Some years the World Series comes down to the most famous player on the roster, and some years it comes down to the least famous.
If we knew which it would be this year, we could narrow our attention to that one part of the field. But the nature of baseball is just the opposite: You have to watch them all, never knowing who’ll be up — in the pen or at the plate — when the Series is being decided.
Here is your guide to all 56 players on the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays in the 2020 World Series, organized by how prominently each should figure into his team’s hopes and plans. We’ll update as needed when teams announce their World Series rosters. Game 1 is Tuesday (8:09 p.m. ET, Fox) at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.
1. Mookie Betts, RF, Dodgers
Betts and Mike Trout — let’s call them tied as the co-best players in the game — are remarkably similar in their all-around greatness, but they look like entirely different machines out there: Trout’s legs chew through dirt as he moves, forceful and low to the ground, while Betts bounces, floats, glides and flies, a hoverboard to Trout’s earth mover. This Casey Stengel quote about Tommy Henrich captures Betts in an understated way: “He’s a fine judge of a fly ball, he fields grounders like an infielder, he never makes a wrong throw, and if he comes back to the hotel at 3 in the morning when we’re on the road and says he’s been sitting up with a sick friend, he’s been sitting up with a sick friend.”
2. Corey Seager, SS, Dodgers
It’s hard to radically reorient one’s career trajectory on the basis of a 60-game season, or a one-month postseason, but Seager’s powering up this year — the proverbial doubles having turned into the proverbial homers — takes him out of last winter’s trade rumors and puts him on the edge of a Hall of Fame track. Of course, it’s not really the 60 games or the one-month postseason that have us convinced he’s one of the dozen best hitters in the game, so much as it’s the years of expectations (as the game’s best prospect), of precocious genius (as the 2016 Rookie of the Year), all of it preparing us to be knocked flat the moment he started putting baseballs over the fence with regularity.
3. Clayton Kershaw, SP, Dodgers
In 2017, with his body just starting to diminish, Kershaw began the process of developing a new pitching plan to accommodate his lower velocity: more pitches down in the zone, more sliders and way more sliders in hitters’ counts — always throwing strikes yet never giving in. With an extra tick of velocity this year, and perhaps the benefit of working with a personal catcher again, Kershaw had one of his finest seasons, and his 196 ERA+ in 2020 is higher than any that Sandy Koufax ever produced.
4. Walker Buehler, SP, Dodgers
Incredibly for a teammate of Clayton Kershaw, Buehler was the clear ace of the Dodgers one year ago, but this year his control went a little bit backward — his strike rate dropped from 68%, near the top of league leaderboards, to merely average at 64% — and hitters elevated him a little bit more. Those are relatively minor things, though, and the way he worked out of jams against the Braves on Saturday — by firing fastball after fastball right past them — shows that he’s still an ace, and the pressure of the Dodgers’ annual postseason hopes increasingly fall on him.
5. Tyler Glasnow, SP, Rays
Glasnow’s size + velo combination is as intimidating as any in the game, and his K/9 rate would have set the all-time record for a starter in a full season. But at the same time, as the saying goes, big league hitters can time a bullet. When Glasnow fell behind in counts, he threw the highest rate of fastballs of any starter in baseball, and with the benefit of predictability, batters hit him for a .279/.464/.541 line, which was among the league’s highest marks.
6. Cody Bellinger, CF, Dodgers
Hit perhaps the biggest October home run, made perhaps the biggest October catch, became perhaps the best October meme — pretty good developments in what most fans had seen as a failure of a season. Bellinger has always been a bit of an odd home run champion, as he’s not nearly as strong as many other sluggers — he’s never hit a ball measured over 450 feet — but he knows how to hit home runs, knows how to catch contact at just the right spot, and if he lost that precision for parts of the 2020 season, he’s terrifyingly capable of finding it against the Rays.
7. Charlie Morton, SP, Rays
You can tell Morton’s plan this year was to get ahead in counts, because he had the league’s highest zone rate on the first pitch of at-bats, by far the highest rate of his career. But he starts ABs with an almost perfect representation of his broad repertoire — 35% four-seamers, 20% curves, 10% cutters, 30% sinkers and a splitter or two for luck — so batters couldn’t get too aggressive sitting on first-pitch fastballs. As a result, Morton got the benefit of all those 0-1 counts while allowing only eight first-pitch hits.
8. Will Smith, C, Dodgers
Smith, in his first two years as a big leaguer, has a .363 OBP and a .570 slugging percentage; Mike Piazza, in his first two full seasons, at the same age (25), had a .370 OBP and a .553 slugging percentage. Not saying, just saying, and also noting that Smith’s walk rate went up 50% in his sophomore season, his strikeout rate dropped by about as much, and he had the fourth-lowest chase rate in the game.
9. Nick Anderson, RP, Rays
In theory, the Rays’ first pick for any high-leverage situation this week, from the third (maybe second?) inning through the ninth, will be Anderson, baseball’s best reliever since the Rays acquired him in the summer of 2019. But he was totally unrecognizable in the American League Championship Series, with a 56% strike rate (down from a league-best 74% in the regular season), an 18% chase rate (down from 41%), an 11% whiff rate (from 37%!) and a .389/.476/.556 opponents’ line, down from .091/.138/.182 — a very visible and very obvious degradation that, troublingly, showed up not just once but in all three of his LCS appearances.
10. Willy Adames, SS, Rays
The Rays have faced some high-profile shortstops this October — Bo Bichette, then Gleyber Torres, then Carlos Correa, now Corey Seager — and Adames, over the past two years, has more WAR than any of them. It will be interesting to see whether the Dodgers (who shift against righties as much as any team in baseball) will shift on Adames, as over the past two years he has a .398 wOBA with the shift on and .302 without a shift — roughly the difference between Fernando Tatis Jr.’s offense and Francisco Cervelli‘s.
11. Justin Turner, 3B, Dodgers
They say baseball is a game of failure, but Turner never seems to fail, and just when you start to think you’ve seen proof that he is, in fact, aging, he disproves it. His isolated power this year was the lowest it has been since his first season in blue — aha, you think, decline! — but he is also a better overall hitter now than he was then, better at making contact, better at pulling the ball in the air, has better plate discipline and, according to exit velocities, is actually just as powerful.
12. Blake Snell, SP, Rays
You might have heard this fact and you’ll probably hear it again, but it’s really a staggering detail: Snell, a borderline ace in most folks’ assessments, hasn’t completed six innings in a start since July 2019, 20 starts ago — and hasn’t gone beyond the sixth since May 2019, 30 starts ago. His average plate appearance lasts 4.30 pitches, the most in baseball.
13. Brandon Lowe, 2B/OF, Rays
By wOBA, Lowe was the 24th-best hitter in baseball this year through the end of the regular season, but he’s just 60th if you keep the meter running through the postseason, as he managed just four hits — two of them infield hits, one of those a bunt — in the division series and ALCS combined. Despite just average speed, he’s one of the league’s most opportunistic baserunners.
14. Randy Arozarena, LF, Rays
Near as I can tell, Arozarena is still eligible to win the Rookie of the Year award next year, after he’s already won the ALCS MVP award. He’s a fantastic reminder that there are different ways to become a legend; Mike Trout has four career total bases in the postseason, while Arozarena — who has scored 24.6% of the Rays’ run this fall — already has nine postseason games with at least that many.
15. Chris Taylor, UT, Dodgers
Taylor earns most of his credit, deservedly, for starting semi-regularly at three or four positions every year and playing excellent defense at all of them. Give him bonus credit, though, for this: When he doesn’t start, he’s still excellent, with a career .303/.370/.530 line as a pinch hitter against an even split of righties and lefties.
16. Max Muncy, 1B, Dodgers
Muncy’s eye keeps getting better — he had the eighth-lowest chase rate in baseball this year, tucked right between Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon — and he improved his two-strike approach too, making more contact when he had to stay alive. A short 60-game season is going to snag some number of good hitters in the small-sample-BABIP trap, and it was probably no reflection of Muncy that he stepped in it; he hit under .200 this year, but the Dodgers keep batting him cleanup for a reason.
17. Yandy Diaz, 3B, Rays
The ground-balliest ground ball hitter in the age of fly balls, Diaz is 3-for-24 with nine walks this postseason, and he still hasn’t hit a fly ball. That’s been it in a nutshell for him this year, as he resembles the strongest, most muscular hitters in the game but puts up the valuable-but-weird slash line (.307/.428/.386 this year) of, like, Willie Randolph.
18. Julio Urias, SP/RP, Dodgers
Urias could start Games 3 and 7 — or start one game and show up in relief in one or two more — or just relieve a bunch of times — or, in some other accumulation of appearances, be in a position to win two more games this month, which would make him the first pitcher ever to win six games in a single postseason. He’s fascinating to watch in relief because he doesn’t simplify his approach at all, working with the same four-pitch mix in the same rough proportions that he uses when he starts — he just gets sharper with all of it.
19. A.J. Pollock, LF, Dodgers
In a 60-game microseason, Pollock dang near set a career high in homers — though the Statcast data keeps interrupting with coughs that sound a lot like “fluke.” Pollock’s 35 postseason at-bats have produced merely one lousy extra-base hit, a double in the first game of the wild-card series — though that’s still vastly better than his 0-for-13, 11-strikeout performance in the 2019 National League Division Series.
20. Dustin May, SP/RP, Dodgers
Some 323 pitchers threw at least 20 innings this year, and May — he of the third-hardest fastball in the group — ranked 304th in swinging-strike rate. It’s a reminder that the pitches look different in the batter’s box than they do at home, and May’s squiggly two-seam fastball makes for great GIFs but isn’t actually a strikeout pitch — nor, at the moment, are May’s complementary pitches.
21. Peter Fairbanks, RP, Rays
The Rays’ popup relief aces have been incredible this year, a storyline that is a combination of predictable (the Rays always do this) and unpredictable (who?). Fairbanks’ story — two-time Tommy John survivor, undistinguished minor leaguer, acquired in mid-2019 and now the high-K closer in an ALCS Game 7 — is especially predictable/unpredictable. A look at last year’s Rays popup relief aces (Colin Poche, Oliver Drake, Emilio Pagan, Chaz Roe) shows that the turnover happens fast, as each of those pitchers was either hurt, ineffective or some combination thereof this year, a reminder to enjoy Fairbanks’ star turn while you can, right now.
22. Kevin Kiermaier, CF, Rays
The king of the hustle double, and as good defensively in center field as Andrelton Simmons is at shortstop and Nolan Arenado is at third base, Kiermaier is as fast now (13th-fastest sprint speed in the game) as he was in his mid-20s. He got hit by a 99 mph pitch in Game 3 of the ALCS, and when he came back for Game 7, his swing looked … not even a little bit right, so we’ll see.
23. Tony Gonsolin, SP/RP, Dodgers
The story we tell about this peak Dodgers run has been their depth — how they have had qualified major leaguers at all 25 (now 28) roster spots, enough good players to fill a bullpen and a bench with quality, variety and professionalism. But Gonsolin was that depth, just another pretty good swingman who couldn’t crack the 2019 postseason roster, and this year he pitched like a superstar, with a 2.31 ERA and the majors’ fifth-lowest FIP, reminding us that the Dodgers also develop their “depth” into stars more than any other team.
24. Joey Wendle, INF, Rays
We all struggle sometimes with the question of what winning a baseball game or series actually accomplishes, what it’s for, why we care, why they care, and I’ve come to believe a win’s value is largely in providing grace to the teammates who failed. Wendle, a quietly valuable and versatile member of the Rays’ infield over the past three years, hit an awful — awful — .143/.217/.143 in the ALCS, and he has the Rays’ lowest win probability added this postseason, but instead of carrying that burden of failure around with him for the rest of his life, he got to celebrate and put it immediately and entirely behind him, 100 percent absolved thanks to the clutch greatness of friends. What sanctification!
25. Diego Castillo, RP, Rays
Castillo is the hardest pitcher in baseball to hit a foul ball off of, especially when he throws his slider, which he did a career-high 65% of the time this year. Whether that’s a skill or a quirk is up to you, as is Castillo’s great ERA/bad FIP performance this year out of the Rays’ bullpen; I will say, by the eye test alone, the ERA looks more correct than the FIP.
26. Kenley Jansen, RP, Dodgers
If you’re mostly unattached to any rooting interest in this postseason, maybe adopt Jansen as one of your favorites: Only four pitchers in history have saved more games for one team than Jansen has with the Dodgers, and three of them — Troy Percival, Dennis Eckersley and Mariano Rivera — got to get the final out in a World Series victory. Jansen briefly lost the closer’s job this month, hasn’t been nearly as dominant in the past three years as he was in the eight before, and might not be the pitcher the Dodgers go to in a close Game 7 — Dustin May or Clayton Kershaw or Walker Buehler might be — but, whether Jansen has a right to that moment or not, he deserves it.
27. Enrique Hernandez, UT, Dodgers
The Dodgers, for their huge payrolls, have not had the Shiny New Toy syndrome so common among the richest owners in sports, and Hernandez is one of 11 Dodgers on this postseason roster who also was here in 2016 — the Rays’ roster, by contrast, has two. Hernandez has never had 500 plate appearances in a season, never started more than 63 games at a position in a season and certainly has never been anything like a star, but the Dodgers’ roster continuity has put him in a position to frequently be a hero, a cult favorite and the hitter of as many postseason home runs as Joe DiMaggio.
28. Austin Meadows, LF/DH, Rays
In 2019, only 23 batters hit a baseball harder than Meadows’ max exit velocity; in 2020, six different Austins — Romine, Dean, Riley, Nola, Slater, Hedges — did so. Meadows showed better plate discipline but simply swung through and got under way more pitches, the result being that the lefty batter hit right-handers about as well in 2020 as he’d hit lefties in 2019, and he hit lefties about as well in 2020 as pitchers hit in 2019.
29. Manuel Margot, OF, Rays
When a lefty starts for the other team, the Rays’ outfield — with Margot and Hunter Renfroe flanking Kiermaier — might be as good defensively as any since the 2014-15 Royals. Margot is probably just on a hot streak, rather than being a whole new ballplayer, but since Aug. 9 he is hitting .299/.359/.461, a star-level slash line when combined with his speed and defense, and about what those prospect hounds expected when they were talking him up as one of the 20 best prospects in the game five years ago.
30. Ryan Yarbrough, SP, Rays
It’s hard to think of two pitchers less alike than Yarbrough and the Mets’ gargantuan high-velocity reliever Dellin Betances, but there they were, snuggling next to each other with the third- and fourth-lowest exit velocities allowed this year. Yarbrough’s average pitch this postseason has been slower than any other pitcher’s — he topped 86 mph once — but, unlike the common assumption that bleh-stuff innings-eaters are chum to postseason offenses, he threw 10 solid innings to help get the Rays past the Yankees and Astros.
31. Edwin Rios, 3B/PH, Dodgers
OK, he’s not full-on Arozarena-ing or anything, but Rios — 26 years old and, until recently, no more anonymous than the Rays’ ALCS MVP was — has hit .260/.338/.634 in his 139 career plate appearances, and he’s slugging .667 in his small handful of ABs this postseason. Of course, you and I know all about him, but he might be the best bet to go from zero to famous with a single swing this postseason.
32. Jake McGee, RP, Dodgers
McGee throws one pitch — a four-seam fastball — and he throws it one place — in the strike zone — and he does those two things (throw fastballs, and throw pitches in the zone) more than any other pitcher in baseball. Yet, like other pitchers on the Dodgers’ staff, he will periodically take off his hat and peer into it to see what the scouting report on the hitter is, suggesting that, just as a “blue” sky might contain infinite shades, so too does McGee — who struck out 33 batters and walked only three in 20 excellent innings this year — actually contain complexity.
33. Michael Brosseau, 1B/2B, Rays
I don’t know how many hitless plate appearances the devil would have to force on him before Brosseau would turn down the deal, but an 0-for-10 ALCS was a microscopic price to pay for starring in perhaps the greatest moment in ALDS history. Unlike some of the Rays’ other platooners, Brosseau doesn’t look overmatched against right-handers, with fairly similar contact, plate discipline and batted ball profiles. He does elevate lefties better, as Aroldis Chapman can attest.
34. Blake Treinen, RP, Dodgers
From July 4, 2017, through April 24, 2019, Treinen threw 134 innings with an ERA of 1.14, striking out 11 batters per nine innings and holding batters to a .178/.247/.238 line. Since then, he has thrown 80 innings with a 5.20 ERA, fewer than eight strikeouts per nine, and a .261/.345/.423 opponents line, so hold your breath.
35. Brusdar Graterol, RP, Dodgers
He’s got a cool trick — he throws 100 mph with practically no effort, looking like a bank manager throwing out a ceremonial first pitch, or like a guy without a belt trying to keep his pants from falling down — but is he good? He throws a ton of strikes — we like that — but in the home run era, it’s hard to fully trust anybody with a strikeout rate as low as his, since all contact is terrifying.
36. Ji-Man Choi, 1B, Rays
Choi’s offensive dip this year looks even worse when you realize how absolutely he was protected from left-handers, as he had the platoon advantage a league-high 93% of the time. During those favorable situations, he hit only .240/.344/.423, a platoon line barely worth chasing, especially since Brosseau could probably produce something comparable against righties. But then, just when you start having these ungenerous thoughts, Choi gets unspeakably hot in the postseason and puts such questions temporarily out of mind.
37. Aaron Loup, RP, Rays
All his career, Loup did what funky lefties do: go after the left-handed hitters, pitch cautiously (or scared) to the righties. This year, he went after righties, throwing a career-high 60% of his pitches to them in the zone (up from 48%) and getting a career-high 70% strikes against them (up from 63%), the result being his best season since his rookie campaign in 2012.
38. Austin Barnes, C, Dodgers
A pitcher once told me that it’s not so much who your personal catcher is as much as that you have only one catcher to work with, somebody who is predictable, gets to know your rhythms, and provides the familiarity of routine. Barnes is just now emerging as Clayton Kershaw’s catcher — side note: Kershaw has been around long enough that Brad Ausmus caught him nine times — and if it’s too much to credit him specifically with Kershaw’s great bounce-back season, it also makes the Dodgers look wise for keeping such a steady backup catcher around.
39. Joc Pederson, OF, Dodgers
Everybody knew this was the wrong season to get off to a slow start — no time to correct the record — and Pederson was no worse this year than he was during the first two months of 2017 or the first two of 2018. He finished 10th in the majors in exit velocity and 10th from the bottom in BABIP.
40. Adam Kolarek, RP, Dodgers
Since the Dodgers acquired him in July 2019, Kolarek has allowed only 10 runs, but five of them have come this October. He held lefties to a .113/.137/.141 line in the regular season, and the Rays’ lineup — lefty-heavy, but strangely also lefty-mashing — should give him some chances at redemption.
41. Hunter Renfroe, RF, Rays
There are a lot of good hitters who mostly whiff or homer, and it can feel weird to hear people complain about it; when it works, it works, and why should a hitter do anything other than what works? I think the reason for the complaints is that we intuitively know just how bad these hitters are going to look when it stops working, when a slump or a bad season springs up, when age takes its toll, when a good pitching staff comes to town, or whatever. It looks like Hunter Renfroe hitting .156/.252/.393 as the Rays’ right fielder this year, and then it further looks like Renfroe going 3-for-15 with one dinger and nine K’s in October. It looks like being lost.
42. John Curtiss, RP, Rays
The Phillies and Angels had the worst and ninth-worst bullpen ERAs in baseball this year, while the Rays had the third best — and yet the former two both released Curtiss midseason last year, while the Rays somehow found room for him on this year’s postseason staff. Curtiss pounded the strike zone this year on his way to a 1.80 ERA, walking only three batters (plus four in October) and earning the seventh-highest swing rate in baseball. There’s a good chance he won’t be on the Rays’ staff this time next year, but the two GMs who released him last year have already lost their jobs, soooooo …
43. Victor Gonzalez, RP, Dodgers
Gonzalez, a 6-foot lefty with great peripherals in his rookie season, allowed exactly one run in July, exactly one in August, one in September and has allowed his one for October — and, ergo, is a mortal lock to throw nothing but scoreless innings this World Series (unless even more unforeseen circumstances push it into November). This should arguably push him higher on this list, but I defer to the assessments of the Dodgers, who know all this about him yet have used him mostly in lower-leverage situations.
44. Aaron Slegers, RP, Rays
In hitters’ counts against Slegers this year, batters hit .000/.176/.000 — but, then, a lot of weird statistical things happened in this short year, and there’s no reason to think Slegers would be unhittable on 3-1 but extremely hittable on 3-2. That said, he’s the second-tallest pitcher in major league history, he’s got some freaky angles going on, and despite mediocre velocity, he gets hitters to swing at everything while (according to Statcast) rarely squaring anything up.
45. Pedro Baez, RP, Dodgers
Baez signed with the Dodgers organization one year after Kershaw did, which I think fairly makes him — along with Kershaw — the face of the franchise. That’s a joke, of course, but while his reputation among Dodgers fans and casual October viewers alike is not super positive — an eighth-inning failure is easier to recall a half-decade later than a scoreless inning — he has made 28 postseason appearances, has a positive win probability added in those appearances, and hasn’t looked shaky at all this fall.
46. Jose Alvarado, RP, Rays
Alvarado’s fastball is thrilling, its swerving movement evoking the sudden jags of careless Etch-A-Sketching. Alas, he can’t control it at the moment, and (if a moment is about one second) he really hasn’t been able to control it for the past 47,304,000 moments.
47. Joe Kelly, RP, Dodgers
Every baseball player mixes good results with bad — e.g., “1-for-4” — which we assume is just the natural expression of probabilities but could actually mean that they’re all going through an endless and oppressive cycle of tiny slumps and tinier hot streaks, swiveling between great at baseball and terrible at baseball every few innings. I don’t really believe this about them, except when it comes to Joe Kelly, who is either really good or really bad at all times, but in such a self-interrupting sequence that it can never, ever be possible to know whether Joe Kelly is, at this current moment, good.
48. Dylan Floro, RP, Dodgers
In the old days, when there were 25-man rosters, Floro might well have been left off this World Series roster, as the Dodgers really use him only in the lowest-leverage spots. That would have robbed him of the chance to, perhaps, get revenge on the team that waived him in 2017.
49. Ryan Thompson, RP, Rays
Thompson does one thing and one thing only: He keeps the ball down. Every team used to have a reliever like this in the pen, somebody to bring in to get the double play in the seventh, but nowadays even the “keeps the ball down” guy is prone to allowing too many home runs, as Thompson did.
50. Mike Zunino, C, Rays
Zunino’s performance brings to mind an old and relatable quote from the Astros’ Doug Rader: “Everything is so damned different when you’re with a club up on top.” Zunino never walks (six all year, including the postseason) and rarely hits (.170 in 2020), but when you’re with a club on top, the hits you do get matter, and so Zunino has a .231 postseason OBP yet feels like he has been totally indispensable in at least four Rays victories.
51. Yoshi Tsutsugo, DH, Rays
About 8% of the pitches Tsutsugo saw this year were curveballs, while 23% of his hits came on the pitch. Take away the curves and he hit .171/.299/.343 as a major league rookie. Want to guess which pitch teams have thrown him only once this postseason?
52. Shane McClanahan, RP, Rays
A first-round pick in 2018, McClanahan would have spent a normal year pitching at Double-A for a couple of months and, if that went well, debuting in July in Tampa Bay. In this year, he made his major league debut in the ninth inning of a postseason game (albeit a blowout) against the Yankees, and he has since appeared twice more to fire 100 mph gas from the left side in (relatively) low leverage.
53. Matt Beaty, PH, Dodgers
Bat flips are fine, but action-guy wordplay is even better, which is why we should hope Beaty — a Snellville, Georgia, native who has one hit since August — somehow bats against Blake Snell. If he homers, he can scream, “Welcome to Snellville; Population: Me!” or some such.
54. Josh Fleming, SP/RP, Rays
Imagine going 5-0 with a 2.78 ERA, more innings per start in the regular season than your team’s Game 1 postseason starter, the sixth-best ground ball rate in baseball and a better WHIP than any other starter on the team, but then being left off the postseason roster entirely. Dear reader, this really happened to Fleming, a low-whiff-rate rookie who was determined to have little tactical value in a loaded bullpen — until the smooshed-together postseason schedule caught up to the Rays and forced them to call back Fleming to be their long man in the ALCS.
55. Alex Wood, RP, Dodgers
Wood is on hand just in case the Dodgers fall behind 7-0 or jump ahead 12-0 — and if they do both on back-to-back days, then Wood will pitch both days, as he did in the NLCS, throwing 40 pitches on a Tuesday and then 29 on Wednesday. It’s hard to believe Wood, a Dodgers stalwart from as far back as the Don Mattingly days, is only 29, having already seemingly spent his career.
56. Michael Perez, C, Rays
Neither Perez nor his playing-time rival, Zunino, has been on base even a quarter of the time this year, and starting Zunino — who just swings hard in case he hits it — is the teamwide version of “just swing hard in case you hit it.” But Zunino led the league with five passed balls this year, has a troubling five more in just 105 postseason innings, and for his career has allowed passed balls or wild pitches about 50% more often than Perez, so if things get fidgety, there could still be a path to playing time for Perez this week.
Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home
On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.
Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.
Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.
The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.
“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”
Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.
“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.
Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.
“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”
The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.
“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”
That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.
The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.
On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”
There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.
“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”
For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.
“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”
Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.
“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”
There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.
“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”
Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.
Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.
“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”
With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.
“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”
Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.
Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment
The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.
Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.
“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.
The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.
Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.
“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.
Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”
The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.
Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.
“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”
Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.
The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls
With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.
At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.
What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast
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