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The Dodgers Slump Is a Religious Experience

They were on pace to become the best team in baseball history, and now they’ve lost 16 of 18. Randomness is no longer a sufficient explanation.

The word “COLLAPSE” with the Los Angeles Dodgers’ logo incorporated Ringer illustration

It’s understandable to fear the unknown—new people, new places, and new situations can be dangerous. But the unknown isn’t nearly as scary as something we know but don’t understand. That fear is the impetus behind both religion and science: It’s bad enough not to know what’s going on, but knowing what’s happening but not why or how is a whole different level of anxiety.

Which brings us to the Los Angeles Dodgers. On Friday, August 25, they beat the Brewers to move to 91-36, which put them on pace to tie the MLB record for wins in a season. The Dodgers were 21 games up on Arizona for the division lead and 13.5 games up on the Astros for the best record in baseball. Between then and Tuesday’s win over the Giants, they lost 16 of 17, which gives them the worst record in baseball by 3.5 games in that span. Their lead in the division has shrunk to 10 games, and each loss has been more panic-inducing than the last.

For a week or so, the Dodgers were just going through one of those rough patches—every team has them, even great ones—that looked particularly bad because the red-hot Diamondbacks, who are responsible for six of those 16 losses, have played the Dodgers tough all year. Then L.A. dropped three straight to the bottom-feeding Padres, and then the Rockies torched Clayton Kershaw, and then the Dodgers started playing “How to Save a Life” in the clubhouse, and now it’s a crisis. Teams go 1-16, but not teams that started 91-36 and had multiple 10-game winning streaks along the way. Only two teams have ever lost 11 in a row and made the playoffs. And nobody knows why this is happening: not the players, not manager Dave Roberts, and not president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman.

This must be how Bronze Age people felt when they saw a comet and assumed the world was going to end.

One of the fundamental truths of baseball is that almost anything can happen to anyone over a short period of time. While it feels like the Dodgers have been in the tank for ages, in reality it’s only been about three weeks—even players who featured in all 16 losses have only racked up around 60 plate appearances or so. Apart from 2004 Barry Bonds and 1941 Ted Williams, every hitter is going to have 60-plate-appearance stretches where they just can’t catch a break.

It just usually doesn’t happen to an entire team at the same time. Here are the 13 active Dodgers with the most plate appearances this season, along with their OPS on August 25 and their OPS since.

Dodgers’ OPS

Player OPS Through August 25 OPS Since August 26
Player OPS Through August 25 OPS Since August 26
Yasmani Grandal 0.801 0.425
Cody Bellinger 0.968 0.704
Chase Utley 0.708 0.7
Corey Seager 0.901 0.525
Justin Turner 0.96 0.898
Chris Taylor 0.922 0.584
Joc Pederson 0.747 0.408
Yasiel Puig 0.823 0.833
Logan Forsythe 0.705 0.503
Curtis Granderson 0.823 0.339
Austin Barnes 0.928 0.683
Enrique Hernández 0.757 0.453
Adrián González 0.632 0.565

Only Puig is hitting better since the losing streak started than before. (The irony of Puig being the only clutch Dodger would’ve killed us a year ago, but the past three weeks have been so weird it barely registers now.) And it’s not just Bellinger, Taylor, and Barnes falling off after hot starts: Most of these guys have been so bad they can’t even see their realistic worst-case scenario anymore.

And for as uniformly bad as the offense have been, the Dodgers’ starting rotation—probably the best and deepest in baseball—has been even worse.

Dodgers’ ERA

Pitcher ERA Through August 25 ERA Since August 26
Pitcher ERA Through August 25 ERA Since August 26
Clayton Kershaw 2.04 3.72
Alex Wood 2.41 7.36
Kenta Maeda 3.76 9
Rich Hill 3.32 6.14
Hyun-Jin Ryu 3.34 6.3
Yu Darvish 3.83 9.49

Since this slide started, every Dodger starter has an ERA over 6.00 except Kershaw, for whom 3.72 might as well be 6.00. And just like the offensive collapse, none of these numbers would be that shocking in isolation—every pitcher gets shelled every so often and ends up with a stretch of two or three starts with an ERA that looks like a good time to eat dinner. But this isn’t just one guy, or even a random sample of six three-start stretches from across various teams and time periods. The odds of all six of those specific pitchers being this bad, for this long, all at the same time are one in the hundreds of thousands.

A couple of Dodgers being bad at one time, or even going .500 for three weeks, would’ve been cause for mild concern, but it wouldn’t have been this terrifying, because we’ve seen it happen. Right now, almost every single important Dodger is vastly underperforming, and the team was one Kershaw start from having the longest losing streak in the National League in 40 years. It’s so improbable it can’t be random chance, but barring something paranormal, there’s no better explanation at the moment.

And like most paranormal phenomena there’s no shortage of theories explaining the Dodgers’ 1-16 slide. They have dealt with injuries to Seager, Kershaw, and Bellinger during this slide, and several Dodgers were playing over their heads to start, so some regression was to be expected. Maybe the Dodgers got complacent, but they have more reason to play hard than the Padres and Giants, and if athletes have a magical on/off switch, they probably would’ve turned it back on after the first five-game losing streak.

Perhaps the influx of September call-ups disrupted the Dodgers’ clubhouse, but every team’s dealing with that, and no one else has face-planted like this. Besides, the Dodgers aren’t calling up scrubs: Wilmer Font was the PCL pitcher of the year, and right-hander Walker Buehler and outfielder Alex Verdugo are both global top-30 prospects—whatever negative intangible impact that they have, if any, would be vastly outweighed by their baseball-playing ability. Even entertaining such a narrative presupposes that Buehler is a Hal Chase–level saboteur, which is about as unlikely as the Dodgers all slumping at the same time at random.

Clayton Kershaw looking disappointed Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

Perhaps the Dodgers are tired, but the fact that they’ve won games more than the other 29 teams doesn’t mean they’ve played more games. Plus, Friedman and his front office have taken specific and conspicuous steps to avoid players wearing down: The Dodgers use the 10-day DL like a taxi squad, and their starting pitchers throw fewer pitches than just about any other team’s: L.A. starters have thrown 100 or more pitches 24 times, the second-lowest total in baseball, and half of those instances were Kershaw. By comparison, the Nationals and Red Sox are tied for the league lead with 99 100-pitch starts. Certainly the Dodgers should be less tired than the Rockies, who play half their games in a physically deleterious high-altitude environment. Yet in the sixth month of the most grueling schedule in American team sports, the Rockies just took four straight games in Dodger Stadium, outscoring Los Angeles by 17 runs.

If the Dodgers were dealing with some sort of tangible bogeyman, like a clubwide mono epidemic or even catastrophic chemistry, it probably would have come out by now, like it did with the 2011 Red Sox or 2012 Southern Cal football team. That leaves one of two possibilities: that something real but unidentifiable is troubling the best team in baseball, and we still have no idea what it is, or the Dodgers are under siege from a series of concurrent random events that, taken together, are about as likely as being eaten by a shark that’s being struck by lightning.

The Dodgers are fundamentally the same team at 93-52 that they were at 91-36. Same loaded rotation, same deep lineup, same suddenly lockdown bullpen. Zooming out and looking at the team’s full-season record and individual players’ full-season performances still reveals a club that would be a heavy World Series favorite if some of those 52 losses had come earlier in the season. But just because we don’t know why the Dodgers went from the 1998 Yankees to the 1962 Mets in three weeks doesn’t mean this is a sequencing fluke. At this point, writing it off as such out of some slavish sabermetric devotion to randomness is as much a misunderstanding of mathematics as it is of sociology.

Something changed, and, since nobody seems to know what changed, it’s tougher to believe in the Dodgers as a force in the playoffs. Specific problems, even problems as scary as [dunks baseball in holy water for even entertaining this thought] a season-ending Kershaw injury, can be solved or at least worked around. Right now, the Dodgers don’t have a solvable problem, just a gigantic, unsorted, and growing pile of losses.

Some stats through Monday’s games.