The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The World Series favorite is already facing elimination. That’s weird, right?

Julio Urias is part of the reason the Dodgers are favored to win it all. (Michael Owens/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

The favored team to win the 2021 World Series is already facing elimination.

The Los Angeles Dodgers will have to navigate a one-game playoff against the St. Louis Cardinals to begin their quest to repeat as champions. Prevail, and they’ll have to face the 107-win San Francisco Giants in the divisional round. And yet, the Dodgers are the consensus favorite to win the 2021 World Series (between 3-1 and 4-1) according to almost every sportsbook offering odds on the event.

Since the adoption of the one-game wild-card playoff in 2012, just two wild-card teams have won the World Series, the San Francisco Giants in 2014 and the Washington Nationals in 2019. This, naturally begs the question of how any team facing a lose-and-go-home scenario, more or less with a 100-game winner waiting in the next round, can be considered the betting favorite to win the title. The short answer is simply this, the numbers say the Dodgers are clearly the best team in the postseason. Period.

While the Dodgers failed to win the National League West title, finishing one game behind the Giants, they have still been one of the best teams in baseball this season. Los Angeles was among the top three in the NL for home runs (237), on-base percentage (.330), ERA (3.03) and strikeout percentage (27 percent) plus led the majors in run differential (plus-269).

It's unfair the Dodgers are against the wall after 106 wins. Isn't it great?

That last number is a key one in that it’s a terrific indicator of true team strength. Looking back through history, teams with a run differential of 269 profile as 109-win teams. Instead, the Dodgers won 106, suggesting they were mildly unlucky.

If we use another similar lens and adjust for the sequence in which the Dodgers’ batting events occurred — also known as third-order wins — we would expect the Dodgers’ record to be slightly better at 107-55. No other team was expected to win as many games using these win-loss estimators. Why is that important? Because they have been found to be more reflective of a team’s true talent level, and thus better predictors of future outcomes. These are some of the ways analytics sites derive power rankings and how sports books determine their odds. In short, Vegas is treating the Dodgers as the favorites because metrics like these say they are, regardless of the tough path ahead.

Based on the money line (-225) for the wild-card game against St. Louis, Los Angeles has a 65 percent chance to win. If it prevails, next comes a best-of-five event against the Giants. The Dodgers will likely be favored in that series and their talent level, based on their runs scored and allowed compared to the Giants, gives them a 54 percent chance to advance to the National League Championship Series.

The Dodgers would then have a theoretical 70 percent chance to beat the Atlanta Braves or Milwaukee Brewers in a seven-game series, even without home-field advantage. Multiply those all together and the Dodgers have an implied 25 percent chance to reach the World Series. From there it could be a coin flip, which equates to a 13 percent chance to win it all.

What to know about the 2021 MLB postseason

This is in line with the championship chances displayed at FanGraphs (16 percent heading into the wild-card game) but future odds also include a vig, or cost of doing business with the sportsbook. That said, the Dodgers are the favorites at FanGraphs, too, and have been for almost the entire season.

While the odds for the Dodgers are justifiable, there is reason to question whether they represent a good value, and you can start with a recent spate of injuries. Left-handed starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, departed his last outing because of left forearm discomfort and is potentially out for the entire postseason. First baseman Max Muncy, the team’s most consistent hitter and an MVP candidate, injured his left elbow after a collision at first base Sunday and is “very unlikely” to play in Wednesday’s contest. His availability in the rounds that follow is also in question. Yet the team’s depth, even with the loss of two key players, keep the Dodgers in front.

According to FanGraphs, the Dodgers’ starting rotation led the majors in strikeout rate (28 percent), walk rate (6 percent), ERA (2.93) and runs saved (106) based on the number of men on base and outs left in the inning at the time of the at-bat. If any team is built to withstand the loss of an ace, it’s this Dodgers club.

Kershaw’s injury makes way for Max Scherzer, another three-time Cy Young Award winner acquired from Washington at the trade deadline, to start Wednesday. Scherzer is 15-4 with a 2.46 ERA on the season and 7-0 with an 1.98 ERA in 11 starts for the Dodgers, with 89 strikeouts and eight walks in 68⅓ innings.

Next up in the rotation is Walker Buehler, the likely starter for Game 1 of the National League Divisional Series, provided they advance. Buehler is 16-4 with a 2.47 ERA in a major league-leading 33 starts, with 212 strikeouts and 52 walks in 207⅔ innings. Julio Urías, a 20-game winner with 195 strikeouts in 185⅔ innings, is the next man up in the rotation followed by Scherzer again on normal rest. While the Dodgers have to play an extra game, and then face a 100-win team in the next round, they’ll be doing so with three aces in their hand.

Based on the speed and direction of every ball put in play against Scherzer, Buehler and Urías this season, also known as expected batting results, we would expect opposing teams to hit a combined .200 with a .339 slugging percentage and .257 weighted on-base rate, which accounts for how a player reached base instead of simply considering whether a player reached base. The league averages for those metrics are .242, .407 and .313, respectively.

The top starters on the NL’s other playoff teams don’t compare favorably to Los Angeles, and none of the contending squads has a trio like the Dodgers. The Giants have two pitchers qualifying for the ERA title, Kevin Gausman and Anthony DeSclafani, whose combined expected batting average and slugging rate are .223 and .351, respectively. Other pitchers in the Giants’ rotation, such as Logan Webb and Alex Wood, combined for a .224 expected average and .367 expected slugging. Milwaukee has Corbin Burnes, who set the record for strikeouts without a walk to start the season, but the drop off to Brandon Woodruff (.216 expected average against with .352 slugging) is significant. Freddy Peralta, however, had a fine season through 144⅓ innings for the Brewers and could be great on the bump during the playoffs. He could also regress mightily to his previous performances (4.67 ERA from 2018 to 2020) and has limited playoff experience (four innings). The Braves one-two punch of Max Fried and Charlie Morton are solid but Ian Anderson has one of the highest walk rates (10 percent) among NL starters pitching at least 100 innings in 2021. The Cardinals starting rotation, meanwhile, finished the regular season with the lowest combined strikeout rate in the league.

Muncy’s injury is a bit tougher to replace. His ability to draw walks (20 percent of plate appearances in 2021, 5th best in NL) and work deep counts (4.1 pitches per plate appearance this season, 8th most in NL) was integral to the Dodgers’ success. Still, the four other batters in the lineup that qualified for the batting title — Trea Turner, Justin Turner, Mookie Betts and Chris Taylor — combined to hit .274 with 80 home runs and a .838 OPS, production that ranks among the league’s best. Matt Beaty and Albert Pujols will also help when needed.

And that’s why the Dodgers are considered the favorite to win it all again this season. The other NL contenders simply cannot match the depth on the mound or at the plate that Los Angeles brings to the table. While the Dodgers’ road appears harder than those of other teams, the hardest road of all is for any team with the Dodgers standing in front of them.

Loading...