Dodgers: What Went Wrong for the 2019 Los Angeles Dodgers?
After losses to Houston in Game 7 of the 2017 World Series and to Boston in 2018, 2019 was supposed to be “our” year, where the Dodgers put it all together.
The year the Dodgers finally put it all together. This was the team that was finally going to bring the Championship back home after 31 long years.
It’s pretty much taken me this long to be able to pick up the proverbial pen to write about 2019. I’m still longing for the alternate reality where Smith’s shot cleared the fence and the Dodgers took Game 5 in a walk-off. It would have been the perfectly scripted ending after a season with 12 walk-off victories, especially after the back-to-back-to-back rookie walk-off home runs and Dave Roberts predicting a big home run from Smith during the Series. That’s how it was supposed to end. But it didn’t. And for the fourth year in a row the Dodgers were eliminated by the team that went on to win the World Series.
Unlike in recent years where they stumbled out of the gate, the 2019 team played well from the beginning. With the exception of a six-game losing streak in the second week of April, they didn’t seem to suffer through the hang-over that got them off to a slow start in 2018, when they had to battle all year and needed to go to game 163 to clinch the Division. This Dodger team came in looking to settle unfinished business and was dominant from the start.
Best Dodger Team Ever?
For most of the year, I’ve struggled to figure out how to characterize the 2019 Dodgers. On the surface, it all looked good. The 2019 Dodgers were a great team. Some said they were the best Dodger team ever. You could certainly have made that argument on the numbers. They won their 7th straight division title by a whopping 21 games.
Before this current run, the Dodgers had never gone to the postseason more than two years in a row. They finished with a franchise-record 106 wins, passing the 2017 LA record (104) and even edging out the 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers by one game (albeit the ’53 team had a better winning percentage with only a 154 game schedule). They had the highest run differential in the league (+273). It seemed like they led or were near the top in virtually every major hitting and pitching category.
The 2019 Dodgers were a fun team to watch. There was always a sense of excitement. A feeling that you were never really out of the game, as evidenced by their amazing 12 walk-off wins, including back-to-back-to-back walk-off home-runs by rookies. But as great as they were, something felt “off” somehow. They won more games than the 2017 Dodgers, and yet somehow, they didn’t seem as dominant. More consistent perhaps – they didn’t lose 16 out of 17 at any point, but then again they didn’t have a 43–7 run either.
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A Fundamentally Flawed Team
The 2019 Dodgers were a great team, but they were also a flawed team. And everybody knew it. Except maybe the Front Office. Or maybe they knew it too and just figured they would roll the dice and play the odds that the flaws wouldn’t be fatal. That proved to be a mistake.
The bullpen was suspect from Day One and you had to at least have some level of concern about the durability of the starting rotation. Kershaw, Hill, Ryu, Maeda have all missed time in recent years (some more than others obviously).
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big Rich Hill fan and I hope the Dodgers can work out a Wainwright-like deal with him during the offseason, but the Dodgers should have had a better option to put up against Scherzer in Game 4 of the NLDS. Not that Hill did terribly, but starting Hill effectively guaranteed a bullpen game and I’m sorry, but you don’t throw a bullpen game in a potential elimination game in the postseason unless you have no alternative. The Dodgers should have had an alternative.
The Dodger offense picked a bad time to go cold. Most notably Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger. Seager had a slash line of .150/.190/.200/.390 with 8 Ks in 21 PAs. Bellinger was only marginally better at .211/.286/.263/.549 with 7 Ks in 21 PAs. Of course, it’s hard to think of a colder bat than A.J. Pollock’s 0 for 13 with 11 Ks and a walk. Why they didn’t pull him for Hernandez or Beatty sooner is a mystery to me. And of course in the back of my mind, I have to think that a healthy Verdugo knocks Pollock out of the line-up much sooner.
I also wonder if Martin should have been behind the plate in Game 5. Martin performed well in Game 3 and was coming off a strong September where he slashed .296/.367/.556/.922 with 2 HRs and 5 RBIs. By contrast, Smith struggled down the stretch slashing a mere .175/.284/.298/.582 with 2 HRs and 8 RBIs (in 30 more ABs) in September and went 1 for 13 in the postseason.
By now we’ve heard a million people talking about Kershaw blowing yet another postseason. But you can’t dump this one all on him. His Game 1 performance wasn’t dominant, but it met the textbook definition of a Quality Start, so it certainly wasn’t a clunker and he kept the Dodgers in the game. Again, I long for my alternate reality where Seager comes through with another bases-clearing double to win Game 2 in a walk-off. So much for Hollywood Endings.
Game 5 is a different story. For starters, the pitch to Rendon didn’t look like a terrible pitch. It looked more like he dug a low pitch out of the zone and just managed to put it over the wall. There was no doubt about the one Soto hit. He crushed that one. The question here is why was Kershaw facing Soto when Kolarek was sitting in the bullpen in the 8th inning of Game 5? What were you saving him for? That was pretty much the sole reason Kolarek was on the NLDS roster – to retire Soto – which he did all 3 times he faced him – with 2 strikeouts.
But that’s really kind of beside the point. The bigger issue is what was Kershaw even doing in the game at that point at all. I’m not suggesting that Kershaw could not have been used out of the bullpen, but not like that. It’s one thing if you wanted to use Kershaw to piggy-back on Buehler if he had only been able to give them 4 or maybe 5 innings, but not when Buehler made it deep into the 7th inning. At that point, you revert back to “normal” bullpen management.
You put in the match-ups to finish the seventh and eighth innings after Buehler comes out and then you go with your closer. Forgetting about Kershaw’s postseason narrative, Kershaw’s biggest struggles all season have come in the first inning as he tries to establish his pitches and get in his groove. And he has been prone to the home run ball. So you put him in late in a close game and he promptly surrenders 2 homers on consecutive pitches. But even at it’s worst, that only tied the game.
But wait, there’s more. Joe Kelly. Joe Kelly was supposed to be the answer to the Dodgers bullpen struggles. He could be used in high-leverage situations or as the set-up man to get to Kenley Jansen. I admit I panicked when I saw Kelly coming out in the 9th inning, but was pleasantly relieved (no pun intended) when he managed to send the Nationals down in order. Then they brought him back out for the 10th inning. And they don’t take him out until he loads the bases and gives up a grand slam. All the time with Kenley Jansen in the bullpen. Hell, at that point I would have rathered them bring in Russell Martin to pitch than to let Kelly stay in.
The Bottom Line
The Dodgers drew a tough matchup for a five-game series. The Nationals were a good team with a three-headed monster at the top of the rotation who got hot at the right time. That’s a tough combination to overcome.
But the NLDS was the Dodger’s series to lose, and lose it they did. Let’s hope they learn from their mistakes this time and finally make the changes that need to be made this off-season to win it all in 2020.