The World Series is set. For the first time since the Baltimore Orioles defeated the Cincinnati Reds in the 1970 Fall Classic, two 100-win teams are meeting for baseball’s top prize. The Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros thoroughly dominated their competition throughout the regular season, and aside from some early-game hiccups in the ALCS by the Astros, both teams have motored their way through October. Here are a few key moments that got them back to contention for the Commissioner’s Trophy.
1) Jim Crane buys the Astros and hires Jeff Luhnow, who promptly tanks the team to draft Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers and Alex Bregman
The Astros were coming off a 106-loss season when venture capitalist Crane bought the team for a song. He poached Luhnow from the St. Louis Cardinals right after he had constructed a World Series winner. Luhnow took the long view, and while Astros fans suffered for another three seasons, it eventually paid off. Correa and McCullers were nabbed in the 2012 draft. Bregman came along in the 2015 draft. Correa promptly won the AL Rookie of the Year award when he was called up. McCullers, when healthy, has led the breaking ball revolution in the game. Bregman has developed into a top-5 third baseman in baseball, after Correa blocked him at shortstop. These three will be with this team for years to come, should a likely dynasty fully emerge.
2) Andrew Friedman and the Dodgers embrace depth, make diamonds from coal
Yes, the Dodgers are led by superstars Clayton Kershaw, Corey Seager, Kenley Jansen and Justin Turner. We can probably throw Cody Bellinger into that mix, too. But the Diamondbacks have superstars. The Yankees have superstars. Cleveland has superstars. All of them are on vacation at the moment. Instead, Friedman and his GM Farhan Zaidi decided to make sure that the last 10 guys on the roster would be better than any other team’s last 10.
Consider: Chris Taylor, a nothingburger of a utility infielder with the Mariners, got shipped in June 2016 for Zach Lee. Taylor suddenly smacked a bunch of doubles and home runs, ran hard, played five positions and was suddenly a five-win player. Taylor was arguably the key player for the Dodgers this year. He could spell anyone. He shored up the outfield when both left and center became question marks. He allowed Bellinger to take over first base without losing any value in the outfield. To top it off, he was named co-MVP of the NLCS. Not bad for a guy on the path to also-ran status.
One of Friedman’s other masterstrokes came right at the start of his reign. Austin Barnes and Enrique Hernandez were grinding away in the Marlins system when Friedman, in one of his first moves with the Dodgers, traded Dan Haren and Dee Gordon for both of them. At the time, it felt like a white flag; now it seems like genius. Haren flamed out and was out of the game by the end of 2015. Gordon got popped for PEDs at the beginning of 2016, and his departure allowed for Seager to arrive.
Barnes never flashed much promise in his cups of coffee with Los Angeles, but he erupted this season; 41 catchers logged at least 250 plate appearances in 2017 and Barnes hit the best of all of them. He walked a ton, rarely struck out, and managed 25 extra-base hits in only 262 trips to the plate. He was also the best pitch framer in baseball in a low-key way. Barnes was so good that he supplanted Yasmani Grandal in the postseason. With David Ross retired, Barnes can lay claim to the title of best backup catcher in the game. That backup status may not last much longer.
Hernandez has had some inconsistency in three seasons at Chavez Ravine but, like Taylor, his super-utility status gives manager Dave Roberts the flexibility to mix and match his lineups. Hernandez also hit three home runs in the clincher against the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS. No big deal or anything.
Then there’s the legend of Rich Hill, which needs no further explanation. Brandon McCarthy suppressed contact with the best of them throughout the regular season. The Dodgers may have only had the sixth-best rotation in baseball — and among the 10 playoff teams — but their No. 3 through 5 starters were better than anyone else’s.
3) Jose Altuve finds his power stroke
It was clear that Altuve was a special talent early on. The high-contact ball slapper broke out in 2013 by getting the quails to die and the groundballs to see. He kept that going for another couple of years, but given high BABIPs and low xwOBAs, one wondered whether Altuve would come down to earth and settle in as a league average hustler.
That all changed in 2016. The Astros have gotten praise in some circles for slashing their strikeout rate and becoming the best contact team in the game, but they only became the best offense since the 1931 Yankees by maintaining their power. They trailed the Yankees by only three home runs for the major-league lead. Their .196 isolated power percentage beat all comers. An offense becomes historic with tons of good contact, not just plain old contact.
Altuve represents the Astros’ approach. He blasted 71 extra-base hits in 2016, blowing past his previous career high of 59. Ditto the 24 home runs. Altuve raised his average launch angle by nearly two degrees, and his xwOBA by nearly 50 points. He continued to make tons of contact and never struck out. Altuve had arrived.
He continued to sell out for power this year, and he was never better. His 12.7 percent strikeout rate had never been higher, but his .202 isolated power percentage was a career best. He was starting to sit himself down, at least by his standards. The tradeoff was more than worth it, as he clubbed his way to a personal best .384 xwOBA, 160 wRC+, and an MVP candidacy. One of baseball’s most exciting players was now finally one of the best.
4) Yasiel Puig embraces himself and the world
There was a time when Yasiel Puig’s electric first two years in major league baseball felt like another lifetime. Injuries and performance cratered his stock, and while his demotion to Triple-A two Augusts ago felt unnecessarily harsh, it can’t be denied that Puig was a different player in 2017. He posted career highs in walk rate, isolated power, xwOBA and contact rate. He posted career lows in whiff rate, chase rate and strikeout rate.
Some bad BABIP luck kept his overall production down, but his approach was sterling. The bat flips on singles, the tongue wagging, the Turner Ward smooches — this is the Platonic ideal of Puig. We get this guy in the World Series. That alone is worth the price of admission.
5) Justin Verlander plays hero ball
The Astros needed a starter midseason, and badly. McCullers and Dallas Keuchel were both injured. The offense stayed strong, but the team struggled to prevent runs. Luhnow couldn’t land an ace at the non-waiver deadline, but by some miracle, he rammed through a deal for Verlander with two seconds to spare at the waiver deadline on Aug. 31.
It paid off. Verlander was a top-10 starter by xwOBA and top-three by strikeout rate in September. He was electric in his five regular-season starts in a Houston uniform, and was instrumental in settling the rotation.
I don’t need to say too much about his postseason performance. He hung in against the Red Sox in Game 1 of the ALDS, but ran out of gas by the sixth inning. Manager A.J. Hinch foolishly brought him in from the bullpen in Game 4, when Verlander walked two and gave up a home run. That decision could have come back to haunt Hinch.
Or not. Verlander mowed down 21 hitters, walked two, and threw 16 innings in his two starts in the ALCS. He led the Astros to a win in a tight Game 2. He helped a taxed Astros bullpen rest in Game 6. There wasn’t any question of who would take ALCS MVP honors. Verlander was the Russell Westbrook of that epic seven-game series.
6) Brandon Morrow revamps the Dodgers bullpen
Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani were important left-handed pickups to help deepen the Dodgers’ relief corps. The guy who changed everything, however, was a 33-year-old burnout whose contract stipulated a call-up this season. Brandon Morrow had a great year with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2012, and had a heroic game with them in 2010, but he seemed destined to become a Triple-A lifer. But then, he started striking everybody out. He stifled quality contact. The control problems that had plagued him his entire career disappeared. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Morrow was reborn.
He and Kenta Maeda then became the trusted firemen for Roberts in October. Morrow struck out eight and walked only one in 8.1 innings of postseason work. A .264 xwOBA on contact-only plays signaled hitters’ inability to square him up. Morrow single-handedly fixed the bridge between the rotation and Jansen.
Back in July, I assessed a head-to-head matchup between these two teams, and determined that the Dodgers held the edge. Since then, both rotations have improved, while the Dodgers’ bullpen seems to have overtaken Houston’s. Roberts continues to have more bench depth than Hinch, who has ridden the same nine position players for months. My money is still on the Dodgers, but only just.
We haven’t seen two teams this closely matched in a World Series in decades. Both took paths to dominance that stretched back years. They now face each other in what is likely to be a fierce standoff. What a treat for baseball fans to see what greatness looks like when it battles greatness.
By Evan Davis