After winning 104 games and coming within one game of a World Series title, the expectations for the Dodgers were understandably high. But they may have been too high.
I don’t think anyone would honestly say they expected the Dodgers to win 100-plus games again. They played over their collective heads last season, but they were definitely one of the two best teams in game.
Coming into this season, they were returning a vast majority of the players from their National League Championship squad. The most significant absences were Yu Darvish and Brandon Morrow, both of whom signed with the Cubs. With the Dodgers determined to stay under the luxury tax, we pretty much knew that took them out of the running for their services.
They tried to replace Morrow with the combination of Scott Alexander (via trade) and Tom Koehler (via free agency). Alexander has been up-and-down while Koehler won’t throw a pitch for the Dodgers this season (and he might not ever throw one for them). The rotation was still stacked without Darvish. None of the guys outside of Kershaw were expected to be better than Darvish, but Walker Buehler has stepped up, Ross Stripling was an All-Star and Kenta Maeda showed flashes of brilliance.
Despite all this, the Dodgers’ expectations vs. results haven’t been pretty. They started out 16-26, clawed their way back into first place in July only to sputter in August and be currently 4 1⁄2 games behind the Diamondbacks in the division.
Since Guggenheim took over ownership, the goal has been to be competitive every year, ala the Braves in the 1990s/early-2000s — you know, when they won 14 of 15 division titles, and the only one they didn’t win came during the strike-shortened 1994 season. Things were trending that direction, even if they may not have had as much talent as those Braves’ teams. Then, baseball happened.
Justin Turner fractured his wrist in spring training. Corey Seager blew out his elbow. Chris Taylor regressed to the mean. Cody Bellinger hasn’t hit for the same power. Hyun-Jin Ryu looked like he was back before he tore his groin muscle and missed 3 1⁄2 months. Kershaw’s velocity has been down all season. Lottery ticket relievers haven’t cashed.
The expectations for all those guys save maybe Ryu and the relievers were sky-high. Kershaw is still a really good pitcher, he’s just not the unquestioned “best in the game” he has been for a half-decade. Seager was expected to return to MVP form. Taylor, despite concerns, has been more valuable as a versatile defender than a hitter. Some thought Bellinger might top 40 homers in his second season.
Conversely, the Dodgers have gotten good-to-great production from unexpected sources: Max Muncy, Matt Kemp and Stripling. But it was good enough to get them closer to their true talent level, but still not even there. They tried to replace Seager with Manny Machado and ditched Logan Forsythe for Brian Dozier. Still, their peak winning percentage was .554, which is an 89-win pace. Their current Pythagorean winning percentage is .586, or a nearly 95-win pace. Their true talent level is somewhere in between 89-95 wins. But coming off a 104-win season, that could be viewed as disappointing.
What’s really disappointing is the way they’ve played in August. They’re 8-12 and were just swept at home by the Cardinals after mustering six runs in the 3-game series. Even at 4.5 games back, FanGraphs gives them a 34.8 percent chance of winning the division (D’backs 43.2 percent, Rockies 21.9 percent). FanGraphs also gives them a 57 percent chance of making the playoffs, but they’re 3 1⁄2 behind the Brewers for the second wild card spot (with the Phillies and Rockies ahead of them).
It’s hard to win in baseball. The fact the Dodgers have won the NL West five years in a row — something they’ve never done before — is quite an accomplishment. Many, myself included, thought back in March it was a foregone conclusion they’d win it for a sixth consecutive year. That wasn’t an unreasonable expectation, but we as a whole may have overrated the Dodgers just slightly, leading to higher-than-attainable expectations.
With the available data, it was hard not to pencil the Dodgers in for a division title and at least a return trip to the NLCS. That was with a Kershaw who threw in the 92-94 MPH range. That was with a Seager who was expected to be a 6-7-win player. That was with Kenley Jansen and his 40-plus percent strikeout rate.
Some things have gone the Dodgers’ way, some haven’t. Everything has basically evened out, but I refuse to believe the true talent level of this team is 84-85 wins. There is simply too much talent for that to be true. Unfortunately, that is the reality right now, and they’re running out of time to turn it around.
Even now, in the midst of a poor month, we’re still somewhat expecting a turnaround and for them to win the division or even claim a wild card spot. That might be too much to expect, especially the way they’re currently playing.