The Dodgers won 91 games, set a DL record, and captured their fourth NL West title in a row in 2016. There’s plenty of reasons to like this team and dream about the possibilities if the ball bounces their way during this playoff run, but there’s also reason for concern. People always whine themselves to death worrying about things like momentum or being an “elite” team or home-field advantage or beating “good” teams in the regular season or desperately wanting to play the best team in baseball just to avoid having to play a rival, but none of that has proven to be all that relevant to postseason success. However, there are a few obvious flaws with this 2016 squad that could easily prevent the Dodgers from winning it all for yet another year.
Historic Struggles Against Left-Handed Pitching
We’ve talked about this a lot before, so it should seem obvious that it would come up here. The Dodgers finished dead last in the MLB in production against left-handed pitchers, putting up a comical .221/.299/.345/.645 slash overall. But it’s more than that, as the Dodgers are historically bad against lefties for a playoff team.
By historical standards, L.A. looks like even more of an outlier. The Dodgers’ split OPS against lefties — that is, their OPS against lefties relative to the league’s OPS against lefties — was 70, where 100 is average and lower is worse. Only three teams on record have ever finished sub-70, and those three — the 1958 Senators, the 1963 Colt .45s, and the 1982 Astros — had a combined .427 winning percentage. The Dodgers’ split OPS against lefties is the lowest ever for a team that made the playoffs, and it’s not particularly close.
That excerpt is from an article that goes on to say that the Dodgers aren’t actually so bad against lefties from a true talent perspective, and I agree with that, if for no other reason that it’s difficult to actually be so historically bad at anything. However, that doesn’t mean they’re good against lefties, and the concern has to be that after a certain sample size, it’s unlikely that simple regression could explain away their 2016 performance. And given that the Dodgers players themselves have acknowledged the problem themselves, it could also have gotten into their heads already and it’s now just continuing to snowball.
Furthermore, I disagree with the notion that the Dodgers won’t have this problem taken advantage of by opposing teams in the playoffs.
In general, the playoffs are only slightly more lefty-leaning than the regular season: In the wild-card era, lefties have pitched 26.7 percent of regular-season innings and 28.5 percent of postseason innings.
The problem with this reasoning is that it’s so general. Despite those numbers, teams facing the Dodgers that haven’t been negligent in their scouting reports will likely throw lefty after lefty out of the bullpen against them as soon as they get the chance in any effort to exploit the Dodgers’ obvious weakness.
The main way to counter this seems to be getting to the right-handed starters early and/or forcing the lefty relievers to throw enough pitches in their early series outings that they’re unavailable in future games. That puts a lot of pressure on the Dodgers offense to score early runs off very good starters, which seems completely unsustainable even over just three series.
Sooo … hopefully they magically learn to hit lefties then.
The Bullpen Has High Strikeout Totals But Also High Fly Ball Totals
The Dodgers bullpen had a major turnaround in 2016, so much so that they actually were crowned MLB.com Bullpen Of The Year for 2016. As a whole, the pen had a MLB-leading 3.35 ERA, and their 3.55 FIP finished fourth in the MLB, just 0.01 behind second place. So they are undoubtedly a legitimately talented unit, and unlike past years, they have actually gotten the results to show for it.
In the playoffs, where the sample sizes are tiny for relievers and anything can happen, what you need out of the pen is arms that can miss bats and will take away the chance of any luck happening on contact. The Dodgers pen actually does that well too, and their 26.1% strikeout mark was fourth in the majors, which should theoretically allow them to escape trouble effectively.
However, the downside is that those strikeout came with a MLB-leading FB% at 39.4%. That makes the bullpen homer prone, basically the last thing you want in close games, in an era where the HR/FB% has jumped from ~10% in 2014 to ~13% in 2016. Worse yet, their three best relievers, Kenley Jansen, Joe Blanton, and Grant Dayton, all have FB% over 45%. So despite their general effectiveness, the one thing you don’t want to do is give up the long ball in high leverage situations, and the Dodgers highest leverage relievers are all major threats to do just that.
That’s not as big of a deal when one has 162 games to play, as blowing a game or two on a solo shot can be compensated for and isn’t as important as the overall results (ERA) or performance (FIP). However, the risk of the long ball is definitely something worrisome about the quality Dodgers pen, and it’s something with the potential to be magnified in short series.
Injuries Seem Almost Destined To Play A Role
I hate hypotheticals, mainly because when it comes to baseball most of the stuff people want to play out in their minds would never play out the way we imagine due to our memories are flawed and biased.
In 2013, Hanley Ramirez recovered from injury and posted a .345/.402/.638/1.040 run in a half season worth of plate appearances, which is absolutely comical. Hanley carried the offense that year, and he was primed to do it throughout the postseason, putting up a .500/.556/1.063/1.618 NLDS against the Braves. Then Joe Kelly broke Hanley’s rib during his first place appearance of the NLCS and he put up an .449 OPS for the series and the Dodgers lost in six games. The feeling was always that if Hanley was healthy, especially since the offense came up short most of that series, that was the Dodgers team that could’ve taken it all.
I mention this not to open old wounds, but because the Dodgers set an MLB record for the most players on a DL in a single season, and that stat could become relevant again. I mean, just look at the roster. Clayton Kershaw‘s back might still be dead, Rich Hill‘s blister could rip at any moment, Kenta Maeda‘s arm has been a risk since he signed that golden contract, Julio Urias is pushing past his innings limit just to be here, Yasmani Grandal is always one foul tip away from hitting one-handed again, Adrian Gonzalez‘s back and neck are failing him more often, Justin Turner had horrifying off-season microfracture surgery, Joc Pederson continually tries to destroy his own right shoulder in center, Andrew Toles‘ elbow is barking, Andre Ethier is hitting on literally a broken shin, and Yasiel Puig hasn’t looked healthy in like two years.
Yeah yeah, every team has the potential to get hit with injuries, I get it, but the Dodgers have almost made an art of it in 2016. Not all of it could be predicted before the season since a lot of this happened during the year, but the injury situation has mess potential written all over it and at this point it would almost seem like a miracle if the Dodgers DIDN’T have to deal with yet another injury. The Dodgers get hurt a lot, and at this point, even minor physical issues dealt to the wrong combo of players could easily derail a championship run.
Let’s hope not … but how can you not at least think about it?
Bonus: None Of This Matters Since The Giants Are Winning Again
After watching the Giants beat the Mets last night on a three-run homer from Conor Gillaspie — who has a career .706 OPS, who lost stretch-run playing time to emergency acquisition freaking Gordon Beckham, who was only playing because a better player in Eduardo Nunez was hurt, who was facing a pitcher in Jeurys Familia that gave up one homer all year — maybe all the shook and scared Dodgers fans that are more concerned with another team losing than the Dodgers winning were right after all.
Or maybe that stuff just highlights every team’s biggest obstacle in the postseason: that shit happens. It’s not “luck” per se, but just that in these one or five or seven games, anything can happen, and for most of the teams it won’t happen in the way they want it to happen. The Dodgers and their fans have been familiar with this concept since the franchise used all their fortune up to win in 1988.
When Dustin and I agreed to this point/counterpoint exercise, I was sure it wouldn’t be hard to find a long list of legitimate reasons to worry about the team’s chances of winning the World Series. But the more I dug into the year, the more I found that this is really is a rather quality team with only a few flaws. And no matter what happens in this playoffs, the fact that this is a quality team remains true. However, the flaws I’ve mentioned are obvious and worrisome enough that it gives me serious pause about expecting the Dodgers to get through three quality teams on their way to lifting the World Series trophy.
Of course, it takes absolutely no courage to bet against any team winning the World Series because chances are they won’t win it. But besides just randomness, I do think there are reasons to be skeptical about championship expectations for the Dodgers, despite the fact that I’m hoping the Dodgers defy the odds and obstacles and emerge victorious.