In honor of the start of the 2020 World Series, we spend almost this entire episode talking about baseball. We first break down how the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays made it to the Fall Classic. The matchup favors the Dodgers — our model gives them a 69 percent chance to win the World Series. There certainly is pressure on them to end a 32-year championship drought, as well as on stars like Clayton Kershaw and Mookie Betts to prove their worth when it really counts. But the Rays need many more things to go right for them to win: They need their bullpen to keep them out of trouble instead of bailing them out of trouble, and they need Randy Arozarena to keep hitting home runs at an incredible rate. All our hosts love the Rays’ style of play but remain unconvinced that their underdog narrative is as scrappy as Tampa makes it sound. What the hosts are convinced of is that this year, finally, belongs to the Dodgers. (Though they also acknowledge that their predictions have not been all that accurate this year.)
But there are other questions being asked about this World Series, including whether the Rays’ low-budget approach to team-building is exciting or actually somewhat detrimental to players — and even to baseball fandom itself. As this is FiveThirtyEight, we are unsurprisingly fans of efficiency-driven decision-making on the part of front offices. While the Rays are an extreme example of what small-market teams have to do in order to compete year in and year out, it’s not like the Dodgers aren’t also using sabermetrics. The Rays’ success playing Moneyball is much better for Tampa’s fans and the league as a whole than if the Rays resigned themselves to constant disappointment — as small-market, midtable teams in the English Premier League do. The solution to the resentment some fans are feeling probably isn’t a misguided form of player-club loyalty on the part of the Rays. It’s baseball owners opening up their books and showing us all which teams are maximizing their efficiency out of necessity, and which are actually being cheap.
Finally, in the Rabbit Hole, Neil takes a look at how home-field advantage has (or hasn’t) changed over the course of 2020. The results are inconclusive. Baseball and football, which had the use of their stadiums but fewer fans, remained very close to their avenge home winning percentages at full capacity. The NBA and the WNBA, which competed in bubbles, saw clearer differences in favor of home team victories, despite playing at neutral sites. Is home-field advantage all about material amenities? Is it more psychological? We would need to wait for another pandemic to completely shut down sports in order to collect more sample data, so we hope this stays a mystery for a good long while.
What we’re looking at this week: