It wouldn’t have been surprising under the circumstances if an unexpected team or two got hot and rolled into the 2020 Fall Classic during this season like no other.
Instead, we’re left with a World Series that features the teams that finished with the best record in each league. In fact, Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays combined for a .692 winning percentage – the highest for a World Series matchup all-time, surpassing the 1906 Fall Classic between the Chicago Cubs and White Sox (.690).
While the Rays are seeking the franchise’s first title in only its second World Series appearance, the Dodgers are here for the third time in four years and hope to finally breakthrough with their first championship since 1988.
But make no mistake: Los Angeles is the true Goliath in this tale with a total payroll of about $108 million – second in the majors according to spotrac – and the Rays are 28th at $28 million – ahead of only the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles. Tampa Bay has already taken down the team at the top – the New York Yankees ($109M).
How have the Rays overcome such remarkably long odds? The same way they’ve earned six playoff appearances in 13 years since Joe Maddon and Evan Longoria led them to their first AL pennant in 2008. They’ve taken some data-driven risks in free agency and the trade market, implemented an innovative strategy for both how they use their pitching staff (the use of an opener) and how they combat launch angle.
In January, Tampa traded pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore and catching prospect Edgardo Rodriguez to the St. Louis Cardinals for veteran Jose Martinez and a guy named Randy Arozarena. After playing in only 19 games over the first two years of his career, the Cuban outfielder has hit .382 with seven home runs this postseason and was named the ALCS MVP.
With his homer in Game 7 against the Houston Astros, Arozarena topped Longoria for the most long balls by a rookie in one postseason and he became the first rookie with a go-ahead shot in a Game 7 since Miguel Cabrera in the 2003 NLCS.
Needing three straight wins to avoid elimination, the Dodgers rallied to claim their third NL pennant in four years on Sunday night. They also became the first team in MLB history to hit both a game-tying and go-ahead home run in a Game 7 victory.
Mookie Betts is living up to his 12-year, $365 million contract, hitting .311 with a .407 on-base percentage in the playoffs while also playing some outstanding defense. Cody Bellinger, who hit the go-ahead homer in Game 7, is swinging the bat better after a subpar regular season (.239, 12 HRs) and NLCS MVP Corey Seager has carried a strong regular season (.307, 15 HRs) over into the playoffs, batting .298 with six homers and 15 RBIs.
Let’s take a closer look at the rare neutral-site Fall Classic at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, and analyze our data to determine which team could win it all. To project our winners, we’re using a model that combines each club’s Raw Value data into a single ranking system.
Raw Value+ (RV+) examines how a hitter performs throughout each pitch of an at-bat rather than just the end result, while Raw Value- (RV-) does the same from a pitcher’s perspective.
We mentioned Bellinger’s bounce back, Seager’s big year (3rd in MLB in RV+) and the addition of Betts paying dividends. Betts, who won the 2018 AL MVP while helping the Boston Red Sox win it all, has seen the Rays more than anyone else in LA’s lineup. He went a combined 4 for 12 with a double versus left-hander Blake Snell in 2018 and 2019, and was 4 for 14 against Charlie Morton and 3 for 6 off Tyler Glasnow last year. Los Angeles was our top-rated offensive club in the regular season, leading the majors with 118 home runs and 5.8 runs per game, and it’s second behind only the Yankees with an .812 OPS in the postseason.
The Rays have advanced despite hitting just .209 and ranking 10th among all playoff teams with a .702 OPS. During the regular season, they finished ninth in the AL with a team RV+ of 95, which was below the league average.
Brandon Lowe hit .269 with a team-high 14 home runs and a 129 RV+ in the regular season, but he’s struggled with a .115 average and 18 strikeouts in 52 postseason at-bats. Austin Meadows, who was an All-Star last season, has gone just 4 for 35 (.114). Arozarena, Ji-Man Choi (.290, 2 HRs) and Manuel Margot (.256, 5 HRs, 11 RBIs) have been bright spots.
The Rays have named Glasnow and Snell their starters for Games 1 and 2. Glasnow had a stellar 75 RV- during the regular season and owns a 4.66 ERA over his four starts this postseason, while Snell finished the regular season with an above-average 92 RV- and has a 3.20 ERA over his four playoff outings. Morton, who is likely to take the ball in Game 3, has been the best of the bunch with a 3-0 record and a 0.57 ERA in three starts after posting an 83 RV- during the regular season.
Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler headline LA’s rotation, and the Dodgers are likely to continue using Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin and Julio Urias to open bullpen games. Kershaw, whose playoff struggles are well documented, will get another chance to exorcise those demons in Game 1. In his last outing, he allowed four runs over five innings in a 10-2 loss in Game 4 of the NLCS two days after missing his scheduled due to back spasms. Buehler will start Game 3 after working six scoreless innings in Game 6 of the NLCS. The right-hander owns a 1.89 ERA over his four playoff starts.
The Dodgers and Rays each ranked fourth in their respective leagues by our metrics, and Tampa starters have a 3.30 postseason ERA while LA’s starters are at 3.33. Because the Rays’ rotation is a little deeper with the possibility of starting Ryan Yarbrough in Game 4, they get the nod.
Los Angeles relievers finished the regular season fourth in Whiff+, which measures the swing and miss ability of a pitcher – a critical component in the performance of a bullpen, and second in our bullpen rankings overall. They’re also a big reason the Dodgers have advanced, going 5-1 with a 3.40 ERA over 55 2/3 innings in the postseason. Urias, one of the stars of the team’s Game 7 win over the Braves, has yet to allow an earned run over 11 innings out of the bullpen.
The Rays also had one of the best pens in the majors, ranking fifth with an 81 RV-. The unit has also shined in the playoffs with six saves and a 3.41 ERA over 60 2/3 innings. Expect to see a lot of Diego Castillo, Nick Anderson and Pete Fairbanks, who saved Game 7 against the Astros to become the first rookie to save a Game 7 since David Price in the 2008 ALCS.
Again it’s close, but we give the Dodgers a slight advantage.
In reality, the starting rotations and bullpens are a coin flip. But according to the data, the Dodgers have a major advantage offensively and that should finally push them over the top in what looks to be a long series.
STATS PERFORM’S PROJECTION: IN 7
Data modeling and analysis provided by Lucas Haupt.
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