This article is part of our MLB Picks series.
MLB Playoff Betting: 2023 World Series Picks and Pennant Bets
Playoff baseball is back, and while the TV networks might not like that this year's tournament lacks several traditional powerhouses like the Yankees, Red Sox and Cardinals, neutral fans may well prefer postseasons like this one with all its new faces. The Orioles and Rangers, both back in the postseason for the first time since 2016, add intrigue and plenty of young talent to the American League, while the National League welcomes back the Diamondbacks (first since 2017) and the Marlins, who were swept as an eight seed in the expanded 2020 playoffs but otherwise haven't made it since 2003.
That doesn't mean everything is completely wide open, however. The defending-champion Astros will fancy themselves favorites in the American League after winning four of the last six pennants, while the Braves and Dodgers have been the class of the National League in recent seasons and will be feeling confident after both reached the 100-win mark again this year. Atlanta now has six consecutive NL East titles, while Los Angeles has won the NL West 10 times in 11 years.
Just like last season, I'll be previewing each round of the playoffs and offering my picks. But first, I wanted to take a look at the postseason as a whole and break down which teams look like the best bets to reach or win the World Series as playoff games begin. In last year's version of this article, I highlighted three teams whose odds looked promising, a group that featured the two eventual pennant-winners as well as the Mets, who were upset in the first round.
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MLB Playoff Bracket
Wild Card Round
- Rays (4) vs. Rangers (5)
- Twins (3) vs. Blue Jays (6)
- Phillies (4) vs. Marlins (5)
- Brewers (3) vs. Diamondbacks (6)
AL Wild Card Byes
- Orioles (1)
- Astros (2)
NL Wild Card Byes
- Braves (1)
- Dodgers (2)
AL Division Series
- Rays/Rangers at Orioles
- Twins/Blue Jays at Astros
NL Division Series
- Phillies/Marlins at Braves
- Brewers/Diamondbacks at Dodgers
MLB Playoff Odds
I'll be hoping for similar results this season using a similar approach, though sadly I can't accidentally curse the Mets again, as they've already done that themselves. We'll begin with the following table, which compares each team's best-available pennant and World Series odds with the projections available at FanGraphs. (Odds listed below are accurate as of writing, but you can click the links in the previous sentence to find out the current best odds.)
|Team||Best Pennant Odds||Implied Probability||FanGraphs Pennant %||Best World Series Odds||Implied Probability||FanGraphs World Series %|
Treating the projections as a definitive source of truth is of course an error, but ignoring them is just as unwise. Last year was the first October with a 12-team playoff field, and the books and projections differed on how much of an advantage the first-round bye would be for the four teams lucky enough to earn one. According to the algorithms, the sportsbooks systematically overrated the chances of the top four teams while underrating the rest of the field. While the World Series was in fact won by an Astros team who enjoyed a first-round bye, their opponents, the Phillies, entered the playoffs as a six-seed.
The disparity between the books and the projections regarding most of the best teams in the league may be a reflection of the fact that it's hard for us as fans and bettors to wrap our heads around just how short a baseball playoff series is, and therefore just how easy it is for a team that's significantly better to lose. A seven-game playoff series in the NBA and NHL, for example, is 8.5 percent as long as the entire regular-season schedule, while a single NFL playoff game is 5.9 percent as long as an NFL regular season. The five-game Division Series in MLB? Just 3.1 percent as long as an MLB regular season. Even the seven-game Championship Series and World Series are just 4.3-percent as long as MLB's marathon of a regular season.
It's just not unusual at all for a good team to be outplayed over such a short period. Atlanta, the best team in the league according to both the projections and the books, lost three of five on 11 separate occasions this season. For all their talent and depth, it's just not that hard to lose a given baseball game and not that hard to go on a short losing streak, especially because the spread in winning percentage among MLB playoff teams is smaller than it is in other sports. The MLB playoffs just aren't set up to "discover" who the best team in the league is in the same way other playoffs might be.
With the stage now set, let's move onto the picks, featuring one favorite, one mid-tier team and one long shot.
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MLB Playoff Picks
Houston Astros: +200 to win AL (BetMGM), +500 to win World Series (BetMGM)
I hesitated to put Houston here at first, even with the endorsement from the projections, as the rotation isn't as good as it was when the team won it all last year. 40-year-old Justin Verlander (3.22 ERA, but a 4.56 xFIP) is showing more age, Lance McCullers (forearm) won't pitch at all this season, and Cristian Javier saw his ERA spike to 4.50 (with an even worse 5.15 xFIP). Hunter Brown looked like a promising reinforcement and could be one down the road, but he stumbled hard in August and September, finishing with a 5.09 ERA. A lot may rely on a bullpen which ranks fifth in ERA- (84) and led the league in strikeout rate (26.4 percent). Closer Ryan Pressly is good (3.58 ERA, 31 saves), and Hector Neris, Bryan Abreu, Phil Maton and Kendall Graveman all had ERAs of 3.12 or better.
On the hitting side, six regulars own a wRC+ of at least 123, led by Yordan Alvarez (170), Jose Altuve (154), and Kyle Tucker (140). The lineup ranked fifth in wRC+ as a team (112), third in strikeout rate (19.8 percent) and seventh in homers (220). The Astros also benefit from some advantages in their potential matchups. Run differential is a good measure of how strong a team has been overall this season, and the top two teams by that metric (the Braves and Dodgers) are on the NL side of the bracket. The Astros can't face them until the World Series, if at all, and they can't face the Rays (third), Rangers (fourth) or Orioles (tied with Houston for fifth) until the ALCS.
Toronto Blue Jays: +800 to win AL (BetMGM), +2000 to win World Series (FanDuel)
The books have the Blue Jays as the longest shot in the American League, yet the projections consider them the strongest of the four AL teams stuck playing an extra round. The fact that their opponent in that additional round is the Twins — who own the weakest record among AL playoff teams despite getting to play in the AL Central — certainly helps, but the Jays are an interesting pick on their own merits. Toronto's rotation led the league with an ERA- of 90, and that's even with Alek Manoah making 19 starts. Kevin Gausman (3.16 ERA) is as good of a Game 1 starter as there is right now, while the collection of Chris Bassitt, Jose Berrios, Yusei Kikuchi and Hyun Jin Ryu, all of whom have ERAs between 3.46 and 3.86, gives the team more options than they need.
The bullpen is strong at the back, led by Jordan Romano and reinforced by Jordan Hicks at the deadline. With Erik Swanson (3.02 ERA), Tim Mayza (1.38 ERA) and Genesis Cabrera (2.38 ERA since leaving the Cardinals), there's depth as well. If there's a worry, it's the lineup, with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (118 wRC+), George Springer (104 wRC+) and Alejandro Kirk (96 wRC+) all coming up notably short of expectations while no everyday player significantly exceeded them. Even with those down seasons, though, Toronto still ranked a respectable ninth in team wRC+ (107), and if the bats wake up at the right time, this could be a frighteningly complete team.
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Arizona Diamondbacks: +1800 to win NL (FanDuel), +5000 to win World Series (BetMGM)
If every game were a coin flip, you'd expect teams playing in the Wild Card round to all have a 6.25 percent chance at winning the World Series, which translates to +1500 odds. Arizona's odds are quite rightly a good deal worse than that, as they'll have less than a 50/50 chance to win most games from here on out. The projections think the books have overcompensated, and I can see the case for it. Part of the case comes from the fact that, as mentioned above, it's just not that hard for the best team in the league to lose three of five games, or four of seven. But that generalism makes just as good of a case for fellow +5000 underdog Miami, and there's a reason I'm siding with Arizona among the two extreme long-shots. Miami's rotation looks to be in trouble, with Sandy Alcantara out with a sprained UCL and Eury Perez fading as expected down the stretch and ending the year on the injured list with a hip issue.
Arizona, meanwhile, gets to lean on Zac Gallen (3.47 ERA) and Merrill Kelly (3.29 ERA) at the top of the rotation, and Paul Sewald (3.12 ERA, 34 saves) was a big bullpen addition at the deadline, with the relief corps improving to seventh in the league in ERA- (87) since the start of August. The lineup finished a mediocre 18th in team wRC+ (and dropped all the way to 25th over the last two months), but it's built in a way that's well-suited to take advantage of the new rules. Ranking 28th in ISO (.138) is going to be a problem, but the Diamondbacks make a ton of contact, ranking third in strikeout rate (20.4 percent), and they can fly, sitting second in steals (166). Corbin Carroll has 54 of those steals, and this could be the rookie's explosion into another level of stardom if Arizona does indeed make a run.