As we head into the All-Star break, it is abundantly obvious that baseball has two superteams, and neither is the Chicago Cubs. One lives in the American League, the other in the National League. Both are crushing all comers, and if either doesn’t end up in the World Series, it wouldn’t be because there was a better team, but a team that just got lucky for a few games.
In the first half of the 2017 season, it’s been all about the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
One is sporting a .674 winning percentage, the other a .678 mark. Both are tops in the majors. Third-order winning percentage, which adjusts for underlying stats and strength of schedule, puts them at .684 and .696, also best in the game. There’s no question that these have been the two best squads baseball has to offer.
Okay, so you have a gun to your head: Which one is better? Hardly anything separates them. Let’s break down each part of their squads to see where little advantages might bubble to the surface.
The Astros are leading baseball in both wRC+ (128) and True Average (.288). TAv puts the Dodgers a little closer at .285, but by wRC+, Houston is leaving everyone in the dust.
Even in a home run-happy league, the Astros have hit more dingers than any other team. They have also hit more doubles than any other team. They have also somehow managed to make more contact and strike out less than any other team. Not only are they dominating all pitchers they face, they are doing it in the weirdest–and scariest–of ways.
The Dodgers are no slouches. Their .285 TAv is second in the majors, and their 110 wRC+ is third. They also walk more than any other team, as their 10.8 percent walk rate indicates.
Still, the Astros have four guys hitting above a 150 wRC+. The Dodgers have one. Houston is deep, and it is mighty.
A quick aside regarding baserunning: The Astros are notoriously aggressive baserunners and are generally unsuccessful. Fangraphs rates them 27th this season, while the Dodgers are 14th. Baseball Prospectus thinks the boys in blue are a bit better than that, but agrees with Fangraphs regarding the Astros’ inefficiencies on the basepaths.
That hasn’t hurt the Astros much — their 109 offensive runs above average is the best in baseball by a wide margin. If you do nothing but hit doubles and homers and never strike out, making outs on the bases doesn’t matter as much; the next guy will drive in whomever is left out there.
Even with more Statcast data in the public domain–and the overhaul of Ultimate Zone Rating to be less noisy in small samples–defense is incredibly hard to measure, especially with only half a season’s worth of information to parse.
But measure we must, and the Dodgers come out on top across the board. By raw defensive efficiency, which measures the percentage of balls in play a team turns into outs, the Dodgers are second in baseball with 72.2 percent. Adjust that for park effects and they jump up to first.
The Astros, meanwhile, sit ninth by park-adjusted defensive efficiency — not horrible, but not special, either.
We see a similar thing when making positional adjustments to UZR, the Dodgers’ Def score of 40.2 is second in baseball once again, this time just behind the Reds. The Astros? 29th.
Everyone on the Dodgers is stepping up defensively. Corey Seager has proven that he’s not just a big bat, but also a slick glove at shortstop in spite of his body size. Yasiel Puig still has an elite cannon in right field. Logan Forsythe has proven to be a solid addition at second base when healthy. Depending on which metric you look at, Justin Turner and Kike Hernandez have been contributing, too.
The stars of the Dodgers’ defensive makeup are their catchers. Yasmani Grandal has consistently been one of the best pitch framers in baseball for the last few seasons. This year, once we adjust for pitcher, umpire and hitter effects, Grandal has saved or stolen 2.3 percent more called strikes than the average catcher. That’s third in the majors among backstops who have caught at least 1,000 called pitches.
Grandal has jumped up a level thanks to his arm. He was never much for throwing out runners, but now he’s elite. Once we adjust for pitcher and runner effects, Grandal has thrown out 6.8 percent more runners than the average catcher. Once again, that’s third in baseball. Grandal was always great at the most valuable part of catcher defense; now, he’s the complete package.
Not only Grandal has stood out behind the plate. Backup Austin Barnes has saved or stolen 3.2 percent more called strikes than the average catcher, second in baseball behind only the Braves’ Tyler Flowers. Barnes was a great pitch framer in Triple-A the last two seasons, and that has carried over to the big leagues. Throw in the fact that he’s running a 149 wRC+ in 126 plate appearances, and Barnes has been the best backup catcher in baseball this year.
The Dodgers are getting defensive contributions all over the diamond. The Astros are getting them from one or two players at a time. This one is easy.
Yes, the Astros have Lance McCullers and will soon have Dallas Keuchel again. They are the almost the only co-aces in the game right now, thanks to David Price’s struggles to fill the role behind Chris Sale in Boston.
Among major league starters who have logged at least 60 innings this season, Keuchel and McCullers rank third and fifth by Deserved Run Average, which adjusts results for defense, park effects, catcher framing, pitch selection, velocity, movement, and control, quality of opposition, and other important contextual factors.
Here’s the thing, though: The Dodgers also have a co-ace on their hands.
Now that Clayton Kershaw has decided to stop giving up home runs and is back to striking everybody out, he sits eighth on the starting pitcher DRA leaderboard. Just above him at seventh is none other than first-time All-Star Alex Wood. Wood has had a massive resurgence, raising his strikeout rate five points from last season to an elite 31 percent. His ground-ball rate has skyrocketed to an incredible 63 percent, while his home run rate has plummeted to just over 0.2 dingers per nine innings.
Wood’s Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA), which measures quality of contact by exit velocity and launch angle, sits at .242, second among big league starters. Wood is striking everybody out, limiting walks, and is not giving up damaging contact. In other words, he’s an ace.
So the Astros and Dodgers both have two top-line starters in their rotation. How about their Nos. 3-5 guys? It’s an open secret that the Dodgers have pursued good inning-for-inning starters in large quantities, and simply shuffle the deck if they get injured or ineffective as the innings pile up.
This year, the Astros have actually started nine guys to the Dodgers’ seven. Behind Keuchel and McCullers, however, sit Charlie Morton (3.96 DRA), Mike Fiers (5.57 DRA), and Joe Musgrove (7.05 DRA). Even super-reliever Brad Peacock, who was moved to the rotation at the end of May, is pitching above his peripherals, thanks to a 1.5-run difference between his ERA and his DRA.
How do the Dodgers’ back-end guys compare? We have such injury -prone luminaries as Brandon McCarthy (4.07 DRA), Kenta Maeda (4.50 DRA), Hyun-Jin Ryu (4.90 DRA), and Rich Hill (5.15). Not one of these guys has crossed the 80-inning threshold, and it’s an open question of whether any will eclipse 150 innings by season’s end.
It doesn’t matter. All four deliver quality performances for the five or six innings they do pitch. Kick in Kershaw and Wood, and the Dodgers’ rotation DRA sits at 3.83, third in baseball. The Astros, with a Fiers-and-Musgrove-size albatross around their necks, sport a 4.30 mark, eighth in the bigs. Keuchel and McCullers should get them a long way, but they can’t compete with the Dodgers’ depth.
On the one hand, the Dodgers have Kenley Jansen, the best reliever in baseball not named Kimbrel, Miller, or Davis. Jansen’s cutter is so terrifyingly good that he started throwing a curveball more often to make it even more devastating. It took Jansen nearly three months to walk a batter. That’s not just good–that’s “video game cheat code” good.
Despite Jansen’s heroics, the best bullpen in baseball belongs to the Astros. Chris Devesnki is the neo-fireman managers dream about. What’s more, he is backed by a stellar supporting cast in Ken Giles, Will Harris, Michael Feliz, and Luke Gregerson. Peacock will be back in the ‘pen once Keuchel returns. Even veteran journeyman James Hoyt is playing a lot bettter than the ERA suggests.
Granted, Jansen has been helped by great performances from Ross Striplng, Pedro Baez, and Josh Fields, but that group can’t top the depth of Houston’s ‘pen. The Dodgers’ 3.99 bullpen DRA is fifth in baseball, but the Astros’ 3.56 mark bests all comers.
Here’s where we might apply a bit more subjectivity to the proceedings. We’ve already mentioned how great Austin Barnes has been when Yasmani Grandal needs a night off, but the Dodgers’ bench goes further than that. Chris Taylor essentially played his way off the bench and could now be considered the Dodgers’ everyday utility man. Kiké Hernandez has been bitten by the BABIP bug, but his walks, power, and baserunning have still made him league average, and that’s not counting his positional versatility. Chase Utley is still a league average bat and has been able to move over to first base when Dave Roberts wants Cody Bellinger in the outfield.
It didn’t matter when Andrew Toles, Adrian Gonzalez, Justin Turner, and Logan Forsythe got hurt. The Dodgers were able to weather the storm with aplomb.
The Astros are no slouches in this department, either. Marwin Gonzalez is essentially Chris Taylor turned up to 11. Evan Gatttis is sporting a 122 wRC+ and can spell either Brian McCann behind the plate or Carlos Beltran at DH, and should arguably take Beltran’s job. Jake Marisnick is somehow hitting for power.
It’s close, but I think that the edge goes to LA. If everyone is healthy, Roberts has five guys (including Bellinger)–six if you count Barnes–who can all provide good at-bats and can move all over the field. Roberts doesn’t have to worry about losing value when Grandal sits. Gattis, Gonzalez and Marisnick can fit those roles too, but having six is better than having three, especially in September and October.
The Astros have the better bats and relievers; the Dodgers have the better gloves, starters, and bench depth. Even so, the margins separating the two teams in each area are tissue paper-thin. The Astros have accumulated 20.1 fWAR; the Dodgers, 19.5. Both have been the two best teams, and both project to be neck-and-neck as the two best for the remainder of the year.
But if I have to pick one, I’m going to lean toward strength in depth. Dave Roberts has more creative freedom to utilize his pitching staff and bench than A.J. Hinch does. That’s crucial when guys get hurt, or when teams have to count on guys who can produce in October.
The projections agree, if only slightly. Playoff odds forecast the Dodgers’ chances of winning the World Series somewhere between 21 and 26 percent; the Astros fall in the 19-23 percent range. That’s basically a coin flip, sure, but in such a scenario, I want more options, not fewer.
Will Astro GM Jeff Luhnow bet the farm to get another starter? You bet he will. You know who also wants more rotation depth and has more prospects to get one and potentially a second or even a third piece, too? Dodger president Andrew Friedman and GM Farhan Zaidi. In this little war of attrition, the Dodgers come out on top again.
The more you have, the better off you’ll be. It’s as simple as that.