The Major League Baseball season, long and winding over six months and over 2,400 games, provides plenty of time for the cream to rise to the top. But come October, our perceptions of which teams should be World Series favorites are often thrown out the window.
When it comes to World Series champions, regular-season success has carried less weight in this current era of baseball than in any other major North American sport. Since 1995 -- the Wild Card era -- teams that have either led outright or tied for the Major League lead in wins have gone on to win the Fall Classic just five times in 22 years, roughly 23 percent. For comparison's sake, the best NFL teams (according to regular-season record) have won the Super Bowl nine of 27 times (33 percent), the best NHL team won the Stanley Cup 11 of 37 times (30 percent) and the best NBA team won the world championship 17 of 34 times (50 percent) under those leagues' current postseason formats.
What about, say, run differential instead of record? Well, as far as the Wild Card era goes, the team with the best regular-season run differential has gone on to win the World Series just as often as the team with the best record: five times. A team that led its own league, AL or NL, in run differential has won the World Series at the same rate -- 10 of 44 league run-differential leaders, 23 percent, have won the World Series in the Wild Card era.
We know that the "best" regular-season teams typically don't prevail, and each season's World Series champion marches toward the title to slightly different beats. So, how does one handicap the postseason? There doesn't appear to be a clear-cut answer. But perhaps we can find indicators in each recent champion's model.
Here are the attributes that spurred the past five champions, dating back to the dawn of the Wild Card Game in 2012, and the '17 contenders that could follow their paths to World Series glory.
2012 San Francisco Giants
How they won it all: A dominant and durable rotation
2017 comp: Washington Nationals
Contrary to the "bullpenning" movement that figures to be in vogue again this October, the 2012 Giants rode a huge workload from their rotation to their second World Series crown in three years. San Francisco starters, led by Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong, combined for the third-highest innings total in the National League during the regular season. They turned it up another notch in the postseason, combining for a 1.82 ERA over the Giants' final 10 games and a 1.42 ERA during their World Series upset over the Tigers.
This season's tournament features a handful of great rotations, but none may be better suited for that kind of workload than the Nationals, whose starters combined to pace the Majors with 973 innings. Max Scherzer (2.51), Stephen Strasburg (2.52) and Gio Gonzalez (2.96) finished second through fourth on the NL's ERA leaderboard and could replicate the 2012 Giants' three-headed monster.
2013 Boston Red Sox
How they won it all: Grinding out at-bats
2017 comp: Los Angeles Dodgers
David Ortiz's incredible World Series MVP performance, and his preceding heroics against the Tigers in the American League Championship Series, remain unforgettable. But the Red Sox batted just .227 as a unit that October, and stayed alive more through their 59 walks in 16 games -- a rate of nearly four per game. That never-say-die Boston team finished the regular season second in MLB in terms of pitches seen per plate appearance, and it chased the third-fewest pitches outside the strike zone.
Not only did the '17 Dodgers finish just behind the Brewers among the top NL teams in pitches per plate appearance, they also led the Majors with the highest walk rate (10.5 percent) and lowest chase rate (24.3 percent), per Statcast™. Even if Los Angeles' offense gets into another funk, as it did in August, the Dodgers may be able to follow the Red Sox's example and grind out enough at-bats to stay alive.
2014 San Francisco Giants
How they won it all: Bumgarner
2017 comp: Cleveland Indians
Rising from the second NL Wild Card team to World Series champions for the third time in five seasons, the '14 Giants relied on clutch home runs and some spectacular defense to shock the world. Oh, and they also got one of the all-time greatest postseason performances in history from Bumgarner. The left-hander went 4-1 with a 1.03 ERA over a record 52 2/3 innings and famously sealed the Giants' title with five innings of scoreless relief agianst the Royals in Game 7.
Indians ace Corey Kluber already showed us last fall that he's capable of submitting a Bumgarner-esque October, after he recorded a 1.83 ERA over 34 1/3 innings and won four of his six starts. Kluber's last three outings came on three days' rest, making him the first pitcher to do that in a postseason since Tom Glavine and John Smoltz in 1992, and he'll be determined to deliver Cleveland its first World Series championship since 1948.
2015 Kansas City Royals
How they won it all: Put the ball in play and protect the plate
2017 comp: Astros, Red Sox
Arguably one of the best contact-hitting teams ever, the 2015 Royals did what they couldn't in '14 and brought Kansas City its first World Series championship since 1985. The Royals struck out by far the fewest times of any team in baseball -- just 973 K's all year, with the Braves next closest at 1,107. Kansas City's .199 team batting average with two strikes was tied for the Major League lead, more than 20 points better than the .177 league average. Led by the likes of Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez and Lorenzo Cain, not even a Mets rotation that was as deep and talented as they come could stop the Royals in the Fall Classic.
This season, the Astros have taken up the no-strikeout mantle. With K's up across MLB, the Astros posted the lowest strikeout total in the Majors with 1,087. That's not quite as extreme as the '15 Royals, but it was far fewer than the league average, and Houston finished second in the Majors with 238 home runs this season, just behind the Yankees.
As far as contact over power goes, this year's Red Sox are the postseason team most akin to the '15 Royals. The Sox only have 168 homers this year, fourth-fewest in baseball, similar to how the Royals' 139 ranked toward the bottom of MLB two years ago. Instead, they rely on hitters like Mookie Betts and Dustin Pedroia who battle and knock base hits. Boston tied with Houston for the best two-strike batting average at .199.
2016 Chicago Cubs
How they won it all: Shutdown starters, MVP mashers and stifling outfield defense
One of the themes for the 2016 Cubs was run prevention -- they had a Major League-best plus-252 run differential after scoring 808 runs and allowing an MLB-low 556. They had it all -- offense, pitching and defense. Their deep lineup centered on NL MVP Kris Bryant and his partner in crime, Anthony Rizzo, a duo that combined for 71 home runs. The Cubs had an impressive rotation fronted by Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta, with Hendricks and Lester finishing 1-2 for the NL ERA title. Meanwhile, the outfield, led by Jason Heyward, had an NL-best 21 Outs Above Average (OAA), Statcast™'s newest metric for outfield defense. Heyward had 13 OAA on his own, tied for seventh in the Majors.
As far as starting pitching and the heart of the order, the D-backs might be the most similar team in the 2017 postseason. They have their own 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation, Zack Greinke (17-7, 3.20 ERA, 215 strikeouts) and Robbie Ray (15-5, 2.89 ERA, 218 strikeouts). Their offense revolves around perennial NL MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt (.297/.404/.563, 36 home runs, 120 RBIs) and the scorching-hot J.D. Martinez (.303/.376/.690, 45 home runs, 104 RBIs), who's been maybe the most dangerous hitter in baseball since he arrived in Arizona at the Trade Deadline.
The Cubs' outfield defense inspires separate comparisons -- to the AL Wild Card Twins, as well as the Red Sox, who turn hits into outs on a regular basis. Thanks to Byron Buxton, a true defensive star in center field who had a Major League-best 24 Outs Above Average on his own, the Twins lead MLB in that category. Not far behind are the Red Sox, who have two stalwarts in Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. and tied for third as a team in OAA.