- Playing in your home ballpark is a definitive advantage in the 2017 postseason. Also, how close is this Dodgers' relief corps coming to being one of the best postseason bullpens ever?
We’re just one game deep into the 2017 World Series, and things could change drastically from here on out, but what we saw on Tuesday night felt like an extension of some trends we’ve seen thus far in this postseason, including a couple that I highlighted two weeks ago. With that in mind, here are a few quick thoughts to put those trends in perspective.
There's no place like home
Tuesday night's win for the Dodgers was yet another success for the home team in the 2017 playoffs. In fact, we haven't seen the likes of this during the Wild Card era, which goes back to 1995. Thus far, home teams are 24–8 for a .750 winning percentage, more than 100 points beyond the second-ranked season. Here are the top seven seasons, which is to say the ones where the home team won with a .600 clip or better:
There probably won’t be a separate champagne celebration for when it happens, but home teams are very close to clinching the top spot above. If the home team were to lose every remaining game of the World Series—which would end things with the Dodgers celebrating at Minute Maid Park after Game 5, as things stand —home teams would finish 24–12 (.667). If the Astros win Game 2 and then take one of the three games in Houston, ensuring the series is sent back to Los Angeles, even if they win Game 7 in LA, home teams would finish 25–14 (.641). Every other outcome results with a record winning percentage for the home team.
Mind you, that's quite an oddity. Led by the Dodgers (57–24, .704), the top eight teams in home winning percentage during the regular season all reached the Division Series, with the Rockies tied for ninth (46–35, .568); only the AL Wild Card game losers, the Twins (41-40, .506) were outliers. That wasn't particularly unusual given that in both 2015 and '16, eight of the top 10 teams in home winning percentage made the postseason. Even so, home teams won at a .540 clip during the 2017 regular season, equal to the 1995–2016 combined postseason mark and one point above the 1995–2016 combined regular season mark. In those individual years, home winning percentages have ranged from a high of .559 (2012) to a low of .521 (1999, the same year as the previous high-water mark for postseason HFA).
Looking back to each round of this year's playoffs, the home teams won the AL and NL Wild Card games, 11 out of 17 Division Series games and 10 out of 12 League Championship Series games. The Dodgers won both of their Division Series games at home and finished the sweep in Arizona, but visiting teams won three out of five the Nationals-Cubs series, including, of course, the rubber match. Not until the Yankees won Game 5 in Cleveland did the visiting team break serve, and likewise for Game 4 of the Astros-Red Sox. Home teams won three out of five in the NLCS, and every game in the ALCS.
As this is the first time in World Series history in which home-field advantage is merit-based (tied to team won-loss records instead of All-Star Game results, or alternating leagues before that), the 104-win Dodgers could have the decisive advantage if the series extends to at least six games.
Return of the Starter
In the early going of this year's playoffs, starting pitchers took their lumps and then some. None of the four Wild Card game starters made it past the fourth inning, and three of them didn't make it past the second. Until the 1–0 pitchers’ duel in Game 3 of the Yankees-Indians Division Series (Masahiro Tanaka for the winners, Carlos Carrasco for the losers), starters had been lit for a 6.50 ERA while averaging just 4.2 innings per turn.
Since then, amid all the talk about "bullpenning" and possible paradigm shifts, starters have collectively reasserted themselves, with Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander and Tanaka at the forefront:
Small sample sizes abound here, of course, but in general, the teams that made it through the Division Series are the ones whose starters stepped up, with the Nationals (2.22 ERA) bested by the Cubs (1.69 ERA) nonetheless. Though they're still averaging only 4.8 innings per turn overall, starters have accounted for 54.8% of postseason innings thus far and now have a 3.92 ERA, well ahead of their regular season mark of 4.49.
Dominant Dodgers bullpen
In our staff predictions for the World Series, seven out of eight writers and editors picked the Dodgers to win, and six participants mentioned the disparity between the two teams' bullpens. Even Ben Reiter, the lone voice favoring the Astros, trumpeting their well-rested rotation, which "may limit the need for a bullpen that was exposed against the Yankees." Indeed, working through the two teams position by position for our preview, the Dodgers' largest advantage appeared to be in the ’pen.
It's not hard to understand why. After leading the the NL in ERA (3.38), FIP (3.55) and K/9 (10.2) during the regular season, Dodger relievers didn't allow a single run in 17 innings against the Cubs. They held them hitless in their first 29 at-bats, which set a postseason record and completed a "hidden no-hitter." Including their two shutout innings in Game 1 against the Astros, they've now completed 25 consecutive scoreless innings (dating back to Brandon Drury's three-run homer off Brandon Morrow in Game 2 of the Division Series), also a postseason record.
With Morrow (9 1/3 innings, one run allowed—the other two runners were inherited from Tony Watson), Kenley Jansen (nine innings, one unearned run allowed—incidentally, the only run the Dodgers have allowed in this postseason that didn’t come via a homer) and Kenta Maeda (five perfect innings) doing the heaviest lifting, the unit has an 0.88 ERA in 30 2/3 postseason innings. That's good enough to rank second among bullpens with at least 30 postseason innings—a cutoff that omits most teams that didn't make the World Series—but it's not a record:
Atop the list is the "Nasty Boys" bullpen of the 1990 Reds. Led by the hard-throwing trio of Randy Myers, Norm Charlton and Rob Dibble, the unit allowed just two runs (one earned) in 31 1/3 postseason innings, both by Charlton. Of the 10 teams besides this year's Dodgers, all but the 2003 Red Sox made the World Series, and of the nine that made it, only the 1972 Reds, '73 Mets (who lost to an A's team with an even better bullpen led by Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers) and 1988 A's (who of course lost to the Orel Hershiser-led Dodgers) failed to win it.
If you're looking for the 2015 Royals, whose game-shortening was held up as a model to those who somehow forgot the Mariano Rivera years, their 2.51 ERA ranks 17th among Wild Card-era teams. At the 30-inning cutoff, they hold the mark for the highest strikeout rate (34.9%), with this year's Dodgers fourth at 31.1%; the 2015 Cubs (31.7%) and 2017 Yankees (31.4%) are between the two. This year's Dodgers unit has by far the lowest walk rate (0.19%, just two walks out of 106 batters faced), less than half that of the second-ranked team, the 2001 Yankees (0.46%). Their 16.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio is also more than double those of the other contenders for the top spot, the 2015 Cubs (6.7) and Royals (5.9).
Of course, there's still plenty of baseball to be played, and just one or two bad outings, even if they're of little consequence in blowouts, could knock the Dodgers from their high perch here. Still, what they've done to this point has put them in the company of the best and stands as a huge reason why they got over the NLCS hump for the first time in 29 years.