After a big comeback in one league’s championship series — and an even bigger comeback that wasn’t in the other — the World Series is finally set, with the Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers meeting up for Game 1 tonight in Arlington, Texas. Here are some of the biggest factors that jump out as we look ahead to the Fall Classic:
These are legitimately the two best teams in baseball …
Sorry to burst anyone’s bubble, but the World Series doesn’t always feature MLB’s two best teams. (Scandalous, I know.) In this case, though, it’s hard to argue that we aren’t seeing the true cream of baseball’s crop on the game’s biggest stage. During the regular season, Tampa Bay and Los Angeles each had the best records in their respective leagues, which is only the fourth time that has happened in a World Series matchup since the wild-card era began in 1994. (The other series that fit the description came in 2013, 1999 and 1995.) That used to occur every year, of course — by definition — but it’s only happened a little over 25 percent of the time since the League Championship Series was introduced in 1969.
According to our team rankings, the Dodgers and Rays also rank first and second in Elo rating, respectively. That makes this only the ninth time that baseball has seen a college-football-esque No. 1-vs.-2 championship matchup in the past 35 years:
No. 1-vs.-2 World Series matchups like this are rare
World Series matchups since 1985 featuring MLB’s Nos. 1 and 2 teams in our pre-series Elo ratings
|Year||No. 1 Team||No. 2 Team||Winner (Series Record)|
|2016||Cubs||Indians||No. 1 (4-3)|
|2013||Red Sox||Cardinals||No. 1 (4-2)|
|2007||Red Sox||Rockies||No. 1 (4-0)|
|2004||Cardinals||Red Sox||No. 2 (4-0)|
|1999||Braves||Yankees||No. 2 (4-0)|
|1995||Indians||Braves||No. 2 (4-2)|
|1991||Braves||Twins||No. 2 (4-3)|
|1989||Athletics||Giants||No. 1 (4-0)|
… but the Dodgers are pretty sizable favorites.
In the list above, the No. 1 team actually lost just as often as it won — sometimes in an unexpected sweep, even. Weird things can happen in baseball’s postseason … but don’t necessarily count on that this time around. With a gap of 45 Elo points separating them from the Rays, the Dodgers are the 15th-biggest favorite in World Series history and are tied for the fifth-biggest since 1969:
The biggest World Series mismatches (on paper)
Biggest gap in pre-series Elo ratings for World Series teams, 1969-2020
|Year||Team||Elo Rating||Team||Elo Rating||Elo Gap||Outcome?|
|1975||Reds||1602||Red Sox||1547||+54||Win (4-3)|
|1986||Mets||1581||Red Sox||1543||+38||Win (4-3)|
Again, this being baseball, some of the biggest underdogs ended up winning. (Cincinnati’s sweep of the 103-win Oakland A’s in 1990 has to go down as one of history’s most stunning routs, and the Reds were the underdog by just a bit wider Elo margin than the Rays are currently to the Dodgers.) Accordingly, our prediction model gives Los Angeles a 69 percent chance of winning its first title since 1988 — big by baseball standards, but far from a sure thing.
The matchup is a fitting commentary on team-building in 2020.
The Dodgers had baseball’s third-largest payroll this season, according to Baseball-Reference.com’s salary data, trailing only the Houston Astros and New York Yankees. The Rays, meanwhile, had baseball’s third-smallest payroll, ahead of only the Miami Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates. Going back to 1998 — when MLB expanded to its current 30-team structure — that 25-spot difference in salary ranking between L.A. and Tampa Bay is the biggest for any World Series:
Rich team, poor team
Biggest gap in MLB payroll ranking between two World Series opponents since 1998
|Higher-Paid Club||Lower-Paid Club|
|Year||Team||Payroll Rk||Team||Payroll Rk||Diff.||Rich Club Win?|
Traditionally, these big salary mismatches haven’t gone well for the poorer team. Of the 10 most lopsided battles on the list above, nine were won by the club with the more expensive talent — the only exception being the 2003 World Series, in which the then-Florida Marlins outdueled the favored Yankees in six games.
But in a larger sense, the Dodgers and Rays both tell us about where the sport has headed over the past few decades. When Tampa Bay made its big leap into contention in 2008, “Moneyball” (the book) was only 5 years old, and the use of analytics for team-building was still more the province of small-market teams like the Rays than big-market ones like the Dodgers. Tampa’s general manager back then? A 31-year-old former financial analyst named Andrew Friedman — who happens to now be the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations.
Not coincidentally, the Dodgers typify the way big-market clubs have subsumed the lessons learned by smaller teams scraping for every edge. Where the late-2000s Rays had Ben Zobrist, Los Angeles now has an army of multi-positional fielders; where ex-Rays manager Joe Maddon was hailed for helping reintroduce the defensive shift to baseball, no team in the regular season shifted more in 2020 than the Dodgers. To the credit of Tampa Bay’s current brain trust, it still managed to build an exceptional all-around team on a shoestring budget. But the Dodgers built one of those, too — while paying Clayton Kershaw, Mookie Betts, Justin Turner and Kenley Jansen more than the Rays’ entire roster combined.
The Rays are relying on slick defense, timely pitching — and the Randy Arozarena Show.
The Rays were not an elite pure hitting team in the regular season, and they’ve struggled to consistently get on base in the playoffs — among the eight teams that made the division series, Tampa Bay ranks seventh in postseason batting average, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS. Only three regular Rays hitters have an OPS over .780 in the playoffs: Ji-Man Choi (.952), Manny Margot (.967) and — of course — ALCS MVP Randy Arozarena (1.288). Arozarena’s seven home runs set a new rookie record and are tied (behind Nelson Cruz in 2011, Carlos Beltran in 2004 and Barry Bonds in 2002) for the second-most ever in a single postseason. But the Rays have arguably relied too much on Arozarena and the long ball; 72 percent of their runs in the playoffs have come via the home run, the largest share ever for a pennant-winner going into a World Series, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Tampa Bay could stand to get more from some of its flagging hitters — most notably second baseman Brandon Lowe, who carries a dismal .366 postseason OPS after posting a .916 mark during the regular season. But the Dodgers’ pitching won’t be easy to overcome. Among division-series contestants, L.A. pitchers easily have the best fielding independent pitching (FIP) this postseason, with the second-best rates of strikeouts and home runs allowed. Though Arozarena also had great numbers (1.023 OPS) in limited playing time during the regular season, he’ll probably regress to the mean some in the World Series. Will his teammates pick up the slack?
On the other side of the ball, the Rays have relied on their defense to make plays and get the key out at the right moment. Tampa’s pitchers have stranded a playoff-high 85.5 percent of runners on base, and only the Astros had a larger gap than the Rays have had between their ERA (3.36) and FIP (4.65) in the postseason. Both of those stats tend to regress to the mean as well — though we’d also expect the quartet of Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Nick Anderson and Ryan Yarbrough, who combined for a 3.69 regular-season FIP, to do better than their collective 5.75 postseason mark. The real question is how much they can limit the damage from an L.A. lineup that led the majors in regular-season scoring and produced an .850 OPS against the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS, with four regular hitters (Corey Seager, Kiké Hernández, Max Muncy and Joc Pederson) above .970 in the series.
This is another major chapter in Clayton Kershaw’s complicated story.
After losing his lone start of the NLCS, it looked like 2020 might be the latest in a long line of postseason disappointments for Clayton Kershaw. But L.A.’s comeback gives him another shot at redemption. And one start shouldn’t define his playoffs as a whole, anyway. Over the entire postseason, Kershaw is 2-1 with a 3.32 ERA and 3.14 FIP in 19 innings … pretty solid numbers, all told. (For comparison, he had a 3.31 FIP during the regular season.) That’s kind of par for the course, though: Kershaw has not been as bad in the playoffs as we’re often led to believe — he has the same career postseason FIP (3.74) as legendary money pitcher Jack Morris, for instance — yet he has also faltered in some pretty high-profile games. His legacy is complicated, without a doubt, and that fact is certain to come into play sooner or later in this World Series.
Perhaps the bigger postseason question for Kershaw is just how many prime chances he’ll have left to win a ring after 2020. Though he had his best season in three years according to WAR per 162 games, Kershaw will be 33 next season, an area of the aging curve in which pitchers typically see their strikeouts drop and their FIPs rise. And while the Dodgers should still be plenty good next year, more than a few familiar faces from this current quasi-dynasty1 are set to be free agents after this season, including Pederson, Hernández and Turner. (Kershaw himself has a contract that expires the offseason after next.) It’s hard not to think that this is one of the last, best championship opportunities remaining for the Kershaw-era Dodgers.
It should be a very good World Series.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Dodgers and Rays’ combined .692 winning percentage is the highest for any World Series in history. That’s in part due to the fact that league-leading records will be more extreme in a smaller sample — and the 2020 season was baseball’s shortest since 1878. But these teams also look good if we look at metrics that are theoretically regressed to account for such a short schedule. If you take the harmonic mean of both teams’ Elo ratings in each World Series, this matchup shows up as the 13th-best in history and the third-best since 1953:
This World Series matchup looks good on paper
Best World Series matchups based on the harmonic mean of pre-series Elo ratings, 1903-2020
|Year||Team||Elo Rating||Team||Elo Rating||Harmonic Mean||Winner|
|1906||Cubs||1635||White Sox||1562||1597.5||White Sox|
|2018||Red Sox||1600||Dodgers||1582||1591.2||Red Sox|
|1912||Red Sox||1592||Giants||1580||1585.8||Red Sox|
That also squares with the thrills both teams have already provided so far in the postseason. If the twin seven-game league championship series were any indication, we should be in for a treat as the Rays and Dodgers take the field over the next week or so.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.