The 2021 Dodgers will be a great team, but here’s why they probably won’t win the World Series

Foul-smelling reader, you shall faint where you stand, sit, or lie, or squat upon reading this author’s outrageous communiqué: The 2021 Los Angeles Dodgers are to be pitied. 

The Royal We say this for two reasons, which shall now be laid in rich Corinthian leather bullet points: 

  • Had last season been a normal one, the 2020 Dodgers would be remembered as one of the greatest teams of all-time.
  • It’s entirely plausible that the 2021 Dodgers will be even better during the regular season, but they’re probably not going to win the World Series. 

Let’s deal with the first point first. The Dodgers last season won at a .717 clip, and they backed it up with a similarly strong run differential. Then they went 13-5 in the postseason en route to winning the World Series. That aforementioned .717 win percentage, by the way, scales to a 116-win pace across the usual 162, and the record for wins in a season is … 116 by the 1906 Cubs and 2001 Mariners. Unlike last year’s Dodger model, however, the 1906 Cubs and 2001 Mariners each failed to win the World Series. 

However, because the 2020 season spanned just 60 regular season games you’re probably not going to hear the 2020 Dodgers mentioned alongside the others of their elite ilk who combined regular season dominance with both belt and title. Is that fair? Perhaps not. After all, we know the Dodgers are legitimately that good. Since the start of the 2019 season, they’ve gone 149-73, which comes to a win percentage of .671. If 2020 had been a season of standard breadth, then they very likely would’ve won 110 games or more. Such is their underlying quality. Things as they are, though, the 2020 Dodgers probably won’t be name-checked with the likes of 1927 Yankees and 1975 Reds and 1998 Yankees and 1939 Yankees and 1929 Athletics and so on (partial listing; calm yourself). 

This scribe thinks they should be, but the reality is that most are going to discount the regular season accomplishments of the 2020 Dodgers when comparing them to the other great squadrons of the sport. “Sure, they were great across 60 games, but you can’t assume they’d be great across 162,” they’ll say. That’s going to be a popular sentiment, at least among those who don’t identify as Dodgers rooters.

That brings us to the second point above — i.e., that the Dodgers might scale still greater heights in the regular season but probably won’t repeat as World Series champs. Bear in mind that the Dodgers return almost every core member of the 2020 team, and to that impressive baseline of talent they’ve added the NL Cy Young winner, Trevor Bauer. Corey Knebel is a new big arm in the bullpen, and former top prospect Gavin Lux has a clear path to regular playing time and may be ready to take the next step. Hear, hear to Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer when he writes that the 2021 Dodgers could indeed challenge that record of 116 wins

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But then what happens? Then the 2021 Dodgers, regular season greatness in tow, will run into the cruel peculiarities of postseason baseball. When you distill the 162-game regular season down to the relatively minuscule sample size of the playoffs, oddities happen. Consider: 

  • Of the 116 World Series that have been played, just 52 have been won by the team with the best record in the regular season. To the extent that best regular season record signifies best team, said best team has won the World Series just 44.8 percent of the time.
  • From 1969 through 1993, when the postseason consisted of two rounds (the LCS and the World Series), the best team in the regular season won the World Series just 36 percent of the time. 
  • Since 1995, when the Division Series first appeared on the scene and gave us a third round of postseason play, the best team in the regular season has won the World Series just 26.9 percent of the time. That’s including last season.

Stated another way, the contemporary playoff structure is such that the best team in the regular season fails to win it all almost 75 percent of the time. Maybe the Dodgers’ strengths in 2021 are such that they’ll enjoy better odds than that? OK. The SportsLine Projection System, for instance, tabs them for 111 wins and gives them a 39.8 percent chance of hoisting the trophy. Projection systems are conservative by design, and SportsLine is more bullish on the Dodgers in 2021 than any other algorithm-based forecast that I’ve seen. That 39.8 percent chance of winning the World Series, however, tells you that even SportsLine takes the field over the Dodgers.

That’s the only way to approach the matter. The Dodgers in 2021 are the team most likely to win the World Series. That’s a reasonable and probably accurate thing to say. So is this: The Dodgers probably won’t win the World Series in 2021. The small sample size of playoff baseball in tandem with the structural parity and randomness native to the sport make it very difficult for expectations to be met across a string of best-of-five and best-of-seven series. All of this plus the abbreviations of 2020 may conspire to deprive the Dodgers of a legacy they probably already deserve. 

The one way to put this discussion to rest is for the Dodgers to achieve that greatness that’s expected of them in the regular season, which they probably will. Then they’d need to once again win the World Series, which, to repeat, they probably won’t. 

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