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This World Series Just Might Have The Two Best Teams

When the World Series opens Tuesday between the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers, it will be a fitting final act for one of the most stacked postseasons ever. Both LA and Houston posted triple-digit wins during the regular season — just the eighth time two such clubs have ever met in a Fall Classic, and the first since 1970 — and both looked historically dominant at various moments during the season. In a decade filled with World Series matchups that seemed mediocre on paper, this should be one of MLB’s most pedigreed championship clashes in recent memory.

One way we can measure this is to look at the odds that the last two teams remaining are actually the two most talented teams in baseball, using a method similar to the one Villanova professor Jesse Frey introduced in 2004.1 Baseball is a pretty random sport, so even after 162 games — or anything short of 10,000 games, really — we don’t have a great sense of who the most talented teams actually are. Most years, there isn’t much chance that the World Series even contains MLB’s actual best team, much less that it would pit the two best teams against each other.

This year, though, is different. More so than any other season this decade, there’s a legitimate chance that the Dodgers-Astros winner is actually baseball’s top team, no matter who ends up prevailing. We should enjoy it while it lasts: As recently as a few years ago, there was only a 24 percent chance that the World Series contained a pair of top-10 teams, much less the best two teams. But with baseball suddenly becoming a meritocracy again these past couple years, we’ve been treated to much stronger matchups in the World Series — and none better than this one.

This matchup is (probably?) the cream of the crop

Probability that the World Series contains teams with true talent* of a given ranking within Major League Baseball, 2010-17

2017 Dodgers vs. Astros 35% 10% 38% 70%
2016 Cubs def. Indians 32 7 26 58
2013 Red Sox def. Cardinals 22 4 20 51
2015 Royals def. Mets 14 2 11 37
2011 Cardinals def. Rangers 14 2 11 37
2010 Giants def. Rangers 12 2 9 31
2012 Giants def. Tigers 11 1 8 30
2014 Giants def. Royals 11 1 7 24

*A team’s “true talent” ranking probability is derived from simulations using the team’s winning percentage and the uncertainty around its talent level.

Sources: Retrosheet, FanGraphs

For the Dodgers, their National League pennant represents a break with many years spent as preseason darlings but postseason disappointments. At some point in each of the 2012-13, 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 offseasons, Los Angeles was no worse than a co-favorite to win the World Series according to the Vegas odds. (There were also plenty of smart folks arguing that LA should be favored going into this season as well.) But despite their obvious talent — and massive payrolls — the Dodgers perennially found a way to come up short.

Until this year, that is. The Dodgers have thoroughly dominated the playoffs thanks to a superstar turn by Justin Turner, an unhittable bullpen (led by goose-egg king Kenley Jansen), the midseason acquisition of Yu Darvish and Yasiel Puig’s redemption, among other storylines. But they’ve also gotten important contributions from unlikely sources. As Jonah Keri noted, Los Angeles’s narrative is as much about unlikely heroes such as Kiké Hernández — the fourth-year outfielder (making barely more than the league’s minimum salary) who launched three homers to help LA eliminate the Cubs — as it is about high-priced big names.

Now, Los Angeles finds itself as a World Series favorite once again — but this time in October, not March. “[The Dodgers] led the major leagues in wins for a reason,” Houston pitcher Dallas Keuchel said in the wake of his team’s pennant-clinching victory Saturday night. “They won a lot of games in a row in the middle part of the season.”

Keuchel was quick to point out, though, that his Astros are a great team in their own right: “They’re not to be taken lightly, but we’re not to be either.”

Houston’s postseason path was a lot more difficult than Los Angeles’s. Instead of cruising through in just a game over the minimum like LA did, the Astros needed four games to eliminate the Red Sox and were taken to seven games by the up-and-coming Yankees. Along the way, plenty of causes for concern emerged, including a rickety bullpen and a worrying five-game stretch against New York in which Houston brought home only 1.8 runs per game.

But this is still the same lineup that led the majors in scoring during the regular season. (Even while slumping versus the Yankees, Houston hit the ball hard.) The righty-heavy Astros will also be facing a Dodger pitching staff that’s far more left-handed than the Yankee one that gave them trouble. On the other side of the ball, Houston ace Justin Verlander is just about as sharp as he’s been since his MVP days. And for those wondering about the Dodgers’ edge in rest, it might not be of as much benefit as you’d think: Since 2006, the team that clinched its league championship first has lost 10 of 11 World Series.

In other words, this World Series should be close, and it could very well end up going down as an all-timer. Of course, a great matchup on paper doesn’t always translate to a memorable championship duel; conversely, sometimes a weak matchup on paper yields thrilling results. But based on what we know right now, this Astros-Dodgers matchup looks like the best possible way to end a year in which baseball’s elite teams were unusually dominant all season long.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.


  1. The difference here is that I simply used each team’s winning percentage and the uncertainty around it, based on Tom Tango’s research.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.