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The Dodgers’ path to the title is clear

There’s a good chance Los Angeles will take home the World Series trophy in the next couple of weeks.

Division Series - San Diego Padres v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Two Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Dodgers are the best team left.

But, as we all know, despite averaging 101 wins over the last three seasons and making the playoffs in 11 of 16 years from 2004 to 2019, Los Angeles has been unable to get the job done. Indeed, the Dodgers have the 10th-longest World Series drought, and the longest drought of any of the four teams remaining in the 2020 field. (The Rays have never won the World Series, but the Dodgers’ drought predates their existence.) They haven’t won the title since 1988, despite making the playoffs a total of 14 times since.

So, yes, for as good as the Dodgers have been on paper, they have not run the table in October. They did win the National League in both 2017 and 2018, but fell short in seven games to the Astros and in five to the Red Sox, respectively. In those seasons, though, they faced formidable challenges from both Houston and Boston, who were well within their weight class:

How the Dodgers stacked up in 2017 and 2018

Year LAD W-L LAD RD LAD Pythag Opponent Opp. W-L Opp. RD Opp. Pythag
Year LAD W-L LAD RD LAD Pythag Opponent Opp. W-L Opp. RD Opp. Pythag
2018 92-71 +194 102-61 Red Sox 108-54 +299 103-59
2017 104-58 +190 102-60 Astros 101-61 +196 99-63

Those years, the Dodgers played a team in the World Series that posted a pythagorean record within three games of theirs. In fact, by that metric, the 2018 Red Sox were actually a slightly better team than the 2018 Dodgers. And despite the inherent flaws of using run differential as a measure of team strength — especially when a few blowouts could skew the result — it’s a decent way to adjust for luck. The 2018 Dodgers team underperformed their expectation by 10 wins and actually had to play a Game 163 to fend off the Rockies for the NL West crown, but made the World Series anyway.

Assuming that pythagorean record is the end-all, be-all to measure team strength (again, it’s not, but bear with me as I use it anyway), we can retroactively calculate the Dodgers’ World Series odds in both 2017 and 2018. Using an odds ratio, we find that Los Angeles had roughly a 54 percent chance to beat the Astros in 2017 and roughly a 48 percent chance to beat the Red Sox in 2018. It’s important to note that this is a very rough estimate — I am not adjusting for home field advantage, nor pitching matchups, which would move the rates based on individual game probabilities. This is just to answer a simple question: If these two teams played each other seven times in a row on neutral ground, how often do the Dodgers win?

Thus, even with this rudimentary method, we find that the Dodgers weren’t heavy favorites to win either the 2017 or 2018 World Series. A look back at Vegas’ odds shows a similar story. The Dodgers opened at -140 in 2017, implying a series win probability of 58 percent. In 2018, they opened at +115, implying a series win probability of 47 percent. In both cases, the lines were pretty close to what the odds ratio of pythagorean win probabilities would suggest.

In 2020, though, things are different. The Dodgers are far and away the best team left:

2020’s Final Four

Team W-L RD Pythag
Team W-L RD Pythag
Dodgers 43-17 +136 43-17
Braves 35-25 +60 35-25
Rays 40-20 +60 36-24
Astros 29-31 +4 30-30

Using the same method, we find that the Dodgers would have a 79 percent chance to defeat the Braves and advance to the World Series, where they would either have a 76 percent chance to defeat the Rays or an 89 percent chance to defeat the Astros. Since the Rays would be expected to defeat the Astros 71 percent of the time, we can calculate the Dodgers’ implied World Series odds right now: 63 percent.

If that seems ridiculously high, you’re not wrong. As of this writing, FanGraphs only gives the Dodgers a 41 percent chance to win the World Series, while FiveThirtyEight puts their odds at 53 percent. This simple, odds-ratio-based method seemed relatively fine to use for data in both 2017 and 2018, but it’s giving us some wonky results here using 2020 data.

Most of that comes back to the shortened regular season. We were basing our pythagorean records based off of 162-game samples — a much more accurate measure of team strength than a 60-game sample. Blowouts in 2020 could matter more than blowouts in any other year, since there are fewer games for the law of large numbers to ultimately work itself out.

We can attempt to correct this, but we move further away from the actual results in doing so. Regardless, I tried anyway. I looked at data from the last three seasons and regressed teams’ run differentials after 60 games to their run differentials after 162. With this information, I could then adjust the pythagorean records for all four of the remaining postseason teams and re-calculate the Dodgers’ World Series odds from there. This is what that looks like once done:

Regressed Pythagorean Expectations

Team Pace RS Pace RA Pace RD Regressed RS Regressed RA Regressed RD Regressed Pythag Current Pythag
Team Pace RS Pace RA Pace RD Regressed RS Regressed RA Regressed RD Regressed Pythag Current Pythag
Dodgers 942.3 575.1 +367.2 895.3 627.0 +268.3 .657 .717
Braves 939.6 777.6 +162.0 893.4 781.7 +111.7 .561 .583
Rays 780.3 618.3 +162.0 781.6 660.0 +121.6 .577 .600
Astros 753.3 742.5 +10.8 762.6 754.9 +7.8 .505 .500

This makes a ton of sense — the Dodgers, while excellent, would be extremely unlikely to maintain a pythagorean win percentage above .700 for an entire 162-game season. That’s why they have the harshest adjustment here. Remember, a .657 regressed pythagorean expectation still results in an expected 106 wins over 162. With the adjustment, we’re not saying the Dodgers are bad, we’re just saying that they were unlikely to contend for the wins record, despite being on pace to do so.

The adjustments give us much more reasonable odds. With the calculations built in, the Dodgers would now be expected to defeat the Braves in the NLCS roughly 71 percent of the time and go on to defeat the Rays about 68 percent of the time or the Astros about 80 percent of the time. When you put that together — looking at the conditional probability that a) they make the World Series, b) how often they play the Rays versus the Astros and c) their series odds versus either opponent — we get roughly a 51 percent chance the Dodgers take home the World Series crown. This is more in line with the FiveThirtyEight odds than the FanGraphs odds, but not egregious at all.

All of this is meant to make one point: The Dodgers have a great chance to win the World Series, and this very well could be the year that they end their drought.

Devan Fink is a sophomore at Dartmouth College and a Contributor at Beyond The Box Score. Previous work of his can be found at FanGraphs and his own personal blog, Cover Those Bases. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.