The World Series Encapsulated Baseball in 2017
It was filled with ups and downs. Home runs and strikeouts. Short starts and early relief appearances. The World Series encapsulated exactly what modern baseball is today.
Prior to the series, the 2017 World Series seemed almost too good to be true. It was the result of the rare playoff tournament that yielded the two best teams. It was a monumental matchup, between two clubs that had long been building towards these types of dominant seasons. It pitted strength against strength, two deep teams, one with a seemingly untouchable pitching staff and one with an historic lineup.
It somehow surpassed all expectations. It was a seven-game epic, one with more twists and turns than we could count. Well, actually, we did count, and turns out Games 2 and 5 were among the most topsy-turvy World Series games of all time, in terms of change in Win Expectancy per the Baseball Gauge. Not only did the series include classic games, nearly every game was a tense, nail-biting affair until the end, with star players again and again making the kinds of plays star players make.
This was a moment for baseball, and it seized it. Many questioned if, after the Cubs broke the curse after 108 years last season, there were no more great stories to tell, if baseball had essentially reached its peak. This series answered those questions: there is indeed more baseball to played, and it is as wonderful as ever.
Not only that, but the World Series entirely encapsulated baseball in 2017, for good and bad. If there was a trend in the game in 2017, it was represented in the World Series. It was a series that took our breath away countless times, while driving home the macro-scale movements we’d been following all season.
We have to start with the home runs. At this point, it’s always about the home runs. 2017 was the year when the home run surge truly became a national story, and it was the year in which the baseball community came to grips with the fact that the baseball is likely juiced. A springier ball with flatter seams led to balls flying over the fence at unprecedented rates, with regular season and postseason league-wide home run records left shattered.
If there were any casual fans unaware of the game’s shift toward the long ball, they were blunted over the head with the idea all series. Game 2 featured eight dingers. Game 5 saw seven longballs. We saw a pop-up home run from Carlos Correa, low line drive home runs from Yasiel Puig, and heat-aided home runs in the scorching, 101-degree Game 1.
The cherry on top was another scandal regarding the ball, as many players complained about what they perceived as a slicker baseball in the World Series. It’s difficult to tell, with such a small sample of data, whether these claims were substantiated, but as Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer noted, seeing the game’s ambassadors agitating about the sport’s most important equipment on the biggest stage was poor PR, and entirely fitting with 2017’s heightened scrutiny on the ball itself.
On a different note, the way we view the role of pitchers has evolved at warp-speed this year. The age of the 120-pitch complete game, like the one Justin Verlander twirled in Game 2 of the ALCS, is essentially dead. With every team in the league hip to the fact that starting pitchers lose effectiveness as they work through the game, the average outing for a starting pitcher has fallen to record-lows.
Manager’s took that idea to heart (and to an extreme) this postseason. Never before have we seen managers strive so desperately to avoid letting their starters work deep into games. Only the most trusted aces, like Verlander or Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer, were trusted with the duty of pitching consistently deep into games (and even Kershaw was pulled after just five innings and one run in the NLCS).
Instead, we saw teams using tandem starters, like Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers, or turning to ace starters out of the bullpen. Chris Sale nearly saved Boston’s season in relief in Game 4 of the ALDS, and Kershaw would have been a hero with four shutout innings in Game7 of the World Series had the Dodgers pulled it off. The World Series drove home the point the team’s have almost entirely dropped the restrictive pitching roles of the past, and are thinking far outside the box when it comes to best deploying their hurlers.
Not every phenomenon that the World Series exemplified was great, of course. The games were long, strikeout heavy, and at times stagnant even as they were tense and exciting. 2017 set records for strikeouts, and carried on right into the championship round.
The Dodgers, facing an incredible, high-contact offense, managed to strikeout 54 Astros in 64 innings. The Astros struck out 65 Dodgers in 64 innings. This is due in large part to the nearly exclusively hard-throwing staffs these teams possess, with fire-balling starters like Verlander, Morton, and Yu Darvish, and relievers like Ken Giles, Kenley Jansen and Brandon Morrow. The game moved even more toward velocity in 2017, with the average fastball travelling over 93 mph, and that shift was on full display to the end.
Speaking of the end, baseball took its sweet time getting there, with the games regularly pushing well past midnight on the East Coast. The Game 5 thriller lasted nearly five hours through nine innings. Game 7 saw only six runs but lasted almost four hours. Game 1 stood out bizarrely as a brisk 148-minute game, while the rest of the series was filled with all the pitching changes, mound visits, home run trots, and commercial breaks that have driven up the average length of the game all season.
It was all on display on the World Series. This was baseball in 2017 turned up to 11, the most extreme version of modern baseball anyone could have asked for. It was fitting, it was exhausting, but in the end, it was brilliant. The lackluster final game may prevent it from ranking as the greatest World Series of all time, but that’s okay. We entered this series expecting a great clash of heavyweight teams. What we got not only fulfilled our expectations of what baseball is like in the current era, it blew us all away.