The championships of both the American League and the National League of Major League Baseball began this weekend. Two pairs of teams battle it out to see which team from each will get to play in the World Series.
The Houston Astros and the Tampa Bay Rays repeat their appearance in last year’s American League Championship Series. In the National League Championship Series, the Los Angeles Dodgers are no strangers to the championship, appearing in it seven times since 2008 and winning twice to go on to the World Series. The Atlanta Braves, their opponent in the series, makes their first appearance in the NLCS since 1999, a year they lost the World Series to the New York Yankees.
It would be hard to undervalue the Tampa Bay Rays given their top spot in the American League, but their history of mediocrity — both on the field and in the hearts and minds of baseball fans — gives them a reputation that is difficult to shake. Second to last in attendance behind only the Miami Marlins, and one of the least-valued teams in the league, the Rays have struggled since their creation in 1998. They have one of the most infamously terrible stadiums in pro sports for over a decade. The team has finished above a .500 record only nine times in 23 seasons. Their first playoff appearance came after 11 years and they stormed all the way to the World Series, succumbing to the Philadelphia Phillies in five games. Nevertheless, the Rays have managed some dominant play this season, stunning some fans and pundits.
The Astros played in the World Series in 2017 and 2019, but both those and this year’s appearances have been marred by a sign-stealing scheme revealed in 2019. Sign-stealing using technology — cameras, phones, and even telescopes and telegraphs have been used — is a forbidden practice where a batter is told what to expect from a pitcher based off of the hand signals a pitcher and catcher use to decide on a pitch. Typically this “conversation” is out of the batter’s view, but a runner on the bases can sometimes see and relay this information to the batter; this is perfectly legal as long as technology is not used.
The Astros in particular used live video to monitor the catcher’s signs to the pitcher and would bang a trash can to signal what kind of pitch was coming next. This, of course, offers the batter a significant advantage. As a result of the cheating, the team’s manager A. J. Hinch (manager is the term in baseball for a head coach) and General Manager Jeff Luhnow (generally responsible for managing staff and player contracts) were both suspended by the league and promptly fired by the Astros organization. Former Astros assistant coach Alex Cora was fired from his current role as manager of the Boston Red Sox. The team was also fined $5 million and forfeited their first and second round draft picks for two years.
While the organization suffered heavily, no players at all were punished, despite the fact that they primarily designed the scheme. Players and fans around the league were generally outraged, and remain so. The Astros have managed to maintain a solid product on the field, but they will not easily move past the ire and hatred of so many baseball fans. The Los Angeles Dodgers, who felt that the Astros victory over them in 2017 may very well have been a result of illegal advantages, have a particular dislike of the team. The Dodgers have not won the World Series since 1988, as they lost their other appearance to the Red Sox in 2018.
The Dodgers are currently favored to win the World Series by bookmakers, although this could be skewed by the past successes and huge popularity of the Dodgers. The Dodgers are regularly placed as the team with highest attendance in the league, averaging 49,000 fans per game in 2019, according to ESPN. They are also the second most valuable team behind the Yankees. The team has an impressive pedigree. Despite a down year from star outfielder Cody Bellinger in the regular season, the team has enough stars in Clayton Kershaw, Mookie Betts, and a number of other prominent players, to finish as one of the most successful teams of all time — the first National League team to win 70% of their games since the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1909. They had a league-leading ERA of 3.02 and a WHIP of 1.06 (both measure the success of the team’s pitchers).
The Atlanta Braves are favored slightly ahead of the Astros, but still distantly behind the Rays and Dodgers. The Braves broke an MLB record last week, being the first team to eliminate the Miami Marlins from the playoffs. The Marlins have only made the playoffs twice before, but won the World Series in both 1997 and 2003.
Ronald Acuna Jr., the Braves’ 22-year-old star outfielder and leadoff hitter, took his team to their third first-place finish in the National League East in as many years. The Braves have not been this deep in the playoffs in 20 years. Their pitching crushed the Marlins and the Cincinnati Reds before them, but they have not yet played a team nearly as strong as the Dodgers.
This playoff picture is certainly a strange one. The shortened season gave opportunities to teams that typically have struggled to keep a positive record, let alone make the playoffs. The Astros and Rays have not even played each other in a year, another quirk of a COVID-19-altered season. One thing is sure, though: These playoffs are the sort of unique and strange series that baseball needs during its slow decline. That, and that the Houston Astros are cheaters and deserve to lose.