On Tuesday night on a neutral field in Arlington, Texas, the Los Angeles Dodgers ended one of the longest title droughts in Major League Baseball, defeating the Tampa Bay Rays 3-1 in Game 6 of the World Series. It was the Dodgers’ first World Series title since 1988. And while it was a bizarre, pandemic-shortened season — encapsulated almost perfectly in Dodgers’ third baseman Justin Turner being pulled in the eighth inning because he had tested positive for COVID-19 — the Dodgers are a deserving champion according to our MLB ratings, which ranked the club as the league’s top team for nearly the entire season.
The Dodgers had the highest World Series win probability in the preseason, per our forecast. They had the top chances at the end of August and again at the end of the regular season. In fact, the Dodgers’ 54 percent World Series chances early in the division series round was the highest such mark for any team at that point in the playoffs since we made our Elo ratings a permanent fixture in 2015. Los Angeles really had only one scary moment: when the Atlanta Braves took a 3-1 lead over them in the National League Championship Series. It was the only time LA fell from owning the best World Series chances week-over-week in 2020.
The Dodgers were finally able to celebrate with the The Commissioner’s Trophy at Globe Life Field as an unusually complete team. They had already established themselves as a dominant power in the NL, winning eight consecutive division titles and three of the last four NL pennants. But this season they enjoyed their most efficient offensive performance in franchise history in terms of weighted runs created plus (wRC+). Their lineup was one of the deepest in MLB history and wore out opponents throughout the playoffs. They also had one of the best bullpens in the game and their starting pitchers posted the second lowest ERA in the majors. This October, their long-time ace Clayton Kershaw ended his personal postseason struggles. I could go on. Suffice to say, the Dodgers excelled in about every way in 2020.
LA’s success, moreover, was not merely the product of a large payroll (though that helps, of course). The Dodgers have become a model for player development within the industry. A number of their star players who each excelled in the playoffs — Cody Bellinger, Walker Buehler and Corey Seager — were all drafted and developed by the club. Turner and Max Muncy were acquired for little cost and developed into key players. Game 6 starter Tony Gonsolin transformed from a ninth-round pick into one of the NL’s best pitchers this season. The Dodgers are not only the new champs, but they have the No. 3-ranked farm system, according to FanGraphs.com. They won’t be going away any time soon.
Randomness plays a big role in baseball, so there’s always a danger in ascribing success to specific factors and strategies. Sometimes the same decision that’s labeled as genius in one context is labeled as foolish in another, depending on the way the ball bounces. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that this Fall Classic was something of the Andrew Friedman Bowl, as the Dodgers’ baseball operations chief faced the small-market, analytically inclined “monster he created” in Tampa Bay, where he was the general manager from the 2006 season through 2014. Friedman’s approach to building a team certainly looks smart at the moment.
“It’s pretty much the same style play,” former Rays player Carlos Peña told the Tampa Bay Times. “And as I’ve often said, the Rays and the Dodgers are both playing chess while the rest of the league is playing checkers. Except the Rays are playing on a wooden board, and the Dodgers are playing on a golden one.”
Indeed, the Rays have excelled with some of the smallest payrolls in Major League Baseball, and Friedman brought many of those analytical practices to Los Angeles. While the Dodgers and Rays look for every data-based edge and have developed plenty of talent, Los Angeles is where Friedman can acquire and lockup a superstar like Mookie Betts, who signed a 12-year extension with the Dodgers after being acquired from the Boston Red Sox. Betts’s eighth-inning home run Tuesday gave the Dodgers an important insurance run. The Dodgers also have a $30-million-per-year ace in Kershaw.
The Dodgers also perhaps benefited Tuesday from too strict an adherence to data, in arguably the most second-guessed decision of the postseason: Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash electing to pull his ace, Blake Snell, after he allowed just two hits and threw 73 pitches over 5⅓ innings. Snell was rolling, striking out nine Dodgers while not allowing a run, but Cash and the Rays were extreme in limiting starting pitchers’ exposure to opposing lineups (averaging an MLB-low 71 pitches per start in the regular season) — sticking to the idea that a pitcher’s performance generally drops off deeper into outings. That’s true, too, of Snell throughout his career, though many critics on Tuesday night argued the eye test ought to be consulted along with the numbers. The Dodgers weren’t as restrictive with top arms Kershaw or Buehler in October, though neither exceeded 100 pitches in a game this postseason.
Still, that decision might not have changed the ultimate outcome, as the Dodgers’ pitching was excellent, limiting the Rays to a single run. Like the Rays, the Dodgers had one of the deepest bullpens in the regular season, one of four playoff teams with nine or more relievers enjoying ERA+ marks of 110 or better, meaning these pitchers were performing at least 10 percent better than league average in terms of run prevention. Dodgers starting pitcher-turned-postseason-reliever Julio Urías closed out the World Series with 2 ⅓ scoreless innings to finish with a 1.17 ERA for the playoffs.
From the top to the bottom of their roster, from the beginning to the end of the season, the Dodgers displayed few weaknesses. As a result, they celebrated their first title in more than 30 years — and the wait for the next could be much, much shorter.