By: Chris Larson
As of late, when you start to survey the National League, you start to wonder if there is actually a team that could challenge the Los Angeles Dodgers for the league championship and really start to have doubts. After all, this years Dodgers team is one that is composed of excellent starting pitching, a lineup that is very deep up and down, and has all of the components of a team that is once again poised to find their way back to the World Series.
Right now, it's arguably hard to find another team that will even come close to the success that the Dodgers have experienced or the type of numbers that they will put up down the stretch. One could potentially make a case for the Chicago Cubs or Philadelphia Phillies, but both of those teams have their own concerns and have gone through lulls where you wonder, if they are actually championship caliber teams, after all. While the American League has four different teams that sort of rule the roost in the Houston Astros, New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, and Tampa Bay Rays, the National League has one.
Consider for a moment the record of this years Dodgers team and the fact that it very well could even be better than the team that made it to the World Series last year and in 2017. Heading into play today, the Dodgers have a 39-19 record and are 20 games over 500 with a commanding 8 and 1/2 game lead over the Colorado Rockies in the National League West. Furthermore, of all of the teams in the National League, the Dodgers by far have the best run differential (+85) and have proven that they can play with the best of them, based on their 23-11 record against teams with records over 500.
In fact, just last night, the Dodgers victory put them 20 games over the 500 mark, which didn't even happen last year until Game 162! That's saying something right there about the strength of this years team and the fact that the sky is basically the limit for this squad. Additionally, if you recall last years Dodgers team ended up experiencing a really slow start to the year and had an abysmal month of May. Last April, the Dodgers finished the month with a 11-14 record and had a 14-14 record for the month of May before they really started to turn up the heat once the calendar turned to June.
Beyond that, the 2017 Los Angeles Dodgers team didn't reach the 39 win plateau until June 11th, following a victory against the Cincinnati Reds. At that time, the Dodgers were second in the National League, 1 and 1/2 games back of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Furthermore, that was a really good season for the team highlighted by a strong June, in which the team finished with a 21-7 record, but one where they struggled to finish things off finishing September with a 12-17 record.
Switching back to this year's team now, it's easy to see why they are so strong and why this year's team could end up surpassing the performance of the 2017 and 2018 squads. Plus, you have to remember that there were a lot more teams rebuilding during both of those seasons in the National League and things have turned more competitive so far this season. At the moment, six teams in the National League have a record under 500, but it's fair to expect some of those teams such as the Washington Nationals, New York Mets, and Arizona Diamondbacks to remain competitive in their own regard, during the remainder of the season. However, the Dodgers might end up feasting on those six teams potentially down the stretch, which would only enhance their reign over the, National League even more.
So what's making this year's Dodgers squad so strong? Let's take a look at some of the different possibilities and check in on various areas of the team overall.
To begin, let's take a look at the pitching staff which has a cumulative ERA of 3.56 over 515.1 innings of work, which makes the Dodgers as the best pitching staff in the entire National League. Thus far, the Dodgers pitching staff has allowed the fewest earned runs (204), the fewest walks (131), and have the lowest Opponent Batting Average Against (.231) among National League teams. Much of this is a credit to the starting rotation which has been phenomenal for Los Angeles as well as the bullpen which has been a strong point as well.
By far, the most impactful starting pitcher for the Dodgers has been left-hander, Hyun-Jin Ryu. So far this year, Ryu is making a strong case to be in consideration for the NL Cy Young Award, posting a career best 1.48 ERA over 73.0 innings of work with 69 strikeouts and a (2.53) Fielding Independent Percentage (FIP). For the month of May alone, Ryu put up a 0.59 ERA over 45.2 innings and had a commanding Opponent Batting Average Against of (.177). In fact, Ryu's performance so far has been so strong that he very well could wind up being the National League starter for the All-Star Game in Cleveland.
Of course, beyond Ryu, Clayton Kershaw has been the usual workhorse anchoring down the top of the starting rotation and the Dodgers have had the luxury of having enough depth to cover all five spots and putting two other starters in their bullpen. Those two starters are left-hander, Julio Urias, and righty, Ross Stirpling. When a team is able to have enough starting pitching depth to have a situation like this, it makes it really nice for the manager and the entire coaching staff down the stretch. If there is an injury, the Dodgers have an adequate replacement ready to step in right away. Furthermore, once October rolls around, it sets up for a prime situation when it comes to matchups.
Granted, Julio Urias is on an innings limit after starting the season in the starting rotation and tossing 19.2 innings, but the Los Angeles Dodgers have a plan to control those innings down the stretch and make sure that Julio Urias is in top form come October. As a starter and a reliever, one of the most intriguing things about Urias has been his splits between left-handed and right-handed hitters. The sample size is vastly different, but so far against lefties Urias has a 1.93 ERA over 9.1 innings pitched along with 14 strikeouts. Against righties, Urias has a 4.09 ERA over 22 innings of work with a Opponent Batting Average Against of (.205).
For right-hander, Ross Stripling, things have gone very well this season as well. So far, Stripling has a 3.35 ERA over 43.0 innings pitched and a (.299) Opponent On-Base Percentage. For Stripling, the four-seam fastball has been his primary pitch as he averages 90.5 MPH on that pitch and induces an Average Spin Rate of 2,265 RPM. To date, Stripling has pitched at least once in every inning, meaning that skipper, Dave Roberts, has been able to trust him in a number of different situations.
One of the most intriguing things about Stripling has been his stats leading off in an inning. In those situations, which account for approximately 11 innings, Stripling has a 0.82 ERA along with 9 strikeouts.
At the back end of the bullpen, things have been locked down primarily by closer, Kenley Jansen. As was the case last year, Jansen has had his moments, but has been very solid overall posting a 3.28 ERA, 17 saves over 19 save opportunities, and has had (70.8%) of his pitches count for strikes so far. Although those numbers certainly will play, Jansen has some massive split differences when opposing a left-handed hitter versus a right-handed hitter. Against lefties over 12 innings, Jansen has amassed a 1.50 ERA and an Opponent Batting Average Against of (.159). Against righties over virtually the same sample size (12.2 innings of work), Jansen has a 4.97 ERA with a (.217) Opponent Batting Average Against. Regardless, the Dodgers know exactly what they have in Kenley Jansen and would likely take him over any other closer nine times out of ten down the stretch.
Now that the pitching is covered, let's switch over to the lineup, which has been phenomenal as well and really headlined by current NL MVP front runner, Cody Bellinger. This might be the season where Bellinger is in his true breakout form and having a season that resembles something that baseball hasn't seen for many years. Presently, Bellinger is batting: .379/.465/.749 over 241 plate appearances, by far the best batting line to start any season of his three-year major league career. In that span, Bellinger has shown a ridiculous amount of plate discipline, as illustrated by his (14.1) walk percentage, and an immense amount of power with an Isolated Power value of (.369).
At 23 years old, Bellinger is only starting to enter his prime window, which is exciting and scary at the same time. Exciting for Dodgers fans and the rest of baseball who love watching him play on a daily basis and enjoy watching him come through in key situations. Scary for those teams that have to face him on a nightly basis and have to deal with the consequences that he can induce during certain situations. One of those situations being when there are men in scoring position. In those situations, which accounts for approximately 48 at bats to date, Bellinger has a batting line of: .352/.452/.604 with 17 hits, 3 home runs, 27 RBI, and 11 walks.
Outside of Bellinger, the next biggest impact bat for Dave Roberts and the Los Angeles Dodgers has been leftfielder, Joc Pederson. Pederson has quietly had one of the better seasons among leftfielders in the game and continues to prove why the Dodgers haven't given up on him just yet, despite having several teams interested in his services, over the past few seasons. To date, Pederson is batting: .274/.375/.662 over 184 plate appearances. Furthermore, he has a Weighted On-Base Average of (.423) and like Cody Bellinger, has experienced a huge jump in his overall power, as indicated by his Isolated Power value of (.389). Just last night, Joc Pederson displayed that power as he hit a towering home run (his seventeenth of the season) 445 feet. That was the longest home run by a Dodger hitter this season since catcher, Russell Martin, on April 5th.
Beyond Cody Bellinger and Joc Pederson, the Los Angeles Dodgers have plenty of other stars around the field that can make opposing teams pay. Those other stars include third baseman, Justin Turner, who currently has a (.446) slugging percentage, Corey Seager who has a (.339) on-base percentage, and Alex Verdugo, who has a (2.1) WAR, the second highest of any other Dodgers hitter. The brilliant thing about the way the Dodgers are built is the fact that there is so much depth that skipper, Dave Roberts, can mix and match the hitters in a number of different positions and come out with a different batting order for every single game. Again, another quality that makes the Los Angeles Dodgers, the cream of the crop in the National League.
Another note on the hitting is that the Dodgers are doing a much better job, so far this season against lefties, than they have in the past. So far against lefties, Dodgers hitters have a batting line of: .256/.347/.435 over 644 at bats with 165 hits, 29 doubles, 4 triples, 26 home runs, 96 RBI, 86 walks, and 157 strikeouts. Last season, over the span of 1,888 at bats, Dodgers hitters struggled, during certain periods of time against lefties, posting a .240/.324/.409 batting line with 453 hits, 101 doubles, 9 triples, 67 home runs, 222 RBI, 226 walks, and 486 strikeouts. Granted, the sample size is much different (58 games compared to 162 games), but it provides a general idea of the strengths of this year's Dodgers lineup and where things could be going as the season progresses forward.
No one knows for sure if this will finally be the year that the Los Angeles Dodgers get over the hump and bring a World Series Championship home, but they are by far and away the best team in the National League and the team that everyone is practically looking up to. Unless the Philadelphia Phillies or Chicago Cubs manage to make a blockbuster trade or two at the July 31st Trade Deadline, it doesn't look like that's going to be changing anytime soon. In fact, this year's Dodgers squad might very well blow the past two Dodgers squads out of the water, just based on the talent that the 25-man roster is composed of and the current trends of impact players like, Cody Bellinger.
The American League has four teams reigning over the league in the Houston Astros, New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, and Tampa Bay Rays, but the National League has one in the Los Angeles Dodgers and it's one well-oiled machine that just keeps chugging along the track.