World Series Recap: What the Tigers Can Learn as Baseball’s New Era Shines on the Brightest Stage

by Travis Leonardi

It was no surprise to once again see the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. With an extensive number of homegrown All-Stars, a commitment to analytics and a top ranked farm system, they have dominated the regular season for nearly a decade. Although the Dodgers have failed to secure a title, their eighth consecutive division title and third NL pennant in four years somehow feels like just the beginning for Dodgers fans.

Although they held the best record in the American League at 40-20, the Tampa Bay Rays are a different story. Branded as a “small market” team in the AL East, constantly contending with the powerhouse franchises of the Yankees and Red Sox is a difficult feat. However, in the past 3 seasons the Rays’ commitment to analytics and player development is consistently paying off. Their surplus of prospects from their top ranked farm system and bullpen of flamethrowers won them 90 games in 2018, 96 games in 2019 and a .667 win percentage in the shortened 2020 season, second in baseball to the Dodgers.

Though the Tigers became known as an “old-school” franchise that did not rely heavily on advanced analytics, the Tigers have made great strides in modernizing the organization since Al Avila took over GM duties. The franchise has installed Statcast at all their developmental facilities, created their own analytical database CAESAR, and plucked hires from the Driveline talent pool, to name a few. They now find themselves behind only the Rays as the second ranked farm system. Through consecutive top picks and an improved drafting strategy, the Tigers have quickly risen as one of the league’s most exciting groups of young talent. All signs point to following the model of the new-school franchises. As the Tigers emerge from the rebuild over the next few seasons, will this new model resemble the Dodgers, the Rays, or somewhere in-between? Can the Tigers find sustained success?

Game 1: Rays 3, Dodgers 8. LA leads 1-0

King Kershaw reigns and Mookie Betts does it all

Although Clayton Kershaw struggled with location momentarily in the first inning, he recovered to post a dominant start through 6. Throwing just 78 pitches, he cruised to a 2 hit, 1 walk, 8 strikeout gem, with the only run surrendered by a solo home run from Kevin Kiermaier.

Mookie does it all. (Photo by Alexandra Simon)

Rays starter Tyler Glasnow labored a bit through the first three innings but executed in critical moments to avoid giving up any runs. In the fourth inning, the first runs of the World Series were result of a 98-mph fastball that Cody Bellinger demolished to right-center field for a 2-run home run. 

The Dodgers broke it open in the fifth inning thanks to Mookie Betts doing what Mookie Betts does: dominating in all aspects of the game. After drawing a walk, Mookie won America free tacos for the second time in his career, previously stealing the first base of the 2018 World Series. He then stole third and created a run with a phenomenal jump beating out a ground ball hit toward first by Max Muncy. The Dodgers then broke open the game with a series of RBI hits as they extended their lead. Glasnow exited having allowed 6 walks, 6 runs but an impressive 8 strikeouts.

The Dodgers went on to win 8-3 having escaped a late game jam with a line drive double play caught by Victor González. Mookie Betts added to his stellar performance with a solo home run and a single, finishing 2-4 with a walk, 2 stolen bases and 2 runs scored. 

What the Tigers can learn: Acquiring talent is just as important as developing it. The search for manager should prioritize adaptation.

The Dodgers offense shined from a variety of sources, but it should be noted players acquired from outside of the organization were significant contributors. Not every team can trade for and extend Mookie Betts, but every team can find valuable projects like Max Muncy and Chris Taylor, both tallying multiple hits in the victory. Taylor was acquired from the Seattle Mariners via trade in 2016 and Muncy was signed to a minor league contract after being released by the Oakland A’s in 2017. Through analytics and an advanced player development program, the Dodgers found hidden gems by unlocking the potential of a few players with previously undesirable big-league results. 8.1 of the Dodgers’ 21.6 total team WAR in 2020 was accumulated by players acquired from trades, the Rule 5 Draft, and waiver acquisitions. 

The Tigers focused their organization to a data-forward and forward-thinking development program. They position themselves with a higher probability to rewrite the careers of players like Muncy and Taylor. Finding players that can be “fixed” was key in the Dodgers building a dynamic offense of versatile players. It should be key in building a contending team in Detroit over the next four seasons. Gold Glove finalist Niko Goodrum and Víctor Reyes are some positive signs the Tigers can find production in untapped talent moving forward.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has been under constant pressure from the media and the Twitter storm after failing to secure the World Series championship over the past three seasons. With a handful of questionable bullpen decisions and blunders from his star players, he has seemingly adapted to put his team in the best position to win. The decision to pull Kershaw after the sixth turned out to be the right one, skyrocketing his confidence and saving his energy for a game 5 start. With a fatigued bullpen from the seven-game series against Atlanta, Roberts turned to a few lower-leverage arms to close out game one. After praise for closing out game seven of the NLCS with Julio Urías, he made another commendable decision rewriting his unfortunate narrative from years past. This shows two aspects of the ideal manager: adaptation and willingness to learn from mistakes. Roberts’ evolution has been equally as important this postseason as the Dodgers’ player performance has. A pandemic-impacted season consistently brings new challenges. A manager who can weather the storm no matter what it throws at them is something the Tigers need to heavily consider when making their decision for a new hire.

Game 2: Rays 6, Dodgers 4. Series tied 1-1

Blake Snell dominates, Brandon Lowe provides a powerful resurgence to the Rays offense and the Dodgers take a conservative approach into the rest day.

Blake Snell was in peak Cy Young form against the Dodgers posting 4.2 innings of 2-run ball. The only runs he surrendered came on an outside curveball that Chris Taylor drove to the opposite field for a 2-run home run. His longevity may have been impacted this season by return from injury, but his results have not. Snell struck out 9 and did not allow a hit until the 5th inning.

Brandon Lowe broke open the scoring in the second at-bat of the game with a solo home run off Tony Gonsolin. Lowe was a force in the lineup for the Rays in the regular season, leading the team with 14 home runs and a 2.3 WAR. Prior to game 2, Lowe was hitting just .107 this postseason consistently slotted second in the batting order. After a 2 RBI double by Joey Wendle in the 4th, Lowe struck again in the 5th with another home run extending the Rays lead to 5-0. The Dodgers battled back late with a pair of solo home runs from Will Smith and Corey Seager to cut the game to 6-4, but a rested Rays bullpen was enough to secure victory and tie the series.

A surprising string of moves came from Los Angeles after Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May provided lackluster results. An undesirable pitching matchup, an early deficit and no good signs from the starters forced Dave Roberts’ hand in pulling the plug on aggressive management. After having secured a split of the first two games with a game 1 victory and with an off day ahead, it seemed Roberts preferred to enter game 3 without burning any of his top arms. 

Julio Urías, Brusdar Graterol, Blake Treinen, Pedro Báez, and Kenley Jansen all were not used despite being available to pitch. The Dodgers will throw their best starters on three consecutive days for games 3-5. Walker Buehler, Urías, and Kershaw are slotted to pitch on full rest. With their top bullpen arms fully rested, the Dodgers will enter the ensuing 5-game series throwing the gauntlet at Tampa Bay. We all know what the Rays pitching staff is capable of. A major question remains for each team. Will the Rays offense provide against the best LA has to offer? Will the Dodgers secure an advantage in the series with their most favorable matchups ahead?

What the Tigers can learn: Immense depth to a pitching staff can prove to be a difference maker, regardless of offensive output. Trusting your players with consistency overrules small samples in critical moments.

When Al Avila took over as general manager, hoarding hard throwing pitchers was the focus of the Tigers organization, much to the chagrin of the fanbase. The Tigers now have three pitchers ranked in the top 50 of MLB Pipeline’s top 100 prospects: Casey Mize at #5, Matt Manning at #20 and Tarik Skubal at #42. Joey Wentz may have cracked the top 100 in 2020 had he not undergone Tommy John surgery. In the last two drafts the Tigers have acquired more position players, but expect them to continue to add pitching depth moving forward.

With a seemingly endless list of impact arms, the Rays showcase how valuable this depth can be. The Rays ranked second to last in expected batting average in 2020 at .228 and 20th in expected weighted on base average at .305. (The Dodgers ranked second in xBA at .268 and first in xwOBA at .347) Without many impact bats in their lineup, the Rays were able to dominate the American League through the depth of their pitching staff. They ranked 5th in both xBA against at .232 and xwOBA against at .289 (The Dodgers ranked 4th in xBA against at .231 and 2nd in xwOBA against at .282) Each league’s champion has made it clear there is no limit to the need for pitching and the Tigers commitment to this mentality throughout the organization should reap benefits for years to come. 

Due to their heavy analytical approach, the Rays started to become subject of criticism to trusting their lineup card a little too much. Brandon Lowe looked lost and continued to waste outs in the crucial role of the second batter in the lineup. As the Rays season hung in the balance and the critics stood ready at their keyboards, Brandon Lowe showed the world why you cannot trust small samples. The Rays trusted in Lowe as they did all season long. His ability to deliver game-changing at bats rewarded them with two home runs and a game 2 victory to even the series.

In a similar vein, the Dodgers’ conservative approach to save their best arms for the biggest challenge ahead screams progressive management. When the Tigers eventually reach the postseason, they must learn to live or die at the hand of their best players and be willing to accept the results.

Join GHF again soon for more World Series recap and notable takeaways for the Tigers.

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