In 2011, the St. Louis Cardinals were heavy underdogs in the National League Division Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. While the Cardinals had rallied in September to overcome a massive deficit in the Wild Card race, with an 18-8 record in the season’s final month, they finished twelve games behind the Phillies, who had arguably the three best starting pitchers in the National League that season and had been the most consistently excellent MLB team of the previous half-decade. And then the Cardinals won the NLDS and then they won the World Series and the Phillies haven’t been to the postseason in the decade since.
If the Cardinals and Phillies played that series one hundred times, I am quite certain that the Phillies would have won the series most of the times–they were a finely-tuned machine that just happened to lose three games over the course of six days. But I am also quite certain that the Cardinals would have won the series way more than one time. The nature of baseball is randomness, which isn’t to say that the sport is utter chaos–good teams win more often than average teams, who win more often than bad teams. But over the course of a short series, particularly one in which both teams are at least some shade of good, anything can happen. This is even more true when it comes down to an individual game.
In 2021, the San Francisco Giants won 107 games and the Arizona Diamondbacks won 52 games. The division rivals played nineteen times, and unsurprisingly, the Giants had a major advantage, but the Diamondbacks did win twice. Because these are still professional baseball teams at the highest level of the sport, even when the disparities are as wide as they get at the top level. As tempting as it would be to paint a lopsided professional sports matchup as the equivalent of one of those college football games where Alabama pays, like, Charleston Southern to come to Bryant-Denny Stadium and get demolished, but even the most extreme examples are more along the lines of, like, when Ole Miss plays at Alabama. Usually Alabama wins, but not always!
In 2021, the Los Angeles Dodgers won 106 games, a sixteen-game edge over the Cardinals. And while Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals’ scheduled starting pitcher for Wednesday’s one-game playoff at Dodger Stadium, is coming off what is quite easily his finest individual season since 2014, the Dodgers have a clear starting pitching advantage on paper by way of Max Scherzer, whom I brilliantly asserted the Cardinals should not pursue at the trade deadline because the Cardinals weren’t going to make the playoffs anyway.
That the Dodgers are favored to win on Wednesday is not a surprise, but the opening Vegas line of Los Angeles at -213 (in layman’s terms, they are being priced as 2.13 times more likely to win than the Cardinals) is shockingly optimistic about the chances of the Dodgers, who went a solid but hardly overwhelming 4-3 against the Cardinals in 2021, to win.
In Max Scherzer’s thirteen career starts against the Cardinals, he has a losing record of four wins and six losses. While much has been made of Scherzer’s performance against the Cardinals in 2021, with two wins and fourteen scoreless innings with 22 strikeouts, he was 0-2 and allowed eight runs in two starts in 2019, outdueled by Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson. Are any of these meaningful samples? Surely not, but neither is one evening in early October.
The rest of the Dodgers aren’t exactly slouches, either, but they will be without their best position player throughout the regular season, as Max Muncy was injured in the final game of the regular season. He was replaced by Albert Pujols, whose offensive resurgence with the Dodgers has been much-celebrated (particularly by Cardinals fans) but has been disastrous against the right-handed pitching he would be facing on Wednesday–in 150 plate appearances against righties, Pujols has a .180 batting average, .233 on-base percentage, and a .266 slugging percentage. In years past, the Dodgers had an easy fix–moving outfielder Cody Bellinger to first base–but Bellinger has been arguably the sport’s most surprising disaster in 2021, with a 48 wRC+ partly diluted by a poor batting average on balls in play but also largely influenced by diminishing walk and home run rates and an exploding strikeout rate.
The Dodgers have a ton of big names–thanks to Pujols and Trea Turner joining the 2020 core, every member of their lineup has a World Series to his name, and the offense is consistently good, but especially post-Muncy, it isn’t nearly as lethal as it may seem. As great of a player as Mookie Betts is, Tyler O’Neill had the better offensive season by wRC+. Three Cardinals–O’Neill, Nolan Arenado, and Paul Goldschmidt–had more home runs in 2021 than any member of the Dodgers’ post-Muncy lineup. And for as vaunted as the depth of the Dodgers is, their first bat off the bench on Wednesday will likely be Matt Beaty or Gavin Lux–critique Paul DeJong and Lars Nootbaar as top bench options as you wish, but they are comparable hitters.
I know how humanity processes probability–if the Dodgers win on Wednesday, an outcome which there is a better than 50% chance will happen, giving the Cardinals any chance whatsoever before the game will be judged wrong, just as the FanGraphs odds which gave the Cardinals a 2.8% chance of making the playoffs on September 7 have been disregarded as overly cynical when they on the surface revealed some chance of making the postseason. But even if the Dodgers do win on Wednesday, to assume that a 90-win team could not win one game is ludicrous. If I were a betting man, I’d see the potential rate of return on betting on the Cardinals to strike on Wednesday as too appetizing to resist.