2014 playoff team preview: Los Angeles Dodgers
SI.com is previewing all 10 playoff teams as they begin their chase for a World Series title. You can find each team's individual capsule here.
Regular-Season Record/Finish: 94-68, first in NL West
How They Got Here: With a $229.3 million Opening Day payroll, the Dodgers outspent every other team, but that didn't guarantee they could outplay them. With Clayton Kershaw on the shelf for all of April due to a teres major inflammation in his shoulder and the 4-for-3 outfield crowd off to a slow start (save for Yasiel Puig), the Dodgers played sluggishly through the season's first two months. They were just 31-30, 8 1/2 games behind the Giants, when manager Don Mattingly reached a low point, telling reporters, "We’re just not that good.”
Whether or not it was a coincidence, since then, the team has gone an impressive 63-38, ultimately producing a 16-game swing in the NL West standings relative to the Giants and going from 10 back to six ahead. Kershaw put together his most dominant season, the Carl Crawford-Puig-Matt Kemp outfield alignment emerged as the team's optimal one, and five infielders — Adrian Gonzalez, Dee Gordon, Hanley Ramirez, Juan Uribe and supersub Justin Turner — provided strong contributions amid so many injuries.
In all, the Dodgers have the most potent offense of any NL team outside of the Rockies (4.43 runs per game) while allowing 3.81 runs per game (seventh) en route to the league's second-best record and run differential (+101). It's worth noting, however, that they piled up the wins against the NL West's lesser teams, going a combined 40-17 (.702) with a +75 run differential against the Padres, Rockies and Diamondbacks, but just 54-51 (.514) against the rest of their schedule.
Why They'll Win: In Kershaw and Zack Greinke, the Dodgers have arguably the game's best 1-2 punch, rotation-wise; even in this low-scoring, high-strikeout season, no other team this year had two qualified pitchers finish with ERAs below 3.00 and more than a whiff per inning. With the pair available to start three games in a five-game series and four in a seven-game one, they bring the Dodgers an advantage in every matchup.
Kershaw made history by leading the majors in ERA (1.77) for the fourth straight season, struck out an MLB-high 31.9 percent of all hitters, posted the lowest FIP (1.81) since 1999 (Pedro Martinez, 1.39), and, despite his missed time, compiled an NL-high 8.0 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference.com version) while coming within three strikeouts of claiming his second pitching Triple Crown (with 21 wins and 239 whiffs). Greinke, meanwhile, posted a 2.71 ERA and topped 200 strikeouts for the fourth time in the last six seasons.
That pair and the rest of the staff are backed by a balanced offense that ranked in the NL's top two in all three slash categories (.265/.333/.406) and led in stolen bases (138). Gordon (.289/.326/.378 with an NL-high 64 steals in 83 attempts) has emerged as a dynamic table-setter, while Kemp (.287/.346/.506 with 25 homers), Puig (.296/.382/.480), Gonzalez (.276/.335/.482 with 27 homers), Ramirez (.283/.369/.448), Uribe (.311/.337/.440) and Crawford (.300/.339/.429) are all capable of stepping up to deliver a big blow or keep a long rally moving. Turner (.340/.404/.493) and Scott Van Slyke (.297/.386/.524) provide plenty of punch off the bench.
Why They Won't: After Kershaw and Greinke, there's no end to the potential headaches the pitching can cause for Mattingly. Among the starters, though he's had five strong outings out of his last six, Dan Haren (4.02 ERA, 87 ERA+) has struggled to keep the ball in the park (1.3 HR/9) for the third straight season, and Hyun-Jin Ryu (3.38 ERA, 2.62 FIP) is amid his second bout of shoulder inflammation. The latter hasn't pitched in a game since Sept. 12 and won't have the benefit of a tune-up start before the Division Series. He’ll throw a simulated game if he has no discomfort in the aftermath of Sunday's bullpen session; if he can't go, alternatives such as Kevin Correia, Carlos Frias, Roberto Hernandez or Jamey Wright are merely sacrifices to the playoff gods.
As for the bullpen, that unit ranked 12th in the league in ERA (3.76) and 14th in strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.2); it's shaky aside from closer Kenley Jansen (1.95 FIP, 13.9 K/9) and lefty J.P. Howell (3.29 FIP, 8.8 K/9). The corps of Brian Wilson, Brandon League, Chris Perez and Wright have combined to produce a cringeworthy 4.3 walks per nine, with League the only one of that quartet with an ERA under 4.27.
The alternatives to that group, both among righties (Frias, Pedro Baez, Yimi Garcia) and lefties (Paco Rodriguez, Scott Elbert, Daniel Coulombe) are largely untested; the former trio has combined for just 66 1/3 major league innings in their careers, while the latter trio has a combined 22 2/3 innings this year. If the Dodgers can't consistently get seven or eight innings from their rotation, it's going to be a long night.
As hinted at above, the Dodgers had a tough time beating the better teams on their schedule. They went just 26-33 (.441) against teams with records of .500 or better, the lowest winning percentage among the five NL playoff teams. Furthermore, they went just 18-21 (.462) against the other four NL playoff teams despite outscoring them by a combined 25 runs.