If you don’t think the World Series goes through Los Angeles, you didn’t see Cody Bellinger in the ninth inning of a 16-2 blowout of the Phillies July 15. Already with two home runs in the game and up by 12 runs, the Dodgers slugger beat out a groundball to first base for an infield hit.
The Dodgers aren’t just the best team in baseball. They aren’t just the original template for how to play modern baseball. They aren’t just a financial juggernaut with a $206 million payroll, a $20 million “research and development” budget and the biggest gate attraction that will sell almost half a million more tickets this year than any other team.
The Dodgers are grinders.
It takes some getting used to, but it’s true: Hollywood’s favorite team is a blue-collar band of brothers who don’t mind sharing positions and the spotlight.
Think of that game at Philadelphia as the script pitch for a movie about the 2019 Dodgers.
Team gets into town at 4:30 in the morning after playing 12 innings the night before. Star shortstop Corey Seager bats seventh–without complaint. In the same inning, Austin Barnes squeezes a run in and steals home. Bellinger hits two bombs and beats out an infield hit in garbage time. Somebody named Matt Beaty comes off the bench, reaches base in both trips to the plate and goes sprawling after a foul pop-up in garbage time. Clayton Kershaw goes to 8-2 and nobody notices. Cut to manager Dave Roberts smiling.
“I was proud,” Roberts said. “We didn’t make a couple of plays early and Clayton wasn’t sharp early, and you’re talking about getting in really, really late, and having a 13- ,14-game lead and still grinding out at-bats. Guys don’t miss signs, Cody beats out an infield single after he already homered twice and you get Matt Beaty sliding into the dugout trying to make a play, which is an out that really didn’t matter.
“So that’s where I know as a manager we’ve won. That shows you how you get through 162 games and the postseason, where we don’t take plays off.
“People say why is our defense so good? Because we (bleeping) care about every pitch. That’s why.”
The Dodgers lead the National League in defense (they turn 71.3% of batted balls into outs) and pitching (3.34 ERA) and are second to Colorado in runs scored per game by the slimmest of margins (5.47-5.46). After starting the year 8-8, they are 59-27 in the past 86 games.
They are destroying teams with their depth. They have a pitcher to match up against any hitter you have and they have a hitter to match up against any pitcher you have. Roberts has used at least seven players in all nine spots in the batting order. Seven players have appeared at three positions or more on defense.
As for his pitching options, he used Pedro Baez as an example of the way Los Angeles leverages its players. In games as close as two runs either way, Roberts has brought in Baez in the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th innings. There is no talk, for instance, about someone being the “eighth inning guy” a formulaic approach that is great for letting games get away.
“Everybody in baseball is (changing their lineup) now–or trying to. They’re still trying to fight that fight of moving guys around. We’ve already fought that fight. So now it’s like I’m hitting Corey Seager seventh. Why? I don’t want to give Gabe [Kapler] a run of lefties.
“Essentially, it’s taking care of everybody. It’s putting them in a better spot.”
Another example: Joc Pederson has 23 homers and slugs .528. But Roberts has given him only 31 trips to the plate against lefthanded pitchers. Why? Pederson is a career .179 hitter against lefties with a 29% strikeout rate. Roberts has plenty of righthanded bats to deploy against lefties. Pederson now understands the system.
One more: lefthander Julio Urias is throwing 95 mph gas with a 2.25 ERA, but he’s in the bullpen as a piggyback starter behind Kenta Maeda. Why? Maeda mows through righties (.141) but gets hit by lefties (.247), so Urias, who doesn’t get hit by batters from either side (.158/.186), shuts down opponents before they get a third crack at Maeda.
Roberts’s Twenty-Five is the best ensemble cast since Ocean’s Eleven. Here’s how well it is working:
1. The Dodgers have one of the best benches in National League history.
The players Roberts uses off the bench have a higher OPS than the guys he starts. (That’s not true of the league overall). That’s because A) the Dodgers are that deep and B) because Roberts picks the right spots for his bench players. Only one other NL team ever had a more productive bench in terms of OPS, and that was 89 years ago with the 1930 Cardinals.
The Dodgers already have tied the franchise record for most home runs off the bench (15).
2. Los Angeles chases fewer pitches than any team in the league.
This was true last year and the year before that.
Their most disciplined hitters are Max Muncy, Bellinger, Justin Turner and rookie Alex Verdugo, who also is one of the best fastball hitters in the majors.
“You can’t always count on Cody hitting two homers, especially in the postseason,” Roberts said. “They are going to pitch around him. So now when they do pitch around him, am I watching Max Muncy and how he takes his at-bats after they walk Cody? Yeah. And he’s handled it really well.”
Roberts calls the regular season a “rehearsal” for how to play postseason baseball, which is why he hammers a disciplined approach.
“All the things we are doing now–to take a person’s changeup away, or to take a person’s slider away–that’s what you have to do in the postseason,” he said.
3. They have mastered swing changes in the Launch Angle Era.
Their motto might as well be “Slug Is in The Air.” Here is a half dozen Dodgers who have become better hitters by changing their swing as professionals to get more loft:
Bob Tewksbury, private instructor
Doug Latta, private instructor
Shawn Wooten, minor league instructor
Robert Van Scoyoc, minor league instructor
Craig Wallenbrock, private instructor
Lee Muncy, father
The Dodgers have hit more flyballs than any team in the league. They are tied with the Giants for the highest average launch angle in the NL (13.1 degrees).
But if you think Los Angeles is selling out to get the ball in the air, think again. They are the best team in the league at hitting with two strikes and nobody else is within 10 points.
4. Lefthanded pitching doesn’t bother the Dodgers as much as you think.
Against righthanded pitching, the Dodgers have posted an OPS of .843–the best in baseball this year, the best in franchise history and the best by any team since the 2003 Red Sox. But against lefthanders, the Dodgers rank only ninth in the league in OPS. So just throw lefties against them, right?
It’s not that simple. Teams have started a lefty against them 32 times. Those pitchers are 5-14 and their teams are 12-20 against the Dodgers in those games. If you think the Cubs match up well against them with three lefthanded starters, they’ve already tried that five times. The Cubs are 2-3 in those games.
5. Clayton Kershaw is a terrific No. 3 starter.
Hyun-Jin Ryu is a strike-throwing machine with a killer changeup and a 1.76 ERA. Walker Buehler is hands down the best young pitcher in the game today with five pitches that rank in the 87th percentile or higher in spin rate. Since Aug. 5, 2018–nearly a calendar year–Buehler has made 30 starts and lost just twice.
And then there is this:
Greatest Strikeout to Walk Ratio, Dodgers History
1. Hyun-Jin Ryu
T2. Clayton Kershaw
T2. Walker Buehler
6. Their defense is crazy good.
Only the Astros (51.1% of pitches) shift more than the Dodgers (49.2%). And when they’re in a shift, only four teams allow a lower batting average on balls in play (including Houston, the wizards of defensive positioning).
The Dodgers defend better this year largely because last year they ran out Matt Kemp to the outfield 120 times. But this team has locked down defensive positioning for years. In defensive efficiency in the majors since 2017, they have ranked fifth, first, eighth and second.
Right now the 2019 Dodgers look like the 2016 Cubs in July: running away with their division but in need of one obvious upgrade to get through the postseason. That upgrade is also the same: late relief. (The Cubs upgraded from Hector Rondon to Aroldis Chapman at closer.)
Kenley Jansen doesn’t have the same velocity or movement on his cutter, causing him to throw more sliders. Slugging against his cutter has gone steadily upward since 2016: .250, .306, .401, .453. In that span his velocity on the pitch has dropped from 93.9 mph to 91.6.
Maybe Jansen’s stuff returns, but the trend is ominous. Los Angeles could use an insurance policy, someone like Will Smith or Brad Hand, if a wild-card contender is willing to make a hybrid move (trade a player for a return that, with advanced prospects, can still help them now).
In Hollywood, the best script pitches don’t include a resolution. You lay out characters, motivation and conflict, and leave the ending open as a tease. For now, the pitch for L.A. goes something like this, “The 2019 Dodgers. Think Star Wars’ Stormtroopers. They overwhelm enemies with sheer numbers and skill. But also think the 1991-93 Braves. Or the 1990-93 Bills. Or Sisyphus. Two years running they lost the last game of the year by the same score in their own stadium. They haven’t won the World Series since 1988, the year Kershaw was born. They are motivated to finish the job. This time anything less than winning the last game will be a disappointment.”