The Dodgers juggernaut was stopped in its tracks on Monday night in St. Louis. For the first time in this young season, the team failed to homer, and for the second time, they failed to score at least four runs, and for just the third time in 11 games, they lost. Still, there’s much for the two-time defending NL champions to be happy about at this point in the season, particularly compared to last year.
Recall that it took the 2018 Dodgers until the third game of the season to get on the board, as they lost their first two games by 1-0 scores, both courtesy of Joe Panik solo homers. With a lineup lacking Justin Turner and a bullpen coping with a struggling Kenley Jansen, they stumbled to a 4-9 start, took until the 19th game of the season to score their 87th run, and didn’t really right the ship until mid-May, after they’d dug a 16-26 hole and lost Corey Seager for the season due to Tommy John surgery.
It’s been a different story this time around. On Opening Day, the Dodgers pounded out a major league record eight home runs against the Diamondbacks, and so far, they haven’t looked back. Through 11 games, they’re 8-3 with 87 runs scored, the most by a team to this point in the season since the turn of the millennium:
|2T||White Sox||1901||7-4||91||64||27||83-53||1||AL Pennant|
As you might expect, bashing out so many runs so early often portends good things. While “only” eight of the 18 teams above besides this year’s Dodgers and Mariners made the playoffs, five of those 18 teams (including the Boston Americans, who became the Red Sox circa 1908; the Milwaukee Brewers, who became the St. Louis Browns in 1902; and those Baltimore Orioles, who were dissolved and replaced by the New York Highlanders in 1903) were battling it out in the inaugural edition of the American League, which must have been crazy circa April and May, 1901; the Junior Circuit averaged 5.35 runs per game that year overall, compared to 4.63 in the NL.
Limiting the pool to teams playing 162-game seasons in the post-strike era produces the same conversion rate, with eight of the top 19 (besides the Dodgers and Mariners) making the playoffs:
|7||White Sox||2000||7-4||80||72||8||95-67||1||Division Champ|
The 87 runs is a post-1900 franchise record for the Dodgers, surpassing the 80 that the 1930 team scored, albeit while going 4-7. The Los Angeles-era record for the club through 11 games is 73 runs, set in 2005, when the Dodgers jumped out to a 9-2 start (soon 12-2) but were beset by injuries and finished 71-91.
To be fair, it’s not all that surprising that the Dodgers are off to such a strong start. At the outset of the season, the two-time defending NL champions were forecast to win 93 games, three more than any other NL team, though their projected 4.65 runs per game scored ranked fourth behind the Rockies (4.85), Nationals (4.67), and Brewers (4.66). Their projections have already risen to 96 wins with 5.12 runs per game scored, trailing only the Yankees and Astros in wins (97 apiece), and both the Yankees (5.28) and the Red Sox (5.13) in scoring. Their playoff odds have already jumped from 89.8 to 96.3%.
As a team, the Dodgers have hit .296/.396/.559 for a 144 wRC+ through their first 11 games; the average and on-base percentage are all tops in the majors, with the slugging percentage and wRC+ trailing only the Mariners (.571 and 168, respectively, while scoring an MLB-best 8.17 runs per game). They’ve bashed an NL-high 24 homers in that span, four more than any other team, though Monday night’s homerless game means they didn’t even get halfway to last year’s team’s longest streak (23 games, from August 21 through September 15), let alone the major league record of 27, held by the 2002 Rangers.
One other stat that bears watching: the Dodgers have struck out an NL-low 16.2% of the time, compared to last year’s 22.6%, the league’s seventh-lowest mark. No NL team finished below 20% last year, and none has been below 17% since 2011. Armed with individualized and team-wide plans of attack prepared by new hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc and staff, the team has swung at a league-low 23.1% of pitches outside the strike zone (down from last year’s league low of 27.2%) and cut its swinging strike rate from 10.1% (third in the league) to 7.9% (first).
The hit parade has been led by Cody Bellinger, who leads the NL in, like, most stats, including homers (seven), hits (20), RBI (19), batting average (.435), slugging percentage (.978), and wRC+ (266). The NL Rookie of the Year in 2017, Bellinger went through something of a sophomore slump last year, dipping from 143 wRC+ with an NL rookie record 39 homers to a 120 wRC+ with 25 homers despite taking 84 more plate appearances. Bellinger spent the winter working to restore the mechanics that helped him take the NL by storm as a rookie, with a more open stance instead of “standing too tall and straight-legged, making it difficult for him to halt momentum once his swing began,” as ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez wrote this spring.
Here’s a quick comparison of Bellinger’s stance just prior to his hitting a pair of home runs hit at Dodger Stadium (chosen so that the camera angle is the same), one apiece from 2018 and ’19. The image on the left is him facing the Mets’ Zack Wheeler last September 5, while the one on the right is against the Diamondbacks’ Luke Weaver on March 31. Note that in the more recent one, Bellinger’s bat is closer to parallel to the ground, that you can see the slugger’s knees sightly bent, and that his back (left) leg is visible before the swing, whereas he’s much more upright in the earlier one, holding his bat at a steeper angle.
As ESPN’s Buster Olney noted, Bellinger has attempted to wait a bit longer with his swing while aiming for left-center field, the fat part of Dodger Stadium, in order to better combat the breaking stuff down and in that teams like the Astros used to carve him up in the 2017 postseason.
Also tearing the cover off the ball are Enrique Hernandez (.364/.476/.727 with three homers and 202 wRC+) and the catching tandem of Austin Barnes and Russell Martin (.382/.511/.706 with three homers and 204 wRC+); Joc Pederson (150 wRC+) and Max Muncy (130 wRC+) each have three homers as well. That group has offset the relatively slow starts of Seager (who homered on Opening Day but has a modest 102 wRC+ thus far), Turner (93 wRC+), newcomer A.J. Pollock (93 wRC+), and Chris Taylor (55 wRC+). While the versatile Hernandez has become the team’s regular second baseman, manager Dave Roberts‘ lineup still has plenty of moving parts in his lineup, with Bellinger starting eight of 11 games in right field but also sharing time with Muncy and David Freese at first base, Muncy seeing time at second and third, and Taylor sharing time with Pederson in left field while spotting at second base and shortstop.
What this early-season surge has done for the Dodgers is paper over a banged-up rotation that has lacked both Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill due to injuries, and will be without Hyun-Jin Ryu, who left Monday night’s start in the second inning due to a left groin strain, for the foreseeable future. Kershaw, who has battled shoulder inflammation, is scheduled to make his final rehab start for Double-A Tulsa on Tuesday. Hill, who sprained the MCL in his left knee, is throwing bullpen sessions and eying a late-April return. Ryu, whose injury is not nearly as severe as the groin strain that cost him more than three months last year, will go on the disabled list for an as-yet-to-be-determined stay. Amid the injuries, the unit has pitched to a 3.46 ERA but a 4.49 FIP, with the league’s third-lowest strikeout rate (20.5%) standing out amid mid-pack rate stats. Ross Stripling and Julio Urias, both believed to be bullpen-bound at some point, will remain in the rotation for at least one more turn alongside Walker Buehler and Kenta Maeda.
Aside from Jansen, who after undergoing another ablation to correct an irregular heartbeat has so far shown something close to vintage form, the bullpen has been a mess (5.32 EA, 4.53 FIP), with Joe Kelly — whose signing as a free agent is already invoking not-so-fond memories of Brandon League and Brian Wilson — giving the team every bit as much trouble as he did while a member of the Cardinals (c. 2013) and Red Sox (c. 2018); through 5.2 innings, he’s posted a 13.50 ERA and 6.67 FIP, allowed three out of four inherited runners to score, and blown three saves in five appearances. That said, righty Dylan Floro and lefties Scott Alexander and Caleb Ferguson have pitched well, and if things get really crazy, Martin has shown the ability to get outs.
For the moment at least, the pitching issues are comparatively minor, and it’s worth noting that the team’s hot start is taking place in a weaker NL West than last year, with the Diamondbacks, who were in contention into last September, joining the Giants in rebuilding, and the Wild Card-winning Rockies off to a 3-8 start. Bellinger, Hernandez, and the rest of the Dodgers’ offense won’t maintain this blistering pace, but the team is in much better shape than a year ago.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.