The typical MLB team offers little incentive to scrutinize the standings throughout April. Or through most of May, for that matter—there’s a reason Memorial Day acts as a sort of unofficial marker to start taking them seriously, given the length of a 162-game season.
But this year, even this early, there is one very good reason to track the standings daily: the Dodgers’ chase to break the all-time record of 116 wins.
Before the season, Ben Lindbergh explained why the Dodgers have the best chance of any team in recent memory to challenge the record. Mainly, they were on pace in the shortened 2020 season, with a 43-17 record that translates to 116 wins over 162 games, and seemed only to improve their roster in the offseason. And indeed, through 18 games, one-ninth of the regular season, they’re not just on pace but ahead of it, with a 14-4 record that translates to 126 wins.
Even in this small sliver of the season, the Dodgers have demonstrated their dominance in all facets of the game. The offense is built on patience and power; the team ranks first in the majors in walk rate and third in isolated power, and ranks fourth in runs per game (second in the National League).
All of the team’s most-used position players are crushing the ball, giving the Dodgers the deepest lineup in the majors. The usual suspects, like Mookie Betts and Corey Seager, are doing so as expected; one name on this list is very much not.
Dodgers Regulars at the Plate
The Dodgers’ player development machine has gained a well-deserved reputation for spinning straw into gold. See: Muncy, Max; Taylor, Chris. The newest proof of Rumpelstiltskin’s powers is the rookie McKinstry, a former 33rd-round pick now slashing .296/.328/.556 while playing four positions. His rise has certainly helped fill the void left by the offseason departures of Joc Pederson and Kike Hernández, and more recently by Cody Bellinger’s leg injury.
Even more impressive, however, is the team’s pitching staff, which leads the majors in runs allowed per game. Here’s one way to illustrate the depth and talent in the starting rotation. In the live-ball era, only one team has fielded five different starters with an ERA below 3.00: the 1942 Tigers, who benefitted from the shallow talent pool caused by World War II. Those Tigers are also one of three teams ever—along with the 1905 and 1907 Cubs—with five starters who each recorded an ERA at least 20 percent better than league average.
Right now, Dustin May is the Dodgers’ worst starter—and he has a 2.93 ERA, 29 percent better than average.
Dodgers Starting Pitchers
This sort of performance from Cy Young winners Kershaw and Bauer was expected, but May’s star turn typifies the Dodgers’ developmental excellence. A highly touted prospect throughout the minors, boasting a 99 mph fastball, May struggled to turn that raw stuff into strikeouts through his first two (partial) seasons. That’s not a problem anymore: May’s strikeout rate has jumped from 21 percent before 2021 to 34 percent this season, an unnecessary luxury, really, for a team that already had more great starters than it needed.
Finally, even the Dodgers’ bullpen, which has been the team’s only real weakness in recent years, is a strength this season. There are three early encouraging signs here for L.A. The first is that Kenley Jansen, in his most recent appearance on Tuesday, threw his fastest pitch since 2017, a 97 mph sinker to Kyle Seager. Jansen has exhibited a concerning decline over the past few seasons, but a velocity return offers more hope for 2021.
The second is that the Dodgers’ stuffed rotation means they can use the likes of David Price and—when he returns from injury—Tony Gonsolin in the bullpen, solidifying that part of the roster. Thus one strength begets further strengths.
And the third is that Dave Roberts has already called on four different Dodgers—Jansen, Price, Víctor González, and Corey Knebel, throwing flames after an offseason trade—to record saves; only the Royals have so many players with saves thus far. This early hint that Roberts will be more flexible with the closer role if Jansen can’t regain his top-tier form is a positive sign, as well.
Before the season, Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projection system forecast 104 wins for L.A., the system’s highest preseason projection for any team since 2004. (The previous high in that span belonged to … the 2020 Dodgers, before the pandemic shortened the season.) The team’s early-season performance has already nudged that figure up a few wins, up to 107 after Tuesday’s games. That boost of plus-three wins in the early going is tied for the highest of any team this season.
In other words: The Dodgers were already at an unprecedented high in the projection system. And they’ve improved their projection as much as any other team.
Biggest Changes to PECOTA Win Projections Since Opening Day
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Yet projection systems work by simulating the season a bunch of times; that 107-win projection is the average of all the Dodgers’ results. In some simulations, they do worse; in others, they do better. And it’s in the best-case scenarios that the Dodgers have made the greatest strides. Before the season, they had just a 1 percent chance to reach or exceed 116 wins; now, that chance is up to 5 percent—including one simulation, in BP’s latest run, in which the Dodgers reach 125 (!!!) wins.
A 5 percent chance to match or break the record doesn’t sound like much, but it’s an astonishingly high figure so early in the season. For context, Betts has homered in 5 percent of his plate appearances with the Dodgers (playoffs included). We wouldn’t expect Betts to homer in any given plate appearance, but we certainly wouldn’t be surprised if he pulled it off.
A 14-4 start, by itself, isn’t sufficient to monitor a team’s record every day for its slim chance of reaching a record win total—but for a team that already entered the season with such high expectations, there’s good reason to believe that this start is not purely small-sample strangeness.
For instance, the Dodgers haven’t amassed their early wins through extraordinary luck in close games. Their Pythagorean and BaseRuns records—estimators based on run differential and granular play-by-play data, respectively—are both 13-5, best in the majors, and also put them on pace for more than 116 wins. And they’ve already proved an ability to keep winning despite injuries to stars: Their two best players, Betts and Bellinger, have played a combined 16 games while missing a combined 20.
Moreover, aside from McKinstry, none of the Dodgers’ position players is playing too wildly above his typical level. In fact, while the Dodgers’ regulars are all performing, their other position players have almost uniformly struggled thus far.
Dodgers Semi-Regulars and Reserves at the Plate
This balance means that the Dodgers have some margin for error as the season continues and slash lines level out. Sure, Justin Turner probably won’t keep hitting like prime Babe Ruth, but the team’s pinch hitters won’t keep striking out 65 percent of the time, either.
The seemingly sustainable performance for the five starting pitchers means that the Dodgers will be favored in practically every remaining game this season—and if one of them misses a start, L.A. has the depth to backfill rotation spots. The entire pitching staff is so phenomenal from top to bottom that it’s hard to imagine the Dodgers falling too far behind in any game. To wit, their four losses have come by a combined eight runs.
How long can this sort of pace sustain? Since the schedule elongated to 162 games, only 10 teams have been on pace for 116 wins at least 60 games into the season. That list includes both the 2020 Dodgers, who had to stop at 60 games, and the 2017 Dodgers, who were on pace to break the record in the last week of August before a spontaneous slump—16 losses in 17 games—spoiled their chance.
Those Dodgers (who finished with 104 wins), the 1998 Yankees (114), and the 2001 Mariners, who tied the 116-win mark, are the only teams in the 162-game era to maintain record pace at least 100 games in. (Here, it’s worth noting that the team the 2001 Mariners tied, the 1906 Cubs, won 116 games in a 152-game schedule. Their winning percentage is a record even these Dodgers have little chance to match.)
Teams That Maintained 116-Win Pace the Longest
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The Dodgers’ quest continues with a challenge this weekend: a four-game series against San Diego, much anticipated after the two NL West powers competed last weekend in one of the best regular-season series—certainly the best April series—in recent memory. Yet even 16 more games against the Padres this season might not get in the Dodgers’ way. The 2001 Mariners went just 10-9 against Oakland—which won 102 games of its own—and 106-37 against everyone else.
Even with all those games against the Padres, the Dodgers boast the majors’ third-easiest remaining schedule, by FanGraphs’ calculations, behind only the Brewers and Cardinals in the moribund NL Central. That’s a lot of easy games left, and wins to add to their burgeoning total.
Can the count reach 116 or higher? Just three weeks into the season, it’s far too early to tell. But the fact that it’s even a consideration speaks volumes—and is reason to keep monitoring the Dodgers’ results, day after day, to see how their story unfolds.
Statistics through Tuesday’s games. Thanks to Robert Au of Baseball Prospectus and Kenny Jackelen of Baseball-Reference for research assistance.