World Series Preview: Tampa Bay Rays vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

The Los Angeles Dodgers completed their three-game NLCS comeback on Sunday night, beating the Atlanta Braves to reach their third World Series in four years. Joining the Dodgers in Texas will be the Tampa Bay Rays, who avoided an embarrassing four-game reverse sweep at the hands of the Houston Astros by the skin of their teeth the day before. In what will hopefully prove to be 2020’s final mischievous prank, the most unorthodox season in baseball history has ended up with the most orthodox result: despite a 16-team playoff format that held little advantage for the top seeds, the World Series matchup features the clubs with the best records in their respective leagues. For both, a championship would end significant droughts, as the Dodgers have not won a Fall Classic since 1988, and the Rays have yet to grab a title since at least the Big Bang, approximately 13.8 billion years ago.

Fittingly in a matchup of the two best teams, ZiPS sees the win probabilities as very close, with the Dodgers squeezing out a slight 53%-47% edge in the projections. But while these squads may be similar in their quality, they approach baseball’s financial world quite differently; the Dodgers are big spenders while the Rays regularly have a payrolls that rank near the bottom of the league. With the outcome squarely in the realm of coin flip, small things will likely decide the series winner. To that end, I’ve outlined seven questions, the answers to which will determine how fate conducts its deliberations.

Can the Rays Continue To Win Without Some of Their Best Bats Hitting?

Tampa Bay had three hitters in 2020 with a wRC+ of 120 or better in at least 100 plate appearances in Brandon Lowe, Yandy Díaz, and Willy Adames. But the team has advanced to the World Series with little in the way of offensive help from that trio, who have slashed a combined .109/.268/.124 with just three extra-base hits in 129 at-bats this October. Their best offensive player in 2019, Austin Meadows, has been similarly absent except for two well-timed home runs. The team obviously survived without getting much at the plate from those players — else the Astros or Yankees would likely be here — but the Dodgers are the best team in baseball, and it’s risky to count on the lineup running through Randy Arozarena and Manuel Margot, impactful though they have been.

If I tell ZiPS that the three players mentioned up top will have an OPS of .600 in the World Series, the Rays drop from 47% to 40% underdogs. If I do the same for the three best bats on the Dodgers in 2020 — Will Smith, Corey Seager, and Mookie Betts — their odds only drop from 53% to 50%, despite that trio being even better at the plate than Tampa’s top few. In other words, the Rays have less room for error when it comes to scoring runs than the Dodgers do. Tampa Bay is simply not an offensive juggernaut.

Can the Dodgers Trust Their Bullpen?

In their other recent playoff runs, the Dodgers have faithfully turned to long-time closer Kenley Jansen to close out their tight wins. But Jansen is clearly not the pitcher he was a few years ago, and when it came time to try to bar the door in Game 1 of the NLCS, it was Blake Treinen who Dave Roberts (unsuccessfully) turned to, this despite Treinen not exactly being the spiritual successor to Mariano Rivera among cutter-tossing closers. I don’t want to overstate the case too much — the Dodgers bullpen was second in baseball by FIP — but the rest-less postseason has caused Los Angeles’ relief corps to feel a bit less deep than it has in other recent postseasons.

Can the Rays Hit Dodger Fastballs?

Lacking the traditional MVP-caliber sluggers who feast on hard cheese, Tampa Bay’s lineup had one of baseball’s worst records in 2020 against fastballs, ranking 26th in the majors, which put them ahead of only the Cleveland Indians among playoff teams. Meanwhile, Dodgers pitching accrued the most value in baseball from fastballs, and at 48.6 runs better than average, they amassed nearly twice the value of the runner-up (the Rays at +28.0). While rosters have not been set for the World Series, the Dodgers are likely to have as many as eight pitchers whose heaters averaged 95 mph or faster this season. For pitchers like Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin, both of whom are still fairly inexperienced at the major league level, being able to bear down and try to blow pitches past the Rays bats might be just the thing to get them over the hump.

Is the Dodgers Offense Too Much for Tampa Bay?

The Dodgers beat NL and AL West pitchers to a bloody pulp in 2020, scoring nearly six runs a game en route to leading the league in runs scored. Thanks to the team’s depth — they’re one of the few clubs that can rival the Rays in this regard — the Dodgers are always a matchup nightmare. Meanwhile, the Rays are like a top chess player, winning games by accumulating small advantages throughout. Having a reliever for every tactical situation and a willingness to flip the script is typically just as good as having a better-placed knight or a more cohesive pawn structure. The problem is, facing the Dodgers, who can send star-after-star at your pitchers, is a bit like having an opponent who is allowed to angrily shove all of the pieces off the board and start over. The Dodgers simply do better in slugfests than the Rays do, even when they’re on the wrong side of them: in games that start with the opposing team scoring four runs in the top of the first, the Dodgers still project to win 8% of the time, while the Rays can only boast 3% odds. This holds true for all similar scenarios.

What Effect Will Globe Life Field Have?

Not only is baseball playing a neutral-site World Series for the very first time, it’s being held in a park that we still don’t know that much about. In terms of actual performance data, Globe Life debuted in 2020 as an effectively a neutral park, though one that’s a fairly poor environment for home runs. However, one-year park factors are notoriously volatile, and that’s in normal seasons, with 81 home/road games rather than the truncated 30/30 2020 slate. The projections assume that the Globe Life park factors this season just happen to be the “true” underlying park factors, but being wrong, which is very likely, has a real effect on the bottom line. As the projected home run park factor changes so does the balance of power between the Rays and Dodgers:

ZiPS World Series Win Probabilities vs. Globe Life Home Run Factors
Assumed HR Factor Dodgers Win Rays Win
1.30 58.8% 41.2%
1.25 58.0% 42.0%
1.20 57.7% 42.3%
1.15 57.1% 42.9%
1.10 56.7% 43.3%
1.05 55.7% 44.3%
1.00 54.9% 45.1%
0.95 54.2% 45.8%
0.90 53.6% 46.4%
0.85 53.2% 46.8%
0.80 52.1% 47.9%
0.75 50.7% 49.3%
0.70 48.0% 52.0%
0.65 46.1% 53.9%

What you don’t know can hurt you.

Can the Dodgers Avoid Being Too Clever?

While both teams are well-run, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts sometimes can’t resist the temptation to get a little too cute with some of his decision-making. Yesterday, it took the form of deciding the afternoon of the game to use Dustin May, coming off one day’s rest, as a Game 7 opener rather than naming a traditional starter. May responded by starting the game with eight consecutive balls, walking Ronald Acuña Jr. and Freddie Freeman. The Dodgers were very fortunate to escape a bases-loaded, no-out situation having only surrendered one run.

The Dodgers won the game in the end, and the likely starter if not for May, Tony Gonsolin, didn’t exactly pitch well, so this one didn’t come back to haunt the team. But they haven’t always been so lucky. Among the times this style of decision-making has backfired, perhaps the most notable was Game 5 of the 2019 NLDS, when the Dodgers held a three-run lead over the Nationals. With literally the entire bullpen available thanks to Walker Buehler’s 6 2/3 shutout innings, Roberts brought in Clayton Kershaw to face Adam Eaton. Kershaw struck out Eaton but was left in for the start of the eighth and allowed a homer to Anthony Rendon. Then, rather than turning to situational lefty Adam Kolarek to face Juan Soto, on the team for this exact purpose, Kershaw was left in and ended up allowing a second dinger. Later in the game, Joe Kelly was left in for a second inning and wasn’t relieved after a walk to Eaton or a double to Rendon. Every situational reliever was still available, including Kolarek, but Roberts went with his gut, and Howie Kendrick delivered the coup de grâce, ending the Dodgers’ season.

The Dodgers are not gutsy underdogs who have to scrap for their victories. They’re the best team in baseball; just point them in a direction and let them execute.

Who is the Real Clayton Kershaw?

As obnoxious as the Clayton Kershaw Can’t Perform in the Postseason narrative is, it can’t be denied that the left-hander’s playoff performances have, as a whole, been underwhelming. At this point, Kershaw’s thrown 177 1/3 postseason innings, and while a 4.31 ERA and a +0.34 win probability added is hardly nightmarish, those numbers would easily rank as his worst “season” since his rookie year. I don’t know the solution, and it’s likely more of an approach or fatigue issue than some inherent inability to pitch in the postseason, but it’s hard to ignore that he hasn’t been a Cy Young-caliber pitcher in October.

ZiPS doesn’t have an allowance for a pitcher’s failings in Octobers having predictive value, but if I tell ZiPS that Kershaw’s career postseason line is his real level of ability rather than his normal projection, it’s enough to drop the Dodgers from 53.2% to 50.0% (actually 49.96%). The Rays lineup was the second-best in baseball when it came to hitting curveballs, so it’s unlikely that they’ll see as much of Kershaw’s 12-6 hammer as other teams do.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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cowdisciple
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cowdisciple

Really looking forward to regular Rays versus big-budget Rays. I suspect Friedman’s chief lieutenants are going to get some play as head-baseball-person candidates (what are we calling that now?)

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Josh Byrnes, if he wants it, will probably get a head baseball job somewhere.

Dan Kantrovitz and Jason McLeod the Cubs will also get some attention. Billy Owens with the A’s too.

I expect Eppler will land on his feet somewhere, at some point, although maybe not immediately–I could imagine him joining the Dodgers to replace Byrnes. I’m still surprised the D-Backs front office hasn’t been raided, although I can’t imagine that after this year there will be anyone knocking on their doors.