The Dodgers and Astros have outplayed the competition in 2017. They not only had the majors’ best records at the break, but Los Angeles was 7 ¹/₂ games better than any other NL team, and the Astros were 10 games better than any other AL squad.
So if you want to start booking rooms in those two cities for late October, go ahead.
But since 1995 — when MLB first included a wild card — the teams with the best two records at the All-Star Game have won just 7 of 22 World Series. Three No. 1 seeds at the break have gone on to win it all (1998 Yankees, 2005 White Sox and 2007 Red Sox), and four No. 2 seeds have (1995 Braves, 1996 Yankees, 2015 Royals, 2016 Cubs). I actually had forgotten the Giants had a better record than the Cubs going into the second half last year.
In actuality, more teams (nine) with the sixth-best record or worse eventually won it all than teams with a top-two record. That includes the 2010 Giants (14th-best record) and the 2003 Marlins (15th best).
The Dodgers (.678) and Astros (.674) had the fourth- and fifth-best winning percentages at the break in the wild-card era. Going into this season, just 3 of the 37 best first-half winning percentages since 1995 have converted that into titles: the 1995 Braves, the 1998 Yanks and the 2005 White Sox.
This should motivate the Dodgers and Astros not to coast through the deadline, especially if they look at the Cubs over the past 12 months:
1. By the time, the Cubs acquired Aroldis Chapman and Mike Montgomery last year, they knew they were going to win the NL Central. Those trades — particularly for Chapman — were not made to get to October, but through October. And as it turned out, Chapman and Montgomery were pretty much the only relievers Chicago manager Joe Maddon trusted as the playoffs went on. The Cubs do not win their first title since 1908 without them.
At the break, Fangraphs projected the Astros to have a 100 percent chance to win the AL West and the Dodgers a 99.5 percent chance to capture the NL West. So, these teams are pretty much set for a best-of-five Division Series. But what makes them bulletproof over 162 games — their depth of talent — becomes less of a factor in October.
“The bad teams you beat up on during the season are gone,” an executive for one of the teams said. “But also your weaknesses are minimized over 162 games by overwhelming strengths, but in the playoffs weaknesses are more easily exploited, which is why things even out more in the playoffs.”
2. Last year’s title was expected to be a springboard to a Cubs dynasty. But they were two games under .500 at the break. Sustained success is not guaranteed. That accentuates the words of Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, who said, “If not now, when?” upon giving up Gleyber Torres last July for Chapman.
The Astros never have won a title. The Dodgers have not won since 1988 and have had the largest payroll in the majors now for the past four seasons. Both think they will be strong teams for years. But so did the Cubs.
Nothing either team does in the next two-plus weeks guarantees a title, but they can enhance the chances.
The Dodgers currently do not see an available pitcher who clearly starts a Division Series game over Clayton Kershaw, Alex Wood and Rich Hill. They might need a lefty bat if they sense Andre Ethier and Adrian Gonzalez are not making it back from injuries. But their current focus is relief.
In the next few weeks, they plan to move well-regarded righty pitching prospect Walker Buehler to Triple-A and give him reps as a reliever to see if he can help down the stretch. But they remain focused on finding a high-level lefty to help get the ball to Kenley Jansen.
Jon Heyman of FanRag reported Los Angeles has interest in Orioles closer Zach Britton. The other usual lefty suspects are Oakland’s Sean Doolittle, Detroit’s Justin Wilson and San Diego’s Brad Hand — and if the Pirates are thinking big-picture rebuild, I wonder what they could get for Felipe Rivero.
But Dodgers team president Stan Kasten and president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman are known for their patience, which has translated into an unwillingness in recent years to part with the best of their prospect base.
The Astros are expected to be more willing to deal high-end prospects, and they are looking at the same group of lefty relievers. They also would consider a left fielder, though they might turn to Derek Fisher if he is not included in a deadline deal.
Houston had the AL’s best rotation ERA. But internally the Astros know that area is tenuous. The chances of their top three starters — Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers and Charlie Morton — all making it to October healthy is not great, considering their injury histories. And Houston would not feel confident sending Mike Fiers or Brad Peacock to the mound in the playoffs, regardless of regular season success.
But Jose Quintana might be the best starter traded, and the Cubs — that team again — already has landed him. The Astros figure that the in-state Rangers would not trade Yu Darvish to them, even if he becomes available, and the Rays (Chris Archer, Alex Cobb) are in the race.
Pittsburgh’s Gerrit Cole is not perceived available; Detroit’s Justin Verlander has a no-trade clause, a prohibitive contract and is not pitching particularly well; and the health and overall quality of Sonny Gray remains questionable. The Blue Jays’ Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ and, definitely, Marcus Stroman, if he were made available, would entice Houston.
Rival executives believe the Astros will wait until close to the deadline and end up with a starter and a reliever, but anticipate that come the playoffs Houston will follow the Indians/Francona path and attack early in games with their deep bullpen, notably Chris Devenski and Will Harris.
The comfort level the Astros have — and the Dodgers, too — is they know they are going to make the playoffs. The next two-plus weeks are about becoming tougher outs come October.
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