You Can't Predict Baseball: the 2018 Los Angeles Dodgers Story

The Dodgers were the odds-on favorite to win the NL West heading into the season, then basically everyone got hurt and they couldn't beat anyone. Now they're 2 games out of first.

by Rachael McDaniel
Jun 7 2018, 6:07pm

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

In their final spring training game before the 2018 season began, the Dodgers found themselves interrupted by an apparent act of God. Water began pooling in the dirt near the Dodgers dugout, arising from the ground as though from an unseen spring. It didn’t seem overly serious at first—nothing more than a momentary disruption. The players stood on the field, observing. The grounds crew, armed with wide brooms, swept the water away from the field of play. They kept sweeping. The water kept flowing. It wasn’t long before almost the entire left side of the Dodger Stadium infield was flooded. The game was called—a win for the Dodgers.

It became evident, as the strange scene unfolded, that the continuously growing lake was not just plain water, but something rather more pungent. The jokes began to fly. “Crappy start to the season,” Ross Stripling said. And though they were joking, the unexpected, unpleasant sewage leak during that final spring training game turned out to be a rather fitting harbinger for the unpredictability that has characterized Dodgers baseball over the past two months.

Before the season began, the Dodgers repeating as NL West champions for the sixth straight season seemed like an almost foregone conclusion. While both the Diamondbacks and the Rockies had surprisingly strong campaigns in 2017, leading to a three-team NL West contingent appearing in the postseason, the Dodgers were unquestionably the best team in the division. And while the Dodgers did little to add to the group that went to Game 7 of the World Series—their biggest move of the offseason was a salary dump that sent four players and cash to the Braves in exchange for presumed non-entity Matt Kemp—well, neither did the other two teams.

The Dodgers began the season with consecutive 1-0 losses on Joe Panik solo home runs. They would go on to split the series with the Giants, not allowing another run and scoring 14, seeming to suggest that reports of their demise had been greatly exaggerated. But then came a sweep at the hands of the Diamondbacks, in around as ugly a fashion as a sweep could have happened: a 15-inning loss where Kenley Jansen blew a three-run lead with two outs in the ninth, a shocking 6-1 shellacking in a Clayton Kershaw start, and a limp 3-0 loss during which they recorded only a single hit. The same Dodgers team that had so convincingly swept the Diamondbacks out of the 2017 NLDS recorded only a single win in their eight meetings in April. They lost a series at home to the Miami Marlins. They were swept by the lowly Cincinnati Reds. This all seemed wildly improbable.

That players were underperforming was obvious—most pressingly Jansen and Kershaw, with the latter’s average fastball velocity continuing to drop—but there were also the injuries, which came one after the other like so many kicks in the ribs to a team already curled up in the fetal position. There was Justin Turner, who was hit by a pitch and sidelined with a fractured wrist before the season even began. Corey Seager had Tommy John surgery. Clayton Kershaw had biceps tendinitis, then a lower back strain. Hyun-jin Ryu suffered a grotesque groin injury; Kenta Maeda strained his hip. Rich Hill’s blister resurfaced, despite his best efforts.

By May 17, the final game of another series the Dodgers lost to the Marlins, they were a sad 17-26, a full eight games behind the first-place Diamondbacks, six and a half behind the second-place Rockies, and four behind even the pedestrian Giants. There were only three teams with a worse record in the entire National League.

And yet entering today, despite the baffling number of injuries, setbacks, unexpected poor performances, despite the fact that they remain a game below .500, the Dodgers enter play today only two games behind the division-leading Diamondbacks and Rockies. Still with a full starting rotation sitting on the DL, still without Corey Seager and Clayton Kershaw, they are somehow not out of it. The nature of their oddity has, all of a sudden, reversed itself. For the first six weeks of the season, it was unbelievable how bad the Dodgers were; for the last three, it is unbelievable how good they’ve been.

The sudden turnaround can be attributed partially to the return of key players from injury: Justin Turner in particular, while not hitting that well, is certainly an improvement over the revolving door of utility infielders that manned his position in his absence. There are the rookies—most importantly Walker Buehler and Max Muncy—who have carried the team through injuries with their stellar performances. And there have been surprise stars. Matt Kemp, whom pretty much everyone thought was going to be a non-factor, has been the team’s best position player. Ross Stripling, starting out of necessity, has been the team’s ace.

Perhaps most conducive to the Dodgers’ continued playoff hopes, though, has been the chaos that has consumed their division. The Padres have been the Padres, and the aged, mediocre Giants have been difficult to parse. But the Rockies and the Diamondbacks are good, talented teams, and for the first month of the season the latter in particular were setting a world-beating pace—that is, before their offense abruptly disappeared. On May 8th, the Diamondbacks beat the Dodgers 8-5, lifting their record to 24-11. They went on to win four of their next 20 games, scoring more than three runs in a game only six times, losing slugger A.J. Pollock to injury. Paul Goldschmidt is batting .220 with a .742 OPS. Their hold on the division, which at the beginning of the month seemed almost unassailable, evaporated before the month was over.

So we are here, in the second week of June, with only four and a half games separating the worst and best teams in the NL West. At this point last season, the Dodgers, Rockies and Diamondbacks all had win percentages above .590; this season, the tied division leaders both have win percentages of .525, which, were they not division leaders, would put them three and a half games back of the second wild card spot. A look at FanGraphs’ playoff odds graph for the NL West illustrates the chaos beautifully. The teams of the NL West have soared to the highest heights and fallen into the deepest valleys, having the best of times and the worst of times, and have found themselves now somewhere in the middle, trying to muddle through.

And thus the weirdness continues for the Dodgers, who have a full starting rotation on the DL but are within striking distance of the division lead, who have been beaten by some of the worst teams in baseball and have beaten some of the best. If they do manage to repeat as NL West champions, though the final outcome may have been predictable, the path there will have been anything but—full of winning streaks and losing streaks, surprise injuries and surprise breakouts, collapsed massage tables and burst sewer pipes. Just like they always drew it up.