LOS ANGELES — A couple of months ago, colleague Sam Miller had some helpful advice about which World Series matchup to root for in the event your favorite team was out of the running. Whether or not you agreed with Miller, his dream pairing has come to pass: the Los Angeles Dodgers against the Houston Astros.
Well, clearly the Dodgers’ fans wanted their boys in blue to make the Series, but is the fact that they drew the Astros a dream or a nightmare?
More specifically, what Miller was excited about was the idea of the historically strong Dodgers pitching going against an equally all-time-good Astros lineup. As outlying performances tend to do, the metrics have been blunted somewhat since then, with both clubs going through injury-plagued stretches before putting it all back together this October.
By and large, the dream matchup is intact, one of the classic philosophical paradox of the immovable object versus the irresistible force, a contradiction referred to in Chinese as the máodùn. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) So, for all the runs that the Dodgers prevented this season, are they in trouble now that they have to face an offense so uniquely prolific?
We’re going to take a look at how these kinds of matchups have played out in World Series history, but first let’s consider just how unique this Fall Classic is by calculating a “Maodun Index.”
(Hey, we dug up the word, we might as well put it to work.)
We need league- and ballpark-adjusted metrics for this chore, so let’s go with data from Fangraphs.com. For offensive production, we’ll use wRC+, a measure of how many runs a team creates above or below average. The Astros’ wRC+ was 121 during the regular season, meaning they were 21 percent better than average. That puts Houston in the 99.8th percentile of all teams ever. To put it another way, only 0.2 percent of all offensive units in baseball history have been more prolific. That’s how good the Houston offense has been.
For run prevention, we will go with two measures: one for pitching (ERA-), and one for defense (the DEF rating at Fangraphs). Both measures work in a similar fashion to wRC+ in that team performance is based on a comparison to league averages. In this case, I also used historical percentile rankings and averaged them together in order to have one rating for team run prevention. The Dodgers led the majors in this run prevention measure and had a historical percentile rating of 91.2.
Translated, the Dodgers’ run prevention this season ranks among the top 10 percent of all teams ever. So does the Astros’ run production. Now, they are meeting in the World Series. This will mark just the fifth time in baseball history that has happened. The other years: 1943, 1970, 1995 and 1999.
Now, if you add together the respective percentile ranks of the Houston offense and the L.A. defense, you come up with 191.0. We’ll call this our “Maodun Index.” Here are the top six Maodun Indexes in World Series history:
All-time Maodun Index leaderboard
1. 1999, Yankees vs. Braves, 192.4
2. 2017, Dodgers vs. Astros, 191.0
3. 1995, Braves vs. Indians, 188.9
4. 1943, Yankees vs. Cardinals, 188.8
5. 1977, Yankees vs. Dodgers, 185.8
6. 1970, Orioles vs. Reds, 184.8
From here on out, we will refer to the elite offenses as “Force” teams (as in unstoppable force). The great pitching-and-defense teams will be the “Object” teams.
In 1999, the Yankees, a Force team, won. In 1995, it was the Braves, an Object team. In 1943 and 1977, we saw Yankees Force teams win. In 1970, the champion Orioles were an Object team. So that’s three Force and two Object winners.
Clearly, this teeny sample is not conclusive, but at least we have a sense of just how unique — and fascinating — this year’s World Series promises to be.
Now, let’s loosen standards and look for all instances in which a top-80 percentile Force team played a top-80 percentile Object team. This has happened 37 times in World Series history. Well, almost. On three occasions, the opponents have ranked in the 80th percentile or better in both run production and run prevention: 1935, 1942 and 1943. By definition, that means a Force team both won and lost the Series, and vice versa. We will ignore those years, leaving us with a 34-season sample.
This time, Force teams emerge with a bit of an edge, winning 19 of 34 of those pairings. It’s not overwhelming, but it is an edge. Here’s how that breaks down by decade:
1900s: Object 3, Force 0
1910s: Force 3, Object 1
1920s: Force 1, Object 0
1930s: Force 2, Object 1
1940s: Force 2, Object 1
1950s: Force 4, Object 2
1960s: Object 2, Force 0
1970s: Force 3, Object 1
1980s: Object 1, Force 0
1990s: Force 2, Object 1
2000s: Force 2, Object 2
2010s: none (until now)
The Astros and Dodgers will make the first Maodun Index pairing since the Phillies beat the Rays in 2008.
While the Force teams have an overall edge through World Series history, perhaps the Dodgers can take solace in the fact that the past two such matchups have gone to Object teams — the Phillies in 2008, and the Marlins over the Yankees in 2003.
Another source of solace: The last time the Dodgers played in the Fall Classic was 1988. That was a Maodun Index showdown against the mighty Oakland Athletics and L.A. — an Object team — won that one.
Alas, there also is this: The Dodgers have appeared in eight Maodun Index matchups, and in all of them, they’ve been the Object team. They’ve won just two of those Series, in 1955 and 1988.
We’ll leave it to you if you want to take these findings and jet off to Las Vegas. Before you do, you probably should know that this sort of thing isn’t predictive. The samples are just too darn small, especially given the relatively narrow margin the Force teams have.
Besides, when the irresistible force meets an immovable object, what really should happen is that the universe should split in two or Zeus should turn us all into stone. Instead, in baseball, the historically elite offenses have tended to get the better of historically elite pitching and defensive units. That has been especially so in Dodgers history.
But does the fact that Joe Gordon roughed up Whit Wyatt in 1941 really have any bearing on this matchup? Probably not.
What we can say is that great hitting teams beat great pitching teams, unless they don’t. We also can say that so far in this postseason, the Astros’ offense has looked beatable at times, while the Dodgers’ pitching and defense has more than held up to its regular-season form.
In the end, we can at least all agree that whether or not this is the matchup you wanted to see, when it comes to the ultimate contrast in team styles and strengths, we couldn’t have done better than the Dodgers versus the Astros.