The Dodgers Still Have the Best Record in the NL, but it Sure Doesn't Feel Like It
L.A. is winning (again), though it hasn't come easily.
I’ve been waiting to write about the Dodgers this week until they finished their series with Arizona. Patience was a good call, because they swept the Diamondbacks and looked like a completely different team than the squad that was boat-raced by the Phillies over the weekend. In this past decade of dominance, I really can’t think of a series where they looked worse than they did against Philadelphia. The Dodgers’ MLB-best pitching staff gave up 34 runs in four games, with Philly hitters taking on the bully swagger that Dodgers hitters usually bludgeon the competition with. A ninth-inning comeback on Sunday prevented not only a four-game losing streak but an S.O.S newsletter from yours truly.
"If the Dodgers can’t handle the Phillies,” that newsletter would have begun, “how on earth will they beat the Mets?”
Well, a lot can happen in three days. As I type this, the Dodgers have won four in a row, including sweeping the first scheduled doubleheader at Dodger Stadium in nearly 40 years. The Mets lost their ace and Long Game favorite, Max Scherzer, to a “high grade” oblique strain that will keep him for 6-8 weeks. (Scherzer injured himself during the seventh inning, on his 87th pitch of the evening, on Wednesday. It was so evident to him immediately that he had hurt himself badly that he turned to the Mets dugout and made a throat-slashing gesture to convey to his manager that he needed to come out of the game.)
So, on Saturday night it looked like the Mets were the class of the National League and the Dodgers were merely a team packed with superstars that had not yet jelled. Now, everything in the NL is up in the air again.
The Dodgers still look like a team chock-full of talent that has not yet coalesced. We’re seven weeks into the season and the team that was supposed to challenge the 2001 Seattle Mariners’ record of 116 regular-season wins does not yet look as good as last season’s club that only made it as far as the NLCS. Even the fan wearing the rosiest-colored glasses would not claim that this team has played to the level of which it is capable.
And yet. At 25-12 the Dodgers hold the best record in the NL, and are on pace to win a franchise-record 109 games. It sure doesn’t feel that way though, does it? Based on their run differential, the Dodgers’ Pythagorean record is tops, with the Yankees’, at 27-10—which suggests they’ve even been a bit unlucky. Perhaps their success feels shaky because they seem to either blow teams out or lose close games. The Padres entered Thursday two games behind the Dodgers in the NL West. San Diego’s closer, Taylor Rodgers, has already saved 14 games. L.A.’s closer, Craig Kimbrel, has only had seven save opportunities (he’s seven for seven). But Kimbrel’s impact has been so minimal (through no fault of his own) that sometimes I forget he’s even on the team.
While the Dodgers rank 5th in defensive runs saved, the team’s infield play up the middle has looked, well, awful. The Yankees pitching staff (2.83) overtook the Dodgers (2.85) in ERA this week. But the Yankees have allowed only five unearned runs all year. The Dodgers have allowed 16. Gavin Lux, in particular, has shown an alarming tendency to botch a play that leads to four unearned runs. Baseball is hard, and you won’t see me trying to field a ball hit 100+ miles per hour right at me. But these guys are supposed to make it look easy, and so far the Dodgers haven’t.
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Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten so concerned by the Phillies series had the Dodgers not just dropped two of three to the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates, a team they need to beat three out of three times every chance they get. Maybe the Dodgers just happened to run into a hot team in the Phillies, with a hitter like Bryce Harper, who’s the best slugger in the game when he’s on a tear, as he was last week. At press time, the Phillies have scored only three runs through their first 24 innings versus Padres pitching this week, but Philadelphia has been without Harper, who got an injection into a torn ligament in his elbow. Harper figures to be back on the field just in time for a rematch with the Dodgers in Philly this weekend (of course he does).
L.A. not giving up a billion runs to the Phillies this weekend like they did last weekend would make me feel a little better about where they stand right now, but I’m still concerned about the starting rotation. Clayton Kershaw’s return has been slowed by lingering pain in his pelvis. Andrew Heaney threw his first bullpen session on Tuesday since injuring his throwing shoulder, and is eying a June return. Ace Walker Buehler has a FIP identical to last year’s 3.16, but Julío Urías has not been himself. His 4.93 FIP is nearly two runs higher than last year’s (3.13), when he led the National League in wins and placed seventh in the Cy Young voting.
Tony Gonsolin has demonstrated he can keep the Dodgers in the game through five innings, and so has Tyler Anderson. But the team that would probably prefer to use a six-man rotation to give Buehler and Urías extra rest doesn’t even have five starting pitchers right now, let alone a half dozen. In two spot starts, the club’s second-best pitching prospect, Ryan Pepiot, has walked eight batters in just seven innings. (Top prospect Bobby Miller could debut this summer, but the Dodgers are too smart to rush the development of a future frontline starter and/or call him up to throw him into a position where it’s difficult for him to succeed.) Until Heaney or Kershaw’s return, expect TBD to get just as many starts as Buehler and Urías.
There are reasons for optimism, however. And the first is that this team has played nowhere near its full potential this season and still has the second-best record in the majors, three games behind the 28-9 Yankees. The second is that since Mookie Betts arrived before the 2020 season, his individual success has been the best indicator of the Dodgers’ fortunes. Betts uncharacteristically stunk to start this season, but he’s been raking lately. My friend Jay Jaffe wrote a great article on Wednesday about Betts’ turnaround, and I encourage you to read the whole thing.
The one guy who has not underperformed so far this season is Freddie Freeman, who has been the Dodgers’ best player. I’ve always loved Freddie’s game, but it took me watching him every day to fully appreciate his approach and consistency. I don’t know how you’re supposed to gameplan for a hitter with power who loves to whack opposite-field doubles while every other hitter is trying to pull home runs. And apparently, neither do opposing pitchers. Freeman’s .902 OPS leads all other Dodgers by nearly 70 points (Betts is second with an .834 OPS). Freeman also has as many walks (22) as strikeouts (22)—which in today’s game is absolutely insane. He sits ninth in MLB in wins above replacement at 1.8, but his steady impact on the Dodgers’ inconsistent lineup has made him seem more valuable than that. What I thought was a luxury signing back in March has proven to be vital: Freeman has carried the Dodgers through the season’s first seven weeks.
If Chris Taylor, Max Muncy, Trea Turner, Justin Turner and Cody Bellinger can at least bring their numbers up to their career averages, the Dodgers will overtake the Yankees as the best team in baseball, even with their rotation as battered as it is right now. But that’s a big if. Bellinger’s struggles over the past three seasons have been widely documented, so I don’t need to get into them here. At some point, the 37-year old Justin Turner won’t be able to hit at an All-Star level anymore. Muncy seems to be the Dodger most negatively impacted by the new deadened ball that MLB is using this year. Trea Turner is a much better hitter than what he’s shown so far. His .742 OPS is over 200 points lower than his .950 OPS from last year, when he won the batting title. I expect him to get hot soon.
And when that happens, with Betts and Freeman hitting in front of him? The Dodgers will start to look like who we thought they were when the season began.
Won’t that be fun?