Sports

The Dodgers Are So Deep That They Don’t Need All Their Stars

After sweeping the San Diego Padres over the weekend, the Los Angeles Dodgers are on pace to win 103 games this season — the fourth time in the past five seasons that they have produced at least 100 wins per 162 games. If that trend holds steady over the next few weeks, L.A. would become only the 28th franchise in NL or AL history to pull off that kind of five-year run — and just the second since the 1954-58 New York Yankees did it. (The Atlanta Braves also accomplished the feat from 1995 to 1999.)

If all you knew about the 2021 Dodgers was the ongoing excellence of their record, you would think it was a season of business as usual for MLB’s most reliable winning machine. In reality, however, it’s been anything but.

Most notably, the team’s marquee offseason acquisition, pitcher Trevor Bauer, is getting paid $38 million not to pitch after being accused of sexual assault by multiple women during the summer. Just last week, his administrative leave was extended by MLB through the end of the season, and it is unclear if he’ll ever play again. In retrospect, the decision to (temporarily) make Bauer MLB’s highest-paid player looks like an unmitigated disaster in every conceivable way.

No fellow Dodger comes close to the moral and professional catastrophe of Bauer this season. But others have also produced below their usual levels on the field. All five of L.A.’s best returning players (and 10 of its best 14) by wins above replacement per 162 games in 2020 — when, it should be noted, the Dodgers had one of the best teams in history — have played worse in 2021. Mookie Betts, Corey Seager, Clayton Kershaw, Chris Taylor and Tony Gonsolin all generated in excess of 4.5 WAR per 162 last season, putting up the full-season equivalent of 28.2 combined wins. This year, only Betts is above 4.5 (if barely — he has 4.8, a relative down year by his lofty standards), and the quintet has combined for just 14.7 WAR per 162.

Meanwhile, center fielder Cody Bellinger has taken a complete and total nosedive in performance over the past few seasons. Just two years ago, Bellinger won the NL MVP with an absurd season — hitting .305 with a .406 OBP, a 1.035 OPS and 8.2 WAR per 162 in 2019. This year, he’s hitting .161 with a .237 OBP, a .535 OPS and is on pace for -1.2 WAR. While Bellinger has battled through a fractured fibula and hamstring issues for much of the season, the deterioration in his output remains startling. Going back to 1950, only two players have ever had three consecutive seasons in which they logged at least 3 percent of team playing time each season and declined by more total WAR per 162 over that span than Bellinger’s 9.4-WAR drop-off from 2019 to 2021:

Steep declines are usually reserved for older players

Biggest two-year declines in wins above replacement (WAR) per 162 games for players with at least 3 percent of team playing time in three straight seasons, 1950-2021

WAR/162
Player Years Ages Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 2Y Chg.
Ted Williams 1957-59 38-40 10.19 4.44 -0.11 -10.30
Lou Boudreau 1948-50 30-32 11.04 3.57 1.02 -10.02
Cody Bellinger 2019-21 23-25 8.21 3.71 -1.23 -9.44
Jim Bunning 1966-68 34-36 8.55 7.69 -0.55 -9.10
Roger Clemens 1997-99 34-36 11.81 8.23 2.85 -8.96
Dwight Evans 1981-83 29-31 9.97 6.47 1.25 -8.71
Fred Lynn 1979-81 27-29 8.83 4.70 0.16 -8.67
J.D. Martinez 2018-20 30-32 6.31 3.35 -2.28 -8.59
Bret Boone 2003-05 34-36 6.67 0.68 -1.87 -8.54
Bernard Gilkey 1996-98 29-31 7.83 2.38 -0.50 -8.33
Zoilo Versalles 1965-67 25-27 7.09 1.52 -1.20 -8.29
Al Rosen 1953-55 29-31 10.02 4.79 1.79 -8.23
Chone Figgins 2009-11 31-33 7.14 1.25 -1.01 -8.15
Catfish Hunter 1975-77 29-31 7.78 3.05 -0.25 -8.03
Joe Morgan 1976-78 32-34 9.57 5.81 1.56 -8.01

WAR is measured using JEFFBAGWELL (Joint Estimate Featuring FanGraphs and B-R Aggregated to Generate WAR, Equally Leveling Lists), which averages the metrics found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

2021 stats through games of Sept. 12.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

What’s even more notable is that all of the players around Bellinger on that list were in their 30s, often very late in their careers. That makes sense, given what we know about the aging curves of MLB players. But we’ve practically never seen a player in his early to mid-20s like Bellinger suffer a similar fate, at least not while maintaining the playing time criteria to qualify for the list in the first place.

Bellinger’s decline has coincided with a pronounced increase in his rate of hitting the ball in the air, to the point that nearly 50 percent of his contact has been for fly balls — a share that would rank him sixth in MLB if he had qualified for FanGraphs’ leaderboards — despite a career-low 9 percent of them going for home runs (and a near-career-high 14 percent failing to leave the infield). But that’s just one of the stylistic markers amiss for Bellinger this season. A virtually across-the-board collapse in Bellinger’s Statcast percentile indicators illustrates a swing that once ranked among the sweetest in baseball but is all kinds of messed-up right now:

Bellinger’s metrics are way, way down

Cody Bellinger’s percentile rankings (among all qualified hitters across MLB) in Statcast categories for the 2019 and 2021 seasons

Percentile
Stat 2019 Season 2021 Season Change
Expected batting average 100th 3rd -97
Expected weighted on-base average 100 4 -96
Expected slugging percentage 99 13 -86
Hard-hit rate 86 26 -60
Strikeout rate 78 19 -59
Barrel rate 90 38 -52
Walk rate 95 48 -47
Whiff rate 60 25 -35
Average exit velocity 86 57 -29
Outs above average 93 73 -20
Sprint speed 90 75 -15

For categories where less is more (e.g., strikeouts), players with lower rates have better percentiles.

Through games of Sept. 13, 2021.

Source: Baseball Savant

Bellinger is the biggest outlier, but given the fact that the Dodgers have multiple MVP and Cy Young candidates playing well below their usual norms (or not even playing at all), it is somewhat incredible that Los Angeles didn’t collapse completely, much less that they’re still on a trajectory for the second-best record in baseball behind only the archrival San Francisco Giants. (Even if they are more likely than not to require a wild-card win to make the Division Series.)

Then again, it wasn’t as though the Dodgers had nobody left to rely on if their best players from 2020 suddenly lapsed. This year, L.A. has gotten a borderline MVP season out of infielder Max Muncy, who himself had a down year in 2020 and was picked up by his teammates’ outstanding play. (He’s now returning the favor.) The team has also received great performances from Julio Urías, in his first full-length season as a starter, and catcher Will Smith, following up on his postseason heroics from his first year as the Dodgers’ starting catcher. And veteran third baseman Justin Turner keeps churning out great years, producing one of his best in 2021 at the age of 36.

Even more importantly, starting pitcher Walker Buehler has unlocked another level of play this year. The 27-year-old righty ranks third among starters in ERA and is on pace for 6.5 WAR, fourth-best among pitchers and seventh among all players in 2021. And the team’s trade-deadline haul — which included starter Max Scherzer and middle-infielder Trea Turner — has already been the stuff of legends.

(It’s also not as though the likes of Betts and Kershaw have been bad, despite each missing time with injury. Even an injury-plagued partial season from a Hall of Famer still equates to a year that would be the best of most players’ careers.)

The upshot is that Los Angeles currently leads our forecast model’s World Series odds — with a 31 percent probability, more than double that of any other team — despite all of the potential stumbling blocks (some of which, like with the Bauer debacle, were self-inflicted). One of the main points of methodically building an expensive championship juggernaut like the one the Dodgers have is to weather these kinds of years, when things are far from perfect but the topline results are indistinguishable from any other of the franchise’s extremely successful recent seasons. And by that standard, the 2021 Dodgers are perhaps the ultimate testament to the process this team has followed over the past decade.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.


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