Clayton Kershaw wasn’t sure how to answer the question.
“Definition of success?” Kershaw repeated. “I mean, do you have to have an answer to that?”
The truth is you don’t. Not everything requires a label. Not everything needs to neatly fit in a box. Not everything is success or failure, good or bad. There’s nuance. There’s context.
But in the world of professional sports, the best teams often don’t receive that benefit of the doubt, especially if those teams have usually come up short of the ultimate objective when it matters most for a decade.
Kershaw has been the centerpiece for the most successful stretch in Dodgers history. They’re about to play in their 10th consecutive postseason. They’ve won the National League West nine of the last 10 seasons. No organization has won more baseball games over the last 10 years.
And this year’s Dodgers might be the best of the bunch. They finished the regular season with 111 wins, a franchise record and tied for the fourth most in Major League Baseball history. They compiled a plus-334 run differential, the best since the 1939 New York Yankees. They’re again the favorites to win the World Series.
It has been, to this point, an unmitigated triumph that drew more fans to home games than any other team for the ninth straight year (not including 2020). But does all that matter if they don’t win the World Series? In other words, what’s the point of all this?
“It’s kind of a trap question to begin with,” Kershaw said. “‘Well, winning the World Series is the only way it would be a successful season. OK. So, you say that but then does that make everything you’ve ever done a disappointment in your career? It’s obviously our goal to win the World Series and it would be disappointing if we didn’t win, especially after our season that we’ve had. But it’s hard to be that black and white.”
What if you zoom out to assess the 10-year run if there’s only one championship to show for the effort?
“Have we had success over the last decade? Absolutely,” Kershaw said. “Would you have traded it like to miss the playoffs a bunch of years but win multiple World Series? Probably. Would you trade just being a really good team over and over again but then not winning [for] being kind of like a roller coaster but having like two or three World Series championships? The answer is probably yes. But that’s just not the way it works.”
The start of the Dodgers’ postseason streak coincidentally coincided with MLB’s decision to expand the postseason from eight to 10 teams in 2012. Another team and round were added in each league to the playoff field this season, making it 12 total clubs.
The Dodgers’ title chances before the season barely took a hit once the playoff format was changed, falling from 14.6% to 14.4%, according to FanGraphs.
But more teams means more variables, more randomness, and more chances for a club to ride a hot stretch to a title. Eight franchises have won a World Series since 2012. The team with the best record in the majors has won the World Series in four of the 10 seasons. And once was in 2020 when the Dodgers won it all after a 60-game season. In other words, the 162-game schedule doesn’t usually indicate postseason success.
The Yankees, the most accomplished franchise in MLB history, have been shut out over the period from adding their 28th title — 20 of which were won before 1969 when pennant winners advanced straight to the World Series.
The Dodgers, as NL West champions, will receive a bye to the division series next week, meaning they don’t need to win more games than previously required for a division winner — besides 2020 when they won the NL West and 13 games to claim the World Series in an expanded, 16-team format after the short season.
Still, the Dodgers’ reward for their historic campaign could be facing another 100-plus-win club — the New York Mets — in the NLDS for the second consecutive season because teams won’t be re-seeded after the wild-card round. Last year, they beat the 107-win San Francisco Giants in five games to advance to the NL Championship Series where they lost to the Atlanta Braves.
Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman was on the other side in that series, spearheading a club that went from 88 wins to a championship. His viewpoint on success lacks gray.
“Every season you don’t win is a failure in my eyes,” Freeman said. “I’ve thought that from the moment I got here. We could win 140 games … it doesn’t matter how many wins you have once Oct. 11 starts. No one cares about how many wins. If you don’t win a World Series, then all 29 other teams should view that as failure.”
The World Series-or-bust topic first surfaced this season in spring training when manager Dave Roberts on a national radio show predicted the Dodgers would win the World Series “if our starting staff stays healthy.”
It has resurfaced over the last few weeks, with the NL West title clinched and little at stake. It hovered in the background as the Dodgers continued piling up wins, evaluated their options for the postseason roster, and waited to see how the rest of the playoff bracket developed.
It was brought up to Roberts during his pregame media session Sunday and emerged again when Andrew Friedman appeared on SportsNet LA’s broadcast for an inning Tuesday.
“With how much we all pour into this, I can’t subscribe to there are 29 failures each year and one success,” the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations said. “That being said, obviously, we’re heartbroken and devastated any year we don’t win it all. But it’s much more nuanced and gray for me. I really hope the fans have enjoyed the show this year.”
Justin Turner, the second-longest tenured Dodger, also argued assessing the season required two parts. There’s the eight-month, 162-game slog to attain a playoff spot. An objective, he emphasized, that is not as easy as the Dodgers make it look. Then there’s the tournament in October.
“Obviously, when we meet on the first day of spring training, there’s one goal in mind, that’s to win a World Series,” Turner said. “That’s all we talk about all year long, is winning a World Series. And so, to those standards, if we fall short of that, it’s going to be disappointing. Not only to us, to the organization, to our fanbase, we’ve disappointed a lot of people.
“But at the same time, if you go back and look at the season we’ve put in and all the things that have been accomplished throughout the year. I think we’ve certainly checked that box as successful.”
It took Kershaw 13 seasons, and 10 playoff appearances, to be on the last team standing. The championship in 2020 lifted a burden for the future Hall of Famer, whose postseason struggles haunted him. That season, from beginning to end, was unquestionably a success. But the verdict isn’t always so clear.
“I guess the best way to answer that is everybody is going to have their own opinion,” Kershaw said. “And so I think everybody is just going to have to define that for themselves. For me, personally, I’m just never going to define it. So it’ll be great.”