In just over a month, the relative meritocracy of the regular season will give way to what is often deemed (or derided?) a crapshoot. Baseball — a game defined by daily play and often won by the team with the better contingency plan — is ultimately decided in the small sample of a single month.
Anything, as they say, can happen in October. Nothing is guaranteed.
Except, maybe, the Atlanta Braves.
If you’ve read anything about the Los Angeles Angels this season — or the Mets or the Padres — you’ve probably seen mentions of FanGraphs’ playoff odds. As teams that hoped or expected to make the postseason took stock of an increasingly disappointing season and weighed what to do, we regularly turned to that algorithm for a cold, hard reality check.
But now we’re close enough to the 162-game finish line for the standings themselves to be the better barometer of how the race to October is going. So instead, I invite you — after you click back over to FanGraphs — to turn your attention a little more to the far right column, where you’ll find each team’s chances of winning the World Series.
With more than a dozen teams still in the running and only 100 percentage points to go around (even without considering the unpredictability of the postseason), any one team’s odds are necessarily pretty low. The Baltimore Orioles, on pace for 101 wins, have just a 4.1% chance of winning the World Series. The Tampa Bay Rays, despite being a game behind in the division and thus currently battling to get the bye, have better odds because the projections see them as more talented overall. Even so, they’re at just 8.9%. The reigning champion Houston Astros are the only American League team with double-digit odds of winning the World Series, at 13.4%.
In the National League, two teams have odds over 10%: the Los Angeles Dodgers — the far-and-away best team in baseball over the past decade-plus, who defied preseason projections to grab a comfortable lead in a division that initially looked up for grabs — and the Braves.
The Dodgers’ currently have a 14.5% chance of winning the World Series; their opponents in this weekend's star-studded matchup have a 28%(!) chance. Right now, 17 of 30 MLB teams either hold a postseason berth or are five games or fewer out of the picture. Nonetheless, the Braves have a better than one-in-four shot of hoisting a trophy on the other side of what is, in fact, a pretty random gauntlet.
(And they have for quite a while! I have been gobsmacked about this fact since the end of July.)
The Braves’ odds are absolutely about how dominant they are — and we’ll get to that. But this also reflects the stratification in the NL compared to the relative parity in the AL. And by “stratification,” I sort of mean how the NL wild-card field is just not very good.
By record on Sept. 1, the Braves are the best team in baseball, with the Dodgers and Orioles tied for second. But setting aside the ignominy of the Central division, the contending teams in the American League are more competitive. The three teams currently holding AL wild-card spots have a combined .582 winning percentage (94-win pace), whereas the three NL wild-card teams have a .537 winning percentage (87-win pace). The top NL wild-card team — the Philadelphia Phillies — would not qualify for a wild card in the AL as it stands. And since the top seed in each league faces the winner of the top two wild-card teams, the Braves have an easier path, at least to the championship series, than the AL’s top seed.
The Braves are so good that ESPN got a bunch of rival executives to opine on how unbeatable the team seems to be. A GM in their division called them the best in baseball — “and it's not even close.”
That story details all the ways the Braves are superlative, down to the slash line against different types of pitches. But here’s a fun way to conceptualize how well-rounded the lineup is: Even in an era of less juicy baseballs, the Braves are poised to surpass the 2019 Twins’ Bombas Squad for most home runs hit by a team in a season. And while that Twins team was, naturally, pretty good at offense, they were second in batting average, sixth in on-base percentage, third in all-encompassing wRC+ and last in stolen bases. The Braves are first in batting average, first in on-base percentage, first in wRC+ and (womp womp) tied for sixth in stolen bases.
The Braves' pitching staff as a whole has the lowest ERA in the NL and the highest K/9 in baseball. It has a few more holes than the lineup but is poised to excel in the postseason, when teams tend to lean heavily on their top starters. Spencer Strider is second among all pitchers in fWAR and first in strikeouts, with such a large lead that the difference between him and second-place Kevin Gausman is the same as the difference between Gausman and the pitcher with the 22nd-most strikeouts.
Behind Strider, the Braves have Max Fried, who missed most of the season due to a forearm strain but has been good enough since returning to have the seventh-best park-adjusted ERA- among starters with at least 50 innings.
The Atlanta bullpen has the lowest ERA, lowest WHIP and highest K rate in the NL. In short: There’s nothing the Braves don’t do well.
Still, nearly 30% odds of winning the World Series is sort of nonsensical if you take the numbers too literally. By the time we get to the point that they really matter, they’ll either be zero or close to 50%. Still, World Series odds are telling directionally and in terms of magnitude.
FanGraphs has been tracking postseason odds since 2014. Over the previous nine years, the eventual World Series winner had the highest World Series odds on Sept. 1 three times (including in 2020). So maybe to “guarantee” anything is a bridge too far. However, only once has a team had higher World Series odds at this point in the season, and that was the 2019 Houston Astros, who got all the way to Game 7 before being bested by the Washington Nationals (6.1% odds on Sept. 1 that year).
So what do this year’s World Series odds tell us? That the Braves are dominant on an almost unprecedented level, that they’ll probably be playing into late October — and that there’s still plenty of room to be surprised by some other team entirely.