My case for this comes down to one number: 136. That's the best OPS+ in baseball, which is held by the Houston Astros, and it means that adjusted for ballpark, the Astros' offense has been roughly 36 percent better than the league average. That's also the best ERA+ in baseball, held by the Los Angeles Dodgers, meaning their pitching has been roughly 36 percent better than the league average.
Those numbers might not mean much to you -- somebody's got to be at the top of a leaderboard -- but they put the Dodgers and Astros on course for a potentially historic World Series matchup. No team in at least the past century has had an OPS+ of 136. (The Murderers' Row-era Yankees managed 127 in 1928.) And only one team in the past century -- the 1926 Philadelphia A's -- has had an ERA+ as high as 136.
OK, maybe my case doesn't come down to one number. To appreciate the Astros and the Dodgers, there are a lot of numbers that are useful. Like:
Those are the OPS+ leaders among all qualified major leaguers. If Aaron Judge knocks off a 1-for-16 stretch, the Astros might arguably have the four best hitters in baseball this year. (At least until Mike Trout reaches our minimum-playing-time threshold.)
No team has ever had four qualified batters with an OPS+ of 165 or higher. No team has ever had three batters with an OPS+ of 165 or higher.
No team has ever had four batters with an OPS+ of 160 or higher. No team has ever had four batters with an OPS+ of 150 or higher. No team has ever had four batters with an OPS+ of 145. Or even 141. To find a team that fielded four elite batters, you must drop the definition of "elite" all the way to 140. And only two teams managed even that: The 2003 Red Sox, with Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Trot Nixon and Bill Mueller, and the Big Red Machine of 1976, with George Foster, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose and Ken Griffey.
Marwin Gonzalez, whom you'll recall from that list right up there that I was just freaking out about, has most often batted seventh in this lineup. (As recently as three weeks ago, he started a game in the eighth spot.) By OPS+, Marwin Gonzalez, the Astros' fourth-best hitter, is having a better season at the plate than Vladimir Guerrero ever had. Better than Cal Ripken, Paul Molitor or Orlando Cepeda ever had.
The Astros, unsurprisingly, have hit better in the No. 7 spot than any other team, thanks in part to Gonzalez. But here's how they've hit in every other spot of the order, relative to the rest of the American League:
- No. 1 spot: 1st, with an OPS 160 points higher than the second-best team
- No. 2 spot: 1st, with an OPS 30 points higher than the second-best team
- No. 3 spot: 1st, with an OPS 60 points higher than the second-best team
- No. 4 spot: 7th
- No. 5 spot: 11th
- No. 6 spot: 7th
- No. 7 spot: 1st, with an OPS 60 points higher than the second-best team
- No. 8 spot: 1st, with an OPS 180 points higher than the second-best team
- No. 9 spot: 1st, with an OPS just four points higher than the second-best team
In fairness, that's all OPS, which isn't adjusted for home ballpark, and the Astros play in a hitter-friendly home ballpark. But fear not: The Astros hit much better on the road than at home! On the road, they've hit .300/.364/.516, which is a) 122 points higher than any other AL team, and b) an almost perfect match for Matt Holliday's career line: .300/.379/.516. Brother.
The Astros can field an entire lineup of players who have batted at least 200 times this year and have an OPS+ of 119 or higher. Andre Dawson retired with an OPS+ of 119.
Their No. 9 hitter Sunday, Jake Marisnick, has a better OPS than 19 teams' cleanup spots this year. Better than 21 teams' No. 3 hitters.
Indeed, the Astros' 136 OPS+ -- which includes every sub, every pitcher batting in interleague play, every player who has appeared for Houston this year -- is higher than any hitter on 14 major league teams, including the first-place Red Sox and the first-place Chicago Cubs. The Astros, as a team, would be the 23rd-best hitter in baseball by OPS+, just ahead of Anthony Rizzo and Nelson Cruz. This seems impossible, like something in OPS+ must be distorting things somehow, so let's check some other, more precise all-in-one offensive metrics:
- With a team wOBA of .362, the Astros would be the team leader on seven clubs.
- With a team wRC+ of 130, the Astros would be the team leader on nine clubs.
- With a team true average of .289, the Astros would be the team leader on six clubs.
The Astros lead the American League in singles, in doubles and in home runs. They lead in infield hits and extra-base hits.
You can't throw the Astros strikes. They hit .403/.409/.745 on the first pitch of at-bats, the best in baseball by a lot. (League average is .346/.353/.589.) But if they miss the first pitch and you get ahead 0-1 -- welp, they're still the best in baseball by a lot, with an OPS after 0-1 more than 50 points higher than the next team. And if they miss that pitch, they're still the best team in baseball. The only way to turn the Astros into an "ordinary" offense is to fall behind in the count against them, which, of course, is a stupid idea that makes no sense.
They're best in baseball against right-handed pitching and second best against lefties. They're best against starters, and they're best against relievers. They're the best in baseball against ground-ball pitchers, best against fly-ball pitchers and best against neutral GB/FB pitchers.
Naturally, they lead the majors in runs: If they get shut out in their final 51 games, they will still score more runs than 72 teams have scored this decade, including the 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 Astros.
But here we go, this should settle it: The Astros have hit .245/.311/.394 in their losses. In 1963, their second year as a franchise, the Astros hit .245/.317/.342 in their wins.
The Astros can hit.
And the Dodgers can pitch.
There's a stat called fielding independent pitching, or FIP. The premise of FIP is that a pitcher has the most control over strikeouts, walks and home runs, and the least control over what happens to batted balls that are put in play, which can be heavily influenced by dumb luck or by the defenders behind him. So FIP assesses pitchers based on those three measures:
- The Dodgers have struck out more batters than any other NL team.
- The Dodgers have walked fewer batters than any other NL team.
- The Dodgers have allowed fewer home runs than any other NL team.
They, uh, also have allowed the lowest batting average on balls in play.
By a stat called sOPS -- which compares a staff's OPS allowed in a split to the rest of the league's performance in that split -- the Dodgers have the eighth-best bullpen of the 2000s. They have the second-best starting rotation of the 2000s. And they've accomplished the latter almost entirely without Yu Darvish, who joined the rotation last week.
The acquisition of Darvish is really the key to understanding how good this Dodgers roster is, from two different directions:
1. The Dodgers are so good that Darvish's value to them will probably come down to one, maybe two runs not allowed. Follow me: The Dodgers are 13 games ahead of the next-best team in the National League; the rest of the regular season is for the record books and nothing more. Once they get to the postseason, they have Clayton Kershaw, Alex Wood and Rich Hill in their playoff rotation. Kershaw is the best starting pitcher in the world; Wood has been one of the five best this year; Hill, on a per-inning basis, has been one of the five best over the past three years. There is practically no improving on their top three starters, assuming all remain healthy.
Darvish, though, slots in as an upgrade over whichever fourth starter the Dodgers would have used -- Brandon McCarthy, Hyun-Jin Ryu or Kenta Maeda. How much of an upgrade? All three have been quite good this year:
- Darvish: 3.81 ERA, 3.81 FIP, 120 ERA+
- McCarthy: 3.84 ERA, 3.34 FIP, 108 ERA+
- Maeda: 3.79 ERA, 3.80 FIP, 110 ERA+
- Ryu: 3.53 ERA, 4.32 FIP, 118 ERA+
The Dodgers now have seven starters on the roster who have made at least 15 starts and have an adjusted ERA better than the league average. Seven! The Giants and the White Sox have none, and 22 teams have two or fewer. Assuming McCarthy, Maeda and Ryu -- who threw seven shutout innings Sunday, allowing a single baserunner -- are shelved for the postseason, the Dodgers might (arguably) have better starting pitchers on the bench than the Cubs will have in their rotation:
Now, Darvish has faced tougher competition and pitched in a tougher ballpark than McCarthy, Ryu and Maeda have, and Darvish is better than those three, but the difference between him and the three very good major league starters he'll supplant is maybe half a run every nine innings. If the Dodgers go to the World Series and Darvish makes four postseason starts and throws 20 or 25 innings, he'd be expected to save a run, maybe two runs compared to any of them. Then he'll be a free agent.
And despite this set of facts, the trade made perfect sense because the Dodgers are so deep that ...
2. There was really nowhere else worth looking to upgrade, and adding Darvish as a luxury item gives them insurance (against Kershaw's back and Hill's blisters) and makes it easier to resist the temptation to force Kershaw to go on short rest. It also gives the team a jolt, and when you're as good as the Dodgers, you might as well get that extra run, because it'd be a shame to have this roster miss out on the World Series by a run, whenever it were to come. What else were they going to do, add a reliever? They already have three relievers with ERAs below 2. Brandon Morrow and Kenley Jansen have the two best FIPs among all relievers this year, and two of the best of all time (min. 20 innings).
The Dodgers' staff is the best in the National League against right-handed batters and the second-best against left-handers. With runners in scoring position, batters have hit .215/.293/.338 against the Dodgers, the third-weakest line since 2000. (With the bases empty, the Dodgers are still in the top 20 this century.) They've had the lowest ERA in the majors in every month this season except June, when they were second. And besides this deep and star-laden pitching staff, they have the best defense in baseball, according to the advanced metric defensive runs saved, and their catchers have been the game's best pitch-framers, according to Baseball Prospectus. Only two NL teams have allowed fewer stolen bases, and only two have caught more runners.
Stephen Strasburg has an ERA+ of 134 this year. The Dodgers have been better. The median American League All-Star this year has an OPS+ of 134. The Astros have been better.
The Astros' offense against the Dodgers' defense is basically just an All-Star game. It's an All-Star game that counts, really counts, and that goes for seven games and will not let up no matter how out of adrenaline you are by Game 4. You don't have to like either of these teams to see the value in that. I'd suggest you get to rooting.
Thanks to the invaluable Play Index at Baseball Reference for powering much of this.