clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How to Beat the Best Team in Baseball

The Los Angeles Dodgers might have one weakness—but it shouldn’t be a weakness at all

Yu Darvish, Kenley Jansen, and Justin Turner Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Dodgers are overwhelming World Series favorites, which is saying something.

In any other year, we’d say the same about the Astros, who are on pace for 103 wins. Or perhaps the Cubs, who won 103 games last year, got the band back together, added José Quintana, and after a slow start have returned to first place, thanks to a 16-8 run since the All-Star break. Or the Nationals, who have four players with legitimate MVP cases. Or the Red Sox, who added Chris Sale to a 93-win team from last year and are, somewhat unusually, flying under the radar a little this year.

The Dodgers are not actually invincible—you only need to lose three times in five games to get knocked out in the first round, and the Dodgers have already lost three in a row three times this year. They’re on pace for the fourth season of 114 or more wins in MLB history, but two of the three historical teams they’re chasing (the 2001 Mariners and 1906 Cubs) didn’t win the World Series. The Dodgers can be beaten.

Dig far enough into the question of how it can be done, though, and the answer becomes intimidatingly unclear.

The Astros are on pace for 103 wins? The Dodgers are on pace for 114. The Cubs are 16-8 since the break? The Dodgers are 18-4. The Nationals have Max Scherzer and the Red Sox have Sale? The Dodgers have Clayton Kershaw and Yu Darvish.

They have the best team ERA+ (136) and, despite having a pitcher in their lineup, the second-best team OPS+ (108). Despite playing in a pitchers’ park in the National League, they’re second in OBP and fifth in runs scored per game. They’re 47-13 at home, 32-20 on the road. They’re 19-10 in one-run games and 25-5 in blowouts. They’ve played 19 teams this year and are undefeated against seven, with a losing record against only the Nationals. They’re 50-14 against teams with a sub-.500 record and 29-19 against teams with a record of .500 or better.

Baseball Reference’s splits page includes a stat called sOPS+, which is like OPS+, only it’s adjusted for league average within the stat, not league average overall. Dodgers pitchers have faced at least one batter in 276 different situations, split out by date, opponent, game situation, ballpark, leverage, and other factors—sometimes in combination. Dodgers pitchers have allowed a league-average OPS+ or lower in 253 of those situations, most of which are either infinitesimally small splits—a couple dozen plate appearances at most—or are themselves components of larger splits.

For instance, Dodgers pitchers are worse than average in retractable-roof stadiums (102 sOPS+) and at Chase Field (156 sOPS+), and their left-handed pitchers (155 sOPS+) and right-handed pitchers (156 sOPS+) are worse than league average at Chase. That’s four categories swung by a three-game series in Phoenix back in April, in which the Dodgers allowed 26 runs and lost two of three. Nine of those runs came in one inning—if Luis Avilán and Sergio Romo wouldn’t have allowed seven runs while retiring one batter in that inning, the Dodgers would probably swing those four categories. It would also probably put their opponent sOPS+ in the eighth inning (currently 101) back below league average.

B-Ref also splits out data for 238 hitting categories, and the Dodgers have an average or better sOPS+ in 192 of those. Some of the ones they missed on: They’re 0-for-2 when pinch-hitting for their DH, they’re hitting .150/.227/.250 in 22 plate appearances against starters on their fourth time through the order, and they have just a 13 sOPS+ on 51 bunts.

There are, however, some bigger splits in which the Dodgers are not only worse than league average, but far worse. But most of those present no tactical advantage: For instance, the Dodgers hit worse than average in losses (90 sOPS+). They’re also far worse than average from the fifth (73 sOPS+) and ninth (69 sOPS+) spots in the order, but 13 National League teams are below average from the ninth spot because they have a pitcher batting there. Even still, those lineup spot weaknesses do opposing pitchers no good because not only does the batting order change from day to day, but they have to face the other seven guys no matter what. The Dodgers’ top six hitters by plate appearances have an OPS+ of 100 or better, and four of them are at or above 140—there’s not really a way to attack this lineup as a whole.

There might, however, be a way to attack the pitching staff.

Hit Them Left-on-Left

The largest tactically exploitable split where the Dodgers are worse than league average comes on the defensive side of the ball. Despite having the best left-handed pitcher of the past 15 years, Dodgers lefties as a whole are allowing left-handed batters to hit .255/.326/.435 in 614 PA, an sOPS+ of 117. Whether 614 plate appearances involving dozens of pitchers and hitters across four months is generalizable is hard to say. But it does reveal an interesting tactical weakness.

In addition to Kershaw, the Dodgers have three other excellent left-handed starting pitchers: Alex Wood, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Rich Hill. Every single one of them has a reverse platoon split this year, meaning same-handed batters hit better against them than opposite-handed hitters, which is not the norm. Kershaw, Ryu, and Hill have severe reverse splits, all more than 250 points of OPS. That makes some sense for Wood and Ryu, whose most common off-speed pitch is a changeup—which frequently breaks in on right-handed hitters—but Kershaw and Hill are two of the most breaking-ball-happy starters out there, and by all rights ought to devour same-handed batters.

If everyone’s healthy, Kershaw, Wood, and Hill are probably going to make up three-quarters of the Dodgers’ playoff rotation. Come the postseason, Ryu will likely join a bullpen that was, until last Monday, righty-heavy. Avilán and Grant Dayton, who’s currently on the DL, were essentially the Dodgers’ only lefty relievers until GM Farhan Zaidi added two Tonys—Watson and Cingrani—at the trade deadline. That ought to help matters late in games.

But it’s not clear how much. Cingrani has a career 4.53 ERA as a reliever, which isn’t helped by his 6.04 ERA in 27 relief appearances this season. Watson, a low-arm-slot guy, is better, and for his career, lefties are slugging just .291 off the former Pirates closer. But he’s not exactly Andrew Miller, either; Watson’s ERA+ is his worst since 2012, and his strikeout rate (17.1 percent) is the lowest of his career at a time when the leaguewide strikeout rate is rising faster than ever. Watson’s outpitching his DRA by almost two runs, so he could regress, and if he regresses at the wrong time, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts might lose faith in him. Tuesday night against the Diamondbacks, he gave up a game-losing grand slam to Jake Lamb, who—you guessed it—bats left-handed.

Whether the Dodgers’ relative left-on-left weakness is exploitable depends on whether a potential opponent has a lot of good left-handed hitters. The Diamondbacks and Astros are both quite righty-heavy, and among the Cubs’ stable of lefties, Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber haven’t hit much of anything this season, though Anthony Rizzo is the second-best left-on-left hitter in baseball this year by wRC+ (minimum 100 PA).

However, the Nationals boast Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy, both of whom are better-than-average left-on-left hitters and among the best hitters in baseball overall. It’s not like it never would’ve occurred to the Nationals to get Harper and Murphy to the plate in big moments, but if they do, the Dodgers are going to have a tough time playing matchups with their bullpen.

Meet Strength With Strength

The only way to defeat an opponent with no weaknesses is to match strength with strength. Sun Tzu didn’t say that, but I bet you didn’t read The Art of War and would’ve believed me if I told you he did.

There is one opponent whose strength can match the Dodgers’ strength, and that’s the Houston Astros. Not only do they have the second-best record in baseball, but their offense has been just as eye-popping as the Dodgers’ pitching. The Astros’ team OPS+ of 136 leads the league by a much greater margin than Los Angeles pitchers’ ERA+ does. While the Dodgers have two aces and seven above-average MLB starters, the Astros have four hitters—Carlos Correa, George Springer, José Altuve, and Marwin González—with at least 340 PA and an OPS+ of at least 160. They have seven hitters with 250 PA and an OPS+ of 120 or better, plus Yuli Gurriel, who’s at 119.

And if you want to believe in some of those weird, small-sample splits the Dodgers have, the Astros play in a stadium with a retractable roof, and for three games, the Dodgers would be forced to use a DH, a position that’s hit .214/.313/.250 this year.

On Tuesday, ESPN’s Sam Miller dug into the numbers and offered the opinion that if your favorite team isn’t in the hunt, you should be rooting for a Dodgers-Astros World Series so we can see Godzilla and the MUTO slug it out. He’s right: The Dodgers’ pitching against the Astros’ offense would be a true heavyweight fight, baseball’s answer to Cavs-Warriors.

The reason the Astros, with their tidal wave of an offense, are still on pace to finish 11 games behind the Dodgers is that their pitching isn’t as good as the Dodgers offense. When Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers, Chris Devenski, and Ken Giles are all healthy and pitching well, Houston’s pitching is quite good, but those four guys don’t always click at the same time. In an Astros-Dodgers World Series, the Dodgers would be favored, but the gap isn’t big enough to make it a foregone conclusion.

Hope for Injury Asymmetry

The truth is, if the Dodgers don’t win the World Series, it will probably be the result of one of two factors. The first is general playoff shenanigans. Great baseball teams have fallen short of a championship for stupid reasons since before the phrase “Merkle’s Boner” was funny. No amount of preparation or team-building can completely insure against the Dodgers running into something weird.

The second thing they can’t insure against is injuries.

It’s kind of amazing that the Dodgers are where they are despite the injury trouble they’ve had. They’ve lost almost every starting pitcher to injury at some point, and Adrián González, Justin Turner, and Joc Pederson have all spent time on the DL, but they’ve made do.

Even so, much of this Dodgers optimism is predicated on Kershaw returning from his back injury in time to work back up to full strength before the NLDS. Kershaw’s recovery is going well, but his return is not a certainty. Nor is it a certainty that Brandon McCarthy, who’s on the DL with a blister issue, will return for the playoffs, or that one of the Dodgers’ five other starting pitchers—all of whom have sustained some injury or other over the past two seasons—won’t land on the DL on September 30 and screw up the rotation.

This isn’t a tactical advantage for anyone else: The Nationals are without Stephen Strasburg; the Astros are without Correa, Springer, and McCullers; and the Diamondbacks are without Robbie Ray. Injuries are part and parcel of the game. But they’re not distributed fairly across all teams, and if Strasburg comes back and Kershaw doesn’t, for example, that could shift the balance of power.

Of course, there’s nothing the Dodgers’ opponents can do, short of—Hey! Put down that crowbar right now!—to influence this situation, which makes it a potential looming obstacle for the Dodgers more than an advantage for any other their opponents.

Bust Out the Clichés

The Dodgers are 79-33 overall, but 29-19 against winning teams. That’s still phenomenal, but over a five-game series, that’s a 3-2 record. Over seven games, that’s 4-3. Several of the Dodgers’ potential playoff opponents have played them tough this year; the Diamondbacks are 5-6, with seven of those 11 games coming in Los Angeles, while the Nats took two in an extremely low-scoring three-game series at Dodger Stadium in June.

Baseball people are fond of sayings like “take it one day at a time” or “win the next pitch,” which are annoying and reductive, but also useful. A 16-inch pizza looks intimidating as a whole, but if you concentrate on one slice at a time, you can eat the whole pie in one sitting if you put your mind to it. That’s how you hope to beat the Dodgers. They have an advantage over almost everyone in almost every phase of the game, but no single advantage is so great that it can’t be overcome in a short series.

That sentiment probably won’t be particularly comforting to whichever pitcher Cody Bellinger blasts into the ocean in Game 1 of the NLDS, but the Dodgers can be beaten. Whether anyone can pull it off is another question entirely.

Stats current through Tuesday morning.