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The Dodgers can’t relax yet

Los Angeles’s roster is fearsome, but anything can happen in the postseason.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at New York Mets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The Dodgers are the best team in baseball. That’s a surprisingly uncontroversial statement, but there’s plenty of evidence to back it up. They have a record of 78–32, good for a .709 winning percentage, or the equivalent of 114 wins in 162 games. They just rattled off a 43–7 streak, a feat unmatched since 1912. Their projected rest-of-season winning percentage is .594 per FanGraphs, and .616 per Baseball Prospectus, higher than all other teams by a substantial margin in both cases. In our write-up of the Yu Darvish trade, we called the Dodgers “the best team in baseball,” and said they “look like a juggernaut.” Nor are we alone in that opinion. The Dodgers are really, really good.

That shouldn’t be that surprising. The Dodgers front office is as clever and creative as any of their rivals, and they’ve got more money at their disposal than literally anyone else. This is a team with huge structural advantages, and it would be more surprising if they weren’t good. But it’s still easy to be taken aback by just how well the Dodgers have played, and by just how dominant they’ve looked. The Rockies and Diamondbacks are playing well this season, with records of 64–47 and 63–47, both of which would be good enough to lead half the divisions in MLB. They’re 14.5 and 15.0 games back of the Dodgers for the NL West lead, so far that Los Angeles could basically ignore the regular season at the deadline, and make trades focused on the playoffs.

And they were active at the deadline, picking up Darvish as mentioned above, along with the Tonys Cingrani and Watson to provide bullpen reinforcement. The result is a team that already looked nigh-unstoppable now looking, uh, whatever lies beyond that.

So it’s also not a surprise that the Dodgers are World Series favorites. If we return to the rest-of-season projections of FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus, they both give the Dodgers the highest shot at winning the Fall Classic. What is surprising (finally, we get to the surprise) is how small their edge is over everyone else:

BP’s chart might not be as immediately striking, but that’s because its vertical axis only goes to 30 percent, rather than 100. FanGraphs gives Los Angeles a 19.2 percent shot, followed by Cleveland at 16.5 percent and Houston at 15.8 percent; BP puts them at 25.2 percent, followed by Houston at 18.2 percent and Cleveland at 15.8 percent. The takeaway from both sources is the same: the Dodgers are favorites to win the World Series, but by much less than you might expect, given all the talk about their dominance.

What gives? First, those charts are based on the projections, which are based on many years of data showing that caution is the prudent path. The Dodgers have played nearly .700 baseball; no one should expect them to continue on that path. The gap between them and the rest of the playoff teams is probably smaller than it has looked over the last month.

Second, and more importantly, the playoffs are crazy! The Dodgers are essentially guaranteed to make the playoffs at this point; both BP and FanGraphs give them a 100 percent chance of winning the division, meaning that none of their simulations result in the Dodgers falling behind either the Rockies or Diamondbacks. So while the Astros and Indians and Cubs and Red Sox’s estimated chances at winning the World Series are held down by the fact that they could still miss the playoffs, the Dodgers’ estimate assumes they make the playoffs. The 75–85 percent of the time that the projections think they fall short stems entirely from the possibility that they lose a playoff series.

That seems like a high percentage for a team that hasn’t lost three games in a five-game span since early June. But the playoffs are crazy! One of the Dodgers’ main regular-season strengths is the depth of their rotation, thanks to their innovative use of the 10-day DL and fragile-but-talented pitchers; that’s a strategy that means very little in the postseason, where fourth and fifth starters are pushed to the bullpen and every team’s ace can pitch two or even three times a series. An elite reliever or starter can swing a whole postseason; a hot streak from a position player can upset the predicted order completely. Anything can happen in a five- or seven-game series, and that includes a juggernaut team like the Dodgers losing.

And that is what makes the playoffs so thrilling. Some people might prefer less variance in the postseason, but I think it’s great that a team can march in after winning 110 games and feel just as much tension and stress and excitement as the team that squeaked in with 89 wins. The playoffs exist to entertain us, and that is nothing if not entertaining. So yes, the Dodgers are juggernauts. But it’s still a long way to the World Series.