As of September 19, four teams have clinched a spot in the postseason: the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Houston Astros, the Cleveland Indians, and the Washington Nationals. In two weeks, those four teams, plus six others yet to be determined, will undertake a monthlong postseason tournament to determine which is best. If you’ve watched any amount of baseball, you know that the postseason doesn’t reveal the best team so much as it reveals the team that took advantage of a weird strike zone at a key moment …
… or remembered to make an obvious defensive substitution:
So conceding that any of these four teams—or the Diamondbacks, Cubs, or Red Sox, for that matter—could win the World Series without anyone batting an eye, which one of them is the best?
Los Angeles Dodgers
Most Advantageous Way to Interpret the Question: “Which team has the best overall body of work this year?” The simplest way to look at the question of who the best team is would be to look at who’s won the most games, and that’s the Dodgers.
The Case For: We’ve spent all season talking about how great this team was, and along the way they’ve gotten even better, thanks to surprising performances from rookies and veterans on their last chance, and by picking up the best player to move at the trade deadline. The Dodgers have the best pitcher in baseball, the deepest starting rotation in baseball, and the best team OPS+ in the National League. It took one of the worst losing streaks in recent baseball history for the Dodgers to fall back close enough to the pack for this to even be an interesting discussion, and they’ve gone 4-2 since they finally curbed that 1-16 stretch.
The Case Against: It’s normal for a great team to have a bad couple of weeks in August or September. What the Dodgers did is beyond normal. Even though it seems that the worst is over, that losing streak cast doubts—some tangible, others not—on what the Dodgers can be going forward. Even if that losing streak doesn’t leave any psychological scars, even if the fact that the Dodgers looked mortal for the first time all year doesn’t cost them anything going forward, there are some legitimate questions about this team now.
Is Alex Wood running out of gas after an All-Star first half? Can manager Dave Roberts trust Pedro Báez, who was one of the best relievers in baseball this year until he posted a 14.73 ERA in September? How much will Corey Seager’s shoulder reduce his effectiveness in October? Is Chris Taylor (.906 OPS through August 31, .580 OPS since) regressing to the mean all at once? Yu Darvish’s Dodgers career is now two really good starts bookending five bad ones, and what the hell happened to Curtis Granderson?
These weaknesses—a nagging injury, an imploding reliever, some regression, some fatigue—are normal for any team coming down the stretch, but six weeks ago the Dodgers didn’t look normal, so any weaknesses are disconcerting.
Most Advantageous Way to Interpret the Question: “Which team is playing the best baseball right now?” Cleveland’s just coming off a 22-game winning streak, during which it got 2016 ALCS MVP Andrew Miller back. Cleveland’s won-loss record and run differential are comparable to the Dodgers’, and, if the team’s red-hot play of late is anything but random variance, the Fightin’ Franconas have to be the scariest team out there.
The Case For: Well, they went 94-67 last year and took the Cubs to Game 7 of the World Series, and this year they’re healthier and, in several key spots, better than they were in 2016. Imagine last year’s team but if Trevor Bauer pitched like Carlos Carrasco, Carrasco pitched like Corey Kluber, and Kluber pitched like turn-of-the-century Randy Johnson. That’s not an exaggeration—in MLB history there have been 10 instances in which a qualified starting pitcher has recorded a 180 ERA+ and a K/9 ratio of 11 or higher: six by the Big Unit, three by Pedro Martínez (all nine of those seasons between 1995 and 2002), and Kluber this year. Last year, José Ramírez was Francisco Lindor’s sidekick, but now he’s playing like Lindor’s clone, and Cleveland’s so good that Ramírez’s ascent to MVP contention has been pushed into “oh, by the way” territory.
Cleveland also leads the MLB in run differential and wins above average, the latter by a huge margin: 24.2 to 17.6 for second-place Arizona. Apart from win total, if you’re looking for one single number to determine how good a team is, run differential and wins above average are probably the best places to start.
The Case Against: If the Dodgers hadn’t been historically bad out of nowhere for three weeks, Cleveland’s winning streak would be a historical curiosity, like Oakland’s in 2002, rather than evidence that it’s the best team in baseball. Cleveland has put up a 46-24 record against the AL Central, the best record any team in baseball has against its own division, but that speaks not only to how good Cleveland’s been, but how bad the Tigers and White Sox have been.
Furthermore, as amazing as Cleveland’s second-half run is, the team’s 46-17 record since the break isn’t as impressive as the Dodgers’ 41-10 record in June and July. Cleveland also went 47-40 before the break, while Los Angeles is 35-25 despite that 1-16 stretch since the break. Each team has a two-month stretch when it’s looked ordinary, but punishing the Dodgers for getting their losses out of the way all at once is still a methodological choice.
Most Advantageous Way to Interpret the Question: “Which team comes with the lowest chance of catastrophic failure?” That might sound weird, considering Washington’s penchant for bowing out in the first round, but it’s been as reliable as a Japanese subcompact this year. While other preseason favorites started slow, the Nats got into first place on Opening Day and stayed there for all but three days, despite quite a bit of bad injury luck.
The Case For: Washington has spent 165 of the 169 days since the season started in first place. While Cleveland, the Astros, and the Dodgers have all had their ups and downs, the Nationals have never lost more than four games in a row nor won more than seven. They are the only team in baseball that’s been .500 or better in every month of the season, and they have a good shot at a Max Scherzer–Anthony Rendon Cy Young–MVP double. Just because they haven’t played .800 baseball over any six-week span doesn’t mean their entire body of work doesn’t hold up.
The Case Against: The bullpen’s better than it used to be, but it’s not as good as Cleveland’s. They’re still missing their two best outfielders, and while a 1-2 punch of Scherzer and Strasburg is close enough to Kluber-Carrasco, Kershaw-Darvish, and Dallas Keuchel–Justin Verlander to nullify any other team’s advantage at the top of the rotation, Washington would run out of pitchers more quickly than Cleveland and L.A. would, while Houston has other advantages.
Most Advantageous Way to Interpret the Question: “Which of the four best teams in baseball has the capacity to improve come October?” The Astros are 1.5 games behind Cleveland for the best record in the American League, despite swooning in the second half. But in the past three weeks they’ve traded for Verlander, who’s 3-0 with a 0.86 ERA in three starts since, and brought Carlos Correa back from injury.
The Case For: No team in baseball is as good at any one thing as the Astros are at hitting. They lead MLB in runs (815) and OPS+ (126, which is 22 points ahead of second-place Cleveland). Put another way, they’re so good offensively they’ve skewed the curve to the point where no other team is more than three points above average. José Altuve is going to deserve the MVP award, and even with outfielder Jake Marisnick (121 OPS+) out for the year with a broken thumb, Houston can put out a nine-man group where every single player has an OPS+ of at least 105 in at least 250 PA. There are no holes in this lineup.
And it’s not like they’re the 1999 Rangers, who won 95 games with a 5.07 team ERA. Houston starts off with Keuchel and Verlander, and can add four more starters with a league-average ERA+ or better: Collin McHugh, Lance McCullers, Brad Peacock, and Charlie Morton. The bullpen could use another lefty, but Ken Giles and Chris Devenski are a solid 1-2 punch, and Joe Musgrove has a 1.57 ERA in relief this year, with a .188/.241/.317 opponent slash line.
They’re within sight of Cleveland despite losing Correa, McCullers, and Keuchel for long stretches due to injury, and despite having had Verlander for only three starts. Houston has another gear to kick it into in the playoffs, and Cleveland doesn’t.
The Case Against: McCullers and Keuchel were pitching as well as any 1-2 combination in baseball through the first two months, but both fell off and got hurt in midseason. McCullers still isn’t all the way back from arm fatigue; he’s made one start since July 30 and hasn’t pitched well since he held the Mariners to one run over five innings on June 24. Keuchel had a 1.67 ERA when he went on the DL with neck discomfort on June 8, and in 10 starts over the roughly two months since he came back, his ERA is 4.66.
You can look at the Astros and Cleveland as mirror images of each other—Houston hits better than anyone in baseball, has OK pitching, and was the best team in the AL for the first half of the season. Cleveland hits OK, has better pitching than any other team in baseball, and was the best team in the AL for the second half of the season. Even if you stipulate that, wouldn’t you rather have the team that’s playing better right now?
Stats through Monday’s games.