Last Updated: 2017-10-22
The Houston Astros will meet the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2017 World Series. How’s this for some trivia? The last time we had two World Series teams that won at least 100 games was all the way back in 1970 when the Baltimore Orioles topped the Cincinnati Reds. That will be the case this season when the Astros, who went 101-61, battle the Dodgers, who led the league at 104-58. Many people believe that these were the two best teams throughout the season and it’s hard to argue with them, even though the Indians had the best record in the AL at 102-60. The Astros have never won a World Series. The Dodgers haven’t won one since 1988. One drought will end. The other will continue.
The Dodgers are around a -160 favorite (61.54% implied probability) at BetOnline Sportsbook to win what this team has been built to do. That puts the Astros around +140 as what could be the biggest win for analytics that we have ever seen.
Here is the schedule for the series and the projected pitching matchups:
Game 1 @ LAD: Tuesday October 24, 8 p.m. ET (Keuchel vs. Kershaw)
Game 2 @ LAD: Wednesday October 25, 8 p.m. ET (Verlander vs. Hill)
Game 3 @ HOU: Friday October 27, 8 p.m. ET (Darvish vs. Morton)
Game 4 @ HOU: Saturday October 28, 8 p.m. ET (TBD)
Game 5 @ HOU: Sunday October 29, 8 p.m. ET
Game 6 @ LAD: Tuesday October 31, 8 p.m. ET
Game 7 @ LAD: Wednesday November 1, 8 p.m. ET
My guess here is that we see some starts going on three days rest in Game 4, hence the TBD from that point on. The Dodgers have been managing their starter workloads and the Astros have been cobbling together whatever they can in order to survive and advance.
If you’re an unbiased observer, this is the series that you wanted. As far as position player fWAR (Fangraphs WAR calculation), these are the two best teams in baseball. The Astros combined for 33 fWAR with the best offense in baseball and the Dodgers combined for 30.1 fWAR with a solid offense and one of the best defensive teams in the league.
The Astros made a lot of quality contact this season. They had one of the league’s lowest strikeout rates at 17.3 percent and hit 238 home runs. They battled .282 as a team with a .309 BABIP, which highlights the season-long contact quality, and finished well above everybody else in baseball with a 121 wRC+, which is weighted runs created plus, a metric that grades offenses relative to league average with adjustments put in for park factors. The Dodgers had a 104 wRC+, so the Astros offense graded out at 17 percent better than Los Angeles’s, when accounting for park factor and other adjustments. That is a sizable gap, to say the least. The Astros were 41 points better in the slugging percentage department and 12 points better in the OBP department. That is why there is such a big gap.
The Dodgers were the most patient team in baseball, though. They drew a walk in 10.5 percent of their plate appearances. As a result of all of the deep counts, the Dodgers did strike out five percent more often than the Astros. A 22.3 percent K% was still only tied for 11th, though, so that speaks to have much strikeouts have risen and how little they matter in the grand scheme of things.
One of the most important offensive factors in this series is that the Astros tied for the highest wRC+ in all of baseball with a 120 mark against left-handed pitching. Their .347 wOBA was second only to the Detroit Tigers. Houston had the lowest K% against lefties at just 16.7 percent. The Indians were second at 17.6 percent, so it was a big gap. Houston’s prowess against southpaws is a big deal with Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill setting the tone for the Dodgers in this series. In terms of the Dodgers, they were fifth in wOBA at .337 and fourth in wRC+ at 109 in this split against lefties, so they fared pretty well in their own right. That is relevant because they’ll see Dallas Keuchel in Game 1.
The Astros were tops in the league against righties, with a 122 wRC+ and a .349 wOBA. The Dodgers were just three percent better than league average in that split with a 103 wRC+ and a .327 wOBA. The Dodgers drew a lot of walks, but only had a .290 BABIP in that split. Their SLG was 49 points behind the Astros, so contact quality was a bit of an issue.
We don’t want to read too much into postseason sample sizes, but it is fair to point out that Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve basically kept the Astros alive throughout the ALCS. Others woke up later in the series and Yuli Gurriel had a few big hits, but Houston relied heavily on those two players. Considering they are two of the best in baseball, that isn’t a bad thing. The Dodgers have gotten balanced offense throughout the lineup in the playoffs thus far. The status of Corey Seager will be a big deal. He missed the NLCS with a back injury. He’s had some time to rehab it and get treatment. It would be a surprise to see him left off of the World Series roster.
The edge has to go to the Astros here. Minute Maid Park does slightly favor offense, but Dodger Stadium certainly does not, so we’ll have to see what, if any, impact that has on the Houston offense, but nobody in baseball hit better than the Astros away from home and that includes 27 games in Seattle, Anaheim, and Oakland, where offense is tough to come by.
The Dodgers were ahead of the Astros in the regular season. Los Angeles posted a 3.39 ERA with a 3.74 FIP and xFIP. Houston posted a 4.03 ERA with a 3.95 FIP and a 3.81 xFIP. In the playoffs, the Dodgers have mostly limited their starters to 75 or 80 pitches in order to utilize the phenomenal bullpen depth that they have. That has not been a luxury afforded to AJ Hinch, whose best bet in some games is to push the starters to their breaking points instead of going to the middle relievers. The Dodgers rotation is much fresher as we go deeper into the fall and that is something that could have a huge impact on this series.
Clayton Kershaw is the best regular season pitcher on the planet, but people have lots of hot takes about his playoff performance. Look, I get it. He has a 4.40 ERA. His HR/FB% in the playoffs is 15 percent, which is awful compared to his 7.8 percent career HR/FB% in the regular season. I understand the skepticism. I also know that Kershaw has a 3.26 xFIP in his 106.1 playoff innings and has 122 strikeouts. This is a really tough matchup for him, though. Kershaw allowed 23 HR in 175 innings during the season. He allowed 23 HR in 381.2 innings across the 2015 and 2016 seasons combined. I don’t fall victim to small sample size bias, but I can recognize how tough of a matchup this is for playoff Kershaw.
Rich Hill has not been efficient. He’s only worked nine innings in two starts. He has a 12/4 K/BB ratio with three runs allowed on six hits. The Astros aren’t a great matchup against him because he allows a lot of weak contact and they thrive on bat-to-ball, not waiting out guys that have such a big percentage of their plate appearances end in a strikeout or a walk. On the year, 205 of the 552 plate appearances for Hill ended in a K or a BB. He did allow 18 HR, which is a red flag.
Nobody commands the bottom of the zone better than Dallas Keuchel. Justin Verlander has been elite for the Astros since they acquired him, both in the regular season and in the playoffs. In eight starts and one relief appearance with the Astros, Verlander has 67 strikeouts in 58.2 innings of work. He has allowed a total of eight runs on 34 hits. He has embraced analytics and he’s a workhorse, so I’m not too worried about him tiring in this series despite the heavy ALCS workload.
You can make a case, and I would listen, that Keuchel + Verlander > Kershaw + Hill. The wild cards in this are Yu Darvish and Charlie Morton. On the surface, Darvish is much better than Morton. But, Morton has a very high-upside arsenal, as we saw in Game 7. The Astros know Darvish quite well from his Texas days. I don’t care about the batter vs. pitcher splits. I just care that they know his tendencies, know what to expect, and have a good set of advance scouting reports. Whether that helps in a practical sense remains to be seen, but it has to be considered an advantage heading into the series.
The great equalizer here, both with the rotation and the bullpen, is that the Astros have worked a lot more. They swept the Red Sox, but the Dodgers also swept the Diamondbacks. It took Houston seven high-stress games to get rid of the Yankees. It took the Dodgers five games to dispose of the Cubs. Those two extra games are significant because one was started by Verlander and one was started by an oft-injured Morton.
If there’s a small edge to be had, it is that. The Astros rotation has had to work a lot harder than the Dodgers rotation. As far as a comparison of the personnel between the two, it’s pretty close.
This part is not close. The Dodgers have had a great bullpen in these playoffs and had a great bullpen throughout the season. We’ll see if AJ Hinch opts to leave Lance McCullers Jr. in the bullpen or if he wants to use him as a starter. My guess is that he cannot afford to take McCullers out of the pen with the struggles of guys like Chris Devenski and Will Harris. Ken Giles has been a little bit iffy as well.
Nobody in the Dodgers pen has had issues. Dodgers relievers have a 32/2 K/BB ratio in 28.2 innings of work. They have allowed 12 hits and only three extra-base hits. Kenley Jansen is the best right-handed reliever on the planet. The Houston bullpen has already allowed eight home runs and 14 extra-base hits overall. The Houston pen has a 5.03 ERA. This was a growing problem as the season went along. Many scribes in the baseball community were surprised that the Astros didn’t do more at the Trade Deadline. Somebody like Brad Hand made so much sense, but a deal was never reached. Houston got by in the ALCS in spite of its bullpen and because the workload on the Yankees bullpen started to show at various points in the series.
Houston’s pen has walked 14 in 34 innings. The Dodgers pen has allowed 14 baserunners total. Sure, LA has played two fewer games, but still. This is a massive advantage for the Dodgers and one that cannot be ignored. Given the climate of the MLB playoffs, this is the advantage that means the most for either side in this series.
This series is a huge win for analytics and I couldn’t be happier about that. Analytics are a huge part of my baseball fandom and we’ve seen organizations that are well behind the times start to prioritize them. In fact, this entire postseason has been a win for analytics. The Cubs beat the Nationals, one of the few laggards left. The Diamondbacks made a huge turnaround with a savvier front office. The Yankees have been embracing more analytics to get a younger, cheaper core in hopes of spending less money in the future. They also took the bullpen dominance quest very seriously.
The Astros started this plan five years ago with a bunch of high-strikeout hitters. They’ve gotten fortunate along the way that Dallas Keuchel and Jose Altuve emerged into stars when they had lower ceilings at the time of the rebuild, but that has to happen for teams to have success more often than not. Houston has been built the right way. They’ve drafted and developed well from within and have hit the FA and trade markets when necessary. The Dodgers, despite the $300 million payroll, have Andrew Friedman in the front office and he is in tune with the numbers.
Anyway, off of that soap box, let’s look at other intangibles. Many will look at Houston being down a hitter with the NL park rules and scoff at their offense, but Houston had some of the lowest offensive production in the AL from the DH. Guys that were designated hitters posted a .242/.292/.409 slash line. That is obviously better than what a pitcher would do over the long-term, but with maybe six plate appearances in the first two games, at most, and maybe six more in the last two games, it isn’t that significant.
The one area in which it does hurt Houston is that they will have to make some hard decisions with the leveraging of relief pitchers. Guys that would normally go multiple innings may see their spot in the batting order come around. That makes AJ Hinch’s job very difficult because bullpen depth is not a strong suit for the Astros.
The Dodgers were second in defensive runs saved and the Astros were 21st. Los Angeles was sixth in UZR and Houston was 28th. Because Houston’s best attribute is putting the ball in play and doing so with contact authority, this big defensive disparity could come into play in this series in a big way.
The fact that Dave Roberts has managed the Dodgers pitching staff so efficiently is a big edge. Houston has thrown a lot of pitches. The Dodgers really have not.
Series Pick: Los Angeles Dodgers -160
I think we’re in for a long series and a good series, but I cannot overlook the huge edge in the relief department for the Dodgers. The fact that their workload is so much lighter is also a big consideration for me. The NL rules and the fact that it limits the effectiveness of a guy like Chris Devenski or Lance McCullers really hurts the Astros in this series. You certainly don’t want Devenski or McCullers to have to hit, especially if this does end up being a low run environment. I’m not sure that there’s a good workaround for the Astros.
I do think that they have a starting pitching advantage in some respects and undoubtedly have the better offense, but if these are going to be close games, and I believe that they are, giving me the Dodgers bullpen at -160 over the course of a long series is a pretty fair bet.
I’ll be doing in-depth game previews for each of the World Series games, so please check those out as we progress to the end of the postseason.