Picking the best Dodgers team that didn’t win a World Series was harder than I thought.
The loss that hurt me the most was in 1985, when a 2-0 NLCS lead evaporated, the pennant slipping away on back-to-back games with ninth-inning home runs for the Cardinals off embattled reliever Tom Niedenfuer. I was nine, much more impressionable, but was also soothed just three years later with the 1988 team.
The 1953 team is arguably the best Dodgers team in the Brooklyn years, winning 105 games with an absurd run differential (+266), a team with most of the Boys of Summer in their primes. That team suffered the same fate as so many of those Dodgers teams, losing to the Yankees in the World Series. But Brooklyn won their first championship just two years later with basically the same team, so it’s hard to pick that 1953 team for this project.
Same goes for the 1962 or 1966 Dodgers, not with two championships within that window to offset the pain of those losses.
It comes down to two eras for me. We have the 1970s Dodgers, with three World Series losses in five seasons, and the current Dodgers, with 302 wins the last three seasons and two World Series losses.
Best Dodgers run differential
Further parsing, those last two ‘70s World Series losses came to the Yankees, which was avenged with mostly the same team three years later. Those teams were managed by Tommy Lasorda, while the first World Series team of the ‘70s was managed by Walt Alston in 1974. That ‘74 team is separated enough from the Koufax-era dominance (last playoff appearance was 1966), and different enough from the 1981 team and even the later ‘70s teams in many ways, namely by having Jimmy Wynn, Andy Messersmith, Mike Marshall, and Bill Buckner.
If you’re looking for balance, the only Dodgers teams ever with at least a 110 OPS+ and 110 ERA+ are the 1974 team and 2019.
Last year’s Dodgers won 106 games, the most in the 136-year history of the franchise, and own the best franchise run differential (+273) since joining the National League in 1890. They had the MVP in Cody Bellinger, and the Cy Young runner-up in Hyun-jin Ryu.
But in large part, this was mostly the same team of the last three years, give or take a few players. Bellinger was better than in 2017, but Justin Turner and Corey Seager were a little worse. 2019 (and 2018) had Max Muncy, but 2017 had Yasmani Grandal. Joc Pederson was better during the regular season in 2019 than in 2017, when he was sent to the minors, but during the 2017 postseason Pederson was on fire with five extra-base hits in the World Series.
The 2019 Dodgers were deeper on the whole, and their rotation had Walker Buehler, but also had to rely on a gimpy-kneed Rich Hill, who was dealing with a partially torn UCL in his elbow that would require offseason surgery, to start Game 4. The 2017 had a healthier and much more effective Hill, a better Clayton Kershaw, and a solid four-deep rotation as good as they’ve had in decades.
The 2017 bullpen, especially the one assembled for the postseason, was much better than in 2019. Kenley Jansen was noticeably better in 2017, while in 2019 he wasn’t used in an elimination game until things got out of reach. That first-round loss was a factor here.
So I’m picking 2017 as the best Dodgers team that didn’t win a championship.
We were only four years removed from the 2013 Dodgers having a ridiculous 42-8 run that was the best in baseball since 1942. That team needed to overcome a horrific start to the season, while the 2017 team was mostly fine outside of a 10-12 record in late April. In 2017, the Dodgers did even better in their best 50-game stretch, going 43-7, the best stretch in MLB since 1912.
Turner had arguably his best year, hitting .322/.415/.530, a 151 wRC+, with 21 home runs while making the All-Star team. Chris Taylor had a career year (.288/.354/.496 at several positions) off the scrap heap, and Bellinger was the rookie sensation with 39 home runs. All three were fixtures atop the lineup.
The 2017 team had win streaks of 11, 10, and nine games, and three other six-game win streaks. They were 91-36 at one point in late August, and spawned this Sports Illustrated cover (shot by Dodgers photographer Jon SooHoo):
They also lost 11 straight in early September, after their playoff berth was basically assured. Even with the losing streak they still finished with the best record in baseball. That team set LA Dodgers record for both home wins (57) and consecutive home losses (nine). It was an odd year.
Clayton Kershaw led the National League in ERA, Alex Wood made the All-Star team, and the team traded for Yu Darvish, who posted a 30-percent strikeout rate in his nine regular season starts with Los Angeles. Darvish won his first two postseason starts, allowing two total runs, striking out 14 while walking only one. After that ... we’ll get to that.
The bullpen was led by peak Jansen, with career bests in ERA (1.32) and FIP (1.31), and supplemented by non-roster invitee Brandon Morrow and starter turned reliever Kenta Maeda, both of whom were dominant in relief. The Dodgers bullpen had a 2.39 ERA throughout the postseason, with 60 strikeouts in 64 innings. But in the World Series ... we’ll get to that.
Those Dodgers won 10 games by walk-off during the regular season, supplying many memorable moments. But the top highlight was probably in Game 2 of the NLCS, when Turner hit a walk-off home run to beat the Cubs.
#ThisTeam needed a hero.@redturn2 answered the call. pic.twitter.com/6AY1XnPj8z— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) October 16, 2017
It was the Dodgers’ first postseason walk-off home run since Kirk Gibson in 1988, 29 years to the day later. It gave the Dodgers a 2-0 series lead and helped them to their first World Series since that Gibson-led team.
Kershaw had his best postseason start in Game 1 of the World Series, striking out 11 in seven innings, giving the Dodgers a 1-0 lead over the Astros. At this point in the playoffs, the Dodgers were 8-1, outscoring opponents 51-20. They were running roughshod in October, but then ...
How did they lose?
The Dodgers lost that World Series, four games to three, to the Astros, a team that electronically stole signs through the regular season and postseason in 2017. The scandal, three years later, brought suspensions for manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow, both of whom were fired by Houston. Bench coach Alex Cora is still awaiting punishment, but was fired as manager by the Red Sox for his role in the Astros scandal, as was newly-hired Mets manager Carlos Beltran, a player with the Astros in 2017.
This spring, after MLB’s punishment came down, some Dodgers weighed in:
- “Everyone knows they stole the ring from us,” said Bellinger.
- “It’s hard to feel like they earned it,” said Turner.
- “I would rather face a player that was taking steroids than face a player that knew every pitch that was coming,” said Wood, who started the Dodgers’ only win in three games in Houston.
The cheating by the Astros adds salt in the wound for the Dodgers, who already had plenty of things stuck in their craw for that World Series.
The series was defined by two iconic games, both won in extra innings by the Astros. The Dodgers were three outs away from a 2-0 series lead but Jansen grooved a fastball to Marwin Gonzalez for the game-tying home run. The Dodgers had leads of 4-0 and 7-4 behind Kershaw in Game 5 in Houston, an Astros comeback seen in a new light a few years later after the sign-stealing was revealed.
Then there was Darvish, a key cog in the first two series romps, who simply imploded in the World Series. There were reports at the time that Darvish was tipping his pitches, but whatever the reason he was terrible against the Astros. He started Games 3 and 7, and failed to complete the second inning either time, joining Yankees pitcher Art Ditmar (1960) as the only pitchers to pull that off in the World Series. Darvish allowed nine runs in the World Series while recording only 10 outs. He faced 22 batters and struck out none.
Dodgers relievers, after allowing all of four runs in 28⅔ innings in the first two rounds of the playoffs, gave up 15 runs in 35⅓ innings in the World Series — including seven runs in the ninth inning or later — and even that figure was propped up by six scoreless innings by starters Kershaw and Wood after Game 7 was out of reach.
Maybe it’s because the wound is relatively fresh. But given the extenuating circumstances, rehashed anew this winter, only cements my choice as the 2017 Dodgers as their best team not to win a World Series.