If you asked any true baseball fan right around the All Star Break which two teams would be playing in the World Series, you most likely would get Houston Astros - LA Dodgers. Both had played well to start the season and both possess star power in terms of batting and pitching. Then they each hit a slump.
For Houston, August was a month to forget. First there was being displaced from home due to Hurricane Harvey and having to play some home games in Tampa Bay. There were also injuries to key players. The Astros were 69-36 to end July but went 11-17 in the month of August.
For LA, August was not a problem. In fact, by August 25, the Dodgers had an insane record of 91-36. Many of us in the baseball world thought they would break the MLB record for most regular season victories. Then they lost 5 in a row followed by losing 11 in a row after mustering a win on September 1.
Sometimes you have to lose to win and clearly both Houston and LA have shown some resiliency these past few weeks. Since Hurricane Harvey, the Astros are 28-12 with 21-8 to finish the regular season and at one point were 5-1 in the postseason before losing three straight in the Bronx. The Dodgers snapped out of the funk they were in to end the regular season on an 8-2 tear and are currently 7-1 in the postseason. Clearly both of these teams are playing at their peak and have consistently been the two best teams in baseball except for the previously mentioned slumps.
So what happens this week and next week? Well home is where the heart is and home field advantage has been a very big deal in the World Series. There is a lot of data to prove it. In fact, there is over 100 years of data! However, let's focus on the last 22 World Series or since 1995. That is when Major League Baseball introduced the Wild Card playoffs. Teams with home field advantage are 16-6 in the World Series. Why does home field matter given that both of these teams are capable of winning at home and on the road? The answer is obvious to even the casual baseball fan: the rules are different for American League and National League parks. National League teams do not use the designated hitter and tend to play more small ball. Also, their stadiums are more friendly to pitchers such as PNC Park in Pittsburgh and AT&T Park in San Francisco. On the flip side, American League teams use a designated hitter so pitchers never get to bat. Offensive numbers tend to be stronger for teams like the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians.
Home field advantage used to alternate between American League and National League with every odd year going to the American League and every even year going to the National League until that got switched after the World Series was cancelled in 1994 due to the player's strike. Then home field advantage was determined by the winner of the All Star Game when the game itself ended in a tie in 2002. For the first time in MLB history, home field advantage this year is determined by the team with the best overall record. What a novel concept! Before 1995, the two leagues never played each other in the regular season so perhaps MLB felt it's OK to now use a logical solution for determining home field now that inter-league competition has been happening for 23 seasons. Still, baseball has been slow to change but at least they finally got it right.
The Dodgers finished with the best overall record even though they had a late season slump. They have a great home record and an amazing pitching staff. Clayton Kershaw is arguably the best starting pitcher in the game and Kenley Jansen is one of the best closers with his impressive K/BB ratio. Even though the starting pitchers for Houston are very good, they have not been terribly consistent and their bullpen is above average at best. Both lineups are strong so as usual the World Series will come down to pitching and of course home field advantage.
Before we get to my prediction, let's quickly look at the outliers for the World Series teams who won without home field advantage since 1995.
1999 - NY Yankees
2003 - Florida Marlins
2006 - St. Louis Cardinals
2008 - Philadelphia Phillies
2014 - San Francisco Giants
2016 - Chicago Cubs
The Yankees in 1999 had someone by the name of Mariano Rivera. Maybe you heard of him! For a while, he was literally unhittable in the postseason. The Marlins in 2003 had a young buck in Josh Beckett who pitched his heart out against the vaunted Yankees lineup. The Cardinals in 2006 beat a better team on paper in the Detroit Tigers but the Tigers had been idle for a week after sweeping the Oakland A's while the Cardinals went the distance with the New York Mets in the NLCS. Baseball players are creatures of habit so not playing baseball for a week after playing baseball pretty much every day for 7 months can have an adverse impact. The Phillies in 2008 simply had better pitching than the Rays. The Giants had a stud in Madison Bumgarner who singlehandedly won the 2014 World Series for the Giants and deservedly was named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year a few weeks later. Then the Cubs last year won Game 7 in Cleveland in one of the greatest baseball games in recent memory. When you are trying to end a 108 year World Series drought/curse, you can throw home field advantage out the window!
When looking at the matchup between the Astros and Dodgers, you don't see any of the patterns that the outliers had. In fact, the Dodgers have better pitching and a great lineup. You can dissect each lineup as much as you want. That's a waste of time. The Dodgers have the pitching and the home field to get the job done and ultimately will get to play Randy Newman's "I Love LA" after Games 1 and 2. Houston should win a couple of games at home with the series returning to LA LA land for Game 6. Kershaw and company will end the Dodgers's 29 year World Series drought on Halloween night with Houston still pining for a World Series championship. As they say in all sports, there is always next year and as they sing in Chavez Ravine after each Dodgers's victory ... "I LOVE LA!". Well not me personally but it's a catchy song!