As a Cleveland native growing up with the 1990s Indians, I got to watch a lineup that had Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Kenny Lofton, Roberto Alomar, Carlos Baerga, David Justice, Albert Belle, Sandy Alomar and many other great hitters. It’s no wonder I became such a huge baseball fan. I saw something special every day. The Dodgers have the potential to be extremely special. They have a great chance at eliminating the asterisk talk that dominates their 2020 World Series victory. They’ll be in the playoffs for the 10th straight year but have only that one World Series title in the span. Until they get one in a full season, they’ll continue to be scrutinized. So, they went out and got two of the best hitters in the world.
There are no excuses: When you spend this much money and get to the playoffs every year, it’s always World Series or bust. The regular season is just 162 games of spring training for the Dodgers. With 106 wins in each of the last two full seasons, it seems like they take it pretty seriously.
I’m in awe of the lineup the Dodgers are putting out this season. Like everybody else, I looked at the lineup from last season and said, “You know what this is missing? A five-time All-Star and Gold Glover who recently won the NL MVP award and a World Series.” The addition of Freddie Freeman just a few months after adding Trea Turner has taken this offense to new heights.
It’s actually pretty amazing that the Dodgers were only seventh in weighted on-base average (wOBA) last season with all of the talent in that lineup. I thought maybe it had to do with the team’s batting average on ground balls, as their sluggers face shifts a lot, but they were right in the middle of the pack at .242. Per Statcast, their batting average-expected batting average (BA-xBA) differential was one of the biggest on the negative side, so they could have fared better in that department.
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It wasn’t their pop-up rate either, as the Dodgers had the third-lowest infield fly-ball percentage. It’s hard to figure out how the Dodgers were just 24th in batting average on balls in play (BABIP). I can’t help but feel that’s going to improve this season and make the offense even deadlier.
Six players hit at least 20 homers. Eight players with at least 200 plate appearances posted an on-base percentage (OBP) of .355 or higher. One of those was Corey Seager, who is now in Texas, but another was Turner, who had 2.6 FanGraphs wins above replacement (fWAR) in just 52 games after the trade from the Nationals. He’ll play every day for the Dodgers barring injury. He posted a 153 weighted runs-created plus (wRC+) in his 226 plate appearances after putting up a 136 for the Nationals in 420 plate appearances.
Another is Mookie Betts, who was limited to 122 games last season. He had a down year by his standards in the batting average and slugging percentage departments and should be a bounce-back candidate for the upcoming season as one of the MVP favorites. Another is Max Muncy, who posted the best contact metrics of his career with a 46.3% hard-hit percentage and looks poised to take another step forward. The universal designated hitter really helps the Dodgers. They have a dozen hitters they could rotate in and out of that spot to keep them fresh, and those two guys are candidates for that spot.
Freeman might be on a Hall of Fame track. He’s hit 271 homers heading into his age-32 season, so 400-plus seems like a realistic possibility, and .300 hitters are in short supply these days. He’s a career .295 batter. I use wRC + a lot because it’s a metric showing how good a player is relative to league average, and Freeman has been at least 32% above league average every season since 2013, topping out at 152 for a full season in 2016. He puts a ton of balls in play, walks a lot, hits for power and average and is just an overall elite hitter. I’m sure a lot of people scoff at his addition, as it looks like adding a Ferrari to a collection of muscle cars, but I think people may be underselling just how good Freeman is.
To reach this level, you need a lot of productive contributors and few, if any, weaknesses. The Dodgers have the depth to withstand injuries and a lot of players who are going to have big offensive seasons. Defensive metrics are messy, for the most part, and there are some big differences with the Dodgers depending on the stat you use. They grade well by defensive runs saved but not as well by Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) or the FanGraphs defensive runs above average metric. I don’t think their defense hurts them.
If you want something to be concerned about with the Dodgers, it isn’t hard to find. The starting rotation looks iffy for a team with a season win total of 97.5 and the shortest odds to win the World Series at plus-475. They finished second in pitcher fWAR last season and the top three guys are all back. Walker Buehler led the way with 5.5, followed by Julio Urías with 5.0 and Clayton Kershaw with 3.4.
However, I have some worries. Buehler eclipsed 200 innings for the first time in his career. He’s a guy the Dodgers typically bring along slowly in spring training, and I can’t imagine the expedited exhibition season leaves them feeling all warm and fuzzy. Buehler had a terrific season, but his strikeout percentage (K%) was the lowest of his career. It didn’t matter because he still posted a 2.47 ERA with a 3.16 fielding independent pitching (FIP), but a lower K% and a bit of a velocity drop do catch my eye.
It may have been related to pitching substances, but Buehler’s spin rates took a huge dive in June and kept going down. It’s something I’ll be watching closely. Spin rate and velocity drops in tandem are good signs of injury indicators. Buehler’s performance didn’t suggest injury, but we’re talking about a win total of 97.5 and a team more worried about the postseason than anything else.
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I’m even more concerned about Urías. The Dodgers have treated him with kid gloves forever, but they took off the training wheels and he threw 185.2 innings last season. He had never made more than 22 starts in a year but made 32 last season. Again, the numbers were great with a 2.96 ERA and a 3.13 FIP, but that was a big increase for a guy that has been brought along slowly.
When you consider that Kershaw missed the end of last season with an injury, and Andrew Heaney is also slated to be in the Dodgers rotation while Dustin May recovers from Tommy John surgery, you start to see the potential cracks in the armor. Kershaw posted a 3.55 ERA with a 3.00 FIP and was outstanding last year, but he missed time twice with an elbow injury and has nearly 2,500 innings worth of wear and tear on that arm.
Heaney has thrown more than 130 innings once in his eight-year career. He had a 5.83 ERA with a 4.85 FIP last season for the Angels and Yankees. Tony Gonsolin is a guy I like with a career 2.85 ERA and a 3.61 FIP in 142.1 innings, but he maxed out at 55.2 MLB innings in a season. David Price and Tyler Anderson are still on the roster. May will be back later this year. Trevor Bauer probably comes off the administrative leave list at some point, though it remains to be seen if the Dodgers want him back.
An injury to either Buehler or Urías would make for an uncomfortable situation. The thing about being really good for a really long period of time is you also add playoff innings. You add high-stress, high-leverage games. You add a lot more strain to a pitching staff. At some point, I think it catches up with the Dodgers and this is the least amount of pitching depth they’ve had in a while.
It will be weird not to see Kenley Jansen closing games for the Dodgers. Blake Treinen was listed as the closer before the Craig Kimbrel trade, but it seems like he’ll be putting out fires whenever he’s needed in the highest-leverage situations. I’m underwhelmed by the rest of the bullpen. Phil Bickford, who was third in appearances last season, has missed time with a sore arm. Jimmy Nelson had Tommy John surgery. Brusdar Graterol should get more high-leverage appearances.
The Dodgers are going to outhit a lot of their pitching shortcomings, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned.
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Julio Urías: There are so many things Urías does well. He struck out more than 26% of batters and walked just over 5%. What I love most about Urias is he has exceptional command. In 505 batted-ball events last season, he allowed only 27 barrels and a 30.3% Hard Hit%. His average exit velo was in the top 7% and his Hard Hit% was in the top 6%. His spin rates are elite. I have some concerns about his durability after such a high workload, but 35-1 odds to win the Cy Young is attractive. He may very well be the best starter on a great team. He avoids home runs and his contact management skills keep him from allowing a lot of baserunners. If he can add a little more swing and miss, he has a legitimate shot at 200 strikeouts, which is generally a prerequisite for winning the award. If he throws 200 innings, he should finish high in the voting and may even win it.
One rule of thumb for me is I don’t play win total extremes, and this one is in the upper 90s. I won’t have any futures investment on the Dodgers as a team, but Urías to win the Cy Young looks like a tremendous value play. I’d actually lean under on the Dodgers’ win total, as this pitching staff is short on depth. The Dodgers are a World Series or bust team. There is a major advantage in grabbing a top-two seed for a bye, but I don’t think they go overboard trying for it. That being said, it’s hard to bet against a lineup and an organization like this. Not to mention, they had some needs last season and traded for Max Scherzer and Turner. Who’s to say they don’t make another huge splash in July? Will they win the World Series? I don’t know. I’d bet against them before I’d bet on them at the current prices, but the lineup is simply incredible.
Win Total Lean: Under 97.5
Julio Urías to Win Cy Young 35-1 (was 35-1 prior to Jacob deGrom injury; now around 20 or 25-1)