According to FanGraphs’ playoff odds, the National League team with the best chance of winning the World Series is the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers brought back pretty much the whole gang that won the pennant last year, and while star shortstop Corey Seager went down for the year with a sprained UCL, they replaced him with Manny Machado, the best player to change teams during the season. On Opening Day, they were slim National League favorites in the FanGraphs projections. But PECOTA, the Baseball Prospectus projections system, gave the Dodgers a 15.5 percent chance of winning the World Series, best in the National League by six points and only a tenth of a point behind the Houston Astros for best overall. They may well be the best team in the National League.
But at the moment, the Dodgers, the favorites to win the pennant, are not in position to even make the playoffs. They are half a game out of the NL West lead, and a full game out of the second wild-card spot. Admittedly, playoff odds and projections systems are somewhat imprecise, and this late in the season, a gigantic talent gap between two competitors can be erased by an ill-timed rainstorm, a blown call, or a misplaced slider. But that bit of trivia—that the NL World Series favorite would not make the playoffs if the season ended today—is a fitting illustration of this year’s Dodgers: a sleeping giant that’s rapidly running out of time to wake up.
So, let’s explore both sides of that proposition: Why are the Dodgers still struggling to break into the upper third of the National League standings, and why might they still be one of the scariest teams in baseball if they manage to do so?
Why the Dodgers Aren’t in a Playoff Position
Even though the names on this year’s Dodgers team are mostly the same as the names on the 104-win club from a year ago, many of last year’s stars have suffered from injury or regression. Seager, of course, is the most notable example: He was a 5.6-bWAR player last year, and his ability to both play in the middle of the diamond and hit in the middle of the lineup would have made him the cornerstone of just about any team. This year, Seager appeared in just 26 games and hit .267/.348/.396. Justin Turner (152 OPS+) has been outstanding when he’s been in the lineup, but a broken wrist and a series of nagging muscle strains and pulls have limited him to just 86 games thus far. Clayton Kershaw has also spent time on the DL with injuries to his back and biceps, and closer Kenley Jansen has missed time in the second half of the season while dealing with a heart condition that has rendered him unable to pitch at high altitude.
Of course, the 2017 Dodgers also dealt with numerous injuries, including to players, such as Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu, who have also spent significant time on the DL this year, but they were able to maintain a 104-win pace in part because so many of their erstwhile stopgaps ended up performing like All-Stars.
Last year, in his age-21 season, Cody Bellinger hit 39 home runs in just 132 games, taking home NL Rookie of the Year honors, making the All-Star team, and finishing ninth in MVP voting. Chris Taylor, best known during his time in Seattle as “Not Nick Franklin, and not Brad Miller, but the other frustrating shortstop,” had a 4.8-win season in which he played five different positions and continued to put up big numbers in the playoffs, where he was named the 2017 NLCS co-MVP. Perhaps most impressive, former Braves prospect Alex Wood started the season by going 11-0 with a 1.56 ERA in his first 16 starts, and though he cooled off down the stretch, Wood earned a Cy Young vote and pitched well in the World Series.
While the 2018 Dodgers have also had their share of pleasant surprises, part of the slide back to their current 88-win pace is the result of players who were great in 2017 merely being good in 2018, or good players going back to somewhere around average. Wood’s ERA, while still better than league average, is almost a run higher than it was last year, while Rich Hill’s is up about half a run. Backup catcher and second baseman Austin Barnes hit .289/.408/.486 last year, and this year he’s hitting .197/.326/.255. Taylor went from hitting .288/.354/.496 to hitting .248/.324/.442. Bellinger dropped from .267/.352/.581 to .257/.340/.468, and after posting a .903 OPS against left-handed pitchers last year, he’s hitting just .222/.307/.387 against them in 2018.
None of these individual drop-offs is huge by itself, and some of them have been offset by gains at other positions, but collectively they add up. Except, even regression by a few of 2017’s breakout players doesn’t cover everything.
While the Dodgers brought back the bulk of a 104-win team, they passed on an opportunity to improve the team through free agency in the offseason. For the first time since 2013, the Dodgers did not open this season with the highest payroll in baseball. In fact, their Opening Day payroll this year was roughly $54 million less than it was in 2017, and $84 million less than the high-water mark in 2015. In other words, between last year and this year, the Dodgers’ payroll dropped by more than twice what the Tampa Bay Rays are spending on their entire 25-man roster.
This is the result of the Dodgers’ attempt to drop below MLB’s competitive balance tax threshold after paying some $150 million in tax from 2013 to 2017. By getting below the sport’s de facto soft salary cap, which taxes repeat offenders progressively more, the Dodgers save money for the next few years. And after expensive bench players like Adrián González and Andre Ethier left the team, the Dodgers were able to shed that salary without ditching any major contributors, except Yu Darvish, who left for the Cubs as a free agent mere months after joining the Dodgers at the trade deadline.
If the Dodgers had been willing to put together another $240 million payroll, however, they could have re-signed Darvish or made a run at Jake Arrieta or J.D. Martinez, and would undoubtedly be a stronger team for it. Dropping under the tax is certainly an understandable business decision in the long term, but it also weakened the team at least somewhat in the short term.
On top of all that, the standings also overstate how much worse the Dodgers are this year compared to last. Right now, despite sitting on the wrong side of the NL playoff bubble, the Dodgers have the best run differential in the league, at plus-133. While the Dodgers are on an 88-win pace, 16 wins worse than last year, their 2017 and 2018 run differentials say they’re only five games worse than they were last year.
Every year, one or more teams massively outperforms its run differential, and one or more teams massively underperforms its run differential. Sometimes this is the result of a team being built to win close and lose big—the 2012 through 2016 Orioles being the best recent example, with their cadre of elite relievers who could shut down close games. But more often it’s just luck or randomness.
Right now, the Dodgers are 1.5 games behind the Colorado Rockies in the NL West, despite beating them on run differential by 135 runs. The Dodgers are also 86 runs better on run differential than the wild-card-leading Milwaukee Brewers. And unlike the Brewers, whose high-leverage relief trio of Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress, and Corey Knebel is as good as any in recent memory, the Rockies aren’t exactly built like the 2012 Orioles.
The Dodgers have a superior team bullpen ERA- (which accounts for park effects) and WPA to Colorado, but the Rockies are 25-14 in one-run games, while the Dodgers are 21-21. By Pythagorean record, which uses run differential to estimate a team’s true talent level, the Rockies are the National League’s luckiest team this year, while the Dodgers are the unluckiest, a gap that accounts for 16 games in the standings. BP’s third-order record, a different methodological approach to the same question, has the gap at 14.5 games.
Not that any of this is comforting to Dodgers fans—they don’t give out playoff spots to teams with good third-order records. However, the Rockies got to the top of the NL West, their lead over the Dodgers is real, and there’s so little time left in the season that they have every chance of holding on to that lead until the very end.
Why the Dodgers Might Be the Favorites to Win the NL Pennant Anyway
The reason PECOTA loves the Dodgers so much is that, no matter how the season’s played out, this is still a frighteningly talented team. While Wood and Hill have backed up a little, and Kershaw might not be the slam-dunk best pitcher in baseball anymore, Kershaw is still a capital-A Ace, and he appears to have recovered from his early-season struggles with home runs. Ryu, back from his groin strain, is matching Kershaw’s performance this year, and rookie right-hander Walker Buehler, a 2015 first-round pick, has a 127 ERA+ and is striking out 9.9 batters per nine innings—he’d hold his own against any no. 3 or no. 4 starter the Dodgers are likely to see before the World Series.
They’ve also had a fresh crop of shocking breakout stars. Ross Stripling, a career no. 5 starter, has dropped his career-low ERA by more than a run and made the All-Star team. Stripling has missed most of the second half with toe and back injuries, but he returned to the rotation with a 51-pitch outing in Cincinnati on Wednesday in which he allowed one run and struck out four in 3 1/3 innings. Max Muncy, who’d never done much of anything in the big leagues until this year, has 32 home runs in 428 plate appearances while playing four positions, making him this year’s Bellinger and this year’s Taylor.
Plus, even though the Dodgers started with a similar team to the one they rolled out last year, they’ve improved it over the course of the season. There aren’t many like-for-like replacements for Seager out there, but they got one when they traded for Manny Machado in July. The Dodgers also added former Twins All-Star Brian Dozier and veteran reliever John Axford, who’s on the shelf now but should be healthy by the playoffs.
All of this makes the Dodgers the deepest team in baseball, which helps paper over some of the cracks. The past two World Series–winning managers, Joe Maddon and A.J. Hinch, at least had the option of mixing and matching their lineups, thanks to the positional flexibility of Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Ben Zobrist, Marwin González, Alex Bregman, and others. The Dodgers, under manager Dave Roberts, are nothing but flexible. Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig are both confined to outfield corners, and Dozier to second base, but just about everyone else can and has moved around, led by Kike Hernández, who has played at least six games at seven different positions.
If Bellinger can’t hit lefties, the Dodgers can work Kemp into the lineup in his place, or Muncy, who has a 155 wRC+ against lefties this season despite batting left-handed himself. Roberts is no stranger to aggressive management in the postseason, and he’s already come to terms with the fact he’s going to have to play matchups a lot if his team gets there again.
So far, Roberts has played the matchups fairly well. According to wins above average at Baseball Reference, the Dodgers are above average at every position but relief pitcher and second base, and a hair behind the Cubs for the best team in the National League overall. With Kershaw, Hill, Buehler, and Ryu healthy, the Dodgers probably have the best starting rotation of any National League contender, particularly if the Diamondbacks continue to fall in the standings. With that playoff rotation, Roberts could move Wood, Stripling, and Kenta Maeda to relief to help shore up the bullpen—all three pitched out of the bullpen at some point last postseason, and Maeda in particular was near-unhittable. And Julio Urías, who posted a 119 ERA+ as a 20-year-old rookie in 2016 before missing a year and a half with a shoulder injury, is close to returning to action.
Once you start putting together a potential NLDS roster, the Dodgers’ combination of stars like Kershaw and Machado and depth at almost every position begins to look like a truly frightening playoff opponent. The Dodgers are very much the same imposing opponent that’s won five straight NL West titles—they just, for whatever reason, haven’t been able to shake off the Rockies. If they make it to the playoffs, they’ll have as good a chance as anyone of making the World Series—and considering how much easier the National League bracket will be than the American League, perhaps as good a chance as anyone of winning it. But they’ve got to get to October first, and whether they can do that is still very much up for debate.