Empires are built over generations, but they can fall in a weekend.
Not that an NLCS exit portends the imminent collapse of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who for nine years have ruled the National League as their personal fiefdom. Throughout those seasons—during which the Dodgers have been run like a soccer team owned by a Middle Eastern sovereign wealth fund—L.A. has made nine playoff appearances, reached the NLCS six times, and won three pennants and the 2020 World Series. Since 2013, they’ve won 61 more regular-season games than the next best team. They are not the brightest star in the night sky—they are the sun.
But to the surprise of every baseball fan northwest of the Chattahoochee River, that sun has been eclipsed—and rather easily, considering—by the Atlanta Braves. After finishing 17.5 games behind the Dodgers in the standings, the Braves won games 1 and 2 of the NLCS in their final at-bats; and following sporadic and well-timed offensive outbursts from Cody Bellinger and Chris Taylor that kept the series going, the Braves finally clinched at home in Game 6. Bellinger’s clutch home run in Game 3 and Taylor’s three-dinger performance two nights later were enough to put a scare into Atlanta. However, it was not to be a repeat engagement of last year’s 3-1 comeback.
This is a major upset by baseball standards; after the Dodgers survived the perilous one-game wild-card playoff and a grueling five-game NLDS against the 107-win Giants, they were the best team left in the playoff field by some margin. The Braves, by contrast, were one of the field’s weaker teams on paper, all the more so considering that they’ve been without superstar outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. since mid-July. Nobody—least of all me, in the interest of transparency—saw this coming.
But it’s easy to forget the tissue-paper-thin margins by which playoff baseball games are decided. A 17.5-game gap is huge, but not so huge that the Dodgers could withstand the combination of bad fortune and own goals that brought their season to a premature end.
The Dodgers came into this series without Clayton Kershaw or Max Muncy and lost Justin Turner, Joe Kelly, and Max Scherzer to injury along the way. That tested the team’s pitching depth, a problem exacerbated by manager Dave Roberts’s puzzling insistence on reshuffling his overarching pitching strategy in the middle of Game 2. Surprising and unnecessary relief appearances by Scherzer in Game 5 of the NLDS and Julio Urías in Game 2 of the NLCS left both pitchers looking dull and fatigued in their ensuing starts and Scherzer unable to take the ball at all in Game 6.
With a week to go in the regular season, the Dodgers’ no. 4 starter was Urías, a 20-game winner. A month later, Roberts penciled in bullpen games for three of his final seven games of the year. His starters recorded a grand total of four outs in the fifth inning or later in the whole of the NLCS, and none pitched into the sixth.
Not that the pitching staff is to blame. Without Muncy (and periodically, Turner), the Dodgers offense shriveled up like a severed Achilles tendon. They went 2-for-18 with runners in scoring position through the first two games of the series, both one-run contests, and 2-for-10 in Game 6. They put just two runners in scoring position total in Game 4. The 1905 Giants’ rotation would struggle to win under those conditions, even in this year’s low-scoring NL playoffs.
That just won’t cut it when Tyler Matzek turns into 2016 Andrew Miller. Or when Eddie Rosario—who, to illustrate the thin margins of baseball, was non-tendered by the Twins last winter and salary dumped by Cleveland in July—wins one game with his legs and two others with his bat.
You can’t no-show at the plate against a hot team and expect to win. You can’t hang belt-high curveballs on the inside corner or leave batting-practice fastballs up in the zone to hitters with power. You can’t boot routine fly balls in the outfield, and you can’t let your opponent get away with running the bases in a berserker rage.
The Dodgers know this. This is a roster loaded from top to bottom with smart, experienced players who have seen everything under the sun. They know, probably better than any other baseball team in the 21st century, that talent and effort are by no means sufficient when it comes to the playoffs. Perhaps for that reason, they’ve accepted this postseason’s bumps with equanimity.
And you know what? That’s probably a healthy mental state for an athlete to adopt—accepting that there are things outside their control that won’t go their way. Particularly because “failure” is a relative concept; many MLB players would at least lease their immortal soul to the devil in order to fail as the Dodgers have this year.
Of course, the Dodgers can be measured about this loss because they’re so accustomed to being right back in the same position every year. But they can make that assumption for only so long. Of the 44 major league players on the Dodgers’ active roster, postseason reserve list, or injured list, 11 will be free agents after the season. Some of those—like Cole Hamels and Danny Duffy—never actually suited up for the Dodgers this year, while the likes of Albert Pujols and Steven Souza Jr. will go down as afterthoughts.
But that group also includes Jansen, Kershaw, Scherzer, Corey Seager, and Chris Taylor. Scherzer has been the Dodgers’ best player since he arrived three months ago. The other four—Jansen and Kershaw especially—are synonymous with this prosperous period in Dodgers history: retire-the-number-level players who’d look downright profane in any other uniform.
Looking down the road, Trea Turner will be a free agent after 2022, with Muncy, Bellinger, and Urías to follow the next year. Justin Turner has one year left on his deal, plus a team option for 2023, but at 36 years old, the end will come for him one way or another.
The point of this is not to be alarmist; the Dodgers have Gavin Lux lined up to take over for Seager. They still have a strong farm system, and years after plucking Turner, Muncy, and Taylor off the street, they’re still one of the best teams in the league at player development. To say nothing of the fact that they’re still one of the richest teams in baseball and one of the most attractive free-agent destinations. If we’ve learned nothing else from the trades that brought Scherzer, Trea Turner, and Mookie Betts to L.A., it’s that superstars have never been a better value, and no franchise is better at acquiring them than the Dodgers.
Teams that contend year in and year out have to roll over their rosters. Take the Red Sox, for instance. The Boston team that just got knocked out in the ALCS has turned over about two-thirds of its regulars since winning the World Series three years ago. That team had almost no regulars in common with the 2013 championship team, and so on back to 2007 and 2004.
We’re used to this with the Dodgers, too: It wasn’t that long ago that Andre Ethier or Yasiel Puig seemed as integral to the team’s identity as Jansen or Justin Turner. Yasmani Grandal, Zack Greinke, and Hyun-Jin Ryu all walked as free agents. Kenta Maeda got traded. Chase Utley retired. The next man came up, and the big wheels kept on turning.
If the Dodgers continue to hold the financial, strategic, and pedagogical advantages that have sustained them for the past decade, they should be able to keep winning. And it bears mentioning that they don’t have to win 106 games every year—this season, they would’ve made the playoffs if they’d shed 22 wins and 140 points of winning percentage. They have room to regroup and rebuild.
But that’s a bigger “if” than we seem to be willing to contemplate at the moment. Dynastic powers—in sports, commerce, geopolitics—dominate their arenas until they don’t. And one of the fastest ways to turn power into peonage is to assume that historical advantages will endure as if by right.
So don’t overreact to this NLCS. Baseball is a zero-sum game, and great teams get outplayed over one week all the time. But don’t assume that the Dodgers will always be able to get back here so easily. Because great teams just as often decline without warning.