The Dodgers were the best team in baseball, on pace to challenge the all-time MLB wins record. And then, suddenly, they weren’t. Losers of 10 games in a row and 15 of 16—the franchise’s worst stretch since moving to Los Angeles—the NL West leaders are still a playoff lock, but no longer do they seem poised to rampage through the postseason en route to their first World Series appearance since 1988. For the moment, they’d be content with just winning a single game.
On Monday’s MLB Show podcast, Ben Lindbergh and Michael Baumann spoke with the Dodgers’ Los Angeles Times beat writer, Andy McCullough, who discussed the team’s slump and both its possible causes and potential ramifications. “This is a team that really was incredibly confident for the first five months of the year, for obvious reasons, and that confidence is just not there,” McCullough said. “And I’m not totally sure if you can get that back. … Something's been damaged with the mojo that needs to be fixed in the next few weeks, or it’s going to be a real problem in October.”
McCullough also broke down five explanations he hears from fans and readers as to the culprit behind the slump, ranking them in ascending order of likelihood. As the writer summarized, “They have played consistently terrible baseball pretty much in all phases of the game now for two weeks.” The question, then, is why.
Listen to the full MLB Show episode here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.
Possible explanation no. 5: The Dodgers haven’t been playing enough small ball.
“This is a common complaint among fans when players are struggling,” McCullough said, “and they're like, ‘Why didn't he bunt there?’ And I'm like, ‘Why would Corey Seager bunt?’”
The Dodgers haven’t changed their manner of play all season, from hitting philosophy to daily lineup changes to frequent rotation turnover. And no fans were complaining about those strategic decisions when the team was setting a record wins pace earlier in the summer.
Possible explanation no. 4: The team chemistry was destroyed when they traded for the Mets’ Curtis Granderson and demoted Joc Pederson.
Granderson hasn’t played well in Dodger blue since traveling cross-country to join the team in mid-August, but the player he replaced in L.A.’s lineup wasn’t doing much better before. “Joc Pederson was playing really poorly,” McCullough said. “He was hitting [.156] in the second half. I think he only had two homers. His defense has regressed. He's been hurt a few times. He was not a good player.”
“I would love to see a Venn diagram,” he added, “of people who tweeted at me complaining about Joc Pederson before he got demoted to people complaining that the demotion of Joc Pederson ruined the chemistry. It's probably just a circle.”
Possible explanation no. 3: Dave Roberts took his foot off the gas.
The Dodgers have had a hefty division lead for months; even after losing 10 straight, they still have a 100 percent chance of winning the NL West, per FanGraphs’ odds. The team “made a lot of decisions in late August based on having a 20-game lead in the division, and having a pretty comfortable lead for home field throughout,” McCullough said. Those decisions included giving Corey Seager more than a week off from fielding duties for an elbow issue, which is “something that you probably wouldn’t have done if you had a five-game lead in the division.”
Another example involves the team’s optimization of the September roster rules, which expand to allow for 40 players, rather than the typical 25, on the active squad. “They called up a ton of guys,” McCullough said. “I think they have 39 guys in the room right now. ... There was a game where they started Brock Stewart, they used Fabio Castillo and Wilmer Font in relief, the lineup had O'Koyea Dickson and Rob Segedin.” Youngsters and back-end 40-man guys, all of them—and the Dodgers, of course, lost that game.
Possible explanation no. 2: Granderson and Logan Forsythe are the “gruesome twosome” to blame.
“It’s not really a red herring, because they are both playing really poorly,” McCullough said. Granderson is hitting .114 for the Dodgers, and Forsythe is hitting .132 with little power since the losing stretch began. But blaming just those two bats doesn’t account for the whole story. “There’s this idea that these two guys are killing them and the fact that they're in the lineup is a disgrace,” McCullough said. “I think it’s relevant to why they’re playing poorly that these two guys are playing poorly, but I don’t think it’s the actual problem.”
Possible explanation no. 1: In McCullough’s words: “The starting pitching has been terrible, and the lineup’s been terrible.”
It’s the simplest explanation of all, and perhaps the most confounding. “We ran through all the red herrings, but the actual explanation is super boring,” McCullough said.
In its seven-game homestand last week, the team scored a total of 13 runs and allowed 47. No starting pitcher recorded an out past the sixth inning. Even the great Clayton Kershaw scuffled, allowing four runs and nine base runners in just 3.2 innings against Colorado. “That for me was the sign that this is not an ordinary losing streak,” McCullough said.
But it’s the rotation’s complementary arms, rather than its ace, that are the largest problems at the moment. Trade-deadline acquisition Yu Darvish has a 5.34 ERA in six starts for the Dodgers and is “a bit of a wreck right now,” McCullough said. “This is a guy who they acquired with the idea that he would start Game 2 in the playoffs. He'd be the right-handed complement to Kershaw, and not only that, but he would allow them not to kill Kershaw in the playoffs, allow Kershaw to not have to pitch on three days' rest.” His recent performances haven’t been inspiring with that goal in mind.
Alex Wood, too, has struggled, running a 5.10 ERA in his last eight starts. “Alex Wood is definitely starting to fade,” McCullough said. “The groundball rate is not what it was in the first half. He was tremendous, he was an All-Star and well-deserved, but has had a few rough outings here in the second half. He’s got a weird sort of sternum inflammation thing that may be affecting him.” Wood could move to the bullpen and leave room for Hyun-Jin Ryu in a postseason rotation, but the homer-prone Ryu starting a road playoff game at, say, Arizona’s Chase Field would bring “fairly significant” risk, McCullough said.
The offense has experienced similar across-the-board problems. “You go through the lineup, McCullough said. “Who are the elite, elite players on this team? Offensively at least, it was [Justin] Turner, Seager, [Chris] Taylor, and [Cody] Bellinger.”
One by one, McCullough detailed, those players haven’t contributed at the same level over the losing streak. “Taylor's playing over his head for five months. Him regressing is not surprising. Bellinger's in his first big-league season. Him regressing in September is not surprising. Seager did the same sort of thing last year. ... Turner has proven himself to be a very, very good player over the last four years, but he's not a .350 hitter, and I think the BABIP regression got to him a bit in the past few weeks. He’s not hitting the ball in the air as much. He’s on the ground a little bit more. He’s probably a little worn out. Both his knees and his legs have been beat up over the years, so you can see physically he’s maybe a little diminished. He’s still obviously producing, but not at the level he was in the first half. And then they didn't have Seager for two weeks. If you think about it and put all those things together, where’s the offense coming from?”
Luckily for the Dodgers, they still have another three weeks to break out of the teamwide slump to reclaim their position as World Series favorites. The postseason is a crapshoot, and they could render this stretch as a mere unexplained blip amid a historic season. Of course, there’s also the trusty old explanation, too: the Sports Illustrated cover jinx.