Dodgers: Are the Dodgers Facing an Identity Crisis?
Who are the 2018 Dodgers? I think it’s safe to say that everyone thought the 2018 Dodgers were pretty much the same team as the 2017 Dodgers. Maybe they will be. Or, maybe they already are. It begs the question: Who were the 2017 Dodgers?
Looking back, who were the 2017 Dodgers? Were they the team that started the season 10-12? Or were they the team that ran off a string of 79 wins against only 23 losses while threatening the single-season wins record? Or were they the team that managed to lose a no-hitter by getting shut out for 10 innings on their way to losing 23 of their next 38 games?
Were they the team that went through the first two rounds of the postseason like a buzzsaw? Sweeping the D-Backs in three games and making short work of the Cubs in five. Or are these the Dodgers that blew Game two and Game five of the World Series and didn’t even show up to play for game seven?
A Team of Destiny?
From that fateful night in Pittsburgh when Rich Hill lost his no-hit bid on a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 10th inning, it seemed like the Dodger’s fortunes had changed. In fact, just the day before, Sports Illustrated published an article asking whether this Dodger team was the best team ever. While I realized Hill’s hard-luck loss was just one game, it just seemed ominous even at the time. In fact, I distinctly remember telling my sons that if the Dodgers ended up faltering, this game would likely be considered the turning point.
Before that night, the Dodgers were being talked about like a Team of Destiny. But Teams of Destiny don’t lose no-hitters in extra innings because they can’t scrape together a run. Teams of Destiny find ways to win. My first thought was back to the last time the Dodgers won it all. When Orel Hershiser started his last game of the season in 1988, he stood at 49 consecutive scoreless innings. Even a complete game shutout wouldn’t have given him the record. As we all know, he broke the record by spinning off 10 scoreless innings until the Dodgers could manage to plate a run. THAT is what Teams of Destiny do.
A Tale of Two Teams
When looking back at the Dodgers 2017 season, it wasn’t really a tale of two seasons, it was more like a tale of two teams. One Dodger team that played .775 baseball for 4 months, sandwiched between another Dodger team that played .417 baseball for the first and last month of the season. Calling the 2017 Dodgers bi-polar would be an understatement.
During 2017 it was pretty easy to gloss over the down periods. So they’re 2 games under .500 three weeks into the season, so what? It was early, they had some injuries and they hadn’t hit their stride yet. There’s plenty of time to recover. So they had a dismal 5 weeks to end the season, so what? They just rattled off an epic run and were 21 games ahead of the second place D-Backs.
Not to worry, they’re just getting their players rested up to be ready for the postseason run. It was easy to overlook their bad periods because their good period was just so over the top ridiculous. Even in the middle of the late-season swoon, it was easy not to get too worried because they had already built up a virtually insurmountable lead.
Will the Real Los Angeles Dodgers Please Stand Up?
The Dodgers finished 2017 with a 104-58 record. It was their best season since moving to LA, and their best team season since 1953. It was easy to look at the Dodger juggernaut and dismiss the bad stretches (especially the late summer swoon) as a fluke. But what if that was the exact opposite of reality? What if the Dodgers really were just a mediocre team and it was their incredible run that was the fluke outlier?
Do the 2018 Dodgers cast a new light on the 2017 Dodgers? Looking back at the last quarter of the 2017 season, from the Rich Hill fiasco until the end of the regular season, the Dodger’s record was 15-23, for a winning percentage of .395. Through the first quarter of the 2018 season, the Dodgers record was 17-26. The same .395 winning percentage. In other words, over the last 81 regular season games over 2017 and 2018 (exactly half a season), the Dodgers have been consistently bad. They are a combined 32-49, for a remarkably consistent .395 winning percentage.
So are the Dodgers an elite team that has suffered through a series of injuries and bad luck? Or are they an injury-prone sub .500 team that had a charmed run with numerous players having career years last season?
If the Dodgers hope to have a shot at making the postseason this year, several things need to happen. The Dodgers were at their best last year when they had the team-first, pass the baton mentality. That hasn’t been the case in 2018. Time after time the Dodgers have stranded runners on the bases. The only question has been how will they manage to fail. Pop up, strikeout, double play, foul out? The offense has to figure out a way to drive in runners in scoring position, especially with less than 2 outs!
Perhaps more importantly, the Front Office has to stop stocking their roster with an injury-prone back of the rotation starters and retread relievers while having the temerity to try to pass it off as “depth”. The Dodgers haven’t had a legitimate #2 starter since Zack Greinke left after 2015! (Caveat: This is more of an issue for 2019 and beyond since the Dodgers really don’t have the wiggle room to bring on a true #2 starter while staying under the salary cap in 2018.) And the bridge to Kenley Jansen has been suspect for several years now.
Individually, the Dodgers need to perform at the level they’re capable of. Justin Turner needs to resume his status as team leader, both on the field and in the dugout. Logan Forsythe has to play like the player he was in Tampa. Cody Bellinger needs to show that he’s not just Joc Pederson, Part II. (Actually, before he does anything, Bellinger needs to show he can hit a high fastball in the strike zone!) Chris Taylor must prove that his 2017 season wasn’t a fluke. Yasiel Puig has to play up to his capabilities. Clayton Kershaw has to stay healthy and be Clayton Kershaw. Kenley Jansen needs to be Kenley Jansen. And Pedro Baez needs to… Actually, Pedro Baez just needs to go!
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Time Will Tell
Despite this terrible start, they still trail Arizona by just 5 games. Largely due to Arizona dropping 9 of their last 10 games on their own. I suppose if one were to look for a silver lining, it’s that part of the reason Arizona has looked so good is that they’ve played over a quarter of their games against the hapless Dodgers. Almost a third of their wins this year are against LA. Take away those games and Arizona is playing .548 baseball rather than .581 baseball.
The Dodgers just got Turner and Forsythe back from the DL. That should help stabilize both the offense and the defense. Hill seems on track to start in his regular spot despite being removed with yet another blister issue in his last start. Tony Cingrani also recently returned from the DL this weekend. Reports are that Kershaw is making steady progress toward a return, although no timetable has been given other than Kershaw threw a bullpen.
Next: Dodgers Way Quick Hits: Alex Wood, Clayton Kershaw, Hernandez
There’s still three-quarters of a season to play. That should be more than enough time for an elite team to make up a five-game deficit. We know this Dodger team showed the ability to play like an elite team in 2017. The key question now is whether they actually were an elite team. Only the 2018 Dodgers can answer that question.