A rare World Series: Best versus best

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 28: A general view of the 2019 World Series Champions sign at Nationals Park before the game between the Washington Nationals and the Toronto Blue Jays on July 28, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 28: A general view of the 2019 World Series Champions sign at Nationals Park before the game between the Washington Nationals and the Toronto Blue Jays on July 28, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images) /

It’s only the fourth time in a quarter-century that the best teams in both leagues faced each other in the World Series.

The 2020 World Series features a rare combination: The best teams in each league facing off for baseball’s ultimate prize.

The meeting of the National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers and American League pennant winning Tampa Bay Rays represents only the fourth time since the creation of the wild card format a quarter century ago that the teams with the best records in each league survived the playoff elimination process.

The Dodgers won 43 games in 2020, a .717 winning percentage that was eight games better than the Atlanta Braves, the next strongest club.

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In the American League, Tampa Bay won 40 games, giving it a .667 winning percentage that was four games better than either of the league’s other two division champions, the Minnesota Twins or the Oakland Athletics.

Not since 2013, when the 97-win Boston Red Sox defeated the 97-win St. Louis Cardinals in six games, has the World Series pitted each league’s best team, based on regular season record.

Since the addition of the wild card round in 1995, only two other times have each league’s best survived the playoff elimination series to get to the World Series. In 1999, the American League champion New York Yankees – with 98 wins – defeated the 103-game winning Atlanta Braves in four straight. In 1995, the Braves – who led the National League with 90 wins – beat the 100-game winning Cleveland Indians, also in six games.

The reasons why it is so difficult for both leagues’ best team – based on regular season record – to survive to the World Series lay in the competitive nature of baseball combined with the layered post-season process.

Statistically in any contest between relatively balanced teams – which is to say in any post-season series –  the better team is likely to win about 55 percent of the time.

But in a three-tiered elimination process such as MLB’s usual post-season process – with its division and LCS rounds preceding the World Series – that means the odds of the best of what are normally five post-season teams actually earning the right to represent its league in the Series are only 55 percent x 55 percent, or about 30 percent.

Add a third tier of playoffs such as was done in response to the shortened regular season schedule and the odds of the best team qualifying this year drop below 20 percent.

That tiered playoff process is what makes this year’s accomplishment by the Dodgers and Rays so unusual. It’s also worth noting that each champion endured a challenging seven-game LCS.

In a “normal” post-season, there are simply too many tripwires in the way of even a superior team. Take 2019, for example. Last year the Los Angeles Dodgers were plainly the class of the National League. LA won 106 games, 10 more regular season victories than any other NL  team.

Yet the Dodgers fell in the first playoff round to the Washington Nationals, a wild card club that won 13 fewer regular season games. The Nats rode their division series upset all the way to the World Series title, beating the 107-game winning Astros.

In 2018, the Milwaukee Brewers led all National League teams with 96 wins. But the Brewers were tripped up by Los Angeles in a seven-game NLCS.

In 2017, the Cleveland Indians had the American League’s best regular season record, but lost to the New York Yankees in the division round. One year earlier, the Indians found their way to the World Series cleared by the Toronto Blue Jays’ upset of the Texas Rangers, who had won the most regular season games in the AL.

In 2014, the 84-win wild card San Francisco Giants won the World Series by taking out four teams with superior records, the 88-win Pittsburgh Pirates, the 96-win Washington Nationals, the 90-win St. Louis Cardinals, and the 89-win Kansas City Royals.

This World Series features a true quality-related first: It is the first time since the creation of the wild card round in 1995 in which both competitors brought winning percentages above .640 into the fray. That hasn’t happened since 1953, when the Yankees (99-52, .656) beat the Dodgers (105-49, .682) in six games.

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In fact, since 1995, 11 teams qualified for post-season play after winning at least 64 percent of their games. But only seven of those 11 even reached the World Series, and only three – the 1998 Yankees, 2016 Cubs, and 2018 Red Sox – won.