Opening Day is only two days away, and even with a shortened 60-game season there are still several storylines to watch with the Dodgers in 2020. Here are a few that come to mind as summer camp wraps up, and the real games are about to begin.
1) Mookie is actually a Dodger
With every passing week that the pandemic and acrimonious labor negotiations ate into the 2020 season, it looked for a while like the season itself might not happen, and that pending free agent Mookie Betts, whom the Dodgers traded for in February, might not play in a game for them that counted.
But now the season is upon us, and Betts on Thursday will be the first Dodgers batter in their first game. One of the deepest lineups in baseball actually gets to see what it will be like adding one of the very best players in the game, and that is exhilarating.
“It’s going to be an amazing thing to put on a Dodgers uniform. Really to put on any uniform in general, I’m happy. This is basically a new home for me. I’m super excited,” said Betts. “We’ve got 60 games to get into the playoffs, and we’ve got to bring home a ring.”
2) Bellinger’s new swing
Betts is one of two MVPs in the Dodgers everyday lineup. The most recent such winner, 2019 National League MVP Cody Bellinger, enters this season with a revamped swing, something he decided to change in the down time between spring training and summer camp.
“Cody won the National League MVP, but I think that for him, in his words, he didn’t have a good second half, and as he finished the season, didn’t feel comfortable,” manager Dave Roberts said.
Bellinger hit .262/.372/.561 with 27 home runs in the final four months of the regular season, which is still quite good (a 136 wRC+, for instance). But it was a far cry from his first two months of 2019, when he hit .379/.465/.749 with 20 home runs through May.
In the Dodgers’ NLDS loss to the Nationals, Bellinger was 4-for-19 (.211) with seven strikeouts.
Bellinger said his swing change wasn’t an overhaul, but making smaller adjustments.
“There are always small things in your swing that you realize what makes you good. You just try to be as consistent with those as you can,” Bellinger said. “I just had extra time to work on it in a stress-free environment.
“The other thing is figuring out why I was so good, and remembering the feeling. But also not getting too caught up on last year,” Bellinger said. “You’re always growing, always evolving. I fell really good about where I’m at this year.”
3) Joc’s walk year
No, I’m not talking about his rookie year in 2015, when Joc Pederson walked 92 times.
In February it looked like Pederson (and Ross Stripling) were headed to the Angels, an ancillary roster-streamlining addendum to bringing on Betts and David Price. In March, Pederson was sidelined during spring training with what at times was deemed an oblique injury, and sometimes was termed a problem with his hip. Pederson during summer camp described the issue as “my side-ish area.”
During the shutdown, Pederson took extra time off to heal, then started working with a new trainer, whom he called a movement coach.
“I feel great. I feel light on my feet, and I feel flexible,” he said.
A healthy Pederson could prove fruitful for the Dodgers, and for Pederson, one of seven pending free agents the Dodgers are counting on this season. With the addition of the designated hitter, it alleviates some of the outfield logjam and creates more playing time for Pederson and A.J. Pollock.
But Pederson’s role is pretty well defined. He’s started 91 percent of games against right-handers the last two years, including starting 104 of 110 games in 2019. Pederson plastered right-handed pitchers the last two seasons, to the tune of .256/.344/.564, a 138 wRC+ that’s tied with Nelson Cruz for 18th-best in MLB.
Pederson’s 60 home runs against righties in 2018-19 ranks third in the majors, behind only Mike Trout (68) and Eugenio Suarez (61).
4) Back-end relievers trying to regain form
The three relief pitchers the Dodgers will probably rely on the most in the most crucial moments this year are Kenley Jansen, Blake Treinen, and Joe Kelly. All had down years in 2019, and are looking to recapture some of their old magic.
For Kelly, he spent much of his down time throwing against a net in his yard. He famously broke one of the windows of his house while doing so, but aside from that he said he used the time to regain control of his four-seam fastball.
“I was essentially throwing a one-fingered fastball. My index finger was coming off the heater, and I was losing spin efficiency,” Kelly explained. “I didn’t have any kind of technology to tell, but it was more of a feel thing.
“It was trying to get my fastball to come off both of my fingers at the same time.”
Kelly said he’s throwing the pitch at the same velocity as usual, which has been 97-98 mph the last two years, but now with more spin. More importantly, after a season in which Kelly never spent time on the injured list but was dealing with vaguely-revealed physical issues, he says he’s healthy now.
Same for Treinen, who lost some of his mechanics in 2019, a season that saw him miss time on the injured list with a strained right shoulder.
He said one of the reasons he signed with the Dodgers — a one-year deal in December — was how prepared the staff was in meeting with him, giving him detailed ways they thought he could improve. That continued during spring training, when assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness and others helped Treinen iron out his mechanics and encouraged him to hone and rely on his best pitch.
Treinen had a 0.78 ERA and 1.82 FIP in 2018 with the A’s, and against his sinker that year opposing hitters batted .234 with a .283 slugging percentage and .260 wOBA, per Baseball Savant. Last year, they hit his sinker to the tune of a .304 average, .452 slugging percentage, and .370 wOBA, and Treinen finished with a 4.91 ERA and 5.14 FIP.
“The last couple years, I pitched more of a four-seamer and cutter. It was great when the sinker was in the back of every hitter’s mind. But as I got away from it, those pitches aren’t probably my best pitch,” Treinen said. “I have a sinker, and that’s my first and foremost. That’s the pitch I have to establish. Every other pitch plays off that.”
Kenley Jansen went to Driveline in Washington during the offseason to help correct the lower half of his body during his delivery.
“I feel like Driveline was more getting back to how I used to drive to home plate, and find my rhythm,” Jansen said. “I have to give them a lot of credit. They helped me tremendously.”
The Dodgers closer also said he pitched almost nonstop during the shutdown, outside of the two weeks he was sidelined after testing positive for COVID-19.
As those three go, so will go the Dodgers bullpen this season.
5) A runway for young starting pitchers
Julio Urías was so good at such a young age that he can simultaneously be classified as having been around forever and still be the fifth-youngest player on the Dodgers 40-man roster.
Urías, who doesn’t turn 24 until August, has a secure spot in the starting rotation for the first time in his career. The kid gloves were going to mostly come off this year anyway, though with no 162-game season Urías is free from the worry of potentially getting shut down or having his innings limited at some point. He’ll have two solid months in the rotation.
The loss of Price is significant, as the Dodgers planned on him as their third starter. But they are also uniquely talented enough to withstand such a loss, especially in a short season.
The key beneficiaries will be Stripling and Dustin May. Stripling has been in this role before, having made an All-Star team as a starter in 2018. May, one of the four Dodgers younger than Urías, is sure to log innings this year in some capacity. Perhaps that’s as a piggyback starter aligned with a not-yet-stretched-out Walker Buehler to open things, or maybe some starts as the season progresses.
Andrew Friedman has talked in the past few years about “providing a runway” for the club’s young talent to take off, and this season will provide those opportunities.