Understanding the enduring success of the Dodgers and Astros is rather simple

Last week, the Los Angeles Dodgers went to New York for a midweek series that was infused with extremely special bets on their potential as a postseason preview: a chance to find out how the top two winning teams in the National League would fare against of each other. The Mets needed two of three to walk away feeling more triumphant than the pantomime of Timmy Trumpet riding his namesake organ.

The games were great, hard and close, and the results speak to the possibility of the Mets making a deep postseason run in October. But they don’t upset the existing pecking order or unseat the first-place Dodgers, who can add their one win in Flushing to 92 others, plus an entire backlog from recent seasons.

The top of their lineup has rings from three other clubs: Mookie Betts, who won in 2018 with the Boston Red Sox; Trea Turner, who won in 2019 with the Washington Nationals. and Freddie Freeman, who won last season with the Atlanta Braves.

They know what it’s like to play on a championship team, so what makes the Dodgers different?

“I think it was a little bit more of a cultural thing,” Turner said of the Nationals team that went from 19-31 wild card to World Series winners.

“We all liked each other and hung out with each other and were very close. So I think the talent, plus how much we enjoy each other was the success there. Here, we definitely enjoy each other — and I think we’ve gotten to see each other a lot in the last few months, which is really important and nice — but I just think we would have won whether we liked it or not. Just because of the talent and everything.”

Los Angeles Dodgers’ Max Muncy gestures as he heads to third after hitting a solo home run during the sixth inning against the San Francisco Giants on Tuesday in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Since the Dodgers have a secret sauce, this explanation does little to illuminate it. Which makes sense. Their secret part is how they can turn 31-year-old below-average pitcher Andrew Heaney into a 3.00 regular on a staff with the best ERA in baseball. Acquiring guys like Turner — practically an afterthought to the Max Schercher deal that brought him to Los Angeles last summer — that’s the fun part of being a behemoth.

The answer has stuck with me ever since anyway. Not because it says anything particularly revealing about the inner workings of a particular organization, but because it reflects a funny kind of paradigm in the sport. To win a World Series you need a mercurial magic that is hard to define and impossible to predict. Sustained excellence is much simpler. Not easier, just simpler.

The MLB postseason is a month away. Below teams will jockey for a spot that has been fading for the previous six months. In October anything can happen. And in the end we will crown a worthy champion – that every baseball season requires the last team standing to run a marathon and afterward Surviving a sprint is a feature, not a bug. But since we’re at the part of the year where superlatives start to really mean something, it’s worth mentioning that we already know the best team in each league. They are the same two for the last five years.

The Dodgers blew a lead. Including 2022 (and I feel really good about it), they’ll have finished first in the NL West nine out of 10 seasons. The one year they didn’t, they hit a franchise high with 106 wins and came up just short of a division race worthy of having a book or maybe an epic poem written about it. Well, just keep that in mind for your own sense of awe — the Dodgers have been doing this for nearly twice as long — as we narrow down the time frame to include the AL’s best: the Houston Astros.

Since the start of 2017, the Dodgers have won 544 games, the most in MLB. The Astros are second with 522. Only one other team has struck out 500, the Yankees with just that many.

(Their continued success in recent years doesn’t excuse the Astros’ sign-stealing, but it does provide a compelling, if complicated, case that they’d be good without it. Three years after the sanctions, they’re on pace for 104 wins. You should consider that they stole 22 wins to undermine that argument.)

That’s no accident: Houston has scored the most runs in that span. LA is second. LA has given up the fewest runs in that span. Houston is second. They have the two highest wRC+ teams over that span and the two lowest ERAs. Defense is more difficult to distill into a universally accepted metric, but they also have the two lowest opposing BABIPs over that span, a testament to the ineffectiveness of putting the ball in play against them.

Both of their championships come with caveats, so to speak, and each would likely need another to entertain dynastic attention. But even the rings they have are notable: The other three winningest teams in that five-year stretch — the Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Cleveland Guardians — failed to win a World Series. He consistently dominates the regular season and The peak in the postseason is a tier two.

“Well, we haven’t been good for many years, obviously,” Lance McCullers Jr. said recently. for the Astros’ success. And that’s definitely part of it. They did it on purpose, and being mean was part of that plan. But the cyclical sacrifice required to tank it is precisely why sustainability is considered the ultimate achievement. And including 2017, neither the Dodgers nor the Astros have picked higher than 15th in the draft since then.

Houston Astros' Jose Altuve (27) celebrates his solo home run against Yordan Alvarez during the team's third inning of baseball against the Texas Rangers, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022, in Houston.  (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

Houston Astros’ Jose Altuve (27) celebrates a solo home run off Yordan Alvarez during Game 3 against the Texas Rangers on Tuesday in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

McCullers made the connection between the Astros front office and the start of former general manager Jeff Luhnow’s career with the Sts. Louis Cardinals, a club that has managed to stay similarly relevant — if not as prolific — with a smaller payroll and for much longer. St. Louis had only one losing season this millenniumreliably turning middle-of-the-pack draft picks into homegrown talent learning to win together at the lower levels, ably complemented by select high-profile acquisitions.

And to that plan, the Astros added early adoption of advanced analytics.

“It’s not just ‘here’s the information,’ but ‘here’s the information and here’s how you should try to apply it,'” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said recently.

McCullers said the Astros have always used data to simplify player processes, rather than complicate them. Bench coach Joe Espada, who coached for the Miami Marlins and Yankees, added: “It’s just part of our DNA, it’s who we are and it’s part of our process. It’s actually the best I’ve seen in the teams I’ve been with.”

Of course all good teams are based on data. Beyond that, Turner distills the Dodgers’ particular strengths down to “depth and matchups.”

Well, that and relatively unmatched economic power.

“They do a really good job of putting people in a position to be successful here,” he said. “So not only do they have the depth from the development, they spend the money and all that, but I also feel like the matchups and the way they use people is really effective.”

That’s a very long-winded way of saying look at the cumulative score. And a fairly cursory look at the behind-the-scenes machinations that make them possible. But since the whole point is to determine the top teams, it’s worth thinking that on a certain scale, the answer and the evidence are indisputable. There will be plenty of good stories in October this year, mostly based on long droughts and toothless finishes. Plus, two teams with the best cases to be there — and that can be fun, too.

Just ask Trey Mancini, whose career with the Baltimore Orioles included plenty of losses in service of what is hopefully an Astros-like future before he was traded to Houston at the deadline. He recently gave a fascinating assessment of the vibrations inside a club accustomed to winning.

“It’s great,” he said. “I mean, it’s awesome.”

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