"Best. Team. Ever?" The ink was barely dry the cover of our Aug. 28 issue—which hit newsstands Aug. 23, with a corresponding comparison to the greatest teams in history online—when the Dodgers fell into a tailspin that they have yet to escape. Through Aug. 25, they had gone 91-36 for a .717 winning percentage, which put them on a 116-win pace, good enough to tie the 2001 Mariners for the highest total of the 162-game expansion era. Since then, they've lost 10 of 11 to the Brewers, Diamondbacks and Padres, and while they still have an ample cushion to win the NL West and wrap up homefield advantage in the National League playoffs, they've shown that even if the infamous Sports Illustrated cover jinx is a myth, this squad is hardly invincible.
Here's a quick look at five reasons for L.A.'s recent nosedive.
1. That's how it starts
Overall, the Dodgers' rotation is a huge reason for the team's success this year, having posted an MLB-low 3.40 ERA as well as a 3.72 FIP (third in the majors). That’s despite the fact that every starter who's been with the team all season has made at least one trip to the disabled list—in fact, with the minimum stay trimmed from 15 days to 10, meaning that a starter can basically skip one turn—this has been part of their strategy to keep the rotation fresh for October.
Yet during this 11-game slide, Los Angeles's starters have been cuffed for a 6.34 ERA while yielding 4.5 walks and 2.0 homers per nine. Only three times have they delivered a quality start (six or more innings, three or fewer earned runs); six times the starter has failed to last more than four innings. In that span, no starter has gone more than six innings and they've averaged 4.5 innings, leaving the remainder to the bullpen. Granted, two of those short outings were spot starts to cover for injuries or schedule quirks, but they were hardly the worst; take away Ross Stripling's three shutout innings against the Brewers on Aug. 26 and Brock Stewart's four innings of one-run ball in the opener of the Sept. 2 doubleheader against the Padres and the unit's ERA jumps to a Boeing-esque 7.17. Including those two outings, the bullpen has rung up a 5.04 ERA in this span.
In eight of those games, the Dodgers' opponent scored first, seven times against the starter (the Stripling game being the exception). The team has been outscored 13-2 in the first inning of those games (10.63 runs per nine allowed), and 26-8 in the first three frames (7.09 runs per nine allowed). Nobody can win much doing that.
The Dodgers' one recent win was Clayton Kershaw's return from a 33-game absence due to a lower back strain, a 1-0 squeaker in which the ace lefty threw just 75 pitches before departing. As with last year, when he missed 2 1/2 months due to a herniated disc, the staff did an admirable job of covering for his loss; from July 24 through Aug. 25, a 28-game span, Dodger starters yielded a 2.76 ERA while averaging 5.7 innings per turn, more than their season average of 5.55 per turn.
One can point to individual performances and attempt to explain them away with fatigue or rust. Rich Hill's 3 2/3-inning start on Aug. 29 came five days after he lost a no-hitter in the 10th inning against the Pirates. Yu Darvish's two outings totaling eight runs allowed in eight innings came after he skipped a turn due to lower back tightness. Alex Wood's six-inning, four-run outing came after his turn was skipped due to sternoclavicular joint inflammation (a shoulder issue). But that's just cherrypicking excuses. The bottom line is that the starters need to recapture their consistency, with an eye toward which of them besides Kershaw and Hill will take the ball in October.
2. No offense, but . . .
As a unit, Los Angeles has hit .200/.263/.317 during this skid while scoring just 2.36 runs per game, less than half its full-season average of 4.85 runs per game (fifth in the league). The Dodgers have homered eight times in 11 games (0.73), almost exactly half their rate prior to the slump (1.44 per game), and their strikeout to walk ratio has more than doubled, from 2.06 to 4.15; both their walk and strikeout rates have gone in the wrong directions.
Pick a split and it's probably brutal: .203/.309/.290 with runners in scoring position; .185/.277/.274 with men on base; .145/.191/.194 at home; .181/.265/.276 against relievers; and .206/.262/.333 against starters. That last is partly explained by the fact they've faced one of the NL's top 15 pitchers by ERA five times—the D'backs' Zack Greinke (twice), the Brewers' Zack Davies and Jimmy Nelson and the Padres' Jhoulys Chacin. Two more have come against the Diamondbacks' Robbie Ray, who's one inning short qualifying to rank fifth in ERA.
Individually, slumps abound from players such as Cody Bellinger (.214/.241/.500), Chris Taylor (.233/.250/.395), Yasmani Grandal (.200/.242/.300), Logan Forsythe (.115/.258/.115), Kiké Hernandez (.150/.190/.150) and Curtis Granderson (.059/.158/.147). Only Justin Turner (.297/.366/.541), Chase Utley (.333/.474/.400) and Yasiel Puig (.214/.312/.464) have been remotely as productive as they've been for the rest of the season. Of course, those are all ridiculously small sample sizes; only Taylor (44 plate appearances), Turner (41) and Granderson (38) have more than 32 PA. There's simply not much meaning to be drawn there. However . . .
3. Injuries are an issue
On Aug. 22, L.A. placed Bellinger—the runaway NL Rookie of the Year—on the disabled list with a right ankle sprain, retroactive to Aug. 20. The injury was minor and he missed just nine games, but that's nine games without their second-most productive hitter according to OPS+ (144). What's more, Corey Seager hasn't played shortstop since Aug. 27 due to inflammation in his right elbow and has made just four pinch-hitting appearances in the eight games since; his 133 OPS+ is tied for third on the team.
Meanwhile, Adrian Gonzalez and Andre Ethier, who both returned from extended absences due to back issues (two and a half months for the former, all season for the latter), are hardly themselves at the plate, going a combined 4-for-27 with one walk and three doubles (all from Gonzalez). And as noted, their best hurlers, Kershaw and Wood, have each missed a turn in this span.
But so what? Every team has injuries to deal with, and president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi have built a roster with enviable depth. The Dodgers could be playing Seager every day, but they're resting him while they can, taking what the 23-year-old shortstop calls “a super cautious” approach. They could easily be muddling through with slumping Joc Pedeson in centerfield but instead, they brought up top prospect Alex Verdugo for a look-see and added Granderson to the mix via trade. Every regular has sat for at least one game in this slide, and manager Dave Robersts hasn’t fielded the same lineup for two days in a row since Aug. 12 to 13 in part because he has that luxury.
4. Quality opposition
Part of the reason the Dodgers have struggled is that they're not exactly playing pushovers. The Brewers, who took two games out of three from them from Aug. 25 to 27—their first series loss since June 5 to 7 to the Nationals—are 72-68 overall, 3 1/2 games out of the NL Central lead and 2 1/2 back in the wild card race; essentially, they're the best team in the league outside the current playoff picture. Milwaukee has now split six games with the Dodgers, outscoring them 19-17. The Diamondbacks (81-68) have the league's third-best record behind the Dodgers and the Nationals (84-54), and are red-hot, riding a league-high 12-game winning streak that's included five wins over the Dodgers; they've won 10 of 18 games against their division rivals this year. The Padres (62-77) have the league's sixth-worst record overall, but since June 8, they've played .500 ball (39-39, and overall, they're 38-34 at Petco Park, where they took three of four from the Dodgers this past weekend.
On paper (or pixels), none of those teams is as good as the Dodgers, but on any given day, any team can beat another one. Even a 100-win team loses 62 times a year, and a 100-loss team wins 62. Those losses (or wins) have to come from somewhere.
5. Dog days, regression, etc.
There's a reason only six teams from the division play era have won more than 106 games: it's damn hard. The 162-game schedule is a grind, and travel takes its toll. Last year's Cubs looked as though they might join the 2001 Mariners (116-46) and the 1998 Yankees (114-48) in the pantheon of great regular season teams, but they hit an extended rough patch, going 5-15 after starting the season 47-20. The 1984 Tigers went 4-8 after starting the season 35-5, and they later had a 3-9 slide as well. Sooner or later, some combination of injuries, fatigue and regression fells nearly every challenger to the standard set by the Mariners and the 1906 Cubs (116-36, .763).
For the Dodgers, it’s not hard to see some amount of regression on both the individual level—players such as Taylor, Bellinger and Wood weren’t expected to play this well—and the team one. Prior to the skid, the Dodgers were 20-12 in one-run games; within it, they’re 1-3. Before, they were four games wins above their Pythagorean record, and that’s been trimmed to three. It happens.
It's important to remember that 116 wins or a .763 winning percentage is never the ultimate goal for a season. Winning a championship is. Odds are that the Dodgers will pull out of this nosedive, but the lesson of this rough patch shouldn't be lost: No opponent is simply going to roll over for them based upon their won-loss record. If they’re to win their first World Sereis since 1988, they'll have to earn it.