After a Devastating First-Round Playoff Exit, Where Do the Dodgers Go From Here?
L.A. won a club-record 111 games this year. But three October losses will define their season.
I wanted to take a day to absorb the Dodgers’ latest playoff unravelling before sitting down to write about it.
Not only because time tends to bring clarity, but because after the Dodgers were eliminated by the San Diego Padres on Saturday night, their fans didn’t react with the usual sadness, frustration, despair and every other whimper of a depressed fanbase made inconsolable by their favorite team’s October elimination nine out of the past 10 years.
There were no tears, no cries of injury injustice, and no “at least we wrecked the Giants season” this time.
There was only incandescent rage.
Rage at the best offense in the game for coming to bat brandishing what appeared to be whittled-down toothpicks with the season on the line. Anger at Andrew Friedman and his band of merry analytics geeks for overthinking and starting a barely-back-from- injury Tony Gonsolin in a pivotal Game 3 even though Tyler Anderson exists, because some proprietary data somewhere told them to do it.
And then there was the mob of Dodger fans who probably would have volunteered to pack up manager Dave Roberts’ house and move his belongings out of the state if it meant him never having to manage a game again.
None of these fans are wrong. The hitters stunk. And in a best-of-five series, you can’t have that.
Friedman stunk, and swung the series in the wrong direction by opting to throw a bullpen game in Game 3 despite the fact that burning a bullpen on the first day of a three-game stretch with no off-days is exactly what gets teams bounced from the playoffs (see: World Series, 2017).
Roberts was fine until, like what happened in Game 5 of the Division Series in 2019, the pre-game script went awry and he had to think and move fast with runners on base in the seventh inning and he wasn’t up to the task. We can sit here and second-guess managerial decisions all we want. (I actually didn’t hate him removing Tyler Anderson after five innings because the Dodgers bullpen has been the best in the business and the team was only up 2-0).
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But there are two things Dave Roberts did that are absolutely unforgivable with the season on the line. The first was bringing in Alex Vesia to pitch to Jake Cronenworth after Yency Almonte had already thrown Cronenworth a pitch. It’s only acceptable to bring in a reliever mid at-bat if the guy on the mound is injured. After the game, Roberts said the dugout had given Almonte the sign to throw over to first base to give Vesia some extra time to warm up, but that Almonte missed the sign and delivered a pitch home instead.
This is not on Almonte. With the season on the line, Vesia (a lefty) should have begun warming up when Tommy Kahnle walked the leadoff batter to begin the inning. There’s no excuse for him not being ready, and it falls on the manager.
The other problem, of course, is that the Dodgers’ best reliever, Evan Phillips, did not sniff the seventh inning. After the game. Roberts said he didn’t bring in Phillips with two out, runners on base and the season on the line because he was saving him for the ninth.
I’m really glad I waited 36 hours to write this, because this is the part where I’d start writing nothing but expletives. Evan Phillips was the best reliever in the National League this year. The Dodgers employ him. They did not use him when it mattered most. There is no explanation.
Do I think Dave Roberts should continue as manager of this team? It doesn’t matter what I think, because he will. He just signed a three-year extension earlier this season, and this Dodgers regime does not like to fire people. Remember, this is the same group that made former general manager Ned Colletti special advisor to something when they brought in Andrew Friedman to run the team. Firing somebody high-profile = drama, and they don’t like a circus.
So what we have in Roberts is a nice-enough guy who can apparently keep a group of disparate egos from killing each other for six months every year, but who, for whatever reason, cannot recalibrate the team’s GPS in October when things go sideways.
Back in January 2007 I was on assignment for ESPN in Minneapolis. It was 10 degrees below zero at 5:30 in the morning and I was late to catch a flight. My GPS kept telling me that to get to the airport from my hotel I had to go over this bridge. The trouble was, the bridge had just collapsed. It was pitch dark, and no matter how many times I tried to drive around the bridge in hopes that the Garmin on my dashboard would find a different route, it kept trying to send me over that bridge to my death. (I did not die, but I did get a speeding ticket for going 40 in a 25 on the airport grounds as I desperately tried to make my flight (I didn’t).
Before every playoff game, managers from every team huddle with their front offices and lay out a plan for winning that night. And in 99% of those games, a bridge collapses into a frozen ditch. and an alternate route must be taken. The only reason the Dodgers won their lone title in 2020 this past decade is because, for once, their path to 27 outs did not collapse in either Game 7 of the NLCS or in Game 6 of the World Series. And that’s because in both of those games Julío Urías was perfect in a role to which he’s not accustomed.
A starter getting nine outs at the end of a franchise’s biggest game in decades is the exception, not the rule.
As Billy Beane famously said when asked why his great A’s teams flame out in October, “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs.”
Apparently, neither does Andrew Friedman’s.
So, where do the Dodgers and their fans go from here? They’re still mad online as I type this, but L.A. drew an average of 47,671 fans at home this year, some seven thousand more than the next-best team, St. Louis (40,994). They were also the top draw in MLB on the road, too, averaging 31,104 fans to best the Yankees’ road average (30,418), This indicates that not only did the Dodgers put the best product on the field in 2022, they also have an enormous national fanbase.
Will these fans stop showing up next year in protest? I doubt it. Of course, Friedman and Roberts and Stan Kasten and owner Mark Walter wanted to win a championship this year, and I’m not suggesting in any way that they didn’t. But baseball is a business first, and Dodger business is booming.
Is there any reason to change the model when you’re making money hand over fist? If you run the Dodgers, can’t you just console yourself with the idea that winning in October is a crapshoot beyond your control and just focus on getting to October and throw up your hands when a far inferior team knocks you into an early winter?
After all, if that home plate umpire (correctly) calls strike three on Jake Cronenworth in that godforsaken seventh inning, are the Dodgers gearing up to face the Phillies in the NLCS right now?
One hundred and eleven wins will not define the 2022 Dodgers. Three losses will. This is the nature of October baseball, especially now that MLB has expanded the playoff field to 12 teams. I think I’m in favor of the additional wild-card spots, but to compensate for this, MLB probably also needs to make each Division Series seven games to help level the playing field for the top seeds. The Dodgers weren’t the only team that came out flat and got pulverized into March. The defending champion Braves were even worse than L.A., getting blown out 9-1 and then 8-3 in their two final games. The way the Dodgers and Braves played this week, they might have also lost in seven-games series.
We can debate playoff formats all off-season (and we will!) but the nature of the five-game Division Series is not why the Dodgers lost to the Padres. They lost because the Padres wanted it more. They lost because they suffered from multiple organ failure, from the front office to the manager to the hitters to their best relievers falling apart in that pivotal seventh inning on Saturday night.
I think (?) it’s better to be a fan of a team that makes the playoffs every year, even if that team crushes your will to live in 9 out of 10 Octobers. Being a fan of, say, the Cincinnati Reds or the Pittsburgh Pirates or any other team that cries poverty and trades away franchise cornerstones to teams like the Dodgers rather than pay them their fair market value seems atrocious. I also don’t know how Rockies fans cope.
But man, these October collapses are traumatizing. And something may be fundamentally wrong with the sport’s playoff structure when the three National League teams that won 100 games fail to advance past the first round.
If the Yankees get eliminated by the Guardians tonight, and we wind up with a Philadelphia/San Diego/Cleveland/Houston semifinal from TV ratings hell, something tells me that MLB might be magically motivated to change the Division Series structure to seven games, to give the big dogs more of a fighting chance, because money matters more to the owners than anything else.
I think it’s better to love a regular-season juggernaut, then watch them lose every October, than it is to love a plucky team that only makes the playoffs every 20 years and does not carry World Series-or-bust expectations (see: the 2022 Seattle Mariners).
But the way these Dodgers have inflicted crushing October pain on their fans this past decade, I’m not so sure anymore.