Leading up to the Fall Classic that started on Tuesday, it had been a long, long time since the Dodgers were in the World Series – 29 years.
And the last time the Astros won a single World Series game? Never.
While baseball is one of the more stagnant games on-field, what has changed in front offices since those drought milestones cannot be exaggerated.
The sabermetric movement, named for the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), began with pioneer Bill James in the late 1970s. Since then, it has advanced due to the pitching analytics work of Voros McKracken, Nate Silver’s pre-FiveThirtyEight PECOTA system for predicting MLB performance, and a number of other contributors.
No one has embraced the movement more than the last two last teams standing: the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
If you are even a casual baseball fan, you probably read the book or saw the movie “Moneyball.” This would have given you a pretty good introduction into the central tenet of sabermetrics: finding hidden value in players through analysis of advanced statistics. While the Moneyball Oakland Athletics put sabermetrics definitively on the map, a Moneyball sequel would show that they did it wrong: the club has only made it past the division series once in the 21st century.
What’s particularly intriguing about this year’s matchup is that the two teams took very different routes to get where they are today, neither of those were similar to Moneyball.
As the league’s most aggressively saber-inclined team, the Astros essentially tanked their seasons for years in the name of picking up coveted prospects in the draft and by other means that favor worse teams. The Astros successfully completed the elusive roster “rebuild,” and are proof that stats are the way of the future.
The Dodgers took the opposite approach, pouring a borderline disgusting amount of money (depending who you ask) into creating baseball’s largest analytics office.
For reference, the team employs nearly 50 people in its Baseball Operations sector, and over 20 of them work under the auspices of research or analytics – almost as many as the number of players on the regular-season roster. This method has created baseball’s largest payroll by nearly $40 million.
Also diametrically opposed are the team’s on-field strengths: the Astros rely on their bats, and the Dodgers on their pitchers’ arms.
The Astros hit the second-most home runs and hit for the highest OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage) by 50 points in the Majors this year. Even more impressive is that their biggest star – Jose Altuve – is literally baseball’s smallest, at 5-feet 6-inches tall. How can you root against that?
Conversely, the Dodgers pitching staff leads the league in opponent OPS (as in, opponents have their lowest OPS against them). The staff includes not only Clayton Kershaw, the greatest pitcher of this generation, but also Rich Hill, a 37-year-old who has been in and out of the Majors and independent leagues for the past 15 years. Oh, and earlier this season he threw nine no-hit innings and still lost. How can you root against that?
The Astros and Dodgers have commenced a series 40 years in the making, and no matter who prevails in the epic matchup, it will be on the backs of the saber-slanted minds who preceded them.
So, who ya got?