Which Teams are Playoff Sleepers?

As most teams begin to enter their 20th game, it is almost hard to believe that the regular season is already one-eighth of the way through. I guess it is true that time flies faster when you’re enjoying something, as personally, it seems like the MLB season just started a week ago. Like any year, the most surprising and fun storylines have been the teams who’ve been successful despite their projections or the odds against them. To that point, it has been interesting to see highly ranked teams rank last in their division frequently thus far, creating a unique dynamic. With this mixture, many good fundamental teams are being looked at as non-sustainably good or spoofs, which is what this 5th Edition of the Drummey Angle focuses on. I will review three different low-ranking teams that I believe to be sustainable as serious Playoff or Wild Card contenders.


Oakland Athletics


Coming into the season, the Athletics were expected to have a lackluster year. After losing Marcus Semien (1.2 fWAR), Liam Hendricks (1.4 fWAR), and Tommy La Stella (1.2 fWAR), they seemed to be in for a losing season. Fangraphs only projected the team to produce a 78-84 (.483) record, far from any playoff contention, especially with the regular playoff format being resumed this season. And at the beginning of the season, it seemed that way, starting with a 1-7 record. But like any Athletics team, they always make something out of seemingly nothing. After signing Jed Lowrie to a minor league deal, he has far exceeded expectations. He currently carries a 165 wRC+, .399 wOBA, as well as already producing 0.8 fWAR for this team. On top of that, after avoiding arbitration with Matt Olson for the season, he has already managed to produce 0.7 fWAR. And while their pitching has not been the best (4.19 FIP), the Athletics continue to hold a 12-7 (.632) record, and an MLB best 11-game Win Streak. They are also up to 6th in the MLB power rankings, showing major improvement from the beginning of the season. With some of the team continuing to be plagued by injury (A.J. Puk, Mike Fiers, Trevor Rosenthal), I can primarily see upside in a more healthy future Athletics.


St. Louis Cardinals


Despite having a seemingly loaded lineup, Fangraphs (preseason rankings) has the Cardinals being a distant third in the NL Central, far from any Playoff spot. With a 76-86 (.469) projected record and an estimated 11.2% chance at making the playoffs, this team is far from being a favorite. Even after acquiring star third basemen Nolan Arenado (6 fWAR in 2019, 0.9 fWAR in 2020) and having a healthy flamethrower in Jordan Hicks, it seemed to make a little impact on the overall estimates of the Cardinals. Currently, they hold the last place in the NL Central with an 8-10 record (.444). But even with these somewhat low estimates and a small sample of little performance, I have held and continue to hold a bull case for this lineup. For starters, let us take a look at the offense. While they may be in last place in the Central, their offense is in the top half compared to the rest of the MLB. Ranking in at 11th, the offense has produced a total 2.5 fWAR with a decent .307 wOBA. While there 94 wRC+ is below average, it continues to be above the majority of the league. On the pitching side, they lean on the low side. Producing 1 fWAR and having a staff of 4.29 FIP, their pitching is one of the main reasons for their current poor performance. But I do not see this as a continuing trend. While Jack Flaherty had a rougher 2020 and a decent start to 2021, I am a believer that he can return to his 2019 form. In a tough contract year, I believe he can blow away expectations to better his possible return from another team. While Adam Wainright has also had a rough start to 2021, he has continued to maintain a 10.98 K/9, showing that he still can pitch at high performance. With injuries to starters Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson, as well as outfielders Harrison Bader and Tyler O’ Neill, I can again see this team being much more successful with a more healthy lineup in the future, as well as an adjustment to their average rate of play, which should make them serious contenders.


San Francisco Giants


While the Giants have not done great in the past couple of years, coming third in the NL West in both 2019 and 2020 and never finishing with an above .500 record, I feel that this could be the year they return to some of their former glory. While Fangraphs Preseason Rankings may not agree with me on this team, estimating a 79-83 (.489) record and an 8.9% chance of making the playoffs. Even with these projections, the Giants are currently 2nd in the NL West with a 12-7 (.632) record. One of the main reasons I am hot on this team is their pitching staff. Ranking as the 8th best pitching staff so far in 2021, they have a 2.5 Pitching fWAR and 3.53 FIP. Being home to one of the most pitcher-friendly ballparks, having great staff like they currently do is necessary to their success. While their starting rotation may look bland at first glance, three of the members were former All-Stars (Johnny Cueto, Aaron Sanchez, Alex Wood). On top of that, both Anthony Desclafani (4.22 Career FIP) and Kevin Gausman (4.04 Career FIP) have been repeatedly solid over their careers. With the track record and experience, this rotation has, I would personally not be surprised to see it as one of the Top 5 in baseball barring any major injuries. Paired with that excellent starting staff, the team also has some excellent relievers. While Jake McGee wouldn’t have appeared as a star coming into the year, he has been almost unstoppable. So far, McGee has a 2.81 FIP and has successfully racked up 7 Saves and 1 Win. While in one of his recent outings he had his first blown save of the year, this can most likely be attributed to some of his Covid-19 vaccine symptoms. With Tyler Rogers and Wandy Peralta to help get the game to McGee, the overall staff should be feared. On the other side of the diamond, their offense is nothing to write home about. Coming in at 21st overall in the MLB, the offense has managed to have 1.5 fWAR with a .299 wOBA, and an 89 wRC+. These numbers are very underwhelming, and I am not seeing a lot of upside. While I like Evan Longoria, Buster Posey, Mike Yastrzemski, and Tommy La Stella, and believe the two in the latter are especially underperforming compared to what I believe they will produce, the offense is not much of a factor in why I see them as a playoff team. Assuming that their hitting can become the league median ranking 15th, I could easily see them as an NL wildcard team.


Sources:


Fangraphs.com

Mlb.com

Cbssports.com

Baseball-reference.com