It will be a Major League Baseball postseason like we’ve never seen before: 16 teams, no fans, played in neutral-site ballparks after the first round with a World Series at a new stadium that most players have never seen hosted by a franchise that has never won a championship.
As a friend of mine who lives in Chicago told me about one potential World Series matchup, “If it’s Cubs-White Sox played in suburban Dallas, I would vomit.”
I understand the sentiment, but it’s what we have. We will crown a champion, even under these less-than-ideal circumstances. The Los Angeles Dodgers enter as the favorite after winning their eighth straight division title. Winning is hard enough — for the 20th year in a row, there won’t be a repeat champion — but now the Dodgers and everyone else will have to face another obstacle: a best-of-three wild-card round.
What does that mean? A great team like the Dodgers — they have a run differential 50 runs better than any other team — is more likely to get upset in a short series than a longer one. The Dodgers don’t lose many series — they lost just one all season, to the sub-.500 Rockies — but anything goes in a three-game set, especially when you’re facing only a team’s best pitchers. We wondered how much the odds of winning the World Series would change for a team like the Dodgers. With the help of ESPN Stats & Information, we used historical data based on a team’s runs scored and allowed compared to the league average, and estimated the odds of every playoff series since 1998.
Here is how the new playoff format changes the chance of winning the World Series for a generic seed:
A typical No. 1 seed sees it odds go down 10.5%. It’s harder to win four series than three. The Nos. 4 and 5 seeds actually see their odds go up, since they no longer have to play the one-game wild-card game.
For the 2020 Dodgers, we estimate their odds of winning the World Series dropping to 31.6% under the 2020 format. As good as they are, their chances don’t match the historical average for a top seed because they are projected to face a strong Padres team in the wild-card round and then a strong Braves team in the National League Championship Series. If there is any consolation for Dodgers fans, we have seen super teams succeed in recent postseasons, with the 2016 Cubs, 2017 Astros and 2018 Red Sox all winning the World Series after winning 100-plus games in the regular season. The Dodgers’ 43-17 record over 60 games projects to a remarkable 116 wins over 162.
And here are the other playoff teams whose odds most change under the 16-team system:
Interestingly, if we compare the Dodgers to a hypothetical 16-team format for the past 10 World Series winners, their odds still change more than the odds for any of those teams:
The 2014 Giants and 2019 Nationals were wild-card teams, so we would project their chances to improve in a 16-team format. The 2013 Red Sox would have had to play a good No. 8 seed in the wild-card round in the Orioles or Yankees, who both finished 85-77 that season.
So good luck to the Dodgers. They have a great team — and a tough road to end their World Series drought. Indeed, it has been an amazing eight seasons with eight straight NL West titles and a 596 winning percentage. Few teams are that good for that long without winning a title, but here are a few other eight-year runs that failed to yield a single title:
• Yankees, 2001-2008 (.599): This doesn’t stand out because they bookended it with championships in 2000 and 2009, but they won 100 games three times and reached two World Series.
• Athletics, 1999-2006 (.580): The Moneyball A’s lost four straight division series from 2001 to 2004 and then the 2006 ALCS to the Tigers.
• Braves, 1996-2003 (.611): After winning the World Series in 1995, the Braves would win 10 more NL East titles in a row, including five 100-win seasons, without winning another title.
• Mariners, 1995-2002 (.555): Griffey, Johnson, Edgar, A-Rod, Ichiro, Buhner, Moyer … and not even a World Series appearance.
• Indians, 1994-2001 (.585): At various times their lineup featured Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Roberto Alomar and Juan Gonzalez, but they lost the 1995 World Series to the Braves and the heartbreaking 1997 World Series to the Marlins.
• Orioles, 1971-79 (.581): They won in 1970, but Earl Weaver spent the rest of his managerial career chasing a second title and never getting one.
• Giants, 1961-68 (.568): They had the best winning percentage in the majors over this span and four Hall of Famers (Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, Orlando Cepeda) yet reached just one World Series.
• Dodgers, 1947-1954 (.611): After losing to the Yankees in 1947, 1949, 1952 and 1953, they finally beat them in 1955, the team’s only title in Brooklyn.
The current Dodgers have the best winning percentage over the past eight seasons, but the No. 2 team might surprise you: the Cleveland Indians, at .564. This is their fifth playoff appearance in eight seasons and their World Series drought is even longer than the Dodgers’, all the way back to 1948. A Dodgers-Indians World Series? That will work.
Some other things to watch this postseason …
Fewer off days
Aside from the 16-team format, this is the other drastic change to this year’s postseason: The wild-card series will be three games in three days; the division series will be five games in five days instead of five over seven; and the league championship series will be seven games in seven days instead of seven in nine. The World Series then reverts to the traditional format with off days after Games 2 and 5.
There will be plenty of time off between the wild-card round and the division series since there will be no games on Saturday and Sunday, but the condensed nature of the LDS and LCS will put an added strain on pitchers in those two rounds and force managers to dig deeper into their staffs.
Think about how the Nationals made it work last season. They relied essentially on just six pitchers in the postseason: starters Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez, and relievers Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. Those six pitchers accounted for 83% of the Nationals’ innings in the postseason compared to 58% in the regular season. The Red Sox deployed a similar strategy in 2018, with starters appearing in relief and their top six pitchers accounting for 75% of their postseason innings.
Without the extra off days, that’s not going to work in 2020 — or, if managers do try to load up the innings on their best pitchers, will mean starters pitching on short rest and relievers appearing multiple days in a row. Over the past five postseasons, pitchers have made 41 starts on short rest — but 22 of those came following a relief appearance and another five had extenuating circumstances such as a short outing in the pitcher’s prior start. So there have been just 14 true short-rest starts over the past five postseasons and only one pitcher made more than one in a single postseason, Corey Kluber with the Indians in 2016, when he started Game 4 of the ALCS and then Games 4 and 7 of the World Series. Even that situation was somewhat necessitated when the Cleveland rotation was hammered with injuries, forcing manager Terry Francona’s hand.
In other words, don’t expect many starts on short rest. What will the condensed schedule mean? It means a starter who starts the first game of the division series would have to start Game 5 on short rest. If he starts Game 1 of the league championship series, he wouldn’t be on full rest until Game 6. It means more fourth and fifth starters, more bullpen games like we saw in the regular season and more relievers pitching two and three days in a row. It could mean more runs scored. As Jeff Passan recently wrote, “Bold prediction: By the end of the postseason, teams will have averaged at least five runs per game. For context, last postseason the average was 4.03, the average this regular season is 4.65 and only seven times in the live ball era has the sport seen more than five runs per game during a full season.”
Which teams might this help?
Dodgers: They have five good starting pitchers in Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Tony Gonsolin, Dustin May and Julio Urias. Buehler has the worst ERA of the group at 3.44. On top of that, they have a deep bullpen. They’re the favorite for a reason.
Athletics: The rotation was only middle of the pack, but they had the best bullpen in the regular season. Look for Bob Melvin to shorten games with quick hooks and rely heavily on his relievers.
Which teams might it hurt?
Braves: Max Fried went 7-0 with a 2.25 ERA and rookie Ian Anderson had a 1.95 ERA in six starts, but the rest of the rotation was so bad the Braves still finished with the third-worst rotation ERA in the majors. In fact, of the bottom 12 rotations, they were the only team to make the playoffs.
Young teams making a splash
The Padres and White Sox are back in the postseason — the Padres for the first time since 2006, the White Sox for the first time since 2008. So that’s fun, but what’s even more fun is these are rosters full of young, exciting players, led by San Diego’s sophomore sensation Fernando Tatis Jr. The White Sox feature rookie center fielder Luis Robert — he slumped mightily in September after hitting nine home runs in August, but should win a Gold Glove — and second-year slugger Eloy Jimenez, rookie second baseman Nick Madrigal and dynamic Tim Anderson.
Beyond those two, there’s another team with a young lineup to watch as well — the Blue Jays, with second-year players Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio. They actually boast the youngest lineup in the majors based on weighted playing time, with an average age of 25.9; the Padres were tied for third youngest at 26.6, the White Sox tied for ninth at 27.6. And the Blue Jays are the first team ever to qualify for the postseason without a single player with 10 years of major league experience.
Is youth a factor or non-factor in the postseason? With the exception of the 2016 Cubs, lineups of recent champs have skewed older than what we see from the Blue Jays or Padres:
2019 Nationals: 28.8 (24th)
2018 Red Sox: 27.7 (12th)
2017 Astros: 28.8 (23rd)
2016 Cubs: 27.4 (fifth)
2015 Royals: 29.1 (26th)
The last World Series champion with a lineup as young as San Diego’s or Toronto’s was the 1969 Mets, with an average age of 26.0 years, which ranked second youngest in the majors that year. The Blue Jays are obviously a long shot due to a shaky pitching staff, but this doesn’t mean the Padres won’t win, because it’s a really good lineup that ranked third in the majors in runs behind the Braves and Dodgers. Maybe the good news for Padres fans is even if they don’t win it all it won’t be 14 years until their next playoff appearance.
The March Madness feel to the “tournament”
While the first round in particular will feel something like the first round of the NCAA tournament, I’m not necessarily sure we want to see a .500-ish team go all the way. If there is a Cinderella, it has be the Marlins – who, I remind you, have never won a division title in their history and have also never lost a playoff series. They were 57-105 last year and their season almost appeared over after a COVID outbreak three games into the season. The purists will claim — rightly so, in my opinion — that the beauty of baseball is proving yourself over 162 games just to get the playoffs. Now a mediocre team might win it all. But here’s a reminder that we’ve had Cinderella teams before:
• 1987 Twins: They finished 85-77, which would have been good for just fifth place in the AL East, and they were actually outscored on the season (the only World Series champion to be outscored). But they were unbeatable in the Metrodome and they upset the Tigers in the ALCS and then the Cardinals in the World Series.
• 2003 Marlins: They snuck into the playoffs as a 91-win wild card, but while the 101-win Braves and 100-win Giants played each other in the NLDS, they got to play the 88-win Cubs. They beat the Cubs, then the Braves, then the 101-win Yankees.
• 2006 Cardinals: They finished just 83-78, the worst record ever for a World Series champ and just the 13th-best record that season. In the playoffs, they beat the 88-win Padres, 97-win Mets and 95-win Tigers.
• 2014 Giants: The fifth seed in the NL with 88 wins, a series of upsets meant they only had to beat the 89-win Royals in the World Series.
• 2019 Nationals: They won 93 games — tied for eighth in the majors — but beat the 106-win Dodgers and 107-win Astros along the way to feel like a worthy champ.
Is Cinderella your thing? Well, 2020 might give us the ultimate surprise champion.
Ten storylines to watch
1. Clayton Kershaw: Since MLB’s expanded playoff format began in 1995, only 13 position players and five pitchers have accrued more WAR than Kershaw. All the pitchers won a World Series. Of the position players, only Barry Bonds, Adrian Beltre, Mike Trout and Jim Thome never won a title (or haven’t won, in Trout’s case). So, yes, one of the great players of the past 25 years, Kershaw is due.
2. Droughts: 2. Droughts. We mentioned Cleveland, without a World Series title since 1948. The Padres have never won a title. Neither have the Brewers. The Marlins are in the postseason for the first time since 2003. The Rays are a younger franchise, but they have never won. It’s been at least 30 years for the Reds, A’s and Dodgers. The Twins haven’t been to the World Series since 1991, the Blue Jays since 1993.
3. Speaking of Billy Beane … : It’s a little weird that a non-player is the face of an organization, but that’s kind of the case with Beane. He has been running baseball operations for the A’s since 1998 and this is his 11th playoff appearance. He’s still looking for his first World Series appearance.
4. Sixteen straight playoff losses: This one is hard to believe. Going back to the second game of the 2004 ALDS, the Twins are 0-16 in the postseason. Thirteen of those losses came against the Yankees.
5. Dusty Baker and the Astros’ redemption: The Houston manager is 71 years old. He’s 15th on the all-time wins list and 13 of those ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame, and the 14th, Bruce Bochy, will get in. But Baker will probably need a World Series title to get elected. If so, it will come after the Astros scuffled into the playoffs and they’ll be without the injured Justin Verlander. Will the offense come alive after struggling all season?
6. Home runs and strikeouts: The league-wide batting average fell to .245 — even without pitchers hitting — the lowest mark since 1972. Home runs were hit at the second-highest rate ever, behind only 2019. Strikeouts per game actually dipped after 14 consecutive seasons of rising (but were still the second most of all time). So who hits the most home runs? The Dodgers, Braves, White Sox, Twins, Yankees and Padres. The Twins, Indians White Sox and Braves allowed the fewest. The Indians and Reds were the best at striking out batters while the Rays were the best in the AL. The Rays also struck out the most often while the Astros were the best at not striking out. Will we see the high-scoring postseason Passan predicted or a bunch of low-scoring, high-strikeout games?
7. Shane Bieber: Speaking of strikeouts, the Indians ace fanned 41.1% of the batters he faced, a record for a starting pitcher if you want to consider it a full-season record. Batters hit .167 against him. He certainly feels like the starter most likely to go all 2014 Madison Bumgarner, although as noted the schedule makes it more difficult for one pitcher to dominate a series. Still, it’s possible Bieber’s postseason looks like this:
• Tuesday, Sept. 29: Game 1 of ALWC
• Monday, Oct. 5: Game 1 of ALDS
• Friday, Oct. 9: Game 5 of ALDS on short rest
• Wednesday, Oct. 14: Game 4 of ALCS
• Saturday, Oct. 17: Game 7 of ALCS in relief
• Tuesday, Oct. 20: Game 1 of World Series
• Sunday, Oct. 25: Game 5 of World Series
• Wednesday, Oct. 28: Game 7 of World Series in relief
8. Freddie Freeman: Really, the entire Braves offense. Freeman is one of the friendliest, most likable players in the majors, might win the NL MVP award and this could be his postseason to shine. He’s quietly building a Hall of Fame career and he has had his best season. Maybe the Braves’ starting pitching is shaky, but they have a good bullpen and they absolutely mash the baseball.
9. Closers: A lot of teams had issues here in the regular season, even playoff teams. Look for late-inning comebacks and dramatic walk-off home runs (and remember that extra innings reverts back to normal baseball, no runner-on-second rule). The team to watch here is the Rays: Twelve different relievers picked up a save. In the postseason, Kevin Cash will use any reliever at any time.
10. The Yankees: Wait, we’ve barely even mentioned the Yankees and now we’re at the end of our playoff preview. Well, Cole is another starting pitcher who might dominate the postseason. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are back in the lineup. Luke Voit is the new Lou Gehrig. DJ LeMahieu is hitting like Joe DiMaggio. It has been 11 long, miserable years of suffering for Yankees fans since their last World Series in 2009. Will this be the year?
San Diego Padres’ Luis Perdomo has Tommy John surgery
Perdomo, who is eligible for arbitration this offseason, was found to have a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament after the season.
The 27-year-old reliever, who missed time this season due to forearm inflammation, gave up 11 earned runs in 17.1 innings over 10 games for a 5.19 ERA. He had 16 strikeouts and 10 walks.
How the Rays became the Rays. Inside the brain trust of MLB’s most innovative team
When the Tampa Bay Rays first tasted success, reaching the 2008 World Series after just 10 years in existence, then-manager Joe Maddon would often remind his team that the franchise was still in its infancy.
“We are where some other teams were 100 years ago,” Maddon would say. “We’re writing history. We’re the first chapters of that history that people are going to look back on.”
The Maddon-led Rays lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in that Fall Classic, and the team has still never won a championship — under him or any manager — but after all of these years, dating back to the team’s inaugural season in 1998, the time could be now to change franchise history forever.
Win or lose this week, though, the American League champion Rays have long been changing baseball history with an innovative approach to team building, led by a brain trust whose members have now spread to front offices across Major League Baseball — including to the team they just beat in the American League Championship Series, the Houston Astros, and the team they’re battling now for the Commissioner’s Trophy, the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Now in 2020, the brainiest baseball team in the bigs is four wins from its first title.
“Are we doing things the right way?”
Between meetings, between conference calls, this question has long bounced around the baseball operations offices of the Rays. Under the leadership of former Wall Street analyst Andrew Friedman — who in 2014, after a decade with the team, left to become the president of the Dodgers — the group developed a reputation for maximizing the potential of its players, creating a strong farm system and making shrewd trades. It helped produce stars like super-utility man Ben Zobrist and ace Chris Archer — flipping the latter a couple of seasons ago for two of the most important pieces of this year’s pennant-winning club in 6-foot-8 righty Tyler Glasnow and outfielder Austin Meadows.
The Rays haven’t always succeeded, particularly in an AL East that features perennial winners in the big-spending New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, but for them doing things the right way — in a new way — has meant embracing the opener, using extreme shifts and sometimes even a fourth outfielder. Despite a payroll that ranks 28th in MLB, ahead of just the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Baltimore Orioles, that philosophy — along with a reputation for outsmarting other teams in trades and tactics — has long brought the Rays respect. Now it’s brought them back to the World Series.
With a roster that has few, if any, household names, the hallmark of the 2020 Rays — as it has been for the club for many years — is depth.
“Working with Andrew Friedman, depth was always something that was critical to our organization,” senior vice president of baseball operations and general manager Erik Neander told ESPN.com earlier this year. “For health and also for unexpected performance in both directions. Depth is a way to have guys who can surprise you in pleasant ways. In this division, we usually don’t bully clubs with the top of our roster. It’s really about flattening the talent slope from spots five through 40, making sure we’re strong there.”
After Friedman’s departure, the unorthodox approach to franchise building and willingness to stretch the impact of analytics on the field continued with an all-star quartet of executives, including Neander. Matthew Silverman started his career at Goldman Sachs, where he helped Rays owner Stuart Sternberg structure his bid for the team before being hired as its president. Senior vice president of baseball operations (now Red Sox chief baseball officer) Chaim Bloom wrote for Baseball Prospectus before joining the Rays as an intern. Current Astros general manager James Click also rose from Baseball Prospectus writer to intern, then all the way to vice president of baseball operations with Tampa Bay. Together, they developed a front-office culture where decisions were collaborative, nontraditional ideas were embraced and negative reaction from others outside the organization was largely ignored.
“Try to appreciate the strengths a player possesses at any given moment. … You don’t necessarily know what [paths] they’re going to take, but the more options, the more possibilities, the more you have a chance for them to take that step. It’s easy on any given player to focus on what they can’t do, especially prospects.”
Rays GM Erik Neander on scouting and developing players
Not that being in St. Petersburg, Florida, hurt. While the front office sometimes faced blowback from the national media regarding some of its forward-thinking moves, the lack of the daily scrutiny found in larger markets like Boston, New York, Philadelphia or Los Angeles meant more room for experimentation, according to former Rays executives — not to mention the necessity to be creative with money. That relative freedom is something Rays alums say they’ve come to appreciate after moving on to bigger markets.
In recent years, the success of Tampa Bay brought attention to Bloom, who interviewed with the Phillies, Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, San Francisco Giants and New York Mets before taking the job in 2019 running the Red Sox. All of the final four teams in this year’s playoffs — the Astros (Click), the Braves (team president Alex Anthopoulos worked under Friedman in L.A.), the Dodgers and of course Tampa Bay — have roots and ties to the Tampa Bay organization. Now, Friedman faces off for a World Series title against a team he knows as well as anyone.
“Obviously I have close personal relationships, my closest friends, but my focus is what we’re doing here. We came back down from 3-1 and our focus is on tonight, and now our focus is four more wins,” Friedman told Tom Verducci after the Dodgers won the NLCS.
Said Click, to the Houston Chronicle, about facing his former team in the ALCS: “On a scale of zero to weird, it’s pretty weird.” Click also told the Wall Street Journal: “The ability to create your own talent is always going to be a huge mover. It’s something that the Rays obviously do exceptionally well. It’s something the Dodgers do exceptionally well.”
With smarts, the ability to fly under the radar to a degree and financial restraints that would often necessitate innovation, ideas that would start as watercooler topics — hypotheticals thrown around for fun with co-workers — have turned into radical ideas actually implemented by the Rays on the field.
One of the more recent radical ideas: Hiring baseball’s first process and analytics coach and giving him a spot in the dugout. Jonathan Erlichman, a former math major at Princeton — nicknamed J-Money by Friedman for his conspicuously sharp dressing in his early days with the team — rose from Toronto Blue Jays intern to the Rays’ director of analytics before being named to the coaching staff prior to the 2019 season.
Most famously, before the 2018 season, the Tampa Bay front office, under the leadership group of Silverman, Bloom and Neander, wondered whether having a five-man rotation and a traditional bullpen with a closer was the best way to maximize the talent of their roster.
The opener was born — and suddenly, the entire weight of an idea would fall onto the shoulders of then-35-year-old right-hander Sergio Romo. After experimenting using more under-the-radar relievers like Andrew Kittredge, Ryan Yarbrough and Yonny Chirinos to start games early in the season, the Rays saw Romo, with nearly 600 appearances under his belt, as a way to legitimize the practice. Romo carried the career pedigree of a top reliever who closed out a World Series and, just as importantly, seemed open-minded about the idea.
On May 19, 2018, Romo struck out Zack Cozart, Mike Trout and Justin Upton of the Los Angeles Angels in a perfect first inning. The Rays won the game 5-3. Romo started again the next day, throwing a scoreless 1⅓ innings, though Tampa Bay lost 5-2.
Some saw the opener as the latest savvy experiment by the analytical Rays. Other more traditionalist baseball fans criticized the team’s lack of closer and set rotation. Among the most pointed criticism came from an elite big league starter: Astros righty Zack Greinke.
“It’s really smart, but it’s also really bad for baseball,” Greinke, then with the Arizona Diamondbacks, told Bleacher Report’s Scott Miller. “There’s always ways to get a little advantage, but the main problem I have with it is you do it that way, then you’ll end up never paying any player what he’s worth because you’re not going to have guys starting, you’re not going to have guys throwing innings. You just keep shuffling guys in and out so nobody will ever get paid.”
It worked well enough that Tampa Bay kept the practice up for the rest of the season. That year, Tampa Bay was the only team to use an opener in the double digits, employing the strategy in 41 games. In 2019, six teams used openers in double-digit games, led by the Rays at 57 times. What started as a fringe strategy had become mainstream, particularly in the playoffs. This October, the Yankees attempted to use an opener to trick Tampa Bay in the ALDS, starting rookie righty Deivi Garcia before bringing in J.A. Happ in the second inning of Game 2 — a move that ultimately backfired.
With a rotation topped by the talents of 2018 Cy Young winner Blake Snell, Glasnow and Charlie Morton, the rest of the Rays’ Swiss Army knife pitching staff has been tasked with simply getting outs, regardless of situation or inning.
That philosophy has shaped the rest of the Rays’ roster.
“Try to appreciate the strengths a player possesses at any given moment,” Neander said. “Try to keep the focus there. Try to think about the paths to further development. You don’t necessarily know what they’re going to take, but the more options, the more possibilities, the more you have a chance for them to take that step. It’s easy on any given player to focus on what they can’t do, especially prospects.”
The Mariners saw Ryan Yarbrough as a soft-tossing lefty minor leaguer with little upside. The Rays saw a pitcher who, with his plus control, could be an up-and-down guy at the minimum. The Rays got Yarbrough and Mallex Smith for Drew Smyly (who promptly got injured). Meanwhile, Yarbrough added a cutter to help against righties and that’s become his best pitch as he has gone 28-16 with a 3.94 ERA over three seasons.
“The fact is that when everyone gets traded, the first thing they say is they do extremely well at developing pitchers and the fact that I come over and we were able to hone some things and figure out some ways to get better. It was the truth,” Yarbrough said. “It was a great job and you can see all of the guys who have come up through the years and had a lot of pitching success.”
“We’re good because we have good players and we really work hard to get them in the right positions to be successful and win you games. But the bottom line is that you don’t get to this point and you don’t have a record that we have without having good players.”
Rays manager Kevin Cash
The Rays acquired Nick Anderson last season from the Marlins with Trevor Richards for outfield prospect Jesus Sanchez and reliever Ryne Stanek. The Marlins figured they would cash in on a 28-year-old rookie reliever they had acquired for next to nothing from the Twins. The Rays saw a pitcher, who no matter his circuitous route to the majors (including time in independent ball) had great stuff and the potential to be one of the best relievers in baseball. Anderson has a 1.43 ERA in the regular season since that trade, with 67 strikeouts and just five walks in 37 2/3 innings.
The Pirates had grown frustrated with Meadows and Glasnow, even though both were once regarded as top-20 overall prospects. Meadows had been injury-prone in the minors and the Pirates had given up on Glasnow as a starter due to control problems. The Rays saw two extremely talented — and still young — players who perhaps just needed a change of scenery. They got the pair for Archer in 2018, in what looks like one of the best trades of the past few years.
Yandy Diaz had just one home run in 265 at-bats with Cleveland in 2017-18, plus he was blocked at third base by Jose Ramirez. The Rays saw a player who had big exit velocity, plate discipline, could play third or first and just needed to add some loft to his swing. They got Diaz in a three-way deal, giving up Jake Bauers. Diaz has hit .278/.365/.451 with a 121 OPS+ with the Rays — the perfect complementary player.
When asked about his relationship with the team’s front office, manager Kevin Cash — a former journeyman catcher for teams including the Rays, Red Sox and Yankees, who later served as a Toronto Blue Jays scout and then the Cleveland Indians‘ bullpen coach — described the dynamic as “a collaboration” noting a running conversation between the player development, scouting, front office and coaching groups, with ideas pitched — and heard — from all sides.
“That’s where Erik Neander and his staff do such a good job of bringing that all together,” Cash said. “You watch Erik and how he goes about his day and we’re around each other a lot right now in this bubble, but for every single conversation he has with a scout, he has with an R&D guy. He’s trying to pull as many thoughts together as possible so we can make really good decisions on the baseball field.”
The results of this year’s playoffs bear the fruit of this work, with outfielder Randy Arozarena tearing up fastballs left and right and part-time players like Mike Brosseau coming through with a series-defining home run against the Yankees in the ALDS. The Rays have long needed to find value between the cracks, spending significant time scouting a player’s personality and character to supplement any interest sparked by the analytics.
Cash said that the approach to roster building shaped an underdog mentality within the clubhouse, with many players overlooked by other teams finally getting an opportunity with the Rays. He typically finds that when a player joins Tampa Bay, it doesn’t take very long for him to buy into the team’s culture. And while Cash understands how analytics shaped the reputation of his team, that doesn’t define the players in his clubhouse.
“I don’t think we outsmart clubs,” Cash said. “We’re good because we have good players and we really work hard to get them in the right positions to be successful and win you games. But the bottom line is that you don’t get to this point and you don’t have a record that we have without having good players.”
Maddon’s Rays wrote the first chapters of the franchise, but Cash’s team is now trying to start a legacy by winning a World Series.
En route to the franchise’s second Fall Classic appearance, Cash removed an All-Star starter with a big-game pedigree — Morton — in Game 7 after 5 2/3 innings and 66 pitches, and runners on the corners with two outs, eliciting immediate criticism of the move on social media.
Cash brought in Anderson, trusting that Tampa Bay’s process would bring another victory after a season in which the Rays posted the AL’s best record (40-20), trusting that his best reliever would get him out of the game’s most important situation instead of allowing Morton to face Astros hitters a third time around. Anderson got the out, and three innings later, the Rays celebrated on the field at San Diego’s Petco Park, with a ticket to Arlington, Texas.
When asked after the game why he removed Morton, Cash got right to the point.
“It was pretty simple. Third time through [the order], we value that. We value our process,” he said. “We believe in our process, and we’re going to stick to that.”
How Mookie Betts changed the super-sabermetric World Series into the super-fun Series
ARLINGTON, Texas — In 1921, George Herman Ruth, better known as Babe, drew a walk and stole two bases in the fifth inning of a World Series game. In 2020, Markus Lynn Betts, better known as Mookie, drew a walk and stole two bases in the fifth inning of a World Series game. Over the 99 years, with hundreds of games and thousands of innings between these events, nobody managed the feat in a World Series game.
That it happens to be Ruth who last mustered the deed is an inspired bit of baseball whimsy, considering the other tie that binds him to Betts. Both were traded by the Boston Red Sox: Ruth to the New York Yankees in a 1919 deal that history considers sports’ greatest all-time fleecing and Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers this year in a far-less-lopsided yet still emotionally consuming swap. Unlike with Ruth, Boston had seen Betts at his peak. The city knew what it was losing.
Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday was the Mookie Betts show. Clayton Kershaw earned a Best Supporting Actor statuette, and sundry other Dodgers earned their scale, but Betts, on baseball’s biggest stage, surrounded by some of its best players, managed to differentiate himself. He married the game of Ruth’s era with its modern version. His dynamism overwhelmed the Tampa Bay Rays, just as it did the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series, just as it did all season, just as it has for a half-decade. Although he scored only two of Los Angeles’ runs in its 8-3 victory before a decidedly pro-Dodgers crowd of 11,388 at Globe Life Field, Betts left his fingerprints all over the things he stole, from bases to the series advantage.
When the Dodgers traded outfielder Alex Verdugo and shortstop prospect Jeter Downs for Betts and David Price in February, they did so with Tuesday night in mind. The Dodgers lost the World Series in 2017 and ’18. They built a player-development juggernaut, could spend money to match any team and still didn’t win. Betts was the separator.
In the fifth inning Tuesday, with the Dodgers leading 2-1, he separated. First, he drew a walk from Rays starter Tyler Glasnow. Then he stole second and became a hero to fans everywhere with the munchies by earning them a free taco through a promotion tied to stolen bases, which happen to be enough of an anachronism in baseball that seeing one in a game is double-take-worthy. A double steal, which Betts and Corey Seager then pulled off, is practically unheard of.
Betts’ greatest coup remained. There is an art to baserunning — to rounding bases properly, to leading off a base, to understanding scenarios as they unfold. The secondary lead — a few extra hops and a step toward the next base as the pitch is delivered — is something Betts does as well as anyone. When Max Muncy chopped a one-hopper that Rays first baseman Yandy Diaz fielded and wheeled home, his throw was slightly up the line, in decent shape to get a mortal running. Instead, it was Betts.
He heaved his body toward home — batting glove sticking out of his right rear pocket, sliding glove on his left hand, gold chain flopping around like it hadn’t a care in the world. Catcher Mike Zunino swept the tag. Too late. The Dodgers led 3-1. That lead expanded to 6-1 by the end of the fifth. It was 8-1 an inning later, with the first of those runs coming on a Betts opposite-field home run around the same vicinity where in NLCS Games 6 and 7 he made spectacular catches against the wall.
All of these elements, they’re Betts’ array of talent dictating what baseball can be. The one-dimensionality of the game in 2020 does not translate in Betts’ world. He hits. He fields. He runs. He plays long ball. He plays small ball. He molds himself to a moment. And the Dodgers follow.
“Mookie,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “is gonna get the best of everybody.”
The Dodgers, meanwhile, are getting the best of him, and that gives them an unmatched catalytic presence. After Betts’ slide around Zunino, the Dodgers followed with an RBI single, an RBI single and an RBI single. It was like a time warp back to the ’80s, before front offices believed that to make a stolen base worthwhile you need about an 80% success rate. In a World Series, in which every out is precious, the prospect of losing even one petrifies managers, so, by and large, they don’t run.
This series, between a Rays organization whose deftness with analytics has helped turn it into a baseball think tank and a Dodgers organization that uses similar principles but can leverage its financial advantage to weaponize them, had all the makings of a new-school, bullpen-heavy, matchup melee — and it might yet evolve into that.
Game 1, though? From Betts’ wheels to the quick-hook Rays leaving starter Tyler Glasnow in to throw 112 pitches despite his ineffectiveness, it was throwback day. The fifth inning in particular, with Betts running and Glasnow battling and the Dodgers’ lineup peppering RBI singles all over the field, might as well have been staged by players wearing flannel uniforms.
To win a World Series, it takes more than conventional wisdom or whatever passes for that today. If for a game or two or three or four it means playing the brand of baseball that the game and situation dictate, then evolve good teams will. The Rays might need to ditch the homer-or-bust ethos that got them here. Already Kevin Cash, their manager, did the exact opposite of what one would have thought with Glasnow. He’s plenty capable of more zags.
But for as much as Cash says Randy Arozarena is the Cuban Mookie Betts … he isn’t. Betts is a singular figure, with each of the five tools abundantly clear and a level of energy that, were it calculable, surely would rate as well-above-average, too.
“Mookie’s pretty special,” Kershaw said. “He does things on a baseball field that not many people can do, and he does it very consistently, which I think separates him from other guys.”
That sounds a lot like the Dodgers, actually. They do things others don’t. They do those things consistently. That’s why they won 43 of 60 regular-season games. That’s why they entered the postseason as — and remain — distinct World Series favorites. That’s why their three-games-to-one NLCS deficit to Atlanta registered as such a shock and their eventual pennant rebalanced the sport’s order.
In the middle of it all is Betts, elemental. Without him, the Dodgers don’t become the first team since 1991 to homer twice and swipe three bases in a World Series game. Without him, perhaps they’re still a guy short, and this drought goes on. And it might still. Baseball is twisted that way. What it giveth in Game 1 it might taketh away in Game 2.
What won’t change is Mookie Betts. He signed a 12-year, $365 million extension with the Dodgers this year. Almost instantly, he embraced his position as the team’s fulcrum, even amid stars, homegrown players and others with tenure. He does it for these games, those moments, the piece of metal that allows baseball players to call themselves champions.
When he does it, those who saw all of his success in Boston can’t help but feel a twinge of sadness. It’s not right, really, and it’s not reasonable, especially considering that Betts might have left via free agency anyway. But it’s the same feeling as a century ago: regret commingling with admiration, the feeling of knowing what you lost and loving it anyway because it’s impossible not to.
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