Can Juggernaut Dodgers Be Stopped by Fernando Tatis' Padres, Anybody Else in NL?August 25, 2020
Virtually nothing about the 2020 Major League Baseball season would make sense to someone in 2019, save for maybe one thing.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are steamrolling everything in their path.
Before hitting a wall (i.e., the Washington Nationals) in the playoffs, the Dodgers pulled this same trick last year by winning 106 games with a laughably lopsided plus-273 run differential. After a slight change to their cast of characters, they are on an even more impressive pace.
Halfway through this year's 60-game schedule, the Dodgers are 22-8. In a typical year, that would put them on track for 119 wins.
Los Angeles' run differential, meanwhile, is plus-79. That's nearly twice the next-best differential—shout-out to the Minnesota Twins' plus-41—and it would have them on pace for a plus-427 mark in a 162-game season.
The Dodgers do have one pursuer in the National League West, as the San Diego Padres have won seven straight to push their record to 18-12. They owe much to MVP contender and breaker of unwritten rules Fernando Tatis Jr., who has been in cheat-code mode while racking up a 1.073 OPS and 12 home runs.
More recently, the Padres have been exploiting a market inefficiency by simply hitting home runs whenever the bases are loaded:
And yet even San Diego is still four games off Los Angeles' pace with only a 7.5 percent chance of claiming first place in the NL West. At 92.2 percent, the Dodgers are the only team in the NL whose chances of finishing first eclipse even the 70 percent threshold.
As we'll get to, this doesn't mean the Dodgers can't be stopped. It's just that the how of doing so isn't so easy to determine.
Take, for instance, an offense that's scoring an MLB-high 5.7 runs per game. The clearest explanation for this is that the Dodgers are Houston Astros-ing—or operating with a low strikeout rate and high isolated power:
The Dodgers' 11-3 win over the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium on Sunday was the pinnacle of this experience. They struck out only twice and hit seven home runs.
Two of those were mashed by Mookie Betts, who's somehow looking underpaid despite his recently signed $365 million contract. By way of his 1.032 OPS, 11 homers and MLB-high 2.4 WAR, the former Boston Red Sox star is mounting a charge at his second MVP Award in the last three years.
Reborn shortstop Corey Seager notwithstanding, the funny thing is that the Dodgers offense is actually short on red-hot hitters besides Betts. But for opponents, that's also the scary part. Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy and Joc Pederson, specifically, are surely better than their aggregate .718 OPS. As it is, they've been heating up of late.
Even sans 2012 American League Cy Young Award winner David Price—who opted out of the season after coming over from the Sox with Betts—the Dodgers are also preventing runs better than any other National League team. Their bullpen has a 1.82 ERA, while their rotation has a solid 3.34 ERA of its own.
There are too many contributors to these efforts to count. But this much can be agreed on: Dustin May has the best hair, and the Dodgers must be thrilled with what they're seeing out of longtime ace Clayton Kershaw and longtime closer Kenley Jansen.
After slipping into a conspicuous decline in recent years, the former has ridden an unexpected velocity bump to a 2.25 ERA and 29 strikeouts over 24 innings. As evidenced by his excellent exit velocity allowed, the latter has his cutter working again and has shaved his ERA from 3.71 in 2019 to 0.77 in 2020.
While they're sitting pretty, the Dodgers can also look ahead and see nothing but smooth sailing. The Padres and Oakland Athletics are the only threats in their way, and L.A. has only three games remaining against each club.
There's basically no way the Dodgers will miss out on this season's expanded playoff field. And given all of the above, their inside track to the NL's No. 1 seed is very much secure.
And yet it's not out of the question that the Dodgers will be tripped up in October all over again. If anything, it's even more likely to happen this year precisely because of said expanded field.
As opposed to just 11 games over three rounds, the Dodgers will need to survive four rounds and win 13 games to capture their first World Series championship since 1988. Their margin for error will be especially thin in the first round, which will offer a best-of-three scenario.
As things stand, the Dodgers could come up against any number of ace starters—e.g., Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Sonny Gray, Aaron Nola, Brandon Woodruff and Kyle Freeland. Just one loss would put L.A. on the brink of elimination, and it knows all too well that anything can happen then.
Even beyond the first round, the Dodgers would have to beware a potential matchup with the Padres. San Diego has played them tough with three wins in seven meetings. And it'd throw out a similarly elite offense and a rotation headed by aces Chris Paddack and Dinelson Lamet.
Otherwise, the Chicago Cubs have a heck of a rotation in their own right, while Atlanta will have a dangerous offense once its battered-and-bruised pieces finally come together.
But just as it's nigh impossible to make the case that any of these teams are superior now, it's likewise hard to count on any of them dooming the Dodgers in October. Neither San Diego nor Atlanta nor Chicago has Los Angeles' pitching depth. Perhaps that wouldn't be a deal-breaker if the Dodgers offense were nothing special, but, well, see above.
It's thus frankly hard to argue against the Dodgers' 28 percent chance of making it to the World Series. They really are that good in a way that no other team in the Senior Circuit is that good.
Of course, actually winning the World Series against the best of the American League would present a whole 'nother challenge for the Dodgers. There are dragons there, including well-balanced clubs in the A's and Tampa Bay Rays, homer-happy offenses in the Twins and New York Yankees and a pitching-rich team in Cleveland.
The Dodgers, though, can and should have a certain mindset by now: Even if it isn't guaranteed, 2020 darn well should finally be their year.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs and accurate through play Monday.