Injuries Haven’t Derailed the Dodgers’ Hot Start

So far this season, injuries have been just about the only thing to put a damper on the Dodgers’ fun. Even with center fielder Cody Bellinger and second baseman Gavin Lux sidelined by various ailments, and Mookie Betts in and out of the lineup, the team has bolted from the gate with a 14-4 record, giving them the best record in the majors — admittedly, something they were projected to have — and producing a start that places them among the best in franchise history and among defending champions.

On Tuesday, Julio Urías rode the hybrid breaking ball that Ben Clemens wrote about to a career-high 11 strikeouts while allowing just one hit and one walk in seven shutout innings against the Mariners. A third-inning RBI single by Corey Seager gave him all the support he would need, helping the Dodgers to a 1-0 win that snapped a two-game losing streak and bought them another day towards better health.

With Bellinger already sidelined by a hairline fracture of his left fibula after being spiked in a play at first base on April 6, and Lux out due to soreness in his right wrist, the Dodgers were without Betts in the wake of a rather terrifying moment from Monday night. In the ninth inning of their 4-3 loss to the Mariners, Betts took a 95 mph fastball from Seattle’s Rafael Montero to the inside of his right forearm. Despite crumpling to the ground in obvious pain, he remained in the game — which ended two pitches later, on a double play — to run the bases. Thankfully, x-rays were negative, ruling out a fracture.

In his second season since being traded by the Red Sox, Betts has hit .292/.414/.500 (156 wRC+) with a pair of homers and a pair of steals, and lately, he’s been spending time in center field to help offset the absence of Bellinger. He made his presence felt in that role on Saturday against the Padres, sealing a victory and a series win with a spectacular game-ending catch reminiscent of his defensive wizardry during last year’s championship run:

That snag had a 10% catch probability according to Statcast, in case you were wondering.

Betts has done just about everything the Dodgers could have hoped for so far except for staying in the lineup. He missed four games recently due to lower back stiffness, plus Tuesday’s game, though he apparently suffered only a contusion. “I was hoping it would be soft tissue,” said manager Dave Roberts before Tuesday’s game. “As opposed to the wrist or elbow or something like that. So I guess [this is] best-case scenario and there was a slight exhale once he was wanted to stay in there.”

With the Dodgers off on Wednesday, Betts could be back in the lineup for Thursday’s series opener with the Padres, making this a minimal absence for a moment that looked so frightening. Lest we go overboard with regards to this close scrape, Dan Szymborski estimated that even a worst-case scenario regarding Betts would only cost the Dodgers about two percentage points in terms of their Playoff Odds, putting him an order of magnitude and then some behind the most indispensable players according to ZiPS; Mike Trout leads the way with a 35.5% reduction of the Angels’ playoff chances if he were to be lost for the season.

As for Bellinger, who already had an abbreviated spring training schedule due to offseason surgery on his right (non-throwing) shoulder, his hairline fracture wasn’t diagnosed until April 16, a week after he’d been placed on the Injured List. He’s back to light jogging but has yet to be cleared for baseball activities and thus has no timetable for his return. In his absence, the Dodgers have generally used Chris Taylor — who’s already started at five different positions this season — in center with Betts in right against righties, and Betts in center with rookie Zach McKinstry in right against lefties, though Betts’ aches and pains have forced some variation from that pattern.

As for Lux, in the midst of a 1-for-17 slide that wiped out his promising start, he landed on the IL on Sunday, retroactive to April 16. He’s not expected to be out much longer than the minimum. The Dodgers used a different second baseman in each of the first four games he missed, namely Max Muncy, McKinstry, Taylor and recent acquisition Sheldon Neuse, yet another reminder of the absurd depth they boast.

Even with the absences of three starters, the Dodgers rank second in the league in scoring at 5.22 runs per game, and first with a 116 wRC+. Coupled with a pitching staff that’s allowed a league-low 3.11 runs per game, their +38 run differential is tops in the majors, as is their record. Where at the outset of the season they were projected for 99.6 wins and a 98.4% chance of making the playoffs, they’re up to a projection for 102.8 wins and a 99.8% chance. The Padres, who have gone just 10-9, have actually receded slightly in terms of projected wins in that span (from 94.7 to 94.4), though their Playoff Odds have inched upwards (from 92.3% to 94.0%).

Historically speaking, the Dodgers’ 14-4 record is the third-best 18-game start in franchise history dating back to 1901, matching that of their World Series-winning 1981 squad and trailing only their pennant-winning ’77 team (15-3) and World Series-winning ’55 one (16-2). Additionally, it’s tied for the fifth-best 18-game start of the Wild Card era:

Best 18-Game Starts of Wild Card Era
Team Year W-L Thru 18 W-L Finish
Red Sox 2018 16-2 108-54 1*
Giants 2003 15-3 100-61 1
Yankees 2003 15-3 101-61 1
Royals 2003 15-3 83-79 3
Giants 1997 14-4 90-72 1
Braves 1997 14-4 101-61 1
Padres 1998 14-4 98-64 1
Mariners 2001 14-4 116-46 1
Twins 2001 14-4 85-77 2
Mariners 2002 14-4 93-69 3
White Sox 2005 14-4 99-63 1*
Nationals 2012 14-4 98-64 1
Rangers 2012 14-4 93-69 2, WC
Mets 2015 14-4 90-72 1
Nationals 2016 14-4 95-67 1
Rays 2019 14-4 96-66 2, WC
Dodgers 2021 14-4
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
* = won World Series.

The above teams finished with a .597 winning percentage, roughly the equivalent of a 97-win pace. Thirteen of the previous 16 made the playoffs, with two winning the World Series and two others (the 1998 Padres and 2003 Yankees) winning pennants.

Speaking of World Series winners, until their two-game losing streak the Dodgers were off to the best start of any defending champion ever. At the 18-game juncture, they’ve merely matched the best start by a defending champion, but they’re nonetheless the only team of the post-1960 expansion era to join a rather short list:

Best 18-Game Starts by Defending World Champion
Team Year W-L Thru 18 W-L Final Finish
Americans 1904 14-4 95-59 1
Giants 1906 14-4 96-56 2
Giants 1922 14-4 93-61 1*
Yankees 1928 14-4 101-53 1*
Yankees 1951 14-4 98-56 1*
Dodgers 2021 14-4
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
* = won World Series.

There’s nothing particularly historic about an 18-game start, though based on a Derek Carty study for the 2012 Baseball Prospectus book Extra Innings, it is a couple games past the point of when a team’s year-to-date record becomes more predictive than the assumption that they’ll finish at .500, as the largest sample of teams invariably does. You probably didn’t need me to tell you that the Dodgers are for real, and while there’s a whole lot of season still to unfold, they appear headed towards great heights.

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.

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1 year ago

I am admittedly quite biased here as a Mariners fan, but I feel like this Dodgers team setting the wins record would be a bit of a shame, if only because they’re so comically good that it wouldn’t even be surprising. That 2001 M’s team was really, really good (if not ideally suited for the playoffs), but part of the magic of that season is that everyone figured they’d take a step back after losing A-Rod, and instead had a season for the ages. It also happened at a time in baseball when lots of teams were actually trying to win, as opposed to whatever we’re dealing with now.

Sonny Lmember
1 year ago
Reply to  Sportszilla

It’s not particularly shocking to see some of the higher end win totals (2018 Red Sox come to mind). If 3 teams in your league are “rebuilding” it’s not unreasonable to bump year end win totals by 3+ depending on alignment.