The Dodgers Are World Series Bound

It’s impossible for a single play in the fourth inning to decide the outcome of a baseball game. There are simply too many at-bats left, too much time for something else to happen that invalidates whatever occurred so early in the action. Consider a bases loaded, two out situation, down two runs in the top of the fourth, for a random example: hit a grand slam, and our WPA Inquirer will tell you that the away team wins 70.3% of the time. Strike out, and it’s 21.1%. In neither case is the game over.

Don’t tell Atlanta that, though. In the top of the fourth inning, the Braves were ready to hit the turbo button. With a one-run lead already in their pocket, they had an enviable situation: runners on second and third with no one out. A single could make it a three-run game; heck, a grounder to the right side and then a sac fly would suffice. Nick Markakis, the batter, almost never strikes out; he’s the exact kind of player the Braves wanted at the plate in this moment.

Markakis put the ball in play. Dansby Swanson broke on contact, and well, yeah, he probably wishes he could take that decision back:

Going on the crack of the bat puts pressure on the defense, but it comes with a downside: if the ball is hit firmly and directly at a fielder, there’s no recourse. Not all teams would send the runner on contact there, but given that nine-hole hitter Cristian Pache was on deck, it’s not an outlandish decision. Swanson was dead to rights as soon as Turner fielded the ball; his job at that point was to get into a rundown that gave the remaining baserunners time to advance:

From that perspective, his baserunning was a success. An initial retreat forced Will Smith to make a return throw to Turner, at which point Swanson turned homeward and drew the play out, all according to plan. He wasn’t getting out of this jam, but if trail runner Austin Riley made it to third, a sacrifice fly could still add to Atlanta’s lead.

Yeah, about that:

Riley spent the first half of the play loitering off of second base, the kind of loitering my grandfather would tell me meant someone was up to no good. He finally moved about halfway between second and third, as far from safety as is possible in the confines of a baseball diamond. Finally, he took an odd lunge back towards second before starting a headlong sprint for third. One clumsy slide later, the Braves, like an alchemist who flunked out, had turned gold into lead.

It’s impossible for a single bases-empty play in the top of the fifth to decide the outcome of a baseball game. Let’s say you’re up a run. A homer puts you ahead by two, but two run leads aren’t insurmountable. An out is just an out — you’re still up a run, and one run leads hold up all the time. Freddie Freeman made an out:

I’m underselling it, because that’s the silly conceit of this article, but what a catch! No one has ever conclusively proved that Mookie Betts isn’t a time-traveling wizard, and this play didn’t clear anything up. It was somehow his second home run heist of the series, but you can’t score on defense; the Dodgers still trailed by a run.

Just because those two plays didn’t decisively end things, though, doesn’t mean they didn’t matter. Combined, they kept the Dodgers within a run, which, conveniently enough, is the exact number of runs a solo homer is worth:

Tied isn’t ahead, and before the inning was over, the Braves made a defensive stand of their own to keep it that way. With Chris Taylor on third base with one out, the Dodgers tried a contact play of their own. It ended less disastrously than the first one, but just as consequentially: Ozzie Albies beat Taylor home with a throw, and a Justin Turner strikeout ended the sixth with a whimper.

Because the Braves didn’t score any runs on those two earlier plays, they were tied instead of ahead. Because they were tied instead of ahead, they were promptly behind, because Cody Bellinger hit one to Plano:

Truthfully, I have no idea which direction Plano is, and neither, presumably, does Bellinger. He was sure he hit it somewhere far away, though, so sure that he took a little time to admire his handiwork. The sheer length of a baseball game cuts both ways, though. The Braves weren’t done after Bellinger’s home run; they had six outs to make things right. You’re reading this recap, though, and you read the title of the article: you know that didn’t happen.

The Dodgers used, by my rough math, 6.2 trillion pitchers in this series. The last one to take the mound was Julio Urías, and that’s all Los Angeles needed. He wasn’t overpowering — he didn’t strike out a single batter — but he repeatedly got ahead and coerced soft contact from the opposing hitters. Johan Camargo hit a sinking liner that AJ Pollock corralled in the seventh, and Freeman smacked a line drive directly towards Bellinger to start the eighth, but none of the other seven batters he faced even put a scare in the defense. Nine up, nine down, thanks very much for coming out.

It’s true that a single play in the fourth inning can’t end the game right there. The Dodgers were still underdogs after Riley clomped unsuccessfully from second to third. The Braves were still ahead after Betts defied gravity. In some other universe’s version of tonight, Atlanta held on 3-2. In another version, they scored in bucketloads and won 10-6, or perhaps the Dodgers stormed back to win 10-4.

None of those happened here tonight, though. Here, those pivotal plays did matter. The Dodgers are a juggernaut, and in the first two rounds of the playoffs they simply discarded their opponents. This series, they encountered an even match. After six innings tonight, the teams were tied 3-3 in runs and games, and a three-inning game determined the winner of the National League. In a series shortened to a microcosm, one play can matter, and tonight the Dodgers made all the plays that mattered.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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sweepcut
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sweepcut

Misleading to say the Braves were an even match…they played well but cmon Dodgers definitely the better team

mikejunt
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mikejunt

The Dodgers were a favorite in this series, but the Braves were a credible opponent, and definitely close enough to the Dodgers in overall ability to get into the point where anyone can win.

It’s notable the Dodgers begin 8% higher to win the next 7 game series as they were to win this one. In fact, if you looked this morning, when the Dodgers were 55/45 to win this game against the Braves, they already had better odds to win the World Series than the Rays: both the Dodgers and Braves were substantial favorites in the playoff odds, and the Dodgers’ edge is silly (68/32 as of this comment; the Braves sat about 57/43)

carter
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carter

It is interesting to me that the Dodgers are such large favorites over the Rays…it seems a tad high, no? I mean I realize the Dodgers are a better team, but the Rays have such an awesome bullpen that I do not feel is being adequately accounted for. For example I do not feel like the Braves are better than the Rays. I think a lot of the things that the Rays do well (platoon advantages/bullpen) aren’t accounted for in the projections. As well as the emergence of a potential superstar (Arozarena).

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I agree, that is way, way too high. The Dodgers are a good team, but the Rays are probably pretty similar to the Braves in terms of what sort of rotation they can roll out there, they have a better bullpen, and the lineup isn’t that far off of the Braves (even though they don’t have the insane mashers at the top they also don’t have the low-OBP wasteland of guys like Markakis at the bottom).

ZiPs has it at something like 53 to 47. I’d put it at 57/43, since I don’t like Blake Snell as much as ZiPs does. and that bullpen game looks like it’s going to be rough. Every single one of these games, except the bullpen game, is and should be between a 55% and 45% for either team to win it.

mikejunt
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mikejunt

I mean, the Rays BP is better than the Braves, but the Rays scored 4.8 runs per game this year and the Braves scored 5.8. Their offense isn’t in close to the same category, even if their pitching is a bit better. I think that is what drives the difference.

Also, the Dodgers match up really well against the Rays in a couple ways.

First, the Rays bullpen spends a good bit of time outside the strike zone; the Dodgers have the lowest chase rate and one of the lowest strikeout rates in MLB. The Rays, on the other hand, have one of MLB’s highest strikeout rates offensively. The Rays are about to take an offense that’s wasn’t particularly awesome at hitting home runs, and has subsisted in the postseason entirely by hitting home runs, to Costc..Globe Life Field, which is not great for that kind of plan offensively.

Secondly, the Dodgers are one of few teams in MLB prepared to attack the Rays platoon-heavy roster approach. Against the Braves, the 5 left handed pitchers in their bullpen were a liability because some of them were basically unusable, as they couldn’t be trusted against the strong RHH surrounding Freeman, and the Braves had virtually no other LHH (and putting Albies on the RHH side actually makes him better). Against the Rays, having multiple strong left handers will let them force the Rays into difficult decisions. In a Buehler start, for instance, the Rays will want to stack their left-handed platoon guys. The Dodgers can then use a strong left handed reliever to attack all the LHH platoon guys, forcing the Rays to choose between allowing that to continue, and swapping all those guys out for the RHH halves of the platoon. If they make the swap, the Dodgers can use the RH part of their bullpen (the ones we saw in this series) freely thereafter, knowing that they’ll enjoy the platoon advatnage for the rest of the game. In a Kershaw start, it’s the opposite – the Rays will avoid their LHH, the Dodgers follow Kershaw with a righty, and if the Rays bite and put in all the LHH, the Dodgers have Gonzalez, Kolarek, McGee, etc to punish them for repeated trips through the lineup.

The top arms in the Rays pen are fantastic, but they spend a lot of time getting swings and misses out of the zone. I don’t know the Dodgers will bite on that stuff as much, and the 2nd tier of arms in the bullpen are not at that standard. The Rays are either going to have to heavily rely on only a handful of guys or use that 2nd tier of dudes.

The Dodgers offense is so far ahead of the Rays. Arozarena’s been fantastic, and maybe he’s a real star, but there’s only one of him, and there’s 3 or 4 Dodgers who are players of that caliber.

It’s easy to identify places the Dodgers can wield a significant advantage. It’s pretty hard to identify places the Rays can in this series, IMO, and that’s why they are the favorites. The Rays haven’t faced anything even close to the Dodgers offense this season: the best offense they faced was the yankees, who scored more than a half-run per game less than the Dodgers. BaseRuns puts the gap at 0.60 RS/G. That’s .. a big gap.

On the other side, the Dodgers allowed nearly a run per game less than the best team the Rays played .. also the Yankees.

In the end, the gap in the projections is based in part on league strength assessment. The Braves were favorites over the Rays as well in the FanGraphs Playoff Odds, and the Dodgers were substantial favorites over the Braves. It’s understandable why it looks that way.

The Rays can certainly win, because the big thing about the MLB playoffs is that once you reach a certain level of talent, anyone can beat anyone. But they’re not the favorites, and I don’t think this series would accurately be described as a coinflip. The Dodgers have produced better results at virtually every single thing a baseball team does this season, and usually by fairly wide margins. Their bullpen and rotation both allowed less runs, their offense scored more runs, their defense was more effective, etc.

Edit for Trombone: The Rays scored dramatically less runs than the Braves while playing in a division full of hitters parks, while the Braves played in a division with some of the most pitcher-friendly parks in MLB. I don’t think it’s accurate to describe the Rays offense as remotely being in the same category as the Braves, and it’s a real stretch to suggest it’s even close. When you account for how the Dodgers also have a greater ability than nearly any opponent to attack the Rays platoons, I think that half of the matchup is very bad for the Rays. That offense is really going to struggle to keep up with what the Dodger offense can do even to a good pitching staff, and the Dodger staff is better than any they’ve seen this season by a substantial margin.

I think ZIPS has the series way too low and that the zips per-game odds can be real deceiving because they simulate each game in isolation and assume the entire bullpen is available for each game, which isn’t reality. I dont know that the nearly 70/30 split is right either, and suspect this series slots in a little north of where the Braves/Dodgers series was, something around 65/35 or so, which is about what the Dodgers’ odds against the Padres looked like in the 5 game series.

There are offdays here, but the Rays are going to be doing 2 bullpen games back to back, and they’re not going to get through this series without relying on most of their bullpen. Like with the Braves, I don’t think those guys are going to prove capable of fending off the Dodgers enough.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

This is not really correct on a lot of points, I’m sorry.

-The Braves/Dodgers series was also way too high. The probability of winning a game to regresses towards 50/50 because the teams are (in the big picture) so evenly matched and because sequencing plays a big role in scoring runs. This is especially true at the later stages of the playoffs when you are dealing exclusively with good teams. 65/35 on the Dodgers implies that the Dodgers were overwhelming favorites. The Dodgers won only 72% of their games this year, and the Braves were way better than the modal team they faced during the season, even on days when they weren’t starting their top 2 starters.
-The Rays have four starters they trust (Snell, Glasnow, Morton, Yarborough). There is only one bullpen game, and it will probably be bad. But even then, we are talking about a game in the 70/30 probability range.
-The bullpen will get taxed, but we’re talking about exceptionally deep bullpens here. This is the same mistake people were making in the early part of the Braves / Dodgers series, including me. By Game 7 they’re going to be gassed, but that’s not going to affect things earlier in the series and they can always put Ynoa and Tomlin out there if things get out of hand and they need to soak up innings. This is only a problem if they have to pull starters early and the game is close. Lots of ifs there.
-Runs scored isn’t a good indicator because of differences in stadiums. It’s true that the Dodgers and Braves have better offenses. But it’s not quite as big as you are stating.

drtoast
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drtoast

“The Dodgers won only 72% of their games this year, and the Braves were way better than the modal team they faced during the season”

Yes, but you only need to win 57% of your games to win a 7 game series.

carter
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carter

I don’t get why the Rays bullpen game would necessarily be bad, either. The Rays have an amazing bullpen. That is why I think they are closer to 40% to win this series, they aren’t going to allow a lot of hitters to see the same pitcher 2 (or 3) times. On the same subject, I fail to see how they are such a large underdog.

To say that ballpark factors favored the Rays (vs the Braves) I think is a bit disingenuous. In a normal season, yes, but the Braves played 20 interleague games as well. They played against the Orioles in Camden and against the Yankees in Yankee stadium. They also got to face the Blue Jays (ok pitching) and the Red Sox (worst in the MLB). They also scored 29 runs in one game, which by my math would raise their runs per game by apx .5 per game (29/60).

The Rays on the other hand had to play at a poor hitters park as well, against superior competition, and didn’t exactly have cakewalk games against the NL (deGrom, Scherzer, Nola, Sixto, etc)

I’d say the Braves offense is better than the Rays, but it certainly is close, at least in my eyes. Also they mostly didn’t have Arozarena who doesn’t look flukey whatsoever, and has a career 167 wRC+ . He has never not hit. Just look at the last 5 numbers on his wRC+ 162, 151, 138, 176, 244. I realize that projections are conservative, but lets say he is closer to the lowest of those numbers (138)…well a team just added one of the best hitters in the game in the middle of their lineup. That would improve all offenses. Is it fair to think he is that good? I do not know. He bulked up considerably, and statcast loves him. He also certainly passes the eye test. But that is in line with what Austin Meadows did last year, and he now looks completely lost. So, who knows.

Rays/Dodgers should be fun. I could see the Dodgers winning, I could see the Rays winning. The Dodgers are a better team , but with the Rays I do not see the same sort of scenarios happening that happened with the Braves where it seems like a given that the Dodgers are going to score a bunch of runs because the pitching is so weak, unless the Rays give up on a game as they did twice vs the Astros.

sadhulk
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sadhulk

Going from a Yoshi Tsutsugo/Hunter Renfroe platoon to on fire Randy Arozarena makes a difference from the regular season numbers, and I wouldn’t call using an opener for Tyler Glasnow or Ryan Yarborough a bullpen game, I think they’re just as good as Gonsolin, May, and Urias. Not sure how much any of that moves the needle against a team that’s just as deep as the Rays with three MVP level talents in the lineup.

carter
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carter

Just as good? I’d certainly take Glasnow over all 3 of those guys, and Yarbough might only be a shade below.

drew_willy
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drew_willy

Why would the Rays be forced into two back-to-back pen games? Snell, Glasnow, Morton, Yarbrough, rest day, repeat – I don’t even see the need for a single pen game.

What am I missing here, Mike?

minisidd
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minisidd

Not enough is being said about how bad the Dodgers offense is when pitchers hit their spots. Yeah, they can score in bunches, but they are flummoxed by anyone that can throw a curveball for a strike and a fastball on the corners. The Rays staff is more than capable of making this a short and one-sided series. Plus, LA used 3 of their 5 starters in game seven which means somebody is starting on short rest. The Rays might have one bullpen game, but the Dodgers might be looking at 2 or 3 given how quickly they’ve had to pull May and Gonsolin generally, and one will be on short rest.

Antonio Bananas
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Antonio Bananas

68/32 is insane. Especially since TB has 2 days off between series.

mikejunt
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mikejunt

I would imagine the playoff odds have a hard time overcoming one of the two teams beating their opponents by more than 2 runs a game on average

That kind of thing is actually unheard of. The Dodgers outscored their opponents by 2.2 runs per game and BaseRuns only barely narrows that gap.

The 116 win Mariners didn’t outscore their opponents by 2 runs per game, and stuff like BaseRuns imply their overperformed their expected records a bit

The Dodgers have BaseRuns and Pythag that support their result. It’s not something we’ve ever seen in modern baseball.

It’s an extra half run per game differential over the best teams of recent history, like the 18 Red Sox or 16 Cubs; those teams both won their games on average by 1.7 runs.

It’s the kind of thing we haven’t seen in MLB since pre-integration Yankees. It’s going to get projection systems attention.

Like we’re so used to extreme win totals and streaks reflecting good luck and overperformance to BaseRuns and other indicators that I don’t think we properly reckon with having a team that is more or less expected to do that. Every projection system had them over 100 wins as a median outcome: for most, it was the first time they’d ever done that. Any serious attempt to simulate them produced similar outcomes. Both BRef and FanGraphs did simulated seasons with the outstanding OOTP engine during the coronavirus shutdown. The Dodgers broke the single season wins record in both.

They test the upward bound of to what degree a baseball team should ever be favored over another good team. I don’t know that we know the answer.

kevininmotion
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kevininmotion

I agree with Mike regarding how exceptional the 2020 Dodgers’ roster is. As incredible as their .717 win percentage was, it’s plausible they could’ve been better. Some key players significantly underperformed their expected WAR (Bellinger, Pederson, Muncy, & Buehler), while only Taylor, Gonsolin, and couple BP arms were arguably, although not inevitably, due for regression.

Sure the chaos of baseball would made it unlikely they sustain the results they had enjoyed through 60 games, but I offer this cheap observation to lend credence to the best-record-of-all-time simulation projections and thus the favorable odds in a given series.

Marcus Kellis
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Marcus Kellis

Rays have 2 days off between series, but the Dodgers don’t have to fly anywhere and have played 13 games in the park to the Rays’ 0.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

There is an awfully big difference between saying that, if this series was played in an infinite number of universes, we would expect the Dodgers to win the series more often than the Braves, and what we actually saw. This might not have been the closest series I’ve watched but it was close.

Olan
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Olan

Dodgers looked like the better team for approximately 1.5 games. Braves looked like the better team for 2 games. The rest they looked evenly matched in my opinion.

DodgerCentral
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DodgerCentral

The Braves had a really good offense, the FG numbers say they were the best in the league! It was the leagues best pitching staff vs the leagues best lineup and a mediocre pitching staff vs a top 3 offense.

It was pretty close to even like 55-45