This year’s MLB playoffs are rife with juicy storylines and potential rematches. It’s one of the deepest fields of great teams ever — a record four ballclubs won 100 or more games in 2019. And in the World Series alone, five of the six most likely matchups (according to our prediction model) would feature a repeat of an iconic playoff showdown from relatively recent history.
The most likely 2019 World Series matchups
Odds of each combination of National and American League teams in the World Series, according to the FiveThirtyEight MLB prediction model
While something like Astros-Nationals — which has never happened in the postseason but is our fifth-most likely World Series matchup — might eventually be in store for us, there’s a 77 percent chance that this Fall Classic will give us a playoff rematch of some kind and a 64 percent chance of pairing teams that have faced each other since at least the 1980s. So here’s a breakdown of the past and present for the five most common championship rematches in our model’s simulations:
Houston Astros vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
19 percent chance of happening
Then: 1981 Division Series, 2017 World Series
Although these teams also played in the 1981 Division Series, the rematch on everyone’s minds came just two years ago — when Houston beat L.A. in a seven-game homerfest that ranks among the most exciting ever (Game 7 notwithstanding). That series was packed with signature moments, highlighted by the seesaw battles Houston won in Games 2 and 5; according to The Baseball Gauge, the Dodgers had a 71 percent chance of winning the World Series as late as the fifth inning of Game 5 and were above 50 percent going into Game 7 at home, but the Astros eventually prevailed to secure the franchise’s first title.
Now: Some of the key characters have changed — Houston now has Gerrit Cole and Yordan Álvarez instead of Dallas Keuchel and Marwin González; L.A. has Max Muncy and vastly improved versions of Cody Bellinger and Walker Buehler but a less effective Clayton Kershaw and no Yasiel Puig. The core of the matchup remains the same, however, and this time these are probably the two best teams in baseball, ranking Nos. 1 and 2 in wins above replacement (WAR),1 compared with Nos. 3 and 4 in 2017. Our model would give the Astros a slight edge to win again in this hypothetical World Series battle of two teams that seem to have been on a collision course all season.
Los Angeles Dodgers vs. New York Yankees
Then: 1977, 1978 and 1981 World Series
The Yankees and Dodgers have faced off in 11 total World Series, dating back to the Subway Series days when the Dodgers played in Brooklyn. But the instances most younger fans would know came in the late 1970s and early ’80s, when L.A. played New York three times in a five-year span. Reggie Jackson created the legend of “Mr. October” with his MVP performance (1.792 OPS, 5 HR) in 1977, while Bucky Dent, Ron Guidry and Goose Gossage powered another Yankee win the following year. The Dodgers got one back in the split season of 1981, which was the last true N.Y.-versus-L.A. championship battle for 21 years — until the Sparks beat the Liberty for the 2002 WNBA title.2 Despite having the best records in their respective leagues this decade, the Dodgers and Yankees haven’t met in the World Series since that ’81 clash — but that could change this season.
Now: Alongside Astros-Dodgers, Yankees-Dodgers is the other titanic World Series collision we’ve been anticipating all season long. And it would be every bit as star-studded as its precursor from 38 years ago. Instead of Fernandomania, the current Dodgers have … caught the Bellinger Bug? The Ryu Rage? The Muncy Madness? (Sigh.) New York’s modern analog to Jackson, meanwhile, is a lineup that has twice broken the pre-2018 record for home runs in a single season. Los Angeles has a decided advantage in starting pitching over the Yankee staff, but the pinstriped bullpen corps has been superior this season. And the amount of position-player talent on each side would rank among the best in World Series history. It feels like this showdown has been simmering in the background for three years now, and the possibility of Rob Manfred’s dream pairing of America’s top two media markets may finally come true this season.
Houston Astros vs. Atlanta Braves
Then: 1997, 1999, 2001, 2004 and 2005 Division Series
This is no World Series rematch, but the Astros and Braves have plenty of playoff history from Houston’s time in the National League. Over the nine postseasons played from 1997 through 2005, Atlanta and Houston met up five times. At first, the dynastic Braves had the Astros’ number, winning nine of the first 10 matchups across three series, including the sequence above — wherein the Astros had the bases loaded and nobody out, at home, in extra innings, only to not score and eventually lose the second-to-last game ever played at the Astrodome. But after that inauspicious start, Houston’s fortunes eventually changed against the Braves, with the Astros prevailing in 2004 and again in ’05 — en route to the franchise’s long-awaited first World Series appearance.
Now: Houston and Atlanta had a remarkable amount of star power in those late-’90s battles, including Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Greg Maddux, Chipper Jones, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine. But this year’s crop could eventually rival that group, boasting the likes of Ronald Acuña Jr., Alex Bregman, Justin Verlander, Ozzie Albies, José Altuve, Freddie Freeman, Zack Greinke, Josh Donaldson and Cole. Despite the relative evenness of big-name talent, our model would install the Astros as somewhat substantial favorites in the World Series, and with good cause — the only area of the game in which Atlanta didn’t run relatively far behind Houston in WAR this season was base-running. Still, this is the strongest Atlanta has been (according to Elo) going into the playoffs since, ironically enough, the 2004 team that lost to Houston in the NLDS.
Houston Astros vs. St. Louis Cardinals
Then: 2004 and 2005 NL Championship Series.
Think back to a time before the Astros changed leagues, switched back to their original logo, pioneered NBA-esque tanking and became perennial championship contenders. Back when Houston’s outfits looked like this and the team was in the NL Central, its rivalry with the Cardinals was always one of baseball’s premier division skirmishes. St. Louis got the better of Houston in the seventh game of the 2004 NLCS — thanks to the Scott Rolen home run above — before the Astros returned the favor with an NLCS win of their own in 2005. Although the AL champ beat the winner in the World Series both years, the road to the NL pennant still went through St. Louis and Houston. It was the best both clubs had been at the same time in their shared history … until now.
Now: It’s been a while since the Cards and Astros were meaningful on-field rivals; their most memorable clash this decade came away from the diamond, when St. Louis hacked into Houston’s information network using Astros GM Jeff Luhnow’s old passwords. But the baseball part of the rivalry could be reignited quickly, too, if the teams end up in the World Series. Houston’s current squad is more talented than its mid-2000s counterparts, though the same might not be said about the 2019 Cardinals: St. Louis ranks 13th in WAR this year, compared with No. 2 in both 2004 and 2005. The current team doesn’t quite have stars on the same order as Rolen, Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds, though it does have plenty of depth. And it should definitely be noted that the Cardinals have a long history of winning championships despite looking less-than-stellar on paper.
New York Yankees vs. Atlanta Braves
Then: 1996 and 1999 World Series.
After the Braves made the World Series in 1991 and 1992, then won it in 1995 and returned again in 1996, the question of which team owned the 1990s seemed open-and-shut. The Braves especially appeared to be in command once the 1996 Series began against the Yankees, with Atlanta taking the first two games on the road and grabbing a 6-0 lead in Game 4, up 2-1 in the series. The Baseball Gauge estimates that Atlanta had an 86 percent chance of winning the World Series at that point, but everything unraveled for the Braves from there — exemplified by Jim Leyritz’s huge home run off fireballing closer Mark Wohlers (see above). The Yankees eventually won in six, took another title over San Diego in 1998 and thoroughly outclassed Atlanta in the 1999 rematch, sweeping the Braves and stealing away key ammunition in the Team of the ’90s argument.
Now: Perhaps surprisingly, given their success by century’s end, neither the Braves nor Yankees have dominated the new millennium. New York has won only a single World Series since 2000, appearing only three times, while Atlanta hasn’t been back to the Fall Classic since that 1999 defeat. But as we noted above, the Braves have rebuilt some of the star power of their ’90s heyday. The Yankees are rounding into roughly the same situation, between their once-injured headliners back at full strength (Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Didi Gregorius) and those who stepped up to carry the team most of this season (DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres). Our Elo model would consider the Yankees only marginally smaller favorites over Atlanta than Houston would be, but perhaps these Braves can finally turn the tables after the letdown of 1996.
Other fun potential rematches:
- Cardinals-Yankees (5 percent) — 1964 World Series: MVP Bob Gibson outdueled the favored Yankees in Game 7.
- Dodgers-Twins (5 percent) — 1965 World Series: Sandy Koufax (0.38 series ERA) painted his masterpiece in a Game 7 shutout.
- Dodgers-A’s (4 percent) — 1988 World Series: Kirk Gibson set the tone for L.A. victory with his Game 1 blast off Dennis Eckersley.
- Twins-Braves (2 percent) — 1991 World Series: Minnesota prevailed in one of history’s best Fall Classics.
- Twins-Cardinals (2 percent) — 1987 World Series: The Twins used their home-field advantage, outlasting St. Louis to overcome a 3-2 deficit.
- Braves-A’s (2 percent) — 1914 World Series: The “Miracle Braves” stormed back from last place at midseason to sweep Philadelphia for the title.
- Yankees-Brewers (1 percent) — 1981 ALDS: Back when the Crew were in the AL, Gossage, Dave Righetti and the Yankees survived Milwaukee over a full five games.
- Cardinals-A’s (1 percent) — 1931 World Series: In a rematch of the 1930 Series, Cards ace Bill Hallahan and center fielder Pepper Martin helped beat Philly in seven games.
Most likely first-time matchups:
- Astros-Nationals (6 percent)
- Yankees-Nationals (5 percent)
- Dodgers-Rays (3 percent)
- Astros-Brewers (2 percent)
- Twins-Nationals (2 percent)
Check out our latest MLB predictions.