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MLB: Oakland Athletics at Los Angeles Dodgers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

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8 takeaways from the Dodgers’ 8th straight NL West title

A homegrown rotation, a deep and stylistically diverse bullpen, and a superstar more than living up to advanced billing are some of the many reasons LA reigns again in the division.

The Dodgers survived the weirdness that is the 2020 MLB regular season, the league’s best team who owns the league’s best record, clinching an eighth consecutive NL West title on Tuesday night.

Here are eight thoughts about a division-winning Dodgers team that has the best record and best run differential in baseball.

Betts is playing like an MVP

It’s not terribly surprising that the former MVP winner who was at worst a top-five player in the majors the last five years in Boston is playing at an MVP level in his first season in Los Angeles. But it is still fascinating to see on a daily basis, the many ways Mookie Betts can impact a game, whether hitting, running the bases, or making all the plays in right field. Or offering tips to teammates.

“He’s such a great teammate,” manager Dave Roberts said. “He’s always trying to make people better. I heard recently about the MVP talk, but all he cares about is winning a championship and bringing a championship back to Los Angeles.”

The power jumps out with his 15 home runs so far in August and September, a two-month total only matched in his MVP 2018 season, when he hit 17 homers in April and May. Betts’ doubles are way down this year, only nine to date after averaging 43 per full season in Boston. Perhaps Dodger Stadium has robbed him in that regard, with only one double at home, though 11 of his 16 total home runs have come in Los Angeles.

Just imagine how much more tense these playoffs would be if Betts were heading into free agency, instead of the comfort of knowing he’s signed through 2032.

“There’s a reason Andrew [Friedman] gave him 12 years,” said Clayton Kershaw, who also called Betts the best right fielder he’s ever seen. “It’s gonna be a special thing to watch for a long time.”

Kershaw found an extra gear

While acknowledging that the idea of a 3.03 ERA being considered a down year is laughable, Kershaw worked over the winter to at least slow his decline. The results have shown just that, gaining 1.3 mph on his fastball and improving his slider to the tune of a .170 batting average and .287 slugging percentage against it.

Kershaw’s ERA (2.15), FIP (2.95) and strikeout rate (29.2 percent) are all his best since 2016. That’ll play at the top of the rotation.

Dynamic Seager is back

Corey Seager is fully healthy again, and found the form that made him one of baseball’s best players in his first two seasons, that included a Rookie of the Year award and a third-place MVP finish. This year, Seager has found success by simply bludgeoning the ball all the time.

Seager is second in MLB in hard-hit balls (91 with an exit velocity of at least 95 mph), and an average exit velocity and hard-hit rate better than any season of his career. That’s why he’s hitting .321/.374/.611 with 14 home runs, and expected numbers, based on batted ball data, that are even higher.

Rotation runway

Los Angeles Dodgers v Colorado Rockies
Tony Gonsolin has a 1.77 ERA and 2.41 FIP to go with his 40 strikeouts against only seven walks this season. Not bad after starting the season eighth on the rotation depth chart.
Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

At the beginning of summer camp the Dodgers’ third starter, David Price, opted out of the 2020 season, and they lost fifth starter Alex Wood to an injury after only one start. But the transition was seamless thanks to Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin stepping right in and (eventually) both holding rotation roles.

May was pressed into a surprise Opening Day start after Kershaw was placed on the injured list with back stiffness, and he never left. Gonsolin didn’t allow a run in any of his first three spot starts, but was still optioned twice. He pitched too well to be optioned a third time, and the Dodgers traded away Ross Stripling to clear a spot for Gonsolin over the final month.

Despite neither player making the announced Opening Day roster (May was technically optioned, then recalled to replace an injured Kershaw), May and Gonsolin combined for a 2.33 ERA in 19 games. Fifty-one of the Dodgers’ 55 games so far have been started by pitchers either drafted or originally signed as an amateur by the team.

Will Smith fixed the hitch

Dodgers catcher Will Smith had a fantastic rookie year, hitting 15 home runs in a third of the season. But he also wore down late, slumping in September and into October. This year he’s been even better and, thanks to controlled usage earlier in the season, much fresher with the playoffs around the corner.

Will Smith plate discipline

Year BB rate K rate Chase rate
Year BB rate K rate Chase rate
2019 9.2% 26.5% 22.6%
2020 14.6% 16.1% 15.3%
Source: Baseball Savant

Smith is hitting .284/.405/.558, with a 159 wRC+ that ranks second on the team, behind only Seager. This year, he’s not swinging at as many pitches outside the strike zone, and he’s one of only 13 players this year with more walks than strikeouts (minimum 100 plate appearances).

Because of the hastened restart of the season and brief summer camp after four months off, the Dodgers didn’t start either Smith or Austin Barnes on consecutive days at catcher until almost three weeks into the season. Now, Smith has the lion’s share of starts behind the plate, and even started at designated hitter once. It’s not out of the question Smith might start at DH in a postseason game.

Relief in bulk

The Dodgers bullpen ranks second in the majors in ERA, third in FIP, third in average exit velocity, and first in ground ball rate. There is a mix of strikeout pitchers (Jake McGee, Kenley Jansen, Caleb Ferguson before he tore his UCL) and ground ballers (Blake Treinen, Victor Gonzalez, Adam Kolarek, Brusdar Graterol). The worst ERA- among that septet is 83 (unlike ERA+, below 100 is good) and the worst FIP- is 82.

“This is the deepest, most talented pen, by a full grade, that we’ve ever had,” Roberts said last week.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Los Angeles Dodgers
Jake McGee, released by the Rockies in July and signed for the league minimum salary by the Dodgers, has career bests in strikeout rate (40.3 percent) and walk rate (4.2 percent) in 2020.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

All those options, plus Joe Kelly and Pedro Baez, who are now healthy and back in the mix, give Roberts several options. It also allowed him to utilize expanded rosters this season to help spread the work around. The Dodgers have the most relief appearances in the majors, but the individual relievers haven’t really been overworked.

The Dodgers only have 57 relief appearances with a reliever throwing 20 or more pitches, fourth-fewest in MLB this season. After 44 of those games, the pitcher had at least two days rest afterward. Only three times did a Dodgers reliever throw 20-plus pitches then pitch again the next day.

Only once has a Dodger pitched on three straight days this season — Kolarek last Wednesday to Friday, throwing 29 total pitches. He got the next four days off.

Lefty slumps

The Dodgers’ top three home run hitters from 2019 have all slumped mightily for large chunks of this year. After combining for 118 homers last season, this year the numbers for this trio of left-handers are lacking:

  • Cody Bellinger: .239/.326/.443, 11 home runs, 109 wRC+
  • Max Muncy: .191/.333/.388, 11 home runs, 101 wRC+
  • Joc Pederson: .177/.268/.372, six home runs, 76 wRC+

Having such down years from three key cogs in the lineup, especially after Bellinger won NL MVP in 2019, would be crippling for most teams. But the Dodgers are so deep, these three slumps are essentially a rounding error. Los Angeles still ranks second in the majors in runs scored, leads in home runs, and ranks third in wRC+, despite those slumps.

“It’s extremely difficult, but at some point you have to realize it really isn’t about you,” said Muncy, who homered Tuesday. “Whether you do great or terrible, all that matters is the team winning, and once you realize that it makes it a little easier.

“I’ve felt good all year long, but things haven’t necessarily worked out. Hopefully, once October hits, things will change for me.”

Jack of all trades

The Dodgers have been able to offset those three lefty slumps on offense for a number of reasons, especially adding Betts and getting resurgent seasons from Seager and A.J. Pollock. But they’ve also added another dynamic player with Chris Taylor playing like his peak 2017 form.

Oakland Athletics v Los Angeles Dodgers
“I think right now with what Chris Taylor has done this year, and what he’s done in years past, playing against left and right seems to give us the best chance,” Dave Roberts said Tuesday.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Taylor homered on Tuesday, giving him 22 RBI in September, trailing only a pair of Braves in the National League this month. Taylor is hitting .281/.376/.503, walking more and striking out less than any of his full seasons with the Dodgers, posting a career-best 140 wRC+.

He’s also started games at shortstop, left field, second base, and center field, rating above average at three of those four positions by both Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating. Taylor parlayed that into a larger role this season, starting in 82 percent of the games and ranking fifth on the team in plate appearances, after starting 56 percent of the time in 2019.

Taylor is one of nine Dodgers to total at least 1.0 FanGraphs WAR, a pace of 3 fWAR over a full season. Sixteen have at least 0.5 fWAR. Using Baseball-Reference WAR, it’s 15 players with 0.5 rWAR and eight with 1 rWAR. Either way, that’s a load of different players making contributions to a stacked team.

“The talent speaks for itself, but it just seems easy to play with these guys,” Taylor said. “A very relaxed feel, and it’s been a fun season.”

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