Making the Case for the 2020 Dodgers’ Place in History

Beyond the fact that at the end of each season only one team can be crowned champion, the Dodgers accomplished something that’s become comparatively rare in the age of expanded playoffs: winning the World Series after posting the majors’ best record during the regular season. Not only that, their .717 winning percentage is the highest of the post-1960 expansion era… but of course, that comes with a significant caveat. The shortened and geographically limited schedule makes it difficult to justify measuring this year’s team against the best of all time, but when we consider this Dodgers squad in the context of their recent multi-year run of success — the regular season dominance, the close-but-no-cigar postseason showings — we can make a fair case that they’ve earned a place alongside the best teams of the expansion era.

First, here’s the short list that the Dodgers joined, the teams from the Wild Card era that finished the regular season with the majors’ best record, then went on to win the World Series:

World Series Winners Following Best Regular Season Record, 1995-2020
Team Year W-L Win% RS RA Run Dif PythWin%
Yankees 1998 114-48 .704 965 656 309 .670
Red Sox 2007 96-66 .593 867 657 210 .624
Yankees 2009 103-59 .636 915 753 162 .588
Red Sox 2013 97-65 .599 853 656 197 .618
Cubs 2016 103-58 .640 808 556 252 .665
Red Sox 2018 108-54 .667 876 647 229 .635
Dodgers 2020 43-17 .717 349 213 136 .712
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Interestingly enough, top teams have survived to pop the champagne corks more frequently since the one-and-done Wild Card Game was introduced in 2012 (three out of eight) than they did during the period during which each league had only one Wild Card team (three out of 17). While that might be a fluke, intuitively it makes sense. Aside from not having home-field advantage in any round, from 1995-2011 Wild Card teams were on otherwise equal footing with division winners, and were even prohibited from playing their league’s top seed in the Division Series if they hailed from the same division. From 2012-19, teams that won the Wild Card Game were then matched against the league’s top seed, usually after expending their ace and thus limiting him to one start in the Division Series. As an aside from this current exercise, I do think this is a strong argument for maintaining the 2012-19 structure going forward, Rob Manfred’s desire to expand the playoffs be damned (and damned it should be).

Moving along, the Dodgers’ .717 winning percentage was an eyelash (.0006, less than a full point) better than the 2001 Mariners with their 116-46 record, and trails only four teams from the pre-1960 expansion era, three of which came in the first decade of the 20th century. The 1906 Cubs’ .762 (115-36) is still tops, but I’m going to dispense with the ancient history for the remainder of this exercise, so my apologies to the 1902 and ’09 Pirates (.739 and .724, respectively) and even the ’54 Indians (.721); even though we’re grappling with a team that played just 60 games, what they did in the larger scheme took place not only in the era of 162-game schedules but also within that expanded talent pool, which includes players of color in significant numbers. Within that post-1960 set, the 2020 Dodgers’ .712 Pythagorean winning percentage also ranks first, 21 points ahead of the 1969 Orioles, but beyond acknowledging that placement, I’m not going to dwell upon the small sample.

With that out of the way, it’s worth considering the place these Dodgers hold, not just for 2020 but for the run that has produced three trips to the World Series in four years. As I noted on Wednesday, they’re the fifth team to lose back-to-back World Series and then return to win one within the same five-year stretch, though of course other teams had similar accomplishments in a different sequence; for example, the 1969-71 Orioles and ’88-90 A’s sandwiched two World Series defeats around a victory. And of course there are teams that had greater success in the postseason within a given range, such as the 1972-76 Reds and 1976-78 Yankees, both of which lost one World Series before winning two, or the 1972-74 A’s and 1998-2000 Yankees, who each won three straight (the latter before losing a fourth), or the 1991-99 Braves, who went 1-4 in five World Series.

The choice of how many years to consider across a multi-year stretch will inevitably have an impact upon the rankings. Your mileage may vary, but I settled on five years, which captures manager Dave Roberts‘ run with the Dodgers as well as the aforementioned stretch for the Reds, the A’s 1971-75 run atop the AL West, the 1977-81 Yankees and Dodgers, who faced off in three World Series, and either the 1991-95 Braves or the ’95-99 ones, both of which made it to three World Series, winning one. All of those stretches include strike-shortened seasons (1972, ’81, ’94-95), as would any consideration of the aforementioned Orioles unless it’s the 1966-70 version, and so for this exercise I’ll use percentages and rates to avoid penalizing teams within those runs by sticking to counting stats.

Anyway, here is a top 20 for five-year winning percentage, from which I’ve removed overlapping spans:

Top 5-Year Spans by Winning Percentage Since 1961
RK Team Years W-L Win% WS Win WS Loss Div WC
1 Braves 1995-99 496-296 .626 1 2 5 0
2 Reds 1972-76 502-300 .626 2 1 4 0
3 Orioles 1969-73 495-303 .620 1 2 4 0
4 Yankees 1998-2002 497-309 .617 3 1 5 0
5 Dodgers 2016-20 436-273 .615 1 2 5 0
6 Yankees 1976-80 489-317 .607 2 1 4 0
7 Orioles 1979-83 453-297 .604 1 1 2 0
8 Mets 1984-88 488-320 .604 1 0 2 0
9 Athletics 1988-92 486-324 .600 1 2 4 0
10 Yankees 1961-65 485-324 .600 2 2 0 0
11 Astros 2016-20 424-284 .599 1 1 3 1
12 Athletics 2000-04 483-326 .597 0 0 3 1
13 Indians 1995-99 471-319 .596 0 2 5 0
14 Athletics 1971-75 476-326 .594 3 0 5 0
15 Cardinals 2001-05 480-330 .593 0 1 3 1
16 Yankees 2008-12 479-331 .591 1 0 3 1
17 Dodgers 1973-77 475-334 .587 0 2 2 0
18 Indians 2016-20 415-292 .587 0 1 3 1
19 Angels 2005-09 475-335 .586 0 0 4 0
20 Giants 2000-04 473-335 .585 0 1 0 1
Does not include overlapping stretches; each team-season could only be included once (e.g., 1994-98 Braves’ .620 would have ranked 4th).

In a photo finish, the 1995-99 Braves (.6263) edged the 1972-76 Reds (.6259). Had I not chosen to exclude overlapping stretches, Braves runs beginning in 1994, ’96, and ’93 would have ranked fourth, fifth, and sixth, respectively. Likewise several variants involving those high-ranking Reds, Orioles, and Yankees teams would have filled a top 25, a sign that those teams would have maintained similarly lofty spots had I chosen to consider longer timespans. In all, I had to go down to the 66th-best five year stretch to fit the 20th non-overlapping team; within that expanded ranking, the 2015-19 Dodgers, for example, ranked 36th at .598. Anyway, the 2016-20 Dodgers, whose run includes another season with the majors’ best record (2017) plus one with the NL’s best record (’19), aren’t far off the pace of the Braves, and hardly alone near the top for having won just one World Series in that span.

Another way to consider the matter is by run differential. Working with a per-game calculation, this one actually puts the current Dodgers’ run on top, in part because this year, they outscored opponents by 136 runs, a honkin’ 2.27 per game. By comparison, the post-expansion 162-game record is 1.91 per game by the 1998 Yankees, with last year’s Dodgers fourth at 1.69 per game:

Top 5-Year Spans by Run Differential Since 1961
Rk Team Years Rdif/Game WS Win WS Loss Div WC
1 Dodgers 2016-20 1.24 1 2 5 0
2 Astros 2015-19 1.23 1 1 3 1
3 Orioles 1969-73 1.22 1 2 4 0
4 Reds 1972-76 1.10 2 1 4 0
5 Braves 1995-99 1.07 1 2 5 0
6 Yankees 1997-2001 1.03 3 1 4 1
7 Yankees 2007-11 0.98 1 0 2 2
8 Nationals 2016-20 0.97 1 0 2 1
9 Indians 2016-20 0.95 0 1 3 1
10 Cubs 2015-19 0.95 1 0 2 2
11 Yankees 1976-80 0.94 2 1 4 0
12 Dodgers 1974-78 0.93 0 3 3 0
13 Mets 1986-90 0.93 1 0 2 0
14 Yankees 2015-19 0.89 0 0 1 3
15 Cardinals 2001-05 0.89 0 1 3 1
16 Athletics 1971-75 0.88 3 0 5 0
17 Yankees 2002-06 0.88 0 1 5 0
18 Red Sox 2007-11 0.88 1 0 1 2
19 Athletics 2000-04 0.86 0 0 3 1
20 Indians 1995-99 0.85 0 2 5 0
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

There’s some overlap between the two leaderboards, as you’d expect, and there are also cases where the best timespan shifts by a year in one direction or the other between the two tables (for example, the Dodgers’ 1973-77 seasons by record, ’74-78 by run differential). Note that the Yankees have three contiguous five year stretches represented in the second table, covering the 15 seasons from 1997-2011, and that the stretches for half a dozen teams on the latter leaderboard ended either last year or this one — a reflection, I think, of the competitive imbalance we’ve recently seen due to multiple teams tanking.

If you’re wondering whether one of those leaderboards or the other is more predictive of postseason success and should thus carry more weight, the answer here is that it’s too close to call. Both collections of teams have the same number of division titles (66, or 3.3 per team), but with a sizable edge in Wild Card teams for the run differential group (15 to six, or 0.75 per team to 0.30) owing to the way that leaderboard skews later (average start year 1998, vs ’91 for the winning percentage list). The best-record group won 20 World Series but lost 22, the best-differential group won 19 and lost 20. Choose your fighter.

With the ups and downs of competitive balance in mind, I took a swing with a more complicated approach, one that taxed the limits of my Excel skills and my post-World Series brain, and one that harkened back to the 2000 Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein book, Baseball Dynasties: The Greatest Teams of All Time. That book measured teams’ multi-year runs while accounting for the environments in which they played using Standard Deviation Scores (Z-scores); if I’m remembering correctly (my copy is missing in action), they measured how many standard deviations each team was from the league average in terms of both run scoring and run prevention rates, then added the scores together across three-year periods.

I tried a similar approach using five-year periods, winning percentages, and run differentials (instead of splitting run scoring and prevention), which among other things avoids overcrediting large run differentials in high-scoring periods and dominant teams in expansion (or tanking-heavy) seasons. Here’s how that shook out:

Top 5-Year Spans by Standard Deviation Scores Since 1961
Rk Team Years Win% Win%Score Rdif/Gm Rdif Score Tot Score
1 Braves 1995-99 .626 9.67 1.07 8.57 18.24
2 Dodgers 2016-20 .615 8.28 1.24 8.71 16.98
3 Reds 1972-76 .626 8.68 1.10 7.73 16.42
4 Orioles 1969-73 .620 7.46 1.22 8.84 16.30
5 Mets 1986-90 .592 7.07 0.93 9.00 16.07
6 Yankees 1994-98 .607 7.63 1.00 7.42 15.06
7 Athletics 1971-75 .594 7.18 0.88 7.83 15.00
8 Athletics 1988-92 .600 8.04 0.66 6.30 14.33
9 Yankees 2007-11 .590 6.55 0.98 7.41 13.96
10 Cardinals 2001-05 .593 6.81 0.89 6.86 13.67
11 Phillies 2007-11 .584 6.57 0.76 6.56 13.13
12 Tigers 1983-87 .575 6.22 0.72 6.86 13.08
13 Yankees 1976-80 .607 6.86 0.94 6.20 13.05
14 Dodgers 1974-78 .586 5.99 0.93 6.73 12.73
15 Indians 1995-99 .596 6.70 0.85 6.00 12.70
16 Braves 2000-04 .595 6.57 0.78 5.82 12.38
17 Yankees 1961-65 .600 6.20 0.84 6.18 12.37
18 Yankees 2002-06 .614 6.72 0.88 5.63 12.35
19 Red Sox 2007-11 .574 5.45 0.88 6.90 12.34
20 Astros 2015-19 .594 5.56 1.23 6.41 11.97

As with the first two tables, I removed overlapping team-seasons. While there’s some repetition — the same stretches for the top Braves, Dodgers, Reds, Orioles, and A’s teams — we also wind up with slightly different stretches around what we might call “signature seasons” for certain teams. The 1986 Mets are represented in the winning percentage table via the ’84-88 stretch, but in the run differential and SD tables via the ’86-90 stretch. The 1998 Yankees make appearances via three different stretches: ’98-02 (winning percentage), ’97-01 (run differential), and ’94-98 (SD score). It’s chaos! There are also some interesting newcomers to the rankings, such as the 1983-87 Tigers and the 2007-11 Phillies. So much can be said about all of these teams and their top players and defining features, but in my attempt at a streamlined approach, I’m setting that aside.

In a final attempt to unify these findings, I considered each team’s relative ranking via the three methodologies, and then ranked them by the lowest sum:

Top 5-Year Spans by Combined Rankings Since 1961
RK Tm Years Win% Win%Rk Rdif/G RdifRk TotScore Tot Score Rk Rk Sum
1 Braves 1995-99 .626 1 1.07 8 18.2 1 10
2 Reds 1972-76 .626 2 1.10 5 16.4 6 13
3 Dodgers 2016-20 .615 8 1.24 1 17.0 4 13
4 Orioles 1969-73 .620 3 1.22 3 16.3 8 14
5 Yankees 1997-01 .607 17 1.03 11 14.8 18 46
6 Mets 1985-89 .600 30 0.89 35 15.8 10 75
7 Yankees 1976-80 .607 19 0.94 27 13.1 37 83
8 Athletics 1971-75 .594 47 0.88 37 15.0 13 97
9 Yankees 2007-11 .590 54 0.98 20 14.0 24 98
10 Yankees 2002-06 .614 9 0.88 39 12.4 51 99
11 Astros 2015-19 .594 45 1.23 2 12.0 57 104
12 Cardinals 2001-05 .593 48 0.89 36 13.7 30 114
13 Indians 1995-99 .596 40 0.85 48 12.7 43 131
14 Dodgers 1974-78 .586 62 0.93 28 12.7 42 132
15 Yankees 1961-65 .600 32 0.84 52 12.4 50 134
16 Athletics 2000-04 .597 39 0.86 44 11.1 79 162
17 Braves 2000-04 .595 42 0.78 73 12.4 49 164
18 Orioles 1979-83 .604 22 0.75 83 11.7 64 169
19 Athletics 1988-92 .600 31 0.66 124 14.3 22 177
20 Phillies 2007-11 .584 67 0.76 79 13.1 35 181

The individual category rankings are before removing overlaps; where the 2016-20 Dodgers are fifth in the winning percentage table, they’re actually eighth because three other variants of that Braves run are ahead of them. Doing it this way helped to resolve which of the aforementioned Mets and Yankees windows best represented them.

Based upon what they did in the regular season over the past five years, the Dodgers are right up there with the runs by the Braves, Reds, Orioles, Yankees, Mets, and A’s, some of which similarly won only one World Series in their respective spans, and all of which left indelible marks on baseball history in the form of great and colorful players (and managers) and memorable World Series. I’ve avoided using the term “dynasty” thus far, because for some that only means consecutive championships, but I don’t think it’s an unreasonable term to apply. The Braves featured the Hall of Fame triumvirate of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz, plus Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones, and Bobby Cox at the helm. The Big Red Machine had Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, and Pete Rose, plus Sparky Anderson in the dugout. The Orioles had Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson, and Frank Robinson, led by Earl Weaver. The Yankees had Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Joe Torre, with Roger Clemens, Tim Raines, and Mike Mussina coming and going. The Mets had Gary Carter, Dwight Gooden, Keith Hernandez, and Darryl Strawberry, piloted by Davey Johnson. The A’s had Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter, and Reggie Jackson, managed by Dick Williams for the first three of those years. For the Dodgers, Clayton Kershaw is headed to Cooperstown, and I can already make a case for Mookie Betts; we’ll see about the rest of the gang.

That the Dodgers reached three World Series in this period, and that their two losses were to teams later discovered to have benefitted from illegal sign stealing… I don’t think it’s unjustified to feel that they might have been robbed of some glory. While I’m not directly attempting to square the regular season rankings with these teams’ postseason accomplishments, this championship bolsters the claim that they belong in such esteemed company, and for all we know, the 2020 World Series may not be the end of their run.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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mikejunt
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mikejunt

This is a good argument, I think. I’ve been approaching this differently, in that the team’s performance over 60 wasn’t far offline with their projected performance over 60 (they exceeded ZIPS mean projected record by like 4 games), and we saw them do it while a lot of players individually under-shot the levels you expected and expect from them going forward (Bellinger, Muncy, etc).

A lot of single-year great runs are driven by a great team where almost everyone exceeds expectations. This team did it while or more less meeting them.

I would be super interested in a version of this analysis that did 4 year spans for 17-20. The Dodgers went through a pretty significant roster overhaul between 16 and 18, as they moved on from the older, free-agent based core of the Mattingly years (Greinke, Gonzalez, Puig etc) to the homegrown and found core they have now (Bellinger, Muncy, Taylor, Buehler, etc).

I believed this was the best team I’d seen on the field since the ’98 Yankees. Given they took a team that won 106 games with the peripherals to back it up and added Imagine Trading Mookie Betts, this makes sense.

Assuming they bring back Justin Turner, which I expect they’ll find a way to do for all the same reasons they were so willing to let him break the rules after the World Series ended, they’ll also hit the ground next year and barely miss a beat. Other than Turner, they’re losing two part-time players (Pederson, Hernandez) who were good but also took PAs from other high quality players and prospects (like Gavin Lux), and some bullpen pieces (Baez, Treinen, and McGee). Given how cheap it looks like relief pitching is going to be on the market this year, I don’t think they’ll have too many challenges filling the bullpen back up.

It is also worth noting, fwiw, that the 2020 Dodgers didn’t play at a .700 pace for 60 games. They played at a .700 pace for 78 games (56-22) when including the postseason, and maintained the run differential of a .700 team over that span (which to say, yes, the Dodgers had the run differential of a .700 team ..against a set of playoff opponents that were 2nd, 3rd and 4th in MLB in run differential (or 2nd, 3rd and 5th in baseruns if you prefer that).

That’s uhh, remarkable.

Smiling Politely
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Smiling Politely

The Dodgers were hilariously good (and healthy), but as a kid who moved to LA in 1990, it’s hard to deny the 90s ATL teams. I imagine it’s how being a fan of a non-NY team must have felt in the 50s.

Thanks for a really clear and multi-faceted way of thinking this through, Jay!

mikejunt
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mikejunt

As Jay shows here I think it’s evident that those mid-90s Braves teams are among the best multi-season runs of all time, but they never had a single season peak like the 98 Yankees did. Instead, they lacked seasons like the Dodgers 2018 or the Yankees 1997 where things momentarily took a step back for a portion of a season and the overall record was not as great, and just won 100 games over and over and over again.

Smiling Politely
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Smiling Politely

You say that like it’s a bad thing 🙂 We’re all entitled to aesthetic preferences, but a decade of dominance lingers with me longer than # of WS (ymmv, ofc)