Are the 2023 Dodgers a championship team?
Short answer: flip a coin.
They are not the favorites, but they should be fun to watch. But maybe the real champions are the friends we made along the way. Good night, everybody!
(Author’s Note: There will be no essay on the Rockies (they stink) or the Diamondbacks (there shall be no tempting fate here — that’s what’s in)).
If you had asked me this question after the 2023 trade deadline, I would have likely laughed and said the Dodgers needed a front-line starter but as one was not available the best the Dodgers could do was
Eduardo Rodriguez, Lance Lynn, and Ryan Yarbrough.
While Yarbrough was as efficient as advertised, Lynn was effective, if not homer-prone, for about the shelf life of a whole head of lettuce (three weeks). Then the wheels fell off to the point where certain smart aleck staff writers wondered aloud if Lynn was just Noah Syndergaard in disguise, ala a Scooby Doo villain.
[Author’s note: Scooby Doo — spooky fun where capitalism is usually the bad guy, which is pretty subversive for a 1960s Hanna Barbera cartoon.]
The Dodgers muddled on and things worked themselves out — 100 regular season wins will do that. I already faced the music about the Dodgers not being an 88-win team. And I acknowledged that the Dodgers were nigh unbeatable in August. In the Dave Roberts era, apart from one disastrous September, the Dodgers have been pretty good.
As for this September, the team was far more pedestrian than in recent years:
- 2023 - 17-12
- 2022 - 21-12
- 2021 - 22-7
- 2020 - 17-7
- 2019 - 18-6
- 2018 - 19-9
In that spirit, it’s time to break down the analysis for this stretch run on the eve of the NLDS. Let us break down what was the obvious position at the start of September before the playoffs started:
The 2023 Dodgers will go as far as Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, Clayton Kershaw, and Julio Urías will take them. One does not need to be told the obvious, if even one corner of this base goes down, the end of this season gets very funky very quickly.
Yeah, about that position...
Six days later
In a bit of symmetry that most fans will not appreciate, whereas the Dodgers scrambled at the start of the year three days into Spring Training with Gavin Lux’s injury, six days into September, Julio Urías, in a move of unfathomable stupidity, was arrested again for domestic violence.
Urías' conduct regarding his arrest is alleged and will remain so until either a conviction or plea bargain. In any event, Urías is a moot point for the Dodgers for the rest of this season as he has been placed on administrative leave for the duration of the season and he has been erased from team history faster than Trotsky was.
Switching gears to those who have done nothing wrong. Clayton Kershaw started showing noticeable drops in velocity while proclaiming that he was and is fine.
In one sense, we can end this essay right now, if Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman do not hit, then these Dodgers will not go very far in the playoffs and will potentially suffer the ignominy of being bounced by a division foe — again, for the second straight season.
Eric did an excellent job in “Dodger Season in Thirds” but there are a few points that you might have glossed over.
Red flags regarding Clayton Kershaw
I am not even touching the “playoff narrative” that still unfairly persists in some corners around Kershaw. Right now, the Dodgers’ playoff rotation is basically Kershaw, Bobby Miller, some combination of Ryan Pepiot and Emmet Sheehan, prayer, more prayer, Ryan Yarbrough, and finally, Lance Lynn.
While Kershaw’s stat line for the final third of the 2023 regular season appears satisfactory there is one statistic that should be treated as a giant red flag.
- Kershaw (final third, 2023), 3-1, 36⅓ IP, 24 H, 32 K, 7 HR, 2.23 ERA, 1.101 WHIP, and 5.40 FIP.
Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is a statistic that estimates a pitcher’s run prevention independent of the performance of their defense. On average, a FIP of 3.20 or less is considered excellent and a FIP of 5.00 and above is awful. In the three years since Eric started measuring the season in third, Kershaw’s FIP has never risen above 3.50 (great) until this season, when it happened twice — in both the middle third (3.75) and the final third.
In fact, as if to illustrate my point as to the challenges of the Dodgers’ rotation this season, the following pitchers had FIPs over 5 for various parts of this season, apart from Kershaw:
- Lance Lynn, 6.03 (last third)
- Emmet Sheehan, 5.15 (middle third)
- Julio Urias, 5.31 (first third)
- Tony Gonsolin, 8.73 (last third)
- Gavin Stone, 5.69 (first third)
- Gavin Stone, 7.68 (last third)
- Noah Syndergaard, 11.64 (last third)
If you want to like a stat geek to your Dodger collective, you can point out that the collective Dodger starting pitching staff in the final third of the season had a FIP of 5.17.
FIP is more of a predictive tool than one gauging past performance. I was present when Stone debuted and when Stone had his generally good outing in Boston (until someone left him in too long). Gonsolin pitched hurt. Sheehan looks like he has figured it out. Lance Lynn...well...was Lance Lynn.
What is apparent is how at ease Kershaw is with the entire process these days. It is abundantly clear that this team loves Kershaw and still has faith in him, regardless of the condition of his shoulder.
“When No. 22 is on the mound for the Los Angeles Dodgers you feel good about it,” [Freddie] Freeman said. “He might not be throwing 95 (mph), like I used to face him 15 years ago, but he knows how to pitch and he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer for a reason.
At this point with Kershaw though, it’s been my anecdotal view that one basically has to hope he scratches and claws to five innings while clenching one’s jaw, which is an unusual position for Kershaw to be in, but c’est la vie. In fact, the worst thing that can likely happen right now is to try to stretch Kershaw out to six innings as I fear his shoulder and command will desert him.
I hope I am wrong, but my observations in Seattle and San Francisco of Kershaw make me uneasy.
Will the real Austin Barnes and Will Smith stand up?
Catching is a hard gig and the Dodgers got elite offensive production from Will Smith until he broke his rib. Eric pointed out that for the last third of the season, Austin Barnes (yes, that Austin Barnes) was a larger offensive threat than Smith when comparing Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), where a score of 100 is league average.
In essence, Smith went from Superman (157 wRC+, first third) to depowered Clark Kent (88 wRC+, last third). Whereas Barnes went from worse than a replacement player (-15 wRC+, first third) to an above-average offensive threat (115 wRC+, last third). At this point, one might wonder if Barnes is a more viable option to be the starter at catcher.
It is worth considering but the Dodgers will likely stick with Smith as the primary catcher. At this point, Smith might require an off-season reset like Max Muncy in 2022. I have seen enough of the Dodgers at this point to know when hitters are going wrong to the point I have deemed it the Chris Taylor test.
What an 88-mph fastball will teach you
The following is based entirely on anecdotal observation both remotely and in person. I fully admit I might, if not may, be entirely wrong. Call it a gut instinct, which is rare for me.
Taylor, who fans like to argue erroneously that he has never done anything wrong — which he correctly disputes, is a notoriously streaky hitter. It is my position that if one throws Taylor an 88-mph fastball down the middle and he is unable to put it into play, Taylor is on a cold streak.
Otherwise, when Taylor is hot, it is as if he wields an oar with how much of the plate he covers. This same “test” can be applied anecdotally to other hitters. For instance, when Jason Heyward is off, he tends to ground out weakly to second. And Max Muncy? Well...
Pop-ups galore, and swearing — lots of swearing. (Author’s Note: You caught me — I literally just wanted an excuse to share this amazing highlight again from the Mets’ game and I will always rue the fact that I could not obtain that ball.)
At this point, the Dodgers will probably have to out-slug their opponents to compensate for any deficiencies in the rotation. This statement is hardly news as the team has effectively done that while leveraging its bullpen for the latter part of the year. Nothing has changed per se, except the stakes, but rather than riff on Max Muncy’s defense (which is bad to the tune of 16 errors this year), let me close this essay out with a piece of advice.
For the first time since probably 2015, definitely 2016 — the Dodgers are not the favorites to win the World Series. Good. As been discussed elsewhere, the Dodgers benefited from the implosion of the Giants and the underachieving of the Padres in 2023.
But if we are being honest with ourselves, the title this year is probably Atlanta’s to lose.
That statement is the problem with expectation: the weight of it. And frankly, even in the COVID Cup year of 2020, the Dodgers have stumbled with that weight...in 2018...and 2019...and 2022. At this point, I remind myself and you that no one is guaranteed a tomorrow.
Last year was a generational failure and it was somewhat refreshing to learn that these Dodgers had not gotten over that failure, even with public protestations to the contrary. Per the Athletic, per Miguel Rojas, the Dodgers loosened up and played with a renewed focus with each series.
Enjoy the ride, for we do not know how it will end — we just know that it will end.
As long as the Dodgers are not swept or as long as Clayton Kershaw is not figuratively abandoned through either a lack of run support or being put into a situation he has no business being in (the bullpen, pitching on short rest), I can live with just about any result.
The Dodgers have exceeded expectations this year. Anything that happens now is a bonus.
Maybe just for the heck of it, the Dodgers will win the whole thing.
Win 11 games in October and become a champion. The Dodgers do not need to be the best team in the season; they need to be the best team in October. Be the best team for three weeks, and you get the chance to be a champion. Be the best team for two weeks, and you are in the conversation of whether you’re a champion.
Let us start with the hope that the Dodgers play like the best team this week and go from there. Every second counts.
So let us enjoy this bonus Whacking Day.