The All-Star Game is almost upon us, bearing glad tidings, such as the fact that this will be the first in 15 years that will not determine home-field advantage in the World Series, and sad tidings, such as the fact that the regular season is more than half over. As a positive corollary to that latter fact, there are at least some things that have become much clearer with so many games behind us. One of these is that the Dodgers are, indeed, the threat that we envisioned when we they took first place in our 2016 year-end portfolio rankings.
This was not always the case, at least when you looked at the standings early on in the season. They were five games back in the division after their 20th game in late April and struggling around .500. Then they went 19-9 in May, 21-8 in June and, with a 3-1 record so far in July, they now have a 4.5 game division lead, the best record in the NL and almost as good a record (.663 winning percentage) as the best team in either league, the Houston Astros (.682 winning percentage), a team that folks can’t stop talking about (correctly so, I might add, as a native Houstonian). So it’s probably time to check in on the Dodgers, who haven’t exactly had an easy time of it this year, despite their record.
You Can Depend, Even When Thrown in the Deep End
Last year, the deepest lineup in the National League may have belonged to the Cubs, but they were certainly aided by the fact that they really only had to deal with Kyle Schwarber’s injury. Since we just went over the problems they’re having this year, they’ve relinquished their title and it’s pretty clearly the Dodgers can lay claim to it to this point. While the Nationals’ offense might be a smidgen better overall, at least at the plate, I’ll give the edge to the Dodgers for their defense and, most importantly, the contributions that they’ve gotten from players when injuries required it, which has been very often.
In the outfield, Andre Ethier has been dealing with lingering back issues and hasn’t played a game this season. Andrew Toles suffered an ACL injury in early May and is likely out for the year. Joc Pederson has missed substantial time as well. In the infield, it’s been more of the same. Logan Forsythe has only played in 49 games and Adrian Gonzalez hit the DL for the first time after 12 full seasons and has only played in 49. Even their best hitter, Justin Turner (.384/.472/.569, 182 wRC+, 3.9 fWAR), has only played in 61 of their 86 games.
Yet, despite all of the losses in the lineup, Dodgers hitters are leading MLB in fWAR and third in wRC+. They’ve gotten some surprising contributions, notably from Chris Taylor. Taylor’s .284/.369/.485 slashline (130 wRC+) has been a godsend for Los Angeles, as he’s ably covered for Turner while he was gone at third and has been even better than Forsythe (.247/.367/.333, 99 wRC+) at second. Enrique Hernandez has played every position except for catcher and has been good enough (.219/.309/.466, 105 wRC+) that the Dodgers offense wasn’t totally dragged down. What’s truly remarkable about the Dodgers’ lineup is just that there aren’t any glaring holes anywhere and when someone goes down, some perfectly adequate (or better) is ready to replace them.
Cody Bellinger: Dinger Winger Extraordinaire*
Certainly the loss of Gonzalez (and his 73 wRC+) could have been addition by subtraction, but that’s only if the Dodgers had an above-replacement-level first baseman ready to go. Which they most certainly did, in the form of newly-formed MLB dinger god Cody Bellinger. As expected from his numbers in the minors, he’s striking out a lot (29.8 K%, 11th in MLB), but his 29.6 HR/FB% (4th in MLB) and 24 home runs in 279 PAs mean that all is forgiven for his K-prone ways. As long as he keeps providing baseballs with the Bellinger Escape Plan** so they can find their way out out of the ballpark, he’s going to be a valuable player for the Dodgers and he’s just the biggest example among many of how the Dodgers lineup has gotten production wherever it needed it up and down the lineup.
*I know that the pronunciation of “Bellinger” doesn’t actually rhyme with “dinger,” but it looks pretty damn great.
** See, I know the correct pronunciation of Bellinger’s name after all.
My Vinyl Weighs a Clayton (But I Also Have Some Quality CDs)
Of course, the Dodgers have had serious issues in recent postseasons past unrelated to their lineup, namely because their pitching plan has seemed to consist of Clayton Kershaw plus Jansen plus ¯\\_(ツ)_/¯. This often entails Kershaw pitching an awful lot and on short rest and then screwing up and perpetuating the whole “postseason choker” reputation.
After his first season where he missed significant time (but was on pace to be his best season ever), Kershaw hasn’t been unquestionably the best pitcher in baseball this season, thanks to a newfound home run problem. He’s still been unquestionably one of the few best pitchers in baseball, though. But we’re not here to talk about Kershaw in this section, because he’s, well, still unquestionably one of the few best pitchers in baseball. Even with Kershaw however so slightly less of a deity, the Dodgers’ rotation is second best in MLB by fWAR (10.2), first by ERA (3.32) and first by FIP (3.59). That’s factoring in the fact that they’ve lost Julio Urias for the season and are, as always as of late, dealing with a lack of large number of innings from everyone except for Kershaw.
Alex Wood came to the Dodgers as part of the too difficult to explain here three-team trade in 2015 with the Braves and Marlins. His 2016 started off rough and, just as it looked like he was improving, was derailed by elbow issues. While he hasn’t pitched enough innings (80.2) to qualify since he started the season in the bullpen, if we lower the bar to 80 IP, Wood has the lowest ERA in MLB (1.67), the second lowest FIP (2.04) after Chris Sale and the lowest HR/9 (0.22). While his .254 BABIP certainly suggests that he won’t keep putting up video game numbers, his velocity has returned and he’s certainly looking like a more than capable fixture in the rotation.
The deal that the Dodgers signed Rich Hill to this offseason was a good one, with the cost reflecting the fact that, while Hill was one of the best pitchers in baseball last year, his age, injury history and lack of prior sustained success gave him a big old asterisk. While the early returns on Hill’s 2017 don’t look great (4.00 ERA, 4.23 FIP, 4.83 BB/9), his last few starts (19 IP, 4 R, 26 K, 6 BB, 1.89 ERA) have been encouraging, to say the least. While I was writing this, Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs published a detailed article about Hill’s new cutter, so I’ll put you in his hands there, but it suffices to say that there’s plenty of reason to optimistic about Hill going forward.
Brandon McCarthy looked like he’d finally gotten over the “yips” that he had last season and was off to a solid start until his most recent start on June 25 when he threw three wild pitches. He’s looked more like the guy Los Angeles were hoping for when they signed him a couple of years ago and hopefully he’ll come back from his current trip to the DL (phantom or not) and get back to pitching like the mid-rotation starter he was looking like. If not, the Dodger’s Pokemon approach to collecting high-upside pitchers combined with their gives them plenty of options to mix and match.
Jansen Like Nobody’s Watching
While Jansen is mainly in the news right now for trolling Dodgers fans about Turner getting an All Star snub, it’s not so long ago he was making news for his exploits on the field. After all, he didn’t issue his first walk of the season until July 25, after pitching 32 innings in 31 games. It should come as no surprise, then, that Jansen leads all qualified relievers in BB/9 (0.52). That he’s also in 6th place by K/9 (14.02) demonstrates just how impressive Jansen’s command has been this season.
When you have peripheral stats that good, positive results stand to follow, and, lo and behold, Jansen has converted all 19 of his save opportunities and has a 1.02 ERA (2nd in MLB) and a 1.05 FIP (2nd in MLB). All of this, along with the fact that he’s thrown his cutter 87.4% of the time, has inspired the Mariano Rivera comparisons to take new life (and perhaps they aren’t all that wrong). Regardless of where you stand on that, Jansen is clearly either the best or second best reliever (ahem, Craig Kimbrel) in baseball this year.
The rest of the Dodgers bullpen has given no cause to worry either, with Luis Avilan (who was also a part of that Wood trade) and Ross Stripling performing adequately enough even as they deal with inflated BABIPs. While it’s far too early to get excited, it’s not too early to get a little excited about Brandon Morrow’s excellent start (10.38 K/9, 0.69 BB/9, 1.38 ERA, 1.31 FIP through 13 innings).
Much like the Astros, who have gotten more attention for their impressive season (likely because they didn’t falter at the beginning) the Dodgers now have a 100% chance to make the playoffs in both the Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus projection systems. We know just how fickle a mistress postseason baseball can be and, while I’m not ready to order out my custom-designed Dodgers v. Astros World Series shirt (which might or might not start with this as a template) just yet, the Dodgers definitely look like the deepest and most complete team in the National League and may have even figured out the formula to getting over their oh so elusive NLCS hump.