2020 World Series Overview

Alexander Bingham, Contributing Writer

On October 20th, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays were set to begin the 2020 World Series in Arlington, Texas; both teams facing off with vastly different roster constructions. In a league mostly dominated by high-payroll teams, it was no surprise that the Dodgers, who boasted the second highest payroll in baseball and a collection of some of the game’s biggest stars, had reached the Fall Classic. Standing in the way of  the Dodgers’ ending a 32 year-long World Series win drought were the Rays —a team that had won the American League pennant through its tactful use of analytics, despite having the third lowest payroll in baseball. In what was characterized by many as a David versus Goliath-esque battle, the Rays represented an underdog mentality and struggle emblematic of small market franchises throughout the league.

Winning has never been easy for small market baseball teams. Without a salary cap like other major sports, small market Major League Baseball (MLB) teams lack the financial resources of other large market teams—like the Yankees or the Dodgers. Small market teams often cannot afford to retain their free agents or chase after high profile stars. This eternal struggle set the stage for one of the biggest philosophy revolutions in MLB history, the so-called ‘Moneyball Era’ Oakland Athletics. Around the turn of the century, A’s general manager—Billy Beane—was tasked with replacing several key free agents. Instead of following the outdated advice of his scouts, he instead incorporated the analysis done by statistician Bill James known as “sabermetrics.” This new mentality called for utilizing stats like on-base percentage and slugging percentage, instead of the traditional batting average, runs batted in, and stolen bases. Beane’s approach proved to be a roaring success, as the A’s finished with back-to-back 100 win seasons in 2001 and 2002, more wins than big spending teams like the New York Yankees. In the decades after the successes of these A teams, the philosophy first put into action by Beane has become common thinking in MLB front offices. 

In what was characterized by many as a David versus Goliath-esque battle, the Rays represented an underdog mentality and struggle emblematic of small market franchises throughout the league.”

Coming up on twenty years since the success of the ‘Moneyball era’ A’s, the Tampa Bay Rays were faced with a similar situation. With fan attendance consistently dwindling at Tropicana Field in recent years, the Rays could only support a payroll roughly a third the size of the biggest spending teams. In a last-ditch effort to find a tactical advantage, the Rays leaned into baseball’s emerging field of statcast analytics to ameliorate their player development, evaluation, and in-game strategy. 

First, the use of statcast and proprietary analytics in player development and evaluation was crucial in adding many of the most important pieces on the AL champion’s roster. Statcast is a system that tracks the players movements on the field and creates stats like spin rate for a pitcher’s curveball or launch angle and exit velocity for batted balls. Players such as Tyler Glasnow, Nick Anderson, and Randy Arozarena have all been discovered from the analytically driven player development of the Rays. The Rays have also pioneered many tactical advances. In 2018, the Rays began experimenting with the strategy of using an ‘opener’—a relief pitcher who starts the game in order to take advantage of batter-pitcher matchups, or to throw off the timing of the top of the lineup. The Rays also began implementing a four man outfield shift, a strategy designed to limit extra base hits. The success of these tactics earned manager Kevin Cash this year’s American League manager of the year award.

With this innovative approach to the game of baseball, the Rays were able to overcome preseason expectations and defeat the high spending Yankees and Astros to reach the World Series. While the series was still competitive, the one thing that the Rays did not have on the World Series were high paid stars. At the end of the series, the likes of Mookie Betts and Clayton Kershaw pushed the Dodgers over the top in a six game series win, conveying that even with the ingenuity utilized by the Rays, the Davids of the MLB cannot always get past the Goliaths.