Championships Aren’t Won On Paper. But What If They Were?

You probably missed this as baseball’s postseason was coming to an end last week — but congratulations are in order to the Houston Astros. Why? Because Houston finished the 2019 MLB season with the No. 1 Elo rating in Major League Baseball, of course.

The Astros were No. 1 in 2019 … on paper

Top 10 MLB teams in 2019 according to FiveThirtyEight’s Elo rating*

Reg. Season
Team Wins Losses Playoffs Elo Rating
1 Astros 107 55 Lost WS 1595
2 Dodgers 106 56 Lost LDS 1590
3 Nationals 93 69 Won WS 1589
4 Yankees 103 59 Lost LCS 1585
5 Athletics 97 65 Lost WC 1570
6 Rays 96 66 Lost LDS 1554
7 Cardinals 91 71 Lost LCS 1543
8 Braves 97 65 Lost LDS 1541
9 Indians 93 69 None 1538
10 Twins 101 61 Lost LDS 1537

*Using the version of Elo found in our “Complete History of MLB” interactive, which does not adjust for the quality of pitchers.

I mean, sure, the Washington Nationals just beat the Astros to win the World Series in seven games. But still, the Astros were your official Elo champs for the 2019 season. (Somehow I doubt the Astros will throw a parade or put up a banner for the honor.)

Because Elo takes a long view of the entire season, being the best in it is a pretty good proxy for being the best team in the league “on paper.” And it’s actually not uncommon for Elo’s Paper Champion and the team that wins the World Series not to be one and the same. Including Houston this year, it’s happened 28 times — or in a whopping 52 percent of seasons — since the late 1960s, when MLB expanded to a division-based playoff format. Simply put, baseball is a sport in which the best team doesn’t always win. (Or even if it does, maybe we don’t always know who the best team is anyway.)

Take a tour through MLB’s Hall of (Paper) Champions

Actual World Series champions and end-of-season MLB Elo champions* (for years where they were not the same team), 1966-2019

Paper Champ Actual Champ Paper Champ Actual Champ
Year Team Elo Team Elo Year Team Elo Team Elo
2019 HOU 1595 WAS 1589 1995 CLE 1596 ATL 1580
2017 CLE 1596 HOU 1572 1993 ATL 1588 TOR 1565
2015 TOR 1562 KC 1561 1992 MIL 1558 TOR 1555
2014 BAL 1559 SF 1542 1990 OAK 1567 CIN 1544
2012 TB 1566 SF 1561 1988 NYM 1569 LAD 1555
2011 NYY 1575 STL 1555 1987 TOR 1562 MIN 1521
2010 PHI 1570 SF 1563 1985 NYY 1571 KC 1544
2008 BOS 1567 PHI 1564 1982 MIL 1555 STL 1552
2006 NYY 1551 STL 1531 1980 BAL 1577 PHI 1545
2003 NYY 1567 FLA 1547 1974 LAD 1569 OAK 1559
2001 OAK 1596 ARI 1567 1973 BAL 1569 OAK 1556
2000 SF 1559 NYY 1542 1972 PIT 1560 OAK 1557
1997 ATL 1572 FLA 1538 1971 BAL 1591 PIT 1568
1996 CLE 1568 NYY 1547 1969 BAL 1576 NYM 1567

*Using the version of Elo found in our “Complete History of MLB” interactive, which does not adjust for the quality of pitchers.

Ratings include results from all regular-season and postseason games.

Other sports have their own Paper Champs. (Although none happen anywhere near as frequently as in MLB.) I went back to the start of the Super Bowl era in 19662 and looked at the other sports for which we keep Elo — the NFL, NBA, college football, and men’s and women’s college basketball. Using the versions of our Elo that contain no adjustments for trades or players being in and out of the lineup,3 I found each case where the champion at the end of the season4 was not the team that finished atop the Elo leaderboard. Across all of these sports, these Paper Champs come up more frequently than you might think:

Since 1966, all but seven seasons5 (2013, 2009, 2005, 1998, 1989, 1979 and 1967) contained at least one Paper Champion across these five sports. Some years featured a lot more: In 2011, for instance, there were four Paper Champs — the Yankees in MLB, the Patriots in the NFL, and Ohio State (men’s) and UConn (women’s) in college basketball. (The only champs that actually led in Elo were the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA and Alabama in college football.)

In general, there is about a 50-50 chance that a given baseball season would produce a Paper Champ and somewhere between a 20 and 30 percent probability each of the other sports will as well.

How each sport’s Paper Championship rate compares

Frequency of Elo “Paper Champions” (and rate of the real champion being decided head-to-head) by sport, 1966-2019

Sport
MLB NFL NBA CFB MBB WBB*
No. of Paper Champs 28 11 15 14 14 4
Share of seasons 51.9% 20.4% 27.8% 25.9% 25.9% 22.2%
% of Paper Champs lost H2H** 46.4% 90.9% 60.0% 14.3% 78.6% 25.0%

* Women’s NCAA basketball data only goes back to 2001-02.

** This is the share of seasons with a Paper Champ that saw the actual champ beat them head-to-head in the postseason (or, in college football, the entire season).

Source: Sports-Reference.com

What does all of this mean? Well, it could be that Elo is broken. Even though it is calibrated to be the best predictor for a team’s next game — given its recent form, long-term expectations, wins and losses, scoring margin, opponent quality and game locations — maybe there are certain aspects of each sport’s postseason that aren’t captured by the algorithm. (This is the “Billy Beane’s Shit Doesn’t Work In The Playoffs” theory.)

A fundamental challenge of forecasting is the balancing act between considering a large amount of information — some of which may be of less relevance than others — and a more specific one that is more relevant, but also more prone to factors such as random variance in a small sample. Our Elo models attempt to straddle this divide, but it’s impossible to find the perfect mix of information that works in every single case.

Then again, maybe the real issue is that playoff systems are too small of a sample to determine the best team. Perhaps the best we can do is be content believing the champion was simply one of the top teams in a given season, nothing more.

Still another way of reconciling Paper Champs to postseason reality, though, is to consider that most of these actual champions vanquished their on-paper rivals head-to-head along the way. When there was a Paper Champ in baseball, for instance, 46 percent of the time that team lost directly to the eventual champion in a postseason game or series. (See: Nationals over Astros.) In the NBA, that number was 60 percent; in men’s college basketball, 79 percent; and in the NFL, a whopping 91 percent. Although Elo still wasn’t convinced that the matter was settled afterward, the Paper Champ at least had a chance to make its case on the field or court.

And in most of the cases where things weren’t settled head-to-head, you only have to zoom out a little to find a path of head-to-head superiority between the actual champ and the paper one. Like in the 2017 NCAA Women’s Tournament, when UConn finished as Paper Champ … but lost in the national semis to Mississippi State, which then lost to South Carolina in the title game. Almost every disagreement between Elo and the official championship can be settled either directly head-to-head or in this manner — with the exceptions of a few pre-wild-card MLB seasons (in which the Paper Champ didn’t even make the postseason at all) and a number of older college football campaigns that underscored just how broken the sport’s pre-playoff system truly was.

In 2007, famously one of the weirdest college football seasons ever, USC was Elo’s choice, while LSU prevailed in the BCS. To find a head-to-head path that put LSU over USC, even if you open up the possibilities to include the regular season,6 you needed to follow a trail of four games: LSU beat Ohio State, which beat Washington, which beat Stanford, which beat … USC.

But at least the BCS existed by then. Before it came along, the 1970s and ’80s often required even more ludicrous daisy-chaining of head-to-head results to reconcile the championship. In 1976, the path from actual champ Pitt to Paper Champ USC required a string of five games. And in 1983, the chain went like this: Actual champ Miami beat Notre Dame, which beat Boston College, which beat Clemson, which tied Georgia, which beat Texas, which beat Auburn, Elo’s Paper Champion. No wonder college football fans clamored for a proper playoff (even if the one they have now could also probably stand to be expanded).

But even with the perfect playoff system, you can never really avoid Paper Champs. Random variance and matchups — plus a million other factors — will always cause teams to play better or worse than they look on paper. And would we really want it any other way? If we look at who would have benefited most over the past half-century if Elo perfectly aligned with actual championships, the rich would mostly have gotten richer:

Who has beaten their on-paper odds most (and least) often?

MLB, NFL, NBA, college basketball (women’s* and men’s) and college football teams with the biggest positive — and negative — differentials between their actual championships, 1966-2019

Biggest gainers No. of championships
Team Sport Actual Elo Diff
Notre Dame Fighting Irish CFB 4 0 +4
Los Angeles Lakers NBA 11 7 +4
New York Giants NFL 4 1 +3
St. Louis Cardinals MLB 4 1 +3
Miami/Florida Marlins MLB 2 0 +2
Houston Rockets NBA 2 0 +2
Kansas City Royals MLB 2 0 +2
LSU Tigers CFB 2 0 +2
Clemson Tigers CFB 3 1 +2
Miami Heat NBA 3 1 +2
San Francisco Giants MLB 3 1 +2
Connecticut Huskies MBB 4 2 +2
Ohio State Buckeyes CFB 4 2 +2
Boston Celtics NBA 9 7 +2
Biggest losers No. of championships
Team Sport Actual Elo Diff
Baltimore Orioles MLB 3 8 -5
Cleveland Indians MLB 0 3 -3
Oklahoma Sooners CFB 4 7 -3
San Antonio Spurs NBA 5 8 -3
Connecticut Huskies WBB 9 12 -3
Milwaukee Brewers MLB 0 2 -2
Philadelphia 76ers NBA 2 4 -2
Kentucky Wildcats MBB 4 6 -2
North Carolina Tar Heels MBB 5 7 -2
New England Patriots NFL 6 8 -2
New York Yankees MLB 7 9 -2
Alabama Crimson Tide CFB 9 11 -2

*Women’s NCAA basketball data only goes back to 2001-02.

Source: Sports-Reference.com

Although I feel bad for the Orioles and Indians, who would have won multiple extra championships if Elo had been perfectly predictive, other teams that have won plenty of real titles — Alabama football, UConn women’s basketball, the Patriots, the Yankees, the Spurs, etc. — “should” have even more under Elo.

Oftentimes, it’s the unpredictability of sports that make them great — just ask the Nationals. So we’re sorry, Astros. Although the first-ever Elo Championship pennant would be something to behold.

Were The Best Umpires Behind The Plate During The Playoffs?

Major League Baseball umpires heard their job approval ratings plummet in Washington, D.C., during this World Series, culminating with chants of disdain from Nationals fans after missed calls on Sunday in Game 5. And that was before the controversial runner interference call on Washington shortstop Trea Turner in Game 6. Every decision, every call, every mistake is amplified in postseason baseball — and when the work behind the plate could affect the outcome of the game, everyone notices.

To be human is to be imperfect. Deciphering borderline pitches traveling at 100 mph and breaking balls that move more than ever is not easy. And there will always be errors made behind the plate unless humans are replaced with an automated zone (which MLB began experimenting with this past summer in the independent Atlantic League).

But one study tells us that MLB might do a better job of getting balls and strikes called correctly simply by employing different umpires in the postseason. Boston University professor Mark Williams looked at called pitches from 2008 to 2018 and compared the more than 4 million pitches against ball-location data provided by MLB tracking cameras.1 He calculated ball and strike accuracy performance for each umpire, producing a bad-call rate per umpire per season, and has launched an app that evaluates and updates umpire performance.

“Baseball has a problem behind home plate, too many ball-strike calling errors,” Williams told FiveThirtyEight.

MLB has disputed Williams’s findings. League spokesman Michael Teevan noted that the missed-call rates MLB uses internally differ from those of the Boston University data and that MLB’s methodology “takes into account the margin of error of the tracking system.” (Williams says that, via Statcast and PITCHf/x, he is using the same underlying pitch-tracking and zone data as MLB, and maintains that umpires miss far more calls than the league is willing to admit.) Teevan also said factors other than just ball-strike calls are important in determining which umpires are used in crucial postseason games.

In the postseason, there were 252 pitches called strikes outside the zone and 195 called balls that were in the strike zone. That’s 447 missed calls out of 5,459 called balls and strikes, a missed-call rate of 8.2 percent. That’s better than the regular-season miss rate of 9.1 percent,2 but those are still hundreds of errant calls influencing game outcomes.

Only three umpires who received an assignment behind the plate during LCS and World Series play ranked in the top 10 this season in missed-call rate, according to Williams’s data, though Nos. 11 and 12 did work home plate in the World Series. Three umpires who called LCS games ranked in the bottom half of MLB’s 76 full-time umpires, as did three umpires assigned to the World Series. And the postseason has featured four of the worst 15 game-calling umpires behind home plate.

Many of the game’s best ball-strike umpires are invited to the playoffs and placed behind the plate, but not all of them. Why not? Teevan said assignments are “merit based” but that the evaluation criteria goes beyond ball-strike accuracy. “A variety of factors [are taken] into account, including experience, skill sets, communication and situation-handling,” he told FiveThirtyEight.

That experience might be part of the issue. Williams found that less-experienced umpires often performed better than veterans in ball-strike performance. Moreover, Williams found that there was typically little change in an umpire’s year-to-year missed call rates, suggesting that improving umpiring skills is difficult. The average service time of all MLB umpires this year was 16 years. The umpires in the LCS who called games from behind the plate had slightly less experience, averaging 14.6 years in the league. But the average crept up again among World Series umpires, to 16.4 years.

Ball-strike calls are incredibly important. Offensive performance in the majors is tied to the count, and just one missed pitch can have a significant effect. During the regular season, hitters had a .351 batting average on a count of two balls and one strike, versus a .161 batting average on a count of one ball and two strikes — a difference of nearly 200 points in batting average. Moreover, umpires are responsible for calling more and more balls and strikes as fewer balls are being put in play because of the record strikeout levels of recent years. This season marked a record for pitches thrown in a season,3 and a record for the number of called strikes in a season.

As long as humans — and not robots — are behind the plate, a certain number of calls will be missed. But on baseball’s biggest stage, it’s more important to get them right.

DJ LeMahieu Is The New Derek Jeter

On the 161st Street subway platform, and massed in and around Yankee Stadium for Games 3 and 4 of the American League Championship Series, plenty of fans were adorned in Yankee jerseys bearing No. 2, the number of franchise icon Derek Jeter. But there was also a new number emblazoned on many jerseys and T-shirts: No. 26, the identifier of DJ LeMahieu. The first-year Yankee star has won over skeptical fans who were initially disappointed that he was the club’s big position player free-agent signee last winter, not Bryce Harper or Manny Machado.

But it shouldn’t be surprising that LeMahieu has won over so many in New York. No player since Jeter has hit more like Jeter than LeMahieu.

Jeter’s trademark inside-out approach to hitting gave him an unusual batted-ball profile and helped him to 3,465 career hits. Of all major league hitters with at least 1,000 at-bats since 2002, the only right-handed batter to hit a higher share of opposite-field balls than Jeter and also come close to hitting his share of ground balls1 — all while batting .300 — is LeMahieu.2 Jeff Sullivan noted the similar profiles last offseason for FanGraphs after the Yankees signed LeMahieu to a two-year, $24 million contract. And LeMahieu has only continued to hit more like Jeter.

Yankees GM Brian Cashman told reporters earlier this month that his front-office assistants were pounding the table for signing LeMahieu last winter, and none more so than Jim Hendry, special assistant to Cashman. Hendry, the former Cubs GM, is close friends with LSU’s Paul Mainieri, who coached LeMahieu on the 2009 national championship team. Hendry had followed LeMahieu at LSU and through the minor leagues, and he thought the second baseman’s swing — and his versatile glove — would play anywhere.

“What I loved about him in college was that his natural swing was to right field and dead center, and he did it with a little bit of authority,” Hendry told FiveThirtyEight. “You can teach a guy to pull the ball down the road a lot easier than if you’ve got a pull guy, who isn’t a 40-homer guy, to hit the ball hard the other way. His natural swing was what I loved about him to begin with.”

That natural swing should feel very familiar to Yankee Nation.

While most ground balls are pulled, balls in the air are typically distributed more evenly around the outfield. Yet Jeter and LeMahieu own some of the most prolific opposite-field line-drive and fly-ball seasons on record since 2002, when batted-ball data became available. Among batters with at least 1000 at-bats since 2002, Jeter and LeMahieu rank second and third, respectively, in terms of the share of balls hit in the air to the opposite field. In an age of trying to pull the ball, LeMahieu is doing the opposite — just like Jeter did. Consider the Jeter and LeMahieu spray charts of balls hit in the air, from their five most recent seasons:

In his age-27 to age-30 seasons, Jeter produced a .305/.373/.456 slash line with a 118 OPS+, while LeMahieu compiled a .316/.373/.463 slash line with a 111 OPS+ in those corresponding seasons.

There were concerns that LeMahieu’s stats had been inflated by the thin air in Coors Field, where he spent seven of his first eight years in the big leagues. But LeMahieu’s offensive production has never been dependent on home run totals, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that he has succeeded away from Denver. If anything, the switch to Yankee Stadium and its short right-field porch helped him hit a career-high number of home runs (26) this season. Twelve of those home runs — including 11 at Yankee Stadium — were to right field, which tied for the fourth-greatest total in baseball.

“That’s his natural swing,” Hendry said.

LeMahieu’s batted-ball distance on fly balls to the opposite field also jumped by 22 feet to 324 feet this season, seventh in baseball. He hit a combined nine home runs to the opposite field from 2015 to 2018. Moreover, he has produced the most batted balls — including ground balls — to the opposite field this year. Those batted balls have come with a weighted runs created plus (wRC+) of 185, meaning that his opposite-field hits are 85 percent above league average in offensive performance.3

LeMahieu’s high-contact approach has made him even less dependent on ballpark environment. That method is perhaps aided by letting pitches travel longer before making contact, explaining his opposite-field tendencies.

LeMahieu’s approach might also be shift-proof, at least when it comes to infield defense. He led baseball this season in terms of plate appearances with a ball put in play when a shift was not in place. But in 2017, his batted-ball profile on balls in the air was so dramatic that teams employed some unusual outfield shifts. Since 2017, he has faced the second-most shifted outfield defenses in baseball.

While he doesn’t run like Jeter did in his prime or play shortstop — New York was drawn to him in part for his defensive versatility — LeMahieu does hit like Jeter. And Hendry also believes that LeMahieu excels in pressure situations. “He’s quiet, but the moment never gets to him,” Hendry said. And with New York trailing the Astros in the ALCS, the Yankees now need that calm under pressure more than ever.

Starting Pitchers Are Getting More Work This Postseason. They Deserve It.

Bullpens have eroded the workload of starting pitchers for years. By keeping a close watch on pitch counts and increasingly specializing their pitching staffs, teams have consistently reduced how long starting pitchers work into games. This regular season, bullpens accounted for the greatest share of workload in MLB history: 42.1 percent of innings pitched, up from last year’s record of 40.1 percent.

The leash has tightened even more in the playoffs, as October became bullpen season. Only three outings last postseason exceeded 100 pitches. But perhaps the game is on the cusp of a pushback against this trend: Through Oct. 13, there have already been 12 outings of at least 101 pitches in this year’s playoffs. The starting pitcher appears to be making a comeback, as Jay Jaffe of FanGraphs wrote.

While pitchers typically fare worse the deeper they pitch into regular season games, in some recent postseasons — 2014, 2016, 2017 and early this October — pitchers were actually better the third time through the lineup than the first, according to weighted on-base average data from Baseball Savant. (Last October, pitchers were better the second time through the order than the first.) Whether in the regular season or in October, could it be that starting pitchers are getting better deeper into the game?

This season, pitchers permitted to go deeper into games, by some measures, have never performed better.1 According to data from Baseball-Reference.com, starting pitchers have been more effective as the game goes during outings of at least 101 pitches — based on opposing on-base plus slugging.

The number of pitchers allowed to go that deep into games has certainly shrunk over the years — there were only 1,028 starts in the regular season this year that went at least 101 pitches, compared with 1,082 in 2018, 1,390 in 2017 and 2,023 a decade earlier in 2009. So it may be that teams are only giving the chance to go deeper into games to the pitchers best equipped to pitch later into games — or at least the pitchers already having strong outings.

But those select pitchers and their performances raise another question: Can starting pitchers begin to take back some of the total share of pitches thrown? More teams are focusing on player development, and many of the pitchers at the center of those development efforts are having success throwing more pitches. Could this lead to a rebalancing of the pitching workload?

In the majors as a whole, pitchers have added velocity and are throwing breaking pitches with more movement. Within games this season, pitchers with a minimum of 1,500 pitches thrown averaged 93.1 mph in the first inning with their four-seam fastball but 93.8 mph in the seventh inning. And while relievers have long performed better than starting pitchers on a per-inning basis, starting pitchers shrunk the performance gap this season.

“I think where we are headed next is, ‘How do you figure out how to lengthen use of your starter?’” said Derek Falvey, chief of baseball operations for the Minnesota Twins. “The more teams think about development at the major league level, I think the more you’ll see these conversations popping up like, ‘How do you get pitchers to go deeper into games?’”

While Astros manager A.J. Hinch said this spring that he planned to be more like the Tampa Bay Rays in limiting starting pitchers’ workloads, there was no dramatic change, as Astros starters threw the fourth-most pitches in baseball. Astros co-aces Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander have continued to dominate late into starts so far this postseason. They have now combined for three of the 12 postseason starts that have matched or exceeded 101 pitches this postseason, accounting for 22 1/3 innings in those outings while striking out 32 batters and allowing just 11 hits, three runs and five walks.

Caleb Cotham, an assistant pitching coach and director of pitching for the Cincinnati Reds, said that pitchers who are “intentional in how they train and diligent in putting in the work on the right things” can use technology to work toward dramatic improvement in their skills. Cotham, who joined the Reds before this season, trained at Driveline Baseball beginning in 2014 and will be working again with Driveline’s Kyle Boddy, who was hired this month to lead the Reds’ pitching development efforts. Cotham believes that pitching stamina is another attribute that can be trained.

“Baseball is getting better at measuring more things,” Cotham said. “Having more information to then apply to individual, such as, ‘This guy’s [elbow and shoulder] internal rotation goes down significantly after 85 pitches. This other guy has lower arm speed but he maintains it. He can sustain this.’ It will be very interesting moving forward.”

“The game will probably get pretty weird, pretty soon.”

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

It Was Always Going To Be Astros-Yankees, Wasn’t It?

MLB’s 2019 postseason has had more than its share of surprises, from Washington’s amazing comebacks — and the Dodgers’ meltdowns — to St. Louis’s 10-run first inning in a do-or-die game against Atlanta. Even the Tampa Bay Rays extended their plucky season by pushing the Houston Astros to the brink of elimination, before losing Game 5. All that chaos has left the National League in particular with a championship-series matchup (Cardinals-Nationals) that was tough to see coming just a week and a half ago.

But after the division-series dust settled, the powerhouse Yankees and Astros are the teams left standing in the American League. In addition to being one of the best league championship series matchups ever on paper, it’s the titanic showdown that baseball fans have been anticipating all year — literally so.

As of Thursday night’s ALDS clincher in Houston, the Astros and Yankees rank Nos. 1 and 2 among remaining teams in FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings, 3 points of Elo apart from each other but 18 points clear of the other two contenders. They are also the two most likely champions left in the field, with a combined 65 percent chance that the winner of the ALCS will also win the title. In many ways, Yankees-Astros will be this year’s de facto World Series.

If we look at the harmonic mean of preseries Elo ratings for Houston (1590) and New York (1587),1 this year’s ALCS is the second-most impressive league championship series matchup in the entire history of baseball (or, at least, since the LCS began in 1969). The only LCS with a better matchup on paper was last year’s ALCS between the Boston Red Sox — who were in the midst of a historic season — and the Astros:

Elo’s most epic League Championship Series clashes ever

MLB league championship matchups with the highest combined preseries Elo ratings (according to the harmonic mean), 1969-2019

Winner/Favorite Loser/Underdog
Year League Team Rating Team Rating Harmonic Mean
2018 AL Red Sox 1590 Astros 1609 1599.3
2019 AL Astros* 1590 Yankees* 1587 1589.0
2009 AL Yankees 1581 Angels 1570 1575.7
1999 NL Braves 1585 Mets 1566 1575.5
2002 NL Giants 1569 Cardinals 1581 1574.8
2004 NL Cardinals 1584 Astros 1560 1572.2
1975 NL Reds 1593 Pirates 1551 1571.8
2018 NL Dodgers 1584 Brewers 1560 1571.5
2017 AL Astros 1572 Yankees 1570 1571.2
1970 AL Orioles 1595 Twins 1546 1570.4

*The Astros are currently favorites, with a 54 percent chance of making the World Series according to Elo.

Source: ESPN, Retrosheet

Baseball has been trending toward more superteams for a while now, so it’s not overly surprising that the past two seasons have seen the top two LCS matchups ever. In fact, according to Elo, the American League since 2017 has played host to three of history’s nine best LCS showdowns — and the Astros have been involved in all of them (winning in 2017, losing in 2018 and … well, we don’t know yet in 2019).

But perhaps more noteworthy about this year’s ALCS is simply how long baseball has had to keep an eye on this particular matchup. Although some other AL teams had great years — including the Twins, Rays and A’s, all of whom won at least 96 ballgames — the Astros and Yankees stood out as the cream of the league’s crop for essentially the entire season. There wasn’t a single week during the regular season that Houston and New York were not the AL’s top two teams according to our Elo ratings:

Yep, in the 26 weeks of the regular season, the Yankees and Astros topped the AL … 26 times. Then they eventually met up in the ALCS. That’s only the second time in history (again, since 1969) that two teams ranked 1-2 in their league every single week of the regular season, then ended up meeting in the league championship series:

Few LCS matchups have been brewing for so long

Eventual league championship matchups with the highest share of regular-season weeks with the teams at Nos. 1-2 in league Elo rankings, 1969-2019

Year League Teams in LCS Weeks as 1-2 Share of Possible
2019 AL Astros Yankees 26 100%
1970 AL Orioles Twins 25 100
1978 NL Dodgers Phillies 24 96
2009 NL Dodgers Phillies 24 92
1971 AL Orioles Athletics 23 92
1992 NL Braves Pirates 21 84
1973 AL Orioles Athletics 20 83
1976 AL Yankees Royals 17 68
1972 NL Pirates Reds 16 64
1976 NL Reds Phillies 16 64
1986 NL Mets Astros 16 64

Source: Retrosheet, ESPN

The only other LCS in which both teams finished every week of the regular season as Nos. 1 and 2 in league Elo came in 1970, when the Baltimore Orioles and Minnesota Twins dominated their respective divisions all season long, putting themselves on an ALCS collision course. The Orioles ended up sweeping that one, but they also went into the series with a sizable 49-point Elo edge over Minnesota despite the two teams’ favorite status being solidified for so much of the season.

The Astros, by contrast, lead the Yankees by only 3 points of Elo right now, and New York is much better rested after sweeping the Twins in the ALDS. We still give the Astros an edge, with a 54 percent probability of going to the World Series, but there’s every chance this terrific on-paper battle lives up to the hype that’s been building up every single week of the entire season.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

How Gerrit Cole Went From So-So To Unhittable

Gerrit Cole was always supposed to make hitters swing and miss. But there was a time when the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft, with a 100 mph fastball in his arsenal, failed to meet expectations.

In his five years with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cole hovered around average in strikeout performance. By FanGraphs’ strikeout rate “plus” (K%+) metric, which sets the strikeout ability baseline at 100 and adjusts for yearly strikeout environment, Cole’s first five years in the majors ranged from slightly below to slightly above average. Between 2013 and 2017, his K%+ rate fell between 91 and 118 percent.

But after the Houston Astros acquired Cole, his adjusted strikeout performance jumped to 156 in 2018, meaning he was 56 percent above the major league average. This year? His 176 mark is the best adjusted performance since Erik Bedard’s 2007 season. By raw totals, Cole’s 326 total strikeouts this season are the 14th most in a single season and the most since Randy Johnson’s 334 in 2002. He has continued to dominate into October, and will pitch in an elimination Game 5 on Thursday versus Tampa Bay.

So how did Cole go from being an unexceptional strikeout pitcher to the game’s best K artist, and perhaps a favorite to win the AL Cy Young Award? It’s a story about his fastball, a pitch that has transformed from a middling offering to the game’s best, according to FanGraphs run values.

“He’s essentially throwing laser beams, or as close to it as I’ve ever seen from a human,” said one MLB front office official.

The game has changed since Cole debuted in 2013. Back then, the Pirates were teaching pitchers to pitch to contact and were producing record ground-ball rates. But strikeouts have the benefit of keeping the ball out of play and out of the air, and those qualities have become more and more important as home run levels have risen and risen.

When the Astros sat Cole down for a meeting in February 2018, they outlined how they believed Cole could be a more dominant pitcher. Aided by heat maps, data and video, team officials explained that much of their plan was dependent upon Cole’s fastball.

The Astros showed Cole that his upper-90s, four-seam fastball was harder to hit up in the zone. They recommended that he scrap his two-seam fastball, typically thrown lower in the zone to try to create ground balls, and a pitch type that has been crushed recently.

He listened. Cole reduced the share of two-seam fastballs he threw — from 18.1 percent of offerings in 2017 to 0.4 percent this year — and targeted the upper portions of the strike zone, a move designed to stay above hitters’ swing planes.

Cole has generated 220 swings and misses on his fastball in the top third or above the strike zone this year, which is the most of the Statcast era. (Justin Verlander’s 185 last season is second.) In 2017, Cole produced 66.

Another enhancement to his fastball was more curious: his dramatic spike in spin rate, which created controversy last season. Spin is important because more spin (transverse spin specifically) increases the Magnus effect, thus creating more movement — a larger rise on a fastball or break on a curveball. Spin and velocity lead to more swing and misses. While spin rate generally increases with velocity, Cole’s velocity has increased only slightly in Houston. It’s thought to be difficult to change spin-to-velocity ratio without using foreign substance, and some people believe that the use of sticky substances is widespread in baseball.

When I asked Cole last summer about his change in spin rate, he explained that Verlander had taught him how to get more “true rotation and hop” on his fastball. He has raised his vertical release point, and the spin axis of his fastball has changed slightly from 222 degrees in 2017 to 216 degrees with the Astros.

In 2017, Cole’s fastball averaged 8.79 inches of vertical movement, ranking 191st out of 295 starting pitchers, according to BaseballProspectus.com PITCHf/x leaderboards. This year, Cole’s fastball had 9.95 inches of vertical movement, ranking 32nd among 395 starting pitchers. He’s gained an inch of “rise” and 1 mph on his fastball. That might not sound like a lot, but even small gains can have large effects.

In 2017, Cole’s fastball ranked 41st among qualifying pitchers1 in whiff-per-swing rate at 21.6 percent, and he finished with a 4.26 ERA on the season. In his first year in Houston, Cole’s four-seam, whiff-per-swing rate jumped to 12th, at 29.3 percent, and his ERA dropped to 2.88. And this season, he led the majors in four-seam fastball whiff rate (36.9 percent) and finished with a 2.50 ERA. Batters have hit .171 against his four-seam fastball. He can now dominate batters in the strike zone with his fastball, not just with his swing-and-miss slider below it.

Cole, a free-agent-to-be, could lead the Astros to a second title in three years thanks in part to arguably the best pitch in the majors: a fastball that has become a laser beam.

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