twins are the only team with better playoff odds than their defending division champion in both projection systems.
Milwaukee Brewers (65.6%)
Same story, different league — sort of. The Brewers have almost identical playoff odds to the St. Louis Cardinals, last year’s NL Central champs. These teams are a bit of a yin and yang situation. The Brewers have a dominant starting rotation and questions about whether the lineup can keep up. The Cardinals have a terrifying run of hitters led by Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt but little reliable pitching to speak of. In the whopping four-game sample so far, the Brewers’ young additions (Brice Turang, Joey Wiemer & Co.) have looked promising. Vaulting over the Cardinals will probably require them to keep it up.
Los Angeles Angels (52.6%)
It's now or never. The team that employs Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout should be a contender. I’m optimistic that it will be. But we have seen this story before.
Texas Rangers (34.5%)
It’s worth noting the gulf between the Angels and the Rangers in the projections. Whereas the Angels sit above a 50% chance of reaching the postseason, the Rangers, despite two straight headline-making offseasons, are down at 34.5%. There’s simply not enough depth of proven hitters — or enough confidence in healthy pitchers — for the math to favor this team.
That said, the potential obviously exists for a huge step forward. Even if the Rangers ran back their 2022 team, a horrendous record in one-run games probably would've corrected itself via better luck and produced something closer to a .500 team. If they can get that regression and squeeze 20-25 starts apiece out of Jacob deGrom, Nathan Eovaldi and Andrew Heaney? Sure, that’s a blueprint for knocking out a team that has a less charmed summer.
San Francisco Giants (33.9%)
You remember 2021, right? The Giants still won’t wow anyone with star power — despite their best efforts — but they have a bevy of pretty good players who could produce when placed in the right positions to succeed. Their path to relevance relies upon unsung starters such as Thairo Estrada taking more steps forward and returns to health for slugging veterans Michael Conforto and Mitch Haniger. Also, though he was outmatched in New York on Opening Day, the Giants have an enviable ace in Logan Webb leading a fairly intriguing starting rotation.
Teams with a 10 to 25% playoff chance: Chicago White Sox, Boston Red Sox, Miami Marlins, Arizona Diamondbacks
Four contenders that could miss the playoffs
The same projections can help us assess the foundations of the teams that won our confidence — or perhaps just our favor via recency bias — by reaching the playoffs last year. As it turns out, two of 2022’s feel-good stories are already struggling.
Seattle Mariners (25.4%)
The Mariners have the worst playoff odds of any team that made the playoffs last year, largely because of a lineup lacking surefire stars outside of Julio Rodríguez. It’s worth mentioning that the defending AL Rookie of the Year could be underestimated by the usual process of projection systems, which rely on past performance and remain skeptical of second-year players with one amazing season. Still, the lineup doesn’t currently inspire a ton of confidence in a division that could be quite strong.
Philadelphia Phillies (48.3%)
If you needed a reminder that 2023 is not 2022, the Phillies’ chaotic opening weekend sweep at the hands of the Rangers sent that message loud and clear. Now 0-4 after dropping one to the Yankees, the Phillies are missing Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins, Ranger Suarez and others as part of this early rough patch, and the crux of the problem remains: Their swaggering pennant win from last season won’t help them if they can’t outrun the pack.
Still, don’t panic just yet. In an even tougher division, the Phillies still have better average playoff odds than the Rangers, though the systems are split fairly dramatically.
Cleveland Guardians (60.3%)
St. Louis Cardinals (64.8%)
These are simple. The Central divisions are up for grabs as of right now. They could easily change hands with one breakthrough player or one key injury.
Other defending playoff teams with postseason odds under 75%: Toronto Blue Jays, Tampa Bay Rays