How the Los Angeles Dodgers Have Established Themselves as Clear MLB Favorites
Back in August, I wrote about how a healthy Matt Kemp would be the final piece to the Dodgers' World Series run. And when he finally returned in mid-September with 11 hits in his first 28 at-bats, including three doubles and a homer, that final piece to an already strong team appeared to have arrived.
But it wasn't meant to be. A recurring ankle injury forced the 29-year-old out of action for the remainder of the season and playoffs.
Should we be surprised? I had them winning the division in my preseason NL West preview, and so did many others. But they looked like anything but contenders after a June 21 loss to the Padres, which dropped their record to 30-42.
They were in last place and 9.5 games back of the division-leading Diamondbacks. Nearly four months later, they've gone 65-29 and are eight wins away from a championship.
So, how did they go from cellar-dwellers with a manager and general manager on the hot seat to World Series favorites?
As easy as it is to point to rookie Yasiel Puig's call-up, it's been so much more than that. While Puig may have been the necessary spark, the Dodgers have gotten to this point with an all-around team effort.
Here's a look at the five keys that have the Dodgers closing in on their first World Series title since 1988.
Return to Health
During the team's miserable 30-42 start, there's no denying that they played terribly. But the rash of injuries certainly didn't help.
Hanley Ramirez had only played in 17 of the 72 games because of injuries to his hamstring and thumb. Carl Crawford missed several weeks with a strained hamstring.
Whether it was Nick Punto or Dee Gordon filling in at shortstop, or Jerry Hairston Jr., Skip Schumaker or Scott Van Slyke filling in for Crawford in left field, the Dodgers weren't getting much production.
The pitching staff was hit even harder. Josh Beckett was shut down for the year after eight starts. Chad Billingsley made just two starts before undergoing season-ending Tommy John surgery. Zack Greinke missed more than a month with a fractured collarbone. Chris Capuano spent time on the disabled list with a strained lat muscle.
As a result, the Dodgers were forced to go with rookie Matt Magill, who posted a 6.51 ERA in six starts—all Dodger losses. He walked 28 and struck out 26 in 27.2 innings.
All the Dodgers could do was try to keep their heads above water until the team was capable of making a run. That's exactly what they did.
Ramirez not only returned healthy on June 4, he came back as good as he had ever been with a .341 batting average, 19 homers, 23 doubles and nine stolen bases in his final 82 games of the season. After going 8-for-16 with four doubles, a triple and a homer in the NLDS, it's clear that Ramirez is still one of the most talented hitters in the game at age 29.
While Crawford didn't make a huge impact after returning to the lineup in early July (.668 OPS in 65 games), the 32-year-old veteran went 6-for-17 with three homers in the NLDS.
And since Greinke returned to the mound in mid-May, he's posted a 2.71 ERA and the Dodgers have won 20 of his 26 starts. Greinke also won the first game of the team's amazing run, which began on June 22, and went 12-2 with a 2.03 ERA from that point on.
Just about every star-studded team that has a successful season has its share of unexpected contributors. The Dodgers are no exception.
As the season went on, it was becoming clear that minor league outfielder Yasiel Puig would get to the majors at some point. But to have the type of season that will put him in discussions for NL MVP despite playing in only 104 games might be the biggest surprise in all of baseball.
Third baseman Juan Uribe, who clubbed the game-winning two-run homer in the decisive Game 4 victory over the Braves, had given the Dodgers almost zero return on the three-year, $21 million contract he signed in 2011.
In his first two seasons with the Dodgers, Uribe had a .552 OPS and six homers in 143 games. So they couldn't have expected much different in 2013.
They would've been wrong.
The 34-year-old third baseman had a .769 OPS with 12 homers in 132 games before his solid NLDS performance (6-for-16, 2 HR, 4R, 4 RBI). He's doing all he can to make it up to the team and earn the entire $21 million in 2013.
Other pleasant surprises in 2013 ...
- Scott Van Slyke, 1B/OF: .807 OPS, 7 HR, 8 2B in 53 games
- Paco Rodriguez, RP: 2.32 ERA, 54.1 IP, 30 H, 19 BB, 63 K
- Brian Wilson, RP: 13.2 IP, ER, 8 H, 4 BB, 13 K
- Chris Withrow, RP: 2.60 ERA, 34.2 IP, 20 H, 13 BB, 43 K
Andre Ethier's Return to Form
Although he's been limited to pinch-hit duty in the playoffs due to a sore ankle, Andre Ethier had already made a huge impact on the Dodgers' regular season.
Amazingly, the 31-year-old would've been the odd man out had the entire outfield been able to stay healthy earlier in the season. In fact, he was playing so poorly that the trade rumors surrounding him didn't make much sense, because no team was going to acquire a struggling hitter with a bloated long-term contract.
On June 10, Ethier had a .661 OPS with four homers and had already been benched earlier in the season by manager Don Mattingly. But with Kemp on the disabled list at the time, the Dodgers did not have any other better options. Mattingly kept penciling Ethier into the lineup as the starting center fielder.
And it finally paid off.
In his final 82 games, Ethier had an .873 OPS with eight homers, 23 doubles, 37 runs batted in and 38 walks. Over that same period, Yasiel Puig had an .878 OPS with 15 homers and 19 doubles in 96 games.
Of course, no one will ever talk about Ethier's contribution to the Dodgers' turnaround, even if he had nearly as much impact on the field as Puigthe guy everyone will always talk about.
When the Dodgers traded for veteran Ricky Nolasco on July 6, they thought they were getting a solid back-of-the-rotation starter who would give the team a chance to win every five days. He was that and much, much more.
In his first 12 starts as a Dodger, the 30-year-old went 8-1 with a 2.07 ERA, 17 walks and 62 strikeouts in 74 innings. The fact that he was terrible in his last three regular-season starts means very little; the Dodgers were well on their way to a division title, and Nolasco had a lot to do with it.
It wasn't a huge acquisition, but it's one that will look great on general manager Ned Colletti's resume.
Trading three fringe minor league pitchers—one that has since been outrighted off the 40-man roster and another that has been claimed off waivers—for a No. 4 starter that ended up pitching like an ace for two months is the kind of deal that makes people forget that he signed Brandon League to a three-year, $22.5 million deal.
Naming Kenley Jansen the Closer
After the questionable decision to re-sign Brandon League to a three-year, $22.5 million deal this past offseason, it took the Dodgers exactly 63 games to make it all better.
A closer with a 25-32 lifetime record, League, who had a 6.00 ERA and four blown saves in his last 12 chances, manager Don Mattingly finally made the necessary move for his team. He named Kenley Jansen, the best reliever on the team (and possibly one of the best in baseball), as his closer.
Jansen had success in the role in 2012, but a heart condition forced him out of action late in the season. When he returned in late September, League had reclaimed the job.
Since taking the job back, the 26-year-old Jansen has a 1.41 ERA with 26 saves in 29 chances. He's walked 12 and struck out 67 in 44.2 innings while holding opponents to a .142 batting average. The 6'5" right-hander also blew away Atlanta, striking out the side, to close out the NLDS victory on Monday.
It's clear that Jansen is not a guy that hitters look forward to facing in the ninth inning.