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The Rays are changing baseball forever. Here’s how their front office thinks

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When the Tampa Bay Rays first tasted success, reaching the 2008 World Series after just 10 years in existence, then-manager Joe Maddon would often remind his team that the franchise was still in its infancy.

“We are where some other teams were 100 years ago,” Maddon would say. “We’re writing history. We’re the first chapters of that history that people are going to look back on.”

The Maddon-led Rays lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in that Fall Classic, and the team has still never won a championship — under him or any manager — but after all of these years, dating back to the team’s inaugural season in 1998, the time could be now to change franchise history forever.

Win or lose this week, though, the American League champion Rays have long been changing baseball history with an innovative approach to team building, led by a brain trust whose members have now spread to front offices across Major League Baseball — including to the team they just beat in the American League Championship Series, the Houston Astros, and the team they’re battling now for the Commissioner’s Trophy, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Now in 2020, the brainiest baseball team in the bigs is four wins from its first title.


“Are we doing things the right way?”

Between meetings, between conference calls, this question has long bounced around the baseball operations offices of the Rays. Under the leadership of former Wall Street analyst Andrew Friedman — who in 2014, after a decade with the team, left to become the president of the Dodgers — the group developed a reputation for maximizing the potential of its players, creating a strong farm system and making shrewd trades. It helped produce stars like super-utility man Ben Zobrist and ace Chris Archer — flipping the latter a couple of seasons ago for two of the most important members of this year’s pennant-winning club, 6-foot-8 righty Tyler Glasnow and outfielder Austin Meadows.

Tampa Bay hasn’t always succeeded, particularly in an AL East that features perennial winners in the big-spending New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, but for the Rays doing things the right way — in a new way — has meant embracing the opener in their rotation, using extreme shifts and sometimes even a fourth outfielder. Despite a payroll that ranks 28th in MLB, ahead of just the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Baltimore Orioles, that philosophy — along with a reputation for outsmarting other teams in trades and tactics — has long brought the Rays respect. Now it has brought them back to the World Series.

With a roster that has few, if any, household names, the hallmark of the 2020 Rays — as it has been for the club for many years — is depth.

“Working with Andrew Friedman, depth was always something that was critical to our organization,” Erik Neander, the senior vice president of baseball operations and general manager, told ESPN.com earlier this year. “For health and also for unexpected performance in both directions. Depth is a way to have guys who can surprise you in pleasant ways. In this division, we usually don’t bully clubs with the top of our roster. It’s really about flattening the talent slope from spots five through 40, making sure we’re strong there.”

After Friedman’s departure, the unorthodox approach to franchise building and willingness to stretch the impact of analytics on the field continued with an all-star quartet of executives, including Neander, who was named MLB’s 2019 Executive of the Year. Matthew Silverman started his career at Goldman Sachs, where he helped Rays owner Stuart Sternberg structure his bid for the team before being hired as its president. Senior vice president of baseball operations (now Red Sox chief baseball officer) Chaim Bloom wrote for Baseball Prospectus before joining the Rays as an intern. Current Astros general manager James Click also rose from Baseball Prospectus writer to intern, then all the way to vice president of baseball operations with Tampa Bay. Together, they developed a front-office culture where decisions were collaborative, nontraditional ideas were embraced and negative reaction from others outside the organization was largely ignored.

“Try to appreciate the strengths a player possesses at any given moment. … You don’t necessarily know what [paths] they’re going to take, but the more options, the more possibilities, the more you have a chance for them to take that step. It’s easy on any given player to focus on what they can’t do, especially prospects.”

Rays GM Erik Neander on scouting and developing players

Not that being in St. Petersburg, Florida, hurt. While the front office sometimes faced blowback from the national media regarding some of its forward-thinking moves, the lack of the daily scrutiny found in larger markets like Boston, New York, Philadelphia or Los Angeles meant more room for experimentation, according to former Rays executives — not to mention the necessity to be creative with money. That relative freedom is something Rays alums say they’ve come to appreciate after moving on to bigger markets.

In recent years, the success of Tampa Bay brought attention to Bloom, who interviewed with the Phillies, Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, San Francisco Giants and New York Mets before taking the job in 2019 running the Red Sox. All of the final four teams in this year’s playoffs — the Astros (Click), the Braves (team president Alex Anthopoulos worked under Friedman in L.A.), the Dodgers and, of course, Tampa Bay — have roots and ties to the Tampa Bay organization. Now, Friedman faces off for a World Series title against a team he knows as well as anyone.

“Obviously, I have close personal relationships, my closest friends, but my focus is what we’re doing here. We came back down from 3-1 and our focus is on tonight, and now our focus is four more wins,” Friedman told Tom Verducci after the Dodgers won the NLCS.

Said Click to the Houston Chronicle, about facing his former team in the ALCS: “On a scale of zero to weird, it’s pretty weird.”

Click also told the Wall Street Journal: “The ability to create your own talent is always going to be a huge mover. It’s something that the Rays obviously do exceptionally well. It’s something the Dodgers do exceptionally well.”

With smarts, the ability to fly under the radar to a degree and financial restraints that would often necessitate innovation, ideas that would start as watercooler topics — hypotheticals thrown around for fun with coworkers — have turned into radical ideas actually implemented by the Rays on the field.

One of the more recent radical ideas: hiring baseball’s first process and analytics coach and giving him a spot in the dugout. Jonathan Erlichman, a former math major at Princeton — nicknamed J-Money by Friedman for his conspicuously sharp dressing in his early days with the team — rose from Toronto Blue Jays intern to the Rays’ director of analytics before being named to the coaching staff prior to the 2019 season.

Most famously, before the 2018 season, the Tampa Bay front office, under the leadership group of Silverman, Bloom and Neander, wondered whether having a five-man rotation and a traditional bullpen with a closer was the best way to maximize the talent of their roster.

The opener was born — and suddenly, the entire weight of an idea would fall onto the shoulders of then-35-year-old right-hander Sergio Romo. After experimenting by using more under-the-radar relievers like Andrew Kittredge, Ryan Yarbrough and Yonny Chirinos to start games early in the season, the Rays saw Romo, with nearly 600 appearances under his belt, as a way to legitimize the practice. Romo carried the career pedigree of a top reliever who closed out a World Series and, just as importantly, seemed open-minded about the idea.

On May 19, 2018, Romo struck out Zack Cozart, Mike Trout and Justin Upton of the Los Angeles Angels in a perfect first inning. The Rays won the game 5-3. Romo started again the next day, throwing a scoreless 1⅓ innings, though Tampa Bay lost 5-2.

Some saw the opener as the latest savvy experiment by the analytical Rays. Other more traditionalist baseball fans criticized the team’s lack of closer and set rotation. Among the most pointed criticism came from an elite big league starter: Astros righty Zack Greinke.

“It’s really smart, but it’s also really bad for baseball,” Greinke, then with the Arizona Diamondbacks, told Bleacher Report’s Scott Miller. “There’s always ways to get a little advantage, but the main problem I have with it is you do it that way, then you’ll end up never paying any player what he’s worth because you’re not going to have guys starting, you’re not going to have guys throwing innings. You just keep shuffling guys in and out, so nobody will ever get paid.”

It worked well enough that Tampa Bay kept the practice up for the rest of the season. That year, Tampa Bay was the only team to use an opener in the double digits, employing the strategy in 41 games. In 2019, six teams used openers in double-digit games, led by the Rays at 57 times. What started as a fringe strategy had become mainstream, particularly in the playoffs. This October, the Yankees attempted to use an opener to trick Tampa Bay in the ALDS, starting rookie righty Deivi Garcia before bringing in J.A. Happ in the second inning of Game 2 — a move that ultimately backfired.

With a rotation topped by the talents of 2018 Cy Young winner Blake Snell, Glasnow and Charlie Morton, the rest of the Rays’ Swiss Army knife pitching staff has been tasked with simply getting outs, regardless of situation or inning.

That philosophy has shaped the rest of the Rays’ roster.

“Try to appreciate the strengths a player possesses at any given moment,” Neander said. “Try to keep the focus there. Try to think about the paths to further development. You don’t necessarily know what they’re going to take, but the more options, the more possibilities, the more you have a chance for them to take that step. It’s easy on any given player to focus on what they can’t do, especially prospects.”

The Mariners saw Ryan Yarbrough as a soft-tossing lefty minor leaguer with little upside. The Rays saw a pitcher who, with his plus control, could be an up-and-down guy at the minimum. The Rays got Yarbrough and Mallex Smith for Drew Smyly (who promptly got injured). Meanwhile, Yarbrough added a cutter to help against righties, and that has become his best pitch as he has gone 28-16 with a 3.94 ERA over three seasons.

“The fact is that when everyone gets traded, the first thing they say is they do extremely well at developing pitchers, and the fact that I come over and we were able to hone some things and figure out some ways to get better, it was the truth,” Yarbrough said. “It was a great job, and you can see all of the guys who have come up through the years and had a lot of pitching success.”

“We’re good because we have good players and we really work hard to get them in the right positions to be successful and win you games. But the bottom line is that you don’t get to this point and you don’t have a record that we have without having good players.”

Rays manager Kevin Cash

The Rays acquired Nick Anderson last season from the Marlins with Trevor Richards for outfield prospect Jesus Sanchez and reliever Ryne Stanek. The Marlins figured they would cash in on a 28-year-old rookie reliever they had acquired for next to nothing from the Twins. The Rays saw a pitcher, who no matter his circuitous route to the majors (including time in independent ball) had great stuff and the potential to be one of the best relievers in baseball. Anderson has a 1.43 ERA in the regular season since that trade, with 67 strikeouts and just five walks in 37 2/3 innings.

The Pirates had grown frustrated with Meadows and Glasnow, even though both were once regarded as top-20 overall prospects. Meadows had been injury-prone in the minors, and the Pirates had given up on Glasnow as a starter due to control problems. The Rays saw two talented — and still young — players who perhaps just needed a change of scenery. They got the pair for Archer in 2018, in what looks like one of the best trades of the past few years.

Yandy Diaz had just one home run in 265 at-bats with Cleveland in 2017-18, plus he was blocked at third base by Jose Ramirez. The Rays saw a player who had big exit velocity, plate discipline, could play third or first and just needed to add some loft to his swing. They got Diaz in a three-way deal, giving up Jake Bauers. Diaz has hit .278/.365/.451 with a 121 OPS+ with the Rays — the perfect complementary player.

When asked about his relationship with the team’s front office, manager Kevin Cash — a former journeyman catcher for teams including the Rays, Red Sox and Yankees, and who later served as a Toronto Blue Jays scout and then Cleveland’s bullpen coach — described the dynamic as “a collaboration,” noting a running conversation between the player development, scouting, front office and coaching groups, with ideas pitched — and heard — from all sides.

“That’s where Erik Neander and his staff do such a good job of bringing that all together,” Cash said. “You watch Erik and how he goes about his day, and we’re around each other a lot right now in this bubble, but for every single conversation he has with a scout, he has with an R&D guy. He’s trying to pull as many thoughts together as possible so we can make really good decisions on the baseball field.”

The results of this year’s playoffs bear the fruit of this work, with outfielder Randy Arozarena tearing up fastballs left and right and part-time players like Mike Brosseau coming through with a series-defining home run against the Yankees in the ALDS. The Rays have long needed to find value between the cracks, spending significant time scouting a player’s personality and character to supplement any interest sparked by the analytics.

Cash said that the approach to roster building shaped an underdog mentality within the clubhouse, with many players overlooked by other teams finally getting an opportunity with the Rays. He typically finds that when a player joins Tampa Bay, it doesn’t take very long for him to buy into the team’s culture. And while Cash understands how analytics shaped the reputation of his team, that doesn’t define the players in his clubhouse.

“I don’t think we outsmart clubs,” Cash said. “We’re good because we have good players and we really work hard to get them in the right positions to be successful and win you games. But the bottom line is that you don’t get to this point and you don’t have a record that we have without having good players.”


Maddon’s Rays wrote the first chapters of the franchise, but Cash’s team is now trying to start a legacy by winning a World Series.

En route to the franchise’s second Fall Classic appearance, Cash removed an All-Star starter with a big-game pedigree — Morton — in Game 7 of the ALCS after 5 2/3 innings and 66 pitches, and runners on the corners with two outs, eliciting immediate criticism of the move on social media.

Cash brought in Anderson, trusting that Tampa Bay’s process would bring another victory after a season in which the Rays posted the AL’s best record (40-20), trusting that his best reliever would get him out of the game’s most important situation instead of allowing Morton to face Astros hitters a third time around. Anderson got the out, and three innings later, the Rays celebrated on the field at San Diego’s Petco Park, with a ticket to Arlington, Texas.

When asked after the game why he removed Morton, Cash got right to the point.

“It was pretty simple. Third time through [the order], we value that. We value our process,” he said. “We believe in our process, and we’re going to stick to that.”

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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.”

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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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