Sixteen days ago, with their superiority already established, Joe Kelly declared that the 2020 Los Angeles Dodgers were the best team he had ever seen and quickly realized the weight behind his statement.
“That says a lot,” Kelly continued, “because I’ve been on a team that won the World Series, and this Dodger team, this 2020 team — I don’t care if it’s short season, long season. Long season, we would’ve broken all the records. Short season, we’re gonna break all the records. This is the best team that I’ve ever seen. Best bullpen I’ve ever been a part of, best lineup I’ve ever seen, best starting pitchers, defense, all around.”
The Dodgers, 38-16 heading into Tuesday’s game against the Oakland Athletics (9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN), have held baseball’s best record for 36 consecutive days. They rank second in the majors in runs per game, second in the majors in starters’ ERA, second in the majors in bullpen ERA and second in the majors in turning batted balls into outs. Their run differential, plus-119, is 42% higher than that of the second-place San Diego Padres and on pace to be the fourth best since 1900 on a per-game basis.
And yet the Dodgers aren’t promised anything more than a three-game postseason series. By Wednesday night, all of their players and coaches will have situated themselves in a nearby hotel to quarantine for the unprecedented baseball tournament that will begin seven days later, at which point the Dodgers will once again confront the only adversary they have not conquered — the short series that magnify the randomness that defines their sport.
The Dodgers have been eliminated by the team that won the World Series each of the past four years and could have conceivably beaten them all. The 2016 National League Championship Series turned on a hanging slider from Joe Blanton in the sixth inning of Game 5. The 2017 World Series turned on two blown leads by Clayton Kershaw in Game 5. The 2018 World Series turned on miscommunication between manager Dave Roberts and Rich Hill in Game 4. And the 2019 NL Division Series turned on late-game bullpen maneuvering that left Kelly in long enough to surrender a ninth-inning grand slam in Game 5.
The Dodgers have only themselves to blame for those losses, of course, but the team with the sport’s highest run differential has won it all only four times over the past 20 years. Baseball doesn’t lend itself to rewarding its best team with championships. Its playoffs are exhilarating, but often they feel arbitrary. A long regular season and a restricted postseason are required to negate some of that, but the sport is navigating in the opposite direction, expanding the playoff field — MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has already stated his intentions of doing so beyond 2020 — and thus compounding the volatility.
The Dodgers, nearing their eighth consecutive division title but still in search of their first championship since 1988, will ultimately be defined by whether they can master small sample sizes.
“I think so much of it is just controlling what you can control,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “That’s putting guys in the best spots to succeed and knowing how we want to attack opposing hitters and having as good of a feel as we can for how opposing pitchers are going to attack us and how our positioning ties into how we’re going to attack. That’s really all we can control from a preparation standpoint. And then just bet on the talent and the preparation winning out.
“When you look back over time, it’s pretty clear that the Major League Baseball playoff structure is never something that’s going to be 0 and 100%, and so for us, it’s almost just having the casino operator mentality of controlling what we can control and betting that more often than not, good things will play out.”
The current Dodgers are not perfect, but for every blemish there is a remedy.
Kenley Jansen has been hot and cold, but the Dodgers possess what Roberts considers is easily his deepest and most versatile bullpen in half a decade as the team’s manager. Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy and Joc Pederson are batting a combined .203, but A.J. Pollock has significantly improved, Corey Seager is back among the game’s best shortstops and Mookie Betts has been even better than anybody on the Dodgers could have imagined. The No. 3 spot in the rotation is uncertain, but the three young pitchers vying for it — Julio Urias, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin — have combined for a 2.70 ERA.
The Dodgers’ loss to the up-and-coming Padres on Sept. 14 served as a “punch in the mouth,” Betts said, and since then, the team has won five of six while outscoring its opponents by a combined 21 runs. Lately, Roberts has noticed a particular focus from his group.
“It’s time to go,” Roberts said, “and our guys understand that.”
They also understand — better than anyone, perhaps — that their dominant season can disappear with one bad night in October. The Cincinnati Reds are among six NL teams that could conceivably finish as the No. 8 seed, in which case the Dodgers could be staring at a three-game series against Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray, who make up arguably the best rotation trio in the NL. But any of the other contending teams — the Miami Marlins, Milwaukee Brewers, San Francisco Giants, Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals — are capable of winning two of three at Dodger Stadium with only cardboard cutouts in the stands.
FanGraphs recently ran projections stating that the top division winner from 2012 to 2019 would have seen its odds of winning the World Series drop by an average of 5.3% under this current format.
“I don’t particularly like it,” Dodgers ace Kershaw said. “It doesn’t really give us any advantage at all.”
It’s easy to get caught up in the disappointment of not seeing such a thoroughly talented Dodgers team navigate a traditional season, but at several points during baseball’s three-month shutdown, Friedman found himself dreading the possibility of not seeing this team at all. It shifted his perspective and ultimately made him feel grateful for this season, however unconventional it might be. Friedman hasn’t found any one trait that correlates to success in the short series that make up baseball’s October tournament, be it contact hitting or deep bullpens or elite defense. He believes it’s “more narrative after the fact, because whatever you say is the best way, I can then give you a counter of that in the last however many years.”
Friedman will tell you this Dodgers team has as good a chance as any to win it all simply because it possesses the pitcher-hitter advantage more frequently and boasts incomparable depth, the type that could make an even bigger difference in a year with no off days within the division series and league championship series. But his team remains vulnerable, at the mercy of a postseason increasingly designed more for entertainment than validity.
“I get it from their vantage point, and if I worked at Major League Baseball, I would have different goals and incentives,” Friedman said. “From my vantage point, obviously a very biased one, I want to do everything that we can to make the playoffs less random. But they are still wildly popular, and I guess that’s what matters most.”