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How valuable is Betts? 25 ways he has made the Dodgers even better

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Let’s begin with a thought that has been conveyed — directly and indirectly — so often by prominent members of the Los Angeles Dodgers that it might as well be considered a statement of fact: Mookie Betts has exceeded expectations.

Now let’s consider why that seems so outrageous: Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, gushed fervently and uncharacteristically when he introduced Betts in early February. He joked that he had followed his career so closely that Betts should consider “a restraining order” and said Betts would “blush” if he heard the way Friedman talked about him.

Friedman gave up an exceedingly talented shortstop prospect and a young, controllable, promising outfielder for one season of Betts. Then he signed Betts to a 12-year, $365 million extension — the first nine-figure deal of Friedman’s tenure — before Mookie even played a game with the Dodgers, despite the bleak financial landscape facing the industry.

Then Betts exceeded expectations.

It wasn’t just the .292/.366/.562 slash line. Or the 16 home runs and 10 stolen bases in 55 games. Or the 3.0 FanGraphs wins above replacement (third highest among position players) and 2.46 win probability added (ranked fourth).

It’s that Betts went outside of himself, stood in front of a clubhouse stuffed with accomplished teammates he barely knew and stressed the importance of details before the start of spring training. It’s that he partnered with Justin Turner to huddle the team together before the National League Division Series and reminded everyone to stay together amid the challenges that awaited them. It’s that he made the mundane drills competitive, that he went out of his way to help Austin Barnes and Gavin Lux — and probably several others — with their swings, and that he set the tone for a lineup that has spent years trying to establish an identity outside of home runs.

It’s that he led in a manner that was sincere and organic, not forceful and contrived.

It’s that he backed it all up with action, seemingly every day.

MORE: Why the Red Sox traded Mookie Betts (ESPN+)

Practically everyone who observed baseball in Los Angeles this summer — fans, media members, coaches, executives, even players — had one similar reaction. It went something like this: I knew Mookie Betts was good. I didn’t know he was THAT good.

“I think the day-in, day-out consistency of what he does on a baseball field separates him,” Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw said after Betts seemed to do everything in Game 1 of the World Series. “You might see one game and not really appreciate Mookie to his full potential, but now that we’ve seen it for a full — well, COVID-shortened, but a full season for us — you kind of get to appreciate it.”

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts saw Betts drive a pitch deep into the left-center-field seats during a nighttime scrimmage shortly after baseball restarted and was stunned to learn someone so small (5-foot-9) could drive baseballs so far. Third-base coach Dino Ebel, who spent a long time working closely with the Angels’ Mike Trout, has often found himself in awe of Betts as a baserunner. Several Dodgers pitchers have commented about how they have never played with a more dynamic right fielder, and some of them shared a clubhouse with Yasiel Puig.

The Dodgers already were a dominant team, the season was only 60 games, and yet Betts made a profound impact that can’t fully be captured by numbers. You had to see it, experience it, every day. Below, we identified 25 ways in which Betts has influenced games in 2020 and divided them among his plethora of tools. (Statistical notes from ESPN Stats & Information)

Power

This postseason, Betts’ launch angle is 20.1 degrees. The league average is 12.7 degrees.

July 29: at Astros

Betts managed only five hits in his first 28 at-bats with the Dodgers. But with the score tied in the 11th inning of an emotional series in Houston, he turned on a 2-0 cutter out over the plate and drove it off the fence in deep left-center field, giving the Dodgers their second of three leads in an eventual win.

Aug. 7: vs. Giants

A swollen left middle finger kept Betts out of the starting lineup for the previous three games, but he returned in the series opener against the Giants, hit a double in the first inning and homered in the fourth, the first of four Dodgers home runs on the afternoon. It gave Betts four consecutive at-bats with an extra-base hit.

Aug. 9: vs. Giants

Leading by a run with two on and one out in the eighth, the Giants brought in right-handed reliever Shaun Anderson to face Betts. And on Anderson’s first pitch, a slider slightly outside, Betts lofted a home run over the fence in left-center field to blow open the game.

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Mookie Betts goes off for three home runs in the Dodgers’ dominant win over the Padres.

Aug. 13: vs. Padres

Roberts began the year batting Betts second against righties as a way to stagger his left-handed hitters, but Betts maintained that he felt more comfortable as a leadoff hitter. On this Thursday night, Betts returned to that spot for the first time in 11 days and hit three home runs in the first five innings, joining Johnny Mize and Sammy Sosa as the only players with six career three-homer games — and he got there a lot faster than they did. Betts never batted anywhere but leadoff again.

Sept. 13: vs. Astros

Fifth inning, one out, 0-2 count, Dodgers ahead by three runs, Betts goes inside-out on a low changeup and barely lifts it over the fence in right-center field. It was his 15th home run of the year — and his third in five at-bats against Zack Greinke to that point.

Sept. 18: at Rockies

Betts has a home run in the sixth, a two-run triple in the seventh — both with two outs — and seven or more total bases for the fourth time this season. Reminder: Betts gets at least nine games a year at Coors Field once baseball gets back to its normal schedule.

Arm

Betts ranks fourth in outfield assists over the past five seasons.

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Mookie Betts retrieves the ball in the right-field corner and throws an absolute strike to get Ketel Marte at third.

July 31: at Diamondbacks

Betts had three hits in this game, two for extra bases, but nobody remembers that. They remember The Throw. It was the first inning. Ketel Marte led off with a flare near the right-field line that looked like an easy triple. Then Betts unleashed a jaw-dropping 305-foot throw perfectly placed in Corey Seager‘s glove to nail Marte, who was covering more than 28 feet per second. Betts barely reacted. Just another day at the office.

Sept. 2: vs. Diamondbacks

Betts hit another big homer, tying the score at 1 with a drive to center field in the bottom of the ninth. After the game, though, Roberts made sure to mention his two quick throws to the infield that prevented baserunners from tagging up on fly balls — in the second inning with a man on third and in the 10th inning with the go-ahead run on second. The Dodgers won by a run.

Oct. 17: NLCS Game 6 vs. Braves

With the score tied at 1 in the top of the sixth, Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud led off with a liner to deep right field that one-hopped the section of the wall that sits about 330 feet from home plate. It looked like a sure double. But Betts retrieved it quickly and fired a throw to second base that reached 96 mph, forcing d’Arnaud to stop in his tracks. The Braves never scored that inning.

Speed

Betts was in the 87th percentile in sprint speed this season, covering 28.3 feet/second (MLB average was 27.0 feet/second).

July 23: vs. Giants

Betts was hitless in the first two at-bats of his Dodgers debut, but he forced a bobble on a semihard grounder to the left side in the fifth inning. In the seventh, after lining a base hit to left and requesting the baseball, Betts was on third with the infield in. He broke immediately on Turner’s grounder off the end of the bat, slid headfirst to barely beat the throw from Giants second baseman Donovan Solano, and gave the Dodgers the lead, igniting a five-run inning.

July 26: vs. Giants

With Betts on base in the third inning, Giants lefty Drew Smyly threw to first four times before firing his third pitch to Max Muncy. Muncy eventually struck out as Betts swiped second anyway, prompting Smyly to pitch around Turner with first base open and bringing up reigning NL MVP Cody Bellinger, who drove in Betts with an RBI single.

Aug. 22: vs. Rockies

Betts began the bottom of the first by fouling off a couple of two-strike pitches and laying off two others near the edges of the strike zone to work a walk. He went first-to-third on Seager’s sharp grounder through the left side, then immediately broke for home when Seager got caught in a rundown between first and second. The Rockies never even bothered to throw over. The Dodgers won by a run.

Sept. 3: vs. Diamondbacks

Another home run by Betts — a two-run shot in the eighth, the Dodgers’ third of the inning — and another subtle moment that probably was just as significant. With the Dodgers trailing by a run in the sixth, Betts led off with a base hit in the left-center gap and took second after an initial bobble by Rockies center fielder Kevin Pillar. On the next pitch, he scored on a single through the left side by Seager to tie the score.

Sept. 16: at Padres

The Dodgers became the first team to clinch a spot in the postseason on this Wednesday afternoon at San Diego, and Betts was a nightmare on the bases. In the first, he stole second and got to third on a fly ball. In the third, he stole second, advanced to third on a wild pitch and came an inch away from escaping a rundown on an initial break home. In the fifth, he stole second and advanced to third on an errant throw, then scored on a hit.

Sept. 19: at Rockies

This game provided the sequence that, to some on the Dodgers, defines Betts as a baserunner. He turned a tapper into an infield single, advanced to second on a wild pitch and moved to third on an errant pickoff throw from Rockies reliever Mychal Givens. Then, rather than assume the play was over, Betts kept his head up, maintained aggressiveness, and when Pillar casually threw the ball back into the infield, Betts broke for home. A run manufactured, all by himself.

Oct. 14: NLCS Game 3 vs. Braves

The Dodgers’ record-breaking 11-run first inning started with Betts, who barely legged out an infield single after the initial out call was overturned by replay. The Dodgers had a runner on to start the game while trailing the best-of-seven series 2-0. Considering they scored 10 of those 11 first-inning runs with two outs, it was a crucial one.

Oct. 20: World Series Game 1 vs. Rays

Pick any Betts moment from the World Series opener and you probably wouldn’t be wrong. Perhaps it was how he walked, stole a base — and won America a free taco! — then led a double steal in the fifth. Or maybe it was what happened immediately thereafter, when he broke home fast enough to barely beat the throw on a sharp infield grounder. Or maybe it was his opposite-field home run the following inning. As always is the case with Betts, it’s hard to choose.

Eye

This postseason, Betts is hitting .327 with a hard-hit rate of 60%, meaning balls hit 95-plus mph, good for sixth among 71 qualifiers, per Statcast.

Aug. 15: at Angels

Betts went 0-for-4 the night after his three-homer performance, then came right back and tied the score twice against the Angels — with a two-out, two-run single in the second and a leadoff homer in the seventh. The Dodgers went on to win by a run in 10 innings. Betts accumulated 21 two-out RBIs during the regular season, five shy of the major league lead.

Aug. 23: vs. Rockies

No big deal — just two homers, two stolen bases, three runs driven in and three runs scored in a rout over one of the Dodgers’ division rivals. The first homer, his 10th, came after not chasing a slider that tailed off the plate and to run the count full. Betts slugged .505 with two strikes this season, the second-highest mark in the majors. The league average: .309.

Sept. 1: vs. Diamondbacks

This marked the fourth straight game in which Betts worked a walk. He drew six of them over the course of that stretch and the Dodgers eventually scored in half of those instances — including the sixth inning of this game, which helped give the team its 27th win in 37 tries.

Oct. 6: NLDS Game 1 vs. Padres

Betts accumulated four doubles in each of his first three postseason games for the Dodgers. This one came in a 1-1 tie with one on and one out in the sixth. Betts notched the Dodgers’ first hit of the game with a ringing double down the left-field line. It forced the Padres to replace Garrett Richards with Matt Strahm and triggered the four-run inning that proved to be the difference.

Glove

In the past five seasons, Betts leads all major leaguers in defensive runs saved. He has won four straight Gold Gloves, and is a finalist again this season.

Sept. 10: at Diamondbacks

Betts started his first game at second base in six years. He came up as a middle infielder, and a couple of weeks earlier Betts told Roberts he would be happy to fill in at second base if an emergency situation presented itself in October. He was fine, as you might expect.

Oct. 16: NLCS Game 5 vs. Braves

It was the third inning. The Braves, a win away from the World Series, led 2-0 with one out and two runners in scoring position. The game was beginning to unravel for the Dodgers. Then Betts made an extremely difficult lunging catch on a sinking line drive right before it touched the grass and ended the inning with a double play because Marcell Ozuna broke from third too early. From there, the Dodgers scored seven unanswered runs.

Oct. 17: NLCS Game 6 vs. Braves

It was the fifth inning. The Dodgers, a win away from forcing Game 7, led 3-0 with one on and two outs. Ozuna drove a Walker Buehler offering to deep right field. Betts sprinted back, leapt off the warning track, twisted in the air and made a full-extension catch right up against the fence, high-stepping in jubilation shortly after coming down with it. The Dodgers didn’t score any more runs. They desperately needed that catch.

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Freddie Freeman hits a fly ball to the wall as Mookie Betts jumps to make the incredible out in right field.

Oct. 18: NLCS Game 7 vs. Braves

It was the fifth inning. The Dodgers, a win away from their third World Series appearance in four years, trailed 3-2 with one out and Roberts already was deep into his bullpen. Freddie Freeman hit a deep drive that looked as if it would sail over the fence. But Betts ranged back, timed his jump perfectly and stuck his glove over the 8-foot fence to rob Freeman of a home run. The Dodgers ultimately came back to win by a run. It was Betts’ third game-changing defensive play in as many days. And lest you think Betts didn’t contribute offensively with the Dodgers’ season on the line — he reached base via hit or walk in half of his 14 plate appearances from Games 5-7.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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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.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
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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.”

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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.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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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.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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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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