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Dodgers found the best version of themselves & won the National League West again

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Dodgers are back in the playoffs for a 10th straight season, and on Tuesday night they secured their usual top spot atop the National League West, after a brief 106-win respite last year. These division champion Dodgers are the most heightened version of their decade-long romp, putting together a team built to clear several hurdles on their way to another October.

Freddie Freeman joining the Dodgers on a six-year contract after the lockout in March vaulted an already strong offense to another level. Half of last year’s big deadline acquisition, shortstop Trea Turner, had his first full year in Los Angeles. They joined a healthy Mookie Betts, forming an anchor at the top of a Dodgers lineup that for years has generally featured several moving puzzle pieces. That trio are all in the top 10 in the majors in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement.

After a season of various nagging injuries saw a diminished Betts still put up very good year, the superstar outfielder was back to his dynamic self in 2022, setting a career high in home runs while contributing excellent defense in right field.

Freeman has been every bit as good as advertised, leading the majors in hits and doubles, and through Tuesday also leads the league in batting average. With runners in scoring position, he’s been even better.

Freeman has started every game, accounting for all but 42 innings at first base, his rest usually only coming out during blowouts, of which there have been many. Turner did the same before finally getting a rest day on September 2. Since that recharge, Turner has a 10-game hit streak that includes eight extra-base hits. He has the Dodgers’ first 20-20 season in a dozen years, and is just the third infielder in franchise history with 20 home runs and 20 steals in a season.

The Dodgers’ big three have really been a big four, with Will Smith finding a home in the cleanup spot. He’s continued his offensive production from before, only now with a higher workload. Smith has already surpassed his career high in plate appearances in a season, with the designated hitter role adding 20 starts to his regular catching duties.

Several others have made an impact on offense that leads the major league in runs, scoring a half-run per game more than any other team.

Trading AJ Pollock to Chicago a week before the season was a bet on Gavin Lux, providing more of a runway for the second baseman, plus occasional starts in left field. Lux has been sidelined with neck issues since the start of September, but before then was top-10 in the National League in on-base percentage and batting average.

Justin Turner got off to a slow start, with just an 82 RC+ through June 29, but since then he’s been among the best hitters in baseball. The Dodgers showed faith in him, just like they did with Max Muncy, who spent the first four months trying to find his way after tearing his UCL last October. Now healthy, Muncy found his swing, and is back to hitting like his former self.

Turner and Muncy have track records, which earned them more rope. Trayce Thompson doesn’t have that history of production, and bounced around in the four-plus years since leaving the Dodgers. On a minor league deal with the Tigers, his second team of 2022, Thompson was acquired for cash considerations on June 20 by the Dodgers, who were in desperate need of an outfielder. Since then, Thompson is having the best major league season of his career, all while providing capable defense in all three outfield spots.

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - AUGUST 15: Julio Urias #7 of the Los Angeles Dodgers gets ready to pitch during the game against the Milwaukee Brewers at American Family Field on August 15, 2022 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Julio Urías leads the National League in earned run average, and over his last 15 starts is 13-1 with a 1.94 ERA.
Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

As good as the offense is, the Dodgers pitching is even better, which is incredible considering the circumstances. They only got 12 starts out of Walker Buehler before losing their ace for the rest of this season and next after Tommy John surgery and flexor tendon repair. Four of the five members of the opening day rotation have landed on the injured list, accounting for 251 games missed.

It hasn’t mattered.

Julio Urías more than capably stepped into the ace role, leading the league in earned run average, including a sub-2.00 ERA in his last 15 starts, of which the Dodgers won 14. Urías is the only member of the opening day rotation not to miss a start, though that’s more of a technicality, because Tyler Anderson has also helped steady the ship, and then some.

Anderson, signed to a one-year, $8-million contract (plus another $500,000 for pitching 100 innings), started the year in sixth position, and pitched a pair of four-inning piggyback games in relief before joining the starters for good. Anderson leads the team in innings, and ranks fifth in ERA, making his first All-Star team.

Before Tony Gonsolin was sidelined, he was having a dream season as well. He was leading the league in ERA before landing on the injured list at the end of August, and made his first All-Star team, too.

Clayton Kershaw has been on the injured list twice, which might have crippled earlier team iterations. But the strength of these Dodgers is they aren’t carried by any one player. They’ve spent the last few years surrounding Kershaw with a band of others that have done more than pick up the slack.

But when Kershaw has pitched he’s been as good as usual, which has helped a great deal in 2022. Especially in Tuesday’s clincher, when Kershaw pitched seven scoreless innings, allowing only two hits and a walk.

Kershaw is the one Dodger who’s been on all ten playoff teams since 2013, and Tuesday was his fourth start in a division clinching game, along with 2009, 2014, and a masterpiece in 2015. In those four starts, Kershaw allowed one run in 30 innings with 39 strikeouts.

The bullpen lost primary setup reliever Daniel Hudson for the season in June, and closer Craig Kimbrel struggled with command for most of the season before letting it go. But the Dodgers’ relief corps has been among the best in baseball, even with a roving cast of characters. Evan Phillips, a waiver claim in 2021, and left-hander Alex Vesia have been ballasts in relief, and Caleb Ferguson has been excellent since his return from Tommy John surgery.

Eleven Dodgers relievers have pitched at least 20 games in relief. Eight have an ERA no higher of 3.02. Chris Martin, acquired at the trade deadline, is set to join them, with a 2.16 ERA in his first 17 games with Los Angeles.

Best MLB run differentials since 1901

Team Year RS RA Diff.
Team Year RS RA Diff.
Yankees 1939 967 556 +411
Yankees 1927 975 599 +376
Pirates 1902 775 440 +335
Yankees 1936 1,065 731 +334
Cubs 1906 704 381 +323
Dodgers 2022 766 446 +320
Dodgers through 141 games, September 13, 2022 Source: Baseball Reference

Preventing runs is the Dodgers specialty, buoyed by a pitching staff and defense that has allowed the four lowest opponent on-base percentages in MLB history over the last four seasons. This year they’ve outscored their opponents by more than two runs per game, on average, and already own the sixth-best run differential in the modern era, with 21 games remaining on the schedule.

A franchise built on depth has thus far withstood every challenge in 2022, with remarkable consistency. The Dodgers lost four in a row once, in May, and have lost three in a row four other times. Those are the only losing streaks longer than two games all season. Hell, they’ve only lost more than once in a row twice in the last seven-plus weeks.

They are leading the majors in runs scored and fewest runs allowed, and will lead the National League in those two categories for a fifth year running, the only team in major league history to do so.

The Dodgers followed up a three-year stretch of two 106-win teams plus a .717-win-percentage World Series winner with what will likely end up as the best team in franchise history. With 98 wins and a .695 win percentage through Tuesday, the Dodgers need to finish only 9-12 to set a team win record. They could also be the first National League team to win more than 108 games in 112 years.

These Dodgers are relentless. And now, again, they are National League West champions.