This week, the Dodgers will win their first World Series since 1988 or lose their third since 2017. If they beat the Rays on Tuesday or Wednesday, they’ll erase their reputation for playoff futility. If they drop games 6 and 7, they’ll deepen those doubts. The outcome matters very much to the two teams involved and the fans who follow them. But either way, it will be good TV.
Everything TV viewers want from small-screen entertainment—serialized stories, recognizable stars, character growth, “will they or won’t they?” suspense, stunning twists—the Dodgers deliver. Fans of sitcoms, soap operas, and even prestige TV shows watch week after week to see familiar faces encounter conflict and either escape perilous situations or fail and find themselves back at square one. So it is with the Dodgers’ annual effort to navigate the vagaries of October. Maybe this season finale will end with a Dodgers dogpile. Or maybe the long-running Dodgers drama will remain unresolved, forcing us to tune in next time.
Baseball’s TV ratings tell a story of strong regional loyalties and comparative apathy on a national level. The Dodgers aren’t an antidote to small audiences in October, but because they’ve appeared in eight straight tournaments, even neutral fans have histories with their leading men. Every fall, new players premiere in the postseason, but they can’t claim the spotlight without dislodging the Dodgers from their traditional October time slot.
Thanks to their team’s status as an October institution, the players on the Dodgers’ World Series roster entered 2020 with nearly nine times as many combined pre-2020 postseason plate appearances as the players on the Rays’ World Series roster (1,289 vs. 147) and more than five times as many postseason batters faced (1,538 vs. 289). Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw had made twice as many trips to the plate in the postseason as any Rays batter. Cody Bellinger, the Dodgers’ 25-year-old slugging center fielder, had accumulated two fewer postseason plate appearances than the entire Rays roster. Dodgers lefty Julio Urías, who turned 24 in August, had faced almost twice as many batters in the postseason as any Rays pitcher except Charlie Morton, who’ll turn 37 next month.
That dramatic disparity in postseason experience shouldn’t have any bearing on the players’ performance. But it does alter the spectator experience. Only three Dodgers in the World Series entered 2020 without prior postseason playing time: rookies Tony Gonsolin, Víctor González, and Edwin Ríos. Twelve of the Rays were new to the postseason stage, and most of the 16 who’d been there before had appeared only in guest spots and cameos, in contrast to many of the Dodgers’ recurring roles.
Thus, the Rays require exposition. On national broadcasts, every Tampa Bay plate appearance seems to start with a “previously on the postseason” recap. Mike Brosseau, the hero of ALDS Game 5, went undrafted. Brett Phillips, the hero of World Series Game 4, was traded to the Rays in August from the fourth-place Royals, for whom he rarely started. Randy Arozarena, the hero of ... well, a lot of games, has not yet appeared on top-prospect lists and bulked up on chicken, rice, and push-ups after recovering from COVID-19. If you’ve been listening to baseball broadcasts over the past few weeks, you may have heard these and other Rays backstories recounted a few too many times, but the primers were welcome at first. Most casual watchers or single-squad diehards probably weren’t aware of (or paying much attention to) those players prior to the playoffs.
The Dodgers need no introduction. They’re a postseason staple. Since the club’s streak of division titles started in 2013, Dodgers pitchers have thrown almost 3,000 more postseason pitches than any other team’s, and Dodgers hitters have seen almost 3,500 more postseason pitches than any other team’s. One would think the Dodgers would be overexposed—that fans would be sick of seeing them. Yet the Dodgers are a somewhat sympathetic juggernaut. They’re not inherent heels like the “27 rings” Yankees or proven cheaters like the sign-stealing Astros. And though they’re always in the playoffs, they haven’t won a World Series since 1988. That’s long enough that it’s tough to begrudge them their continued attempts at a title, but not so long that we have to hear about the Babe or the Billy Goat or the Black Sox every time they try to end the drought.
Although other franchises have deprived their fans of playoff appearances or made them wait a lot longer for the euphoria of a championship, the Dodgers are definitely due based on their recent success. The table below lists the Dodgers’ peak championship probability in each season from 2013-20: the moment when their chances of winning the World Series were at their highest.
Dodgers Peak Championship Win Probability by Season, 2013-20
|2013||NLCS||1||b3||2||---||ahead 2-0||Joe Kelly||Zack Greinke||28.4%|
|2014||NLDS2||1||t6||2||---||ahead 6-1||Matt Carpenter||Clayton Kershaw||17.0%|
|2015||NLDS2||5||b3||1||1-3||ahead 2-1||Enrique Hernández||Jacob deGrom||19.0%|
|2016||NLCS||4||b2||0||1--||tied 0-0||Josh Reddick||John Lackey||36.0%|
|2017||WS||2||b7||0||-2-||ahead 3-1||Yasiel Puig||Will Harris||78.1%|
|2018||WS||1||t3||1||12-||tied 2-2||Chris Taylor||Chris Sale||50.3%|
|2019||NLDS1||5||b7||0||---||ahead 3-1||Will Smith||Tanner Rainey||22.4%|
|2020||WS||4||b9||2||1--||ahead 7-6||Randy Arozarena||Kenley Jansen||83.9%|
This year’s World Series marks the third time in four years that the Dodgers have, at least for a fleeting play, been more likely than not to win a title. In none of the past eight seasons was their ceiling lower than a one-in-six shot. If we combine the Dodgers’ peak championship probabilities from 2013 to 2019 and 2013 to 2020, we find that they stack up to any other team’s over the same span.
No team can compete with the Dodgers’ current total from 2013 to 2020. Only the Astros had a higher combined peak championship probability from 2013 to 2019, and theirs barely beat out the Dodgers’. Even the Red Sox, who went all the way in 2013 and 2017, come in slightly below Los Angeles; the Sox have missed the playoffs as often as they’ve made it in the past eight seasons, and in years when they didn’t make the World Series, they didn’t advance beyond the ALDS. Flags, not peak championship probabilities, fly forever, so unless the Dodgers win another game against the Rays, they’ll have no lasting triumph to show for their regular postseason appearances and multiple deep playoff runs. But more than any other team, they’ve consistently put themselves in strong position to win (at least until they lose).
The Dodgers’ October ubiquity imparts a continuity to their postseason play that’s missing from most on-again, off-again teams. Every episode of the Dodgers’ latest trudge to a title evokes echoes of previous playoff runs, like the Season 1 callbacks in Season 8 of Game of Thrones.
When Walker Buehler shuts down another playoff lineup, he bolsters his status as a postseason stud, and when Justin Turner comes through in the clutch, he strengthens his case as a minor Dodgers deity. When Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager rake, their successes seem all the more striking in relation to their earlier postseason struggles. When Pedro Báez blows a lead (or two), fans flash back to his previous October blowups. When Kenley Jansen watches from the bullpen as Blake Treinen gets a save, the sight summons memories of Kenley’s cutter in its prime. Every Kershaw start carries a special significance, and every pitching move by Dave Roberts is judged within the context of his previous perplexing decisions. The Kershaw Playoff Narrative and the scrutiny of Roberts can be tiresome at times, but on a visceral level, “narratives” are why we watch. And if Kershaw and Roberts can conquer the problems that have plagued them in the past, the payoff will be sweeter because of the stumbles along the way.
The Dodgers’ star power, like their unerring aim at NL West titles, is partly a product of payroll. When the Dodgers develop or trade for a star—which they do often—they can keep him, as they did when they re-signed or extended Kershaw, Jansen, Turner, and Mookie Betts. When the Rays develop or trade for a star, they almost inevitably deal him, because ownership-imposed spending constraints demand that the tree of affordability be refreshed from time to time with the blood of pre-arbitration players. Tampa Bay’s baseball operations department may be brilliant, but the Rays operate without much margin for error. Win or lose this week, the Dodgers will almost certainly be back, but the Rays’ path to the playoffs will always be narrower and more overgrown.
Despite dwelling at opposite ends of the spending spectrum, several elements link these two teams. Both were top postseason seeds after leading their leagues in wins. Both have, at times, been built by Andrew Friedman. Both have entrusted their rosters to the third-longest-tenured managers in their respective circuits. Both entered the season with one of baseball’s best farm systems. Both boast big R&D departments and deep pitching staffs. But the Dodgers have been here before, over and over again, and they’ve never been better. And while that doesn’t entitle them to victory, it does make them the playoffs’ focal point, whether they turn out to be winners for once or tragic figures again.
When you watch TV, sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. And when you watch sports, sometimes your attention is drawn to a team whose names everybody knows. The Rays are fresh, fun, and talented, and in time they could become October baseball’s main characters. For now, though, the Dodgers are first on the call sheet, and the cameras will stay trained on the players with the top October billing until they hit their mark or storm off the set. The next two days will determine whether this cast will have the happy ending they’ve sought or settle for or an umpteenth “to be continued.”