2021 MLB playoffs preview – Everything you need to know about the teams battling for World Series glory

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The MLB playoffs are upon us. How ready are you for all the postseason action?

After a sprint to the finish that saw the final American League wild-card spot decided on the final day of the regular season, the Boston Red Sox beat the New York Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game on Tuesday. That leaves nine teams still chasing World Series glory this October, led by the San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays, who are all coming off 100-plus win campaigns.

Are those the three teams to beat or will someone else get hot and rule the postseason?

MLB experts Bradford Doolittle, Jeff Passan and David Schoenfield go deep on everything from the matchups and names you need to know to keys and very bold predictions for every team. Doolittle also has calculated the odds for every team’s shot at winning it all, as well as every potential matchup in each round against any possible opponent.


2021 MLB playoffs: Bracket, full schedule

Play: ESPN Playoff Baseball Classic

Jump to each postseason team:



National League


San Francisco Giants

107-55 | NL West champs | 20.4% World Series odds

Odds by round

NLDS: 48.5% vs. LAD | 65.6% vs. STL

NLCS: 62.4% vs. MIL | 65.8% vs. ATL

WS: 56.5% vs. TB | 58.1% vs. HOU | 60.7% vs. CHW | 70.1% vs. BOS

Why they could go far: Every team in baseball had a losing record this season in games in which their opponents scored the first run. The Giants were no exception and their record in those games was typical among the playoff teams. On the other hand, San Francisco lapped the field when it came to winning the games in which it drew first blood. How? Well, it didn’t hurt that the Giants’ bullpen led the majors in ERA and WHIP. And that’s really the crux of it: If the Giants can establish an early lead, Gabe Kapler’s bullpen is probably going to get the job done. — Doolittle

What could send them home early: Regardless of what we thought going into the season, there’s nothing on the Giants’ dossier that marks them as a fluke. They have a fabulous record in one-run games, but even if they had won those at a lower rate, San Francisco would still have approached 100 wins. No, the problem for the Giants is repeating what they accomplished during the season: overcoming the Dodgers. In every category in which the Giants stand out, the Dodgers do it as well or a little better. The possible exception to that is the bullpen, in which case we refer you to the preceding item. — Doolittle

2 Related

Most likely October hero: It’s as likely to be the 26th man on the roster as Brandon Crawford or Kris Bryant, because that’s how the Giants roll. Ace Kevin Gausman hasn’t been as effective in the second half (4.42 ERA, .276 average allowed) as the first (1.73 ERA, .159 average allowed), but he’s the starter most likely to get on a roll and pitch deep into games with a splitter that has remained a wipeout offering (.136 average against it on the season). — Schoenfield

Most exciting thing about the Giants: Brandon Belt led the team with “just” 29 home runs — and he’s out with a broken thumb — but the Giants still led the NL in home runs. So the exciting thing is that power can come from anywhere or anyone in the lineup. Even without Belt, they have a ready solution at first base with a platoon of LaMonte Wade Jr. and Darin Ruf (or Wilmer Flores). September was the Giants’ best offensive month, so they’ve shown no signs of slowing down. — Schoenfield

One bold October prediction: If the Giants can get past the division series, rookie Camilo Doval will get the final out in the NLCS and send them to the World Series. — Passan

95-67 | NL Central champs | 8.7% World Series odds

Odds by round

NLDS: 54.6% vs. ATL

NLCS: 36.5% vs. LAD | 37.6% vs. SF

WS: 42.7% vs. TB | 46.8% vs. HOU | 49.5% vs. CHW | 59.6% vs. BOS

Why they could go far: Together and collectively, Milwaukee’s big three rotation of Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta has been among baseball’s best all season. To put that in perspective: According to the wins above average table at baseball-reference.com, the Brewers rank seventh at 9.8 WAA. The starting pitching by itself is at 10.4 WAA, while the rest of the roster drags Milwaukee toward the middle. With the bullpen short a key arm, and having shown leaks lately anyway, is it possible that efficiency-obsessed Craig Counsell might ask more of his rotation than in postseasons past? He might have no choice. — Doolittle

What could send them home early: Through the end of August, Milwaukee ranked seventh in bullpen ERA and first in strikeout rate among relievers. Since then, the strikeout rate has remained elite, but the bullpen ERA has spiked to over 5.00. Luckily, some of that figure is due to poor pitching from players who won’t be on the playoff roster. Unluckily, one of those non-rostered players will be star high-leverage righty Devin Williams, who broke his hand punching a wall and apparently never saw “Bull Durham” to absorb its lesson about not hitting things with your pitching hand. Josh Hader remains dominant, but he needs help. — Doolittle

Most likely October hero: Corbin Burnes led the NL in ERA, K’s per nine, fewest walks per nine and fewest home runs per nine (just seven in 167 innings). No pitcher had even led his league in just SO/9 and BB/9 since Walter Johnson in 1913. The Brewers won his final 12 starts. He made only two starts all season on four days of rest, so he might have to adjust to starting on shorter rest, but no pitcher dominated across the board in 2021 like Burnes. — Schoenfield

Most exciting thing about the Brewers: It’s not just Burnes. Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta have also been excellent with sub-3.00 ERAs. Peralta won’t pitch enough innings to officially qualify, but he held batters to a .165 average. And then they have Josh Hader to close things out. No wonder the Brewers led the majors in shutouts. — Schoenfield

One bold October prediction: Milwaukee will miss Devin Williams, who’s out with a broken hand after the wall won, but not as much as some think: Atlanta hits changeups, which Williams throws more than 63% of the time, better than any team in baseball. Left-handed rookie Aaron Ashby will more-than-capably fill in as a pillar on the Josh Hader Bridge. — Passan

88-73 | NL East champs | 7.4% World Series odds

Odds by round

NLDS: 45.4% vs. MIL

NLCS: 33.2% vs. LAD | 34.2% vs. SF

WS: 39.2% vs. TB | 40.7% vs. HOU | 43.4% vs. CHW | 53.5% vs. BOS

Why they could go far: The historic output of the Braves’ infield has gotten much attention, but after chasing .500 for most of the season, Atlanta’s burst to a repeat division title was more due to improved pitching. Maintaining that is the key to any hope the Braves have of playing deep into October. The starters have been solid throughout, but after the trade deadline, have posted the third-best rotation ERA in baseball. Meanwhile, the bullpen was 18th in ERA before the deadline. It is fifth since then. Given an explosive but inconsistent offense, the Braves have to keep pitching at a high level. — Doolittle

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What could send them home early: Since the trade deadline, when the Braves acquired a number of replacement options for their depleted outfield, Atlanta has been a potent first-pitch-hitting team capable of hitting home runs in bunches. But what happens against elite, postseason pitching? The Braves’ overall swing rate is topped only by Kansas City in the majors and towers over everybody else on the NL bracket. No team has swung more frequently at first pitches. This has contributed to some offensive inconsistency, but this also is what the Atlanta toolkit looks like in the wake of Ronald Acuna Jr.’s injury and Marcell Ozuna’s off-field problems. — Doolittle

Most likely October hero: Charlie Morton has been down this road before, winning both Game 7 of the ALCS and Game 7 of the World Series for the Astros in 2017 (the only pitcher ever to do that). He won three of his four playoff starts for the Rays last postseason and in his playoff career he’s 7-3 with a 3.38 ERA. He has pitched his best baseball of 2021 the past two months so he enters October on a positive trend. — Schoenfield

Most exciting thing about the Braves: The Braves became just the second team to have all four infielders hit 25-plus home runs — Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Austin Riley and Dansby Swanson. Freeman is the man to watch. Are these his final games with the Braves? He’s a free agent, and while many expect him to return to Atlanta, the fact is he is still unsigned and that means there’s a chance he’s somewhere else in 2022. — Schoenfield

One bold October prediction: Will Smith will trend on Twitter at least three times. — Passan

Los Angeles Dodgers

106-56 | NL wild card | 15.3% World Series odds

Odds by round

WC: 63.1% vs. STL

NLDS: 51.6% vs. SF

NLCS: 63.5% vs. MIL | 66.8% vs. ATL

WS: 60.1% vs. TB | 61.6% vs. HOU | 64.2% vs. CHW | 73.1% vs. BOS

Why they could go far: Pretty much every forward-looking marker you want to throw out there paints the Dodgers as baseball’s best team. Well, except for two: The Giants won more games, and beat the Dodgers in the season series. Still, the Dodgers’ expected record, based on run differential, was for about 108 wins, by far baseball’s best total. Some of that was because of L.A.’s vaunted depth: The Dodgers outscored opponents by more than 100 runs in low-leverage situations, most in baseball. But lest you think that inflated L.A.’s record, the Dodgers also led baseball in differential for high-leverage and medium-leverage situations. — Doolittle

What could send them home early: Adam Wainwright. We like to say that the wild-card game is a coin toss. That’s mostly true, but only if the coin could somehow be weighted by the luster of the opposing sides. Playing at home against a team they towered above in the NL standings, the Dodgers are a strong favorite. But it’s one game, and even if St. Louis’ odds are 4-in-10, that’s nail-biting time. As for Wainwright: Over 109 postseason innings, his ERA is nearly a half-run better than his regular-season mark, despite the heightened competition. Also, you might have noticed that St. Louis is really rolling. — Doolittle

Most likely October hero: Walker Buehler had a couple of hiccups in September that took him out of the Cy Young running — including one bad start against the Giants — but he has been clutch before in the postseason and he’s coming off his best regular season. In 11 career postseason starts, he has a 2.35 ERA with 83 strikeouts in 61⅔ innings, raising his strikeout rate from 9.8 per nine innings in the regular season to 12.2. His six-pitch arsenal makes it difficult to prepare for him, even when seeing him the second time in a series. And Buehler’s performance will be even more important for the Dodgers with Clayton Kershaw’s postseason status in doubt after an injury in his final start of the regular season. — Schoenfield

Most exciting thing about the Dodgers: Mookie Betts and Trea Turner are two of the most exciting all-around players in the game. Last October, we saw the impact Betts can make just with his glove and legs and Turner is even faster. Dave Roberts has settled into a batting order with Betts leading off and Turner hitting third, with Corey Seager sandwiched between them. The one hitch: Neither has hit as well in the postseason in his career, Betts at .258/.343/.409 in 31 games and Turner at .233/.286/.302 in 27 games. — Schoenfield

One bold October prediction: Corey Seager wins his second consecutive World Series MVP trophy — and this time does it with more walks than strikeouts. — Passan

90-72 | NL wild card | 1.4% World Series odds

Odds by round

WC: 36.9% vs., LAD

NLDS: 34.4% vs. SF

NLCS: 43.2% vs. MIL | 46.8% vs. ATL

WS: 37.3% vs. TB | 38.8% vs. HOU | 41.4% vs. CHW | 44.4% vs. BOS

Why they could go far: The Cardinals do it their way and even if that leaves them swimming against pervading trends, they finish above .500 every season and, here they are, back in the playoffs. St. Louis’ closing kick, which included a franchise-record 17-game hitting streak, sends them into Dodger Stadium on a crest wave. Still, St. Louis didn’t just get hot at a key time when its playoff hopes were flagging, the team changed things. Hurlers who walked too many batters were axed. Edmundo Sosa played more at shortstop. The bullpen was shuffled. Since the middle of August, St. Louis owns baseball’s fifth-best run differential. — Doolittle

What could send them home early: The Cardinals rank in the bottom five in walks issued and strikeouts on the season. They play great defense and have done a good job of limiting homers. Since the trade deadline, the Cardinals have been much better at limiting walks, but the strikeout rate is the game’s lowest and the homers have been slightly up. All of this points to trouble against disciplined, powerful teams like the Dodgers and Giants, the 100-win behemoths the Cardinals have to beat in order to get into the late rounds. You clearly can’t rule out this year’s Redbirds, but it’s a tough road. — Doolittle

Most likely October hero: Cardinals fans might jump at Yadier Molina, who certainly has his share of clutch hits in the postseason. Overall, however, he hasn’t been that special in the playoffs with four home runs, 36 RBIs and a .699 OPS in 101 career playoff games. Let’s go with Paul Goldschmidt, who has been on fire with a second-half OPS over 1.000 while hitting .391 with seven home runs during the team’s 17-game winning streak in September. — Schoenfield

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Most exciting thing about the Cardinals: There are few things in baseball as exciting as watching Harrison Bader run the bases or chase down balls in center field, his long blond hair flowing out from beneath his helmet or cap as though he’s some Greek warrior heading off to Thermopylae. Unless it’s Tyler O’Neill, who is built like a Greek god and runs like Cool Papa Bell. Bader’s top sprint speed is in the 97th percentile of all players and O’Neill is a hair faster, ranking in the 98th percentile. — Schoenfield

One bold October prediction: They will not win one in a row, let alone 17. — Passan

American League


Tampa Bay Rays

100-62 | AL East champs | 17.0% World Series odds

Odds by round

ALDS: 63.6% vs. BOS

ALCS: 52.8% vs. HOU | 55.5% vs. CHW

WS: 39.9% vs. LAD | 43.5% vs. SF | 57.3% vs. MIL | 60.8% vs. ATL | 62.7% vs. STL

Why they could go far: Postseason games so often come down to which team wins the late innings, and this year’s Rays look particularly well-positioned to win those tight contests. Of the teams in the playoffs, Tampa Bay — by far — got the lowest mileage out of starting pitching this season. When the middle innings hit, the Rays are ready to start matching up. It’s how they are built. Their depth of relievers doesn’t just protect leads, but even when the Rays fall behind, it keeps them in games. It’s why the Rays ranked at the top of the charts in comeback wins all season. — Doolittle

What could send them home early: The Rays scored runs at an elite clip during the regular season, but it was not a well-balanced attack. Of the teams headed for the playoffs, the Rays are the third-most dependent on homers to get runs, and no team’s plate appearances were dominated by a higher percentage of the three true outcomes. Of course, this approach can work in the playoffs, when stringing together rallies is challenging. However, for it to work, the Rays have to keep hitting the ball out of the park. If they don’t, the regular-season version of the offense didn’t have a lot of contingencies. — Doolittle

Most likely October hero: Here’s your fun stat of the year: The Rays scored more runs than the Blue Jays. They don’t have a Triple Crown candidate. They don’t have a record-setting second baseman. They don’t have four players with 100 RBIs. They led the league in strikeouts. They hit home runs with guys on base and deliver clutch hits. So this could be anybody. Nelson Cruz has the postseason pedigree, although he hasn’t torn it up since coming over from the Twins, and he might even sit against some righties. Sleeper pick: Drew Rasmussen made eight starts since the middle of August and posted a 1.46 ERA with one home run allowed in 37 innings, although he hasn’t gone more than five innings in any outing. — Schoenfield

Most exciting thing about the Rays: Rookies! The Rays are trying to win with a 20-year-old rookie shortstop in Wander Franco. Only one other 20-year-old shortstop has played in the World Series, Travis Jackson with the Giants in 1924 (he’s in the Hall of Fame). Of course, Franco is no ordinary 20-year-old and lit up the final two months. Randy Arozarena, last year’s postseason hero, is still a rookie. Shane McClanahan has been the team’s best starter. Shane Baz, with fewer than 20 career innings, might be in the rotation. Luis Patino is a rookie and could start. J.P. Feyereisen is a key reliever. — Schoenfield

One bold October prediction: Franco will set an American League record for most total bases in one game by a player younger than 21 years old. The current mark is five, by Mickey Mantle and Rafael Devers. The major league record? Nine, by 19-year-old Andruw Jones in 1996. — Passan

95-67 | AL West champs | 13.9% World Series odds

Odds by round

ALDS: 53.8% vs. CHW

ALCS: 47.2% vs. TB | 62.4 vs. BOS

WS: 38.4 vs. LAD | 41.9 vs. SF | 53.2% vs. MIL | 59.3% vs. ATL | 61.2% vs. STL

Why they could go far: If the Astros’ offense is at full throttle, Houston will feature the most well-balanced attack of the postseason. The Astros hit for average, don’t strike out, hit lefties and righties, hit at home, on the road and in scoring situations. Houston has power hitters, but isn’t reliant on home runs to score. It’s an offense that nicely balances patience and aggression. Obviously the pitching gets tougher in October, and the Rays — a possible ALCS opponent should the Astros advance — throttled Houston’s hitters during the season. But Houston has a more varied offensive toolkit than any team on the bracket. — Doolittle

What could send them home early: The composition of Houston’s playoff pitching staff will have something to do with this, but the Astros could get into trouble if their hurlers fall behind too frequently. The Astros ranked in the bottom third across baseball allowing walks during the regular season, and that was true of both the starters and relievers. Perhaps even more worrisome is that only the Royals threw a lower percentage of first-pitch strikes, which could be a particular problem against playoff-caliber offenses. After jumping ahead on the first pitch, the Astros allowed just a .563 OPS; when they didn’t that number leaped to .923. — Doolittle

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Most likely October hero: When Lance McCullers Jr. has that curveball working just right and he’s locating his fastball he can be as unhittable as any pitcher in the game. Batters are hitting .144 against the curve (which he throws to lefties) and .148 against the slider (which he throws slightly harder and to right-handed batters). He doesn’t give up many home runs and has plenty of postseason experience, if that matters. He’s the Houston pitcher most likely to run a string of four or five great starts in a row. — Schoenfield

Most exciting thing about the Astros: Don’t we have to consider Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve one of the greatest double-play combos of all time? Correa came up in 2015, so this is their seventh season together. In that span, Correa ranks sixth in Baseball-Reference WAR among position players and Altuve seventh. With Correa heading into free agency, these could be their final games manning the middle for Houston. — Schoenfield

One bold October prediction: Tens of thousands of people will grow frustrated when the postseason performance of outfielder Jose Siri prompts them — or a similarly voiced announcer — to inadvertently engage their iPhone’s voice assistant. — Passan

93-69 | AL Central champs | 9.6% World Series odds

Odds by round

ALDS: 46.2% vs. HOU

ALCS: 44.5% vs. TB | 61.3% vs. BOS

WS: 35.8% vs. LAD | 39.3% vs. SF | 50.5% vs. MIL | 56.6% vs. ATL | 58.6% vs. STL

Why they could go far: The White Sox’s pitching staff posted the highest average pitch velocity among postseason clubs, and only the Brewers had a higher strikeout rate. In other words: Chicago misses bats. The velocity is partly because the Sox have a lot of hard throwers, but it’s also because they lean heavily on high, hard stuff. The bullpen is full of flamethrowers, so if Chicago’s starters can get into the middle innings in good shape, Tony La Russa can then parade Michael Kopech, Aaron Bummer, Garrett Crochet, Craig Kimbrel and Liam Hendricks in to protect a lead. This group was built for October. — Doolittle

What could send them home early: Chicago’s biggest problem might simply be the way the bracket sets up. The White Sox have one of the postseason’s most diverse offenses, but their first opponent — Houston — has that same quality and to a higher degree. Chicago’s strength on the pitching side is velocity and strikeouts. No team strikes out less frequently than Houston. That said, Houston didn’t post great numbers against elite velocity (at least 96 mph). Still, this is a rough matchup for Chicago, which would appear to line up better against whomever it might face in the ALCS — if the White Sox can just get there. — Doolittle

Most likely October hero: Luis Robert missed more than half the season, so his partial-season numbers haven’t gained attention, but he was hitting .347.385/.574 heading into the final weekend of the regular season, including .365 since returning on Aug. 9 with 24 extra-base hits in 40 games. Note the rapid improvement in his swing-and-miss rate from 2020: 41.5% down to 28%. If the White Sox make a run it’s likely because Robert keeps terrorizing opposing pitchers. — Schoenfield

Most exciting thing about the White Sox: Tim Anderson is the self-proclaimed most exciting player in baseball, but the nod here goes to Robert. He’s strong, he’s fast, he hits rockets and he’s a gifted center fielder (he won the Gold Glove as a rookie last season). But you’re fun to watch too, Tim! — Schoenfield

One bold October prediction: The White Sox’s bullpen will throw the highest percentage of fastballs and register the highest average fastball velocity of the 10 playoff teams. — Passan

92-70 | AL wild card | 6.3% World Series odds

Odds by round

ALDS: 36.4% vs. TB

ALCS: 36.1% vs. HOU | 38.7% vs. CHW

WS: 26.9% vs. LAD | 29.9% vs. SF | 40.4% vs. MIL | 46.5% vs. ATL | 55.6% vs. STL

Why they could go far: The AL bracket will feature around 50 players who accumulated at least 250 plate appearances during the season. Seven of the top 25 by OPS are on the Red Sox, which speaks to the depth and stability of one of baseball’s most prolific offenses. Everyone knows about J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers, but over the second half of the season, Kyle Schwarber and Bobby Dalbec have been two of the hottest hitters in the big leagues. The offense has been better at Fenway Park than away from it, but this is a veteran group that puts up runs. — Doolittle

What could send them home early: Pitching. The Red Sox will have the worst runs against average and highest OPS allowed of any postseason club. In short, Boston’s success during the regular season has been because of the offense. Only 25% of outings for the Boston rotation resulted in quality starts, and the trends haven’t gotten much better as the season has progressed, despite the return to action by Chris Sale. This puts undue pressure on the Boston bullpen, which itself has seen its back end in flux. The challenge for Alex Cora will be to find the right arm for the right high-leverage situation. — Doolittle

Most likely October hero: The most likely scenario has the Boston offense stepping up and bashing its way to a title, but you’re going to need some pitching along the way and Nathan Eovaldi is the best bet to go off. Chris Sale has been fine since returning from Tommy John surgery but has topped out at 95 pitches, so he might not get deep into games. Eovaldi can carry a heavier workload, perhaps pitch on short rest or in relief (as he did in 2018) and he has turned into a strike-throwing machine who has been stingy with the home runs. — Schoenfield

Most exciting thing about the Red Sox: They hit the ball hard. The Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays ranked 1-2-3 in hard-hit rate (essentially tied at 42% on balls of 95-plus mph), but the Red Sox led the majors in wOBA on contact. All those hits off the Green Monster helped that figure — the Red Sox easily led the majors in doubles — but the lineup is loaded with big, strong dudes, including Kyle Schwarber, who has been the team’s best hitter down the stretch. — Schoenfield

One bold October prediction: The Red Sox batter who most consistently hits the ball hard (95-plus mph) won’t be Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez or Kyle Schwarber. It will be rookie Bobby Dalbec. — Passan