The intangibles of a 111-win Dodgers team

Photo: Stacie Wheeler

The Dodgers and reigning World Champion Cubs were tied 1-1 in the top of the third inning in Game 3 of the National League Championship series. Kyle Schwarber and Andre Ethier exchanged solo home runs before Chris Taylor stepped up to the plate. Taylor, with laser blue eyes and an unnerved presence, crushed a Kyle Hendricks sinker over the center field fence of Dodger Stadium to give his team the lead. Later, in the fifth inning, Taylor tripled in Joc Pederson to add more insurance to the Dodgers’ eventual victory over the Cubbies. Nobody could have predicted that Zach Lee would net one of the most impactful players for the Dodgers in 2017, one of the many intangibles that helped lead the Dodgers to their first World Series berth in 29 years.

We analyze a lot of statistics here. It’s a proven way to validate a baseball player’s individual performance or a team’s success on the field using a quantitative process. However, in addition to these numerically backed qualities, there are the “intangibles” that can further place a player or team above the competition. These nuances are not always as straightforward or formulaic as the statistics, but they can help add a little more insight into how a World Series caliber team rises above the rest to capture that coveted, and in the Dodgers’ case, elusive championship.

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The Dodgers had another shot at a National League championship, the second in as many years. Their epic 104-win season in 2017 was one for the franchise record books, the most wins by a Los Angeles Dodgers team ever. While many may cite the team’s success on its admittedly sizeable payroll, a bankroll adequately fitting for a market as large as Los Angeles, there were many other factors that led to the Dodgers’ success including some that could not have been predicted by anyone.

Eric Stephen of True Blue LA spoke with Dodgers’ ace Clayton Kershaw in February from Camelback Ranch in Phoenix about the Chase Utley signing and clubhouse chemistry.

“He’s such an added bonus for us. Everybody talks about the intangibles, but I really mean it,” pitcher Clayton Kershaw said on Wednesday. “Regardless of how he plays, just what he does here in the clubhouse is the best I’ve ever seen.”

LA signed Utley on a one-year, $2 million contract. The Silver Fox has been key in terms of mentoring the young guys, including Corey Seager. His value goes beyond his ability on the field, and Dave Roberts went as far as to call him his “favorite player of all time.”

It’s still astonishing to think back to Spring Training and the depth the Dodgers had to work with when piecing together their 25-man Opening Day roster. Many of the daily heroes of the Dodgers, often a different protagonist on any given night, are those ironically making the least cash. Three of the Dodgers who contributed the most in their NLCS victory, Taylor, Cody Bellinger and Charlie Culberson, were in the minors to start the season. They combined to go 8-for-14 in the 11-1 Game 5 clincher on Thursday night in Chicago. Two castoff players from the Seattle Mariners and New York Mets, Turner and Taylor, won co-MVP honors. You can’t predict baseball.

Taylor didn’t break with the team out of Spring Training despite a strong Cactus League showing, but he ended up having a career year and has been one of the most integral players for LA after he was called up in late-April. Much like Justin Turner‘s non-roster player turned star story, Taylor’s success with the Dodgers in 2017 was one that no one really could have predicted. He went from hitting one career home run in his first three major-league seasons with Seattle to collecting 21 home runs with LA this year. He had the third-best WAR (4.7), batting average (.288), on-base percentage (.354) and slugging percentage (.530) on the team, and he collected the second-most hits (148) and extra-base hits (60). His .208 ISO was identical to a certain red-bearded teammate and co-NLCS MVP. He accomplished this all while playing an admirable center field, an entirely new position for him.

Cody Bellinger‘s emergence as one of the most formidable young sluggers was another breakout performance for the Dodgers, one that came perfectly timed when first baseman Adrian Gonzalez was hampered with injury for the first time in his career. The shoo-in for NL Rookie of the Year, Bellinger set the Dodgers’ franchise record books ablaze with his 39 home runs, a NL rookie record. After watching Bellinger succeed at the minor-league level, we all knew he would be the future first baseman of the Dodgers. What we didn’t know, is that Bellinger would become one of the elite first baseman in the league at age 22.

Enrique Hernandez, acquired by the Dodgers in December of 2014 along with Austin Barnes, Andrew Heaney and Chris Hatcher in exchange for Dee Gordon, Dan Haren and Miguel Rojas, is still paying dividends. Kiké’s historic three home-run, seven-RBI performance in Game 5 of the NLCS will forever be a part of the Dodger legacy. Overcoming incredible adversity, a year filled with family hardships including cancer and devastation to his home land of Puerto Rico, Hernandez rose to the occasion in epic style.

Although Kiké’s versatility as a super utility player who can play nearly every position on the diamond has been valuable to the Dodgers, his struggles at the plate were well documented. Banana suits and silly antics aside, the Dodgers looked to him for production against left-handed pitching. That’s exactly what he gave them this year, batting .270/.367/.579/.946 with 10 home runs vs. LHP.

Offense from their first through four hitters — Taylor, Seager, Turner, and Bellinger — was churned out at a remarkable rate. But another caveat to the Dodgers success, especially when working with the pitching staff, is their dynamic catching duo. Yasmani Grandal‘s offense may have slowed down as the season waned, but you can’t complain about 49 home runs from your backstop over two seasons. The unforeseeable aspect of the Dodgers’ catching was of course the emergence of “back up” catcher Austin Barnes in 2017. Barnes may not be the typical catcher, having speed and versatility in the infield, but his contributions to the Dodgers’ winning ways this year have been vital. After hitting .289/.408/.486/.895 in 102 games for the Dodgers, Barnesy earned his role in the postseason as the Dodgers’ starting catcher.

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There were also numerous heroics from the Dodgers’ pitching staff, some from arms thought to be long gone. Everyone had all but given up on Hyun-Jin Ryu who battled back from significant shoulder and elbow surgeries. Although Ryu did not make the cut for a postseason roster spot, his success in 2017 is anything short of extraordinary. After not pitching for two years, he proved that he still is relevant with a 3.77 ERA, 111 ERA+, and 116 strikeouts in 126 2/3 innings pitched in 25 games.

Even Joe Maddon was surprised at how dominant the Dodgers’ bullpen was after they shut down the Cubs offensively during the NLCS. Even though there was some rough times early in the season and Sergio Romo, Chris Hatcher, and Pedro Baez made us pull out our hair at times, the relief staff was one of the largest contributors to the Dodgers’ success during the regular season and deep into the postseason. The L.A. bullpen finished the regular season with a league-best 3.38 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 637 strikeouts. So far, the bullpen has a 0.94 ERA, 0.49 WHIP, and has only allowed three earned runs, walked two batters and struck out 32 in 28 2/3 innings in eight postseason games.

Brandon Morrow is going to earn a lot of money this offseason (another non-roster invitee success story, who is making a mere $1.25 million this year), Josh Fields has been awesome and is making only $1.05 million, Kenley Jansen is still the king, and even Kenta Maeda found a niche. This was important during a revised landscape in baseball where reliable and innings-eating starting pitchers are a dying breed. Last season only one Dodgers starting pitcher racked up enough innings to qualify for the ERA title (Maeda). Along with the transition from a 15-day disabled list to a 10-day disabled list, the rise of the Dodgers’ bullpen gave management more flexibility than ever before.

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Finally, I would be remiss to not mention Yasiel Puig‘s maturation this season, a key ingredient in the Dodgers’ recipe for success. Chad summed it up best:

“It’s been impressive to watch and he deserves every bit of the credit he’s getting now. But Turner’s performance isn’t all that surprising to me, honestly. JT has done it in previous postseasons, and has consistently been the Dodgers biggest threat in meaningful situations over the past three years. I don’t want to say I expected this type of ridiculousness to continue, but everybody sorta figured if the Dodgers were going to get far then JT was going to play a major role. However, the other player that has been the key to this run has definitely been a pleasant surprise: Yasiel Puig. Not to say Puig hasn’t gotten his share of plaudits as well, but unlike Turner’s performance, Puig’s star turn was very much a surprise.”

Puig’s turnaround is a pleasant and timely surprise, and his wagging tongue and toe-tapping dance reflects what this game ultimately is all about. Having fun. This season has been a lot of fun.

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There’s been many surprising and unpredictable moments this year for the Dodgers, but the way they all came together is what really propelled this team ahead of all the other great teams in the league. Andrew Friedman‘s “process,” may have drawn criticism from rabid naysayers over the years, but in the end the talented youth they held on to, along with the selected veterans who mentored them, will be vying for the World Championship together as a cohesive baseball machine as they have all year long. The main components were in place once Turner and Kenley re-signed this off-season, but the Taylors, the Bellingers, the Barneses, and the Morrows were the unanticipated contributors that made this 111-win team a reality. JT channeled Kirk Gibson in the NLCS, and now we wait to see who the hero of the World Series will be.

About Stacie Wheeler

Stacie Wheeler

Stacie Wheeler, born and raised in So Cal, has been writing about the Dodgers since 2010. She wrote daily as the Co-Editor of Lasorda’s Lair for five long years, and she has also written for Dodgers Nation and Dodger Blue 1958. She currently contributes to The Hardball Times. Stacie graduated from the University Of Southern California with a bachelor’s degree in Cinema-Television. You can also watch her videos on her YouTube channel, DishingUpTheDodgers.