The Dodgers Are Once Again Chasing History, as a Marathon and a Sprint

Los Angeles Dodgers
Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

With Tuesday night’s 4–3 win over the Mets at Citi Field, the Dodgers notched their 90th victory of the season, the second time in the last seven years that the team reached 90 wins before the end of August. Even with a subsequent pair of losses on Wednesday night and Thursday afternoon, the Dodgers once again have a shot not just at 100 wins (a plateau they’ve reached four times in six full seasons under manager Dave Roberts) or even 106 (a franchise record set in 2019 and matched last year), but also at the 2001 Mariners’ expansion-era record of 116 wins, though admittedly their odds for that one grew longer this week.

The Dodgers enter Friday with an 18-game lead over the Padres in the NL West and a magic number of 14 (and can quickly shrink the latter with their series in San Diego this weekend). Despite their series loss in New York, they’re still seven games ahead of the Mets (84–48) in the race for the NL’s best record and thus the top seed in the expanded postseason. Our Playoff Odds project them to finish with 109 wins, which would be the majors’ highest total since the aforementioned Mariners. Via our Odds distribution, they have a 62.1% chance of winning at least 109, though after their back-to-back losses, their chances of winning 116 or more games are down to 1.1%.

Earlier this year, it was the Yankees who were on pace to top 116 wins, but their 13–13 July snuffed that dream out, and a 10–18 August has put even a 100-win season in doubt. The Dodgers, who briefly slipped into second place in the NL West on June 17, when they were 39–24, had a lead of just 1.5 games over the Padres as recently as June 29. They’ve gone 45–12 (.789) since that date, with separate winning streaks of seven, eight, and 12 games.

You can see those streaks as the long runs elevating their full-season win pace in this comparison to that of the Yankees. The two teams seemed to mirror each other for awhile this summer:

I had to start the x-axis at the 10-game mark to make for a legible vertical scale (at 1–2, the Dodgers had a 54-game win projection) and cut both teams off at 130 games lest I crash our graph maker; the Yankees have now played 131 games and are on a 98-win pace.

Anyway, my main point is that not until the 103-game mark (July 31 for the Yankees, August 2 for the Dodgers) did Los Angeles pull ahead of New York, thanks largely to the 45–11 run that ended with Wednesday’s loss. Only three teams in the expansion era have won more games over a 56-game span, two of them Dodgers squads of recent vintage:

Best 56-Game Single-Season Spans Since 1961
Team Span Start Span End W L W-L%
Dodgers 6/17/2017 8/22/2017 47 9 .839
Yankees 4/7/1998 6/14/1998 46 10 .821
Dodgers 6/22/2013 8/23/2013 46 10 .821
Mariners 4/14/2001 6/16/2001 45 11 .804
Athletics 8/1/2001 10/7/2001 45 11 .804
Dodgers 6/29/2022 8/31/2022 45 11 .804
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

I limited the table to only the latest and most successful single-season stretch for each team. For example, the 2017 Dodgers had eight 47–9 overlapping stretches, the first of which began on June 7, as well as seven 46–10 stretches, but they only get one entry above, and likewise for the other teams.

With 90 wins in their first 130 games, these Dodgers are tied for fourth among expansion-era teams to that point:

Best Record Through First 130 Decisions Since 1961
Rk Team Season W L W-L% Final W Final L Final Win% Postseason
1T NYY 1998 94 36 .723 114 48 .704 WS Champ
SEA 2001 94 36 .723 116 46 .716 Division Champ
3 LAD 2017 91 39 .700 104 58 .642 NL Pennant
4T CLE 1995 90 40 .692 100 44 .617 AL Pennant
BOS 2018 90 40 .692 108 54 .667 WS Champ
LAD 2022 90 40 .692
7 BAL 1969 89 41 .685 109 53 .673 AL Pennant
8 NYM 1986 87 43 .669 108 54 .667 WS Champ
9T NYY 1961 86 44 .667 109 53 .673 WS Champ
CIN 1975 86 44 .662 108 54 .667 WS Champ
BAL 1979 86 44 .662 102 57 .630 AL Pennant
ATL 1998 86 44 .662 106 56 .654 Division Champ
STL 2004 86 44 .662 105 57 .648 NL Pennant
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Ties excluded, so in some cases, record is through 131 games.

Aside from Cleveland’s 1995 juggernaut, which played a shortened schedule due to the strike, all of those teams finished with at least 102 wins and a pennant (before the division play era began in 1969) or at least a division title. Ten of the 13 teams won the pennant, with five of them winning the World Series — yet another reminder that nothing is automatic, even for the best regular-season teams, and that the marathon of 162 games is different from the sprint in October.

That’s particularly true in the Wild Card era, when just seven teams that have finished with at least a share of the majors’ best regular season record have gone on to win the World Series. The last of those was the Dodgers, who went 43–17 (.717) in 2020 — not quite a half-marathon — before surviving a best-of-three, a best-of-five, and two best-of-sevens to win their first championship since 1988.

“I don’t know if existential is the right word,” Roberts told reporters before Wednesday’s game at Citi Field when asked about the contrast between the regular season and the postseason. “If you’re looking at the mechanics of 162 [games] and then a sprint where anything can happen, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But of course, [having] more teams involved in a postseason, in a pennant race, makes sense and is great for fans.

“We don’t make the schedule or the structure,” he continued. “We play by the rules, and we’re going to find a way to try to win this thing.”

With such a sizable division lead, Roberts has to balance preparing his team for October — nursing injured players back to health, sorting through lineups and roles — and maintaining focus on the day-to-day business of winning. “I think it’s a fine line, but the way we look at it is if we have 26 guys, and [on Sept. 1], I have 28 guys on the roster, the only focus is to win that particular game, regardless of who’s playing. That will keep the focus and the edge because that’s not changing. Whether I want to give Freddie [Freeman] a day or Trea [Turner]… we’re still trying to win.”

The 2017 season was a topic of discussion in that pregame session. That year, the Dodgers were 91–36 through August 25, up 21 games in the NL West race, and had won 16 of their last 20 games, but proceeded to lose 16 of their next 17. Asked if there were lessons from that epic slide that he could pass on to these players, Roberts was cautious and rather cryptic. “There’s some guys that are here that have carried over from ’17, but most of the guys [weren’t here].” Indeed, only eight players from the 2017 team are still around: Clayton Kershaw, Austin Barnes, Cody Bellinger, Chris Taylor, and Justin Turner were central to the cast; Walker Buehler, Julio Urías, and Trayce Thompson played only bit parts.

“There were some things that affected our psyche that year in September — September 1 being a key date — that don’t make sense,” Roberts said. “And it affected some players and the way we played. No excuses, we didn’t play well. But I don’t think that’s going to be the case this year.”

The manager declined to elaborate on the specifics of that September 1 date. At the time, it was notable mainly because the team activated Kershaw from the disabled list following a five-week absence due to a lower back strain, and he threw six shutout innings against the Padres; on Thursday, exactly five years later, the three-time Cy Young award winner returned from a back injury and threw five innings of one-run ball against the Mets. On that 2017 day, Andre Ethier was activated after missing the entire season due to a herniated disc, and Alex Verdugo was called up from Triple-A to make his debut. That same day, Diamondbacks closer Fernando Rodney told reporters he hoped that his team faced the Dodgers in the playoffs (he got his wish, but Arizona was swept, and he didn’t even get to pitch). The loss to the sign-stealing Astros in Game 7 of the World Series was two months away, so the blow to the psyche that Roberts was alluding to remains a mystery.

For the manager, his staff, and Dodgers brass, the top priority this September is sorting through the team’s pitching options. Buehler is already out for the season due to Tommy John surgery, and the team has also lost Tony Gonsolin, who was leading the NL with a 2.10 ERA, with what has been described as a forearm strain. Given Gonsolin’s recent workloads — he set a new high with 128.1 innings after throwing just 68.1 last year between the majors and minors and not topping 81.1 since 2018 — the presumption was that the Dodgers were getting the 28-year-old righty some downtime so as not to push him too hard. But “strain” is an oddly specific and ominous word to use in such an instance when vaguer terms like soreness, stiffness, or discomfort will suffice until a clear diagnosis is made. On Thursday, Roberts revealed that Gonsolin had not progressed as well as hoped and would undergo an MRI on Friday, suggesting a longer outage could be in store. Gulp.

Without Gonsolin, the Dodgers can still draw from a pool of starters that includes Urías, Kershaw, Tyler Anderson, Dustin May, and Andrew Heaney. Los Angeles’ rotation owns the majors’ lowest ERA (2.84), FIP (3.40) and WAR (20.2), but Kershaw has now been on the IL twice this season, May has only just worked his way back from May 2021 Tommy John surgery in the last week, and Heaney has spent about two days on the IL for every one of the 46.2 innings he’s thrown due to shoulder woes.

Then there’s the bullpen, where closer Craig Kimbrel has been as erratic as his 4.14 ERA suggests; where Blake Treinen hasn’t pitched since April 14 due to a shoulder strain (he’s due to be activated this weekend); where Daniel Hudson is out for the year due to an ACL tear in his left knee; and where Brusdar Graterol has made just four appearances between a bout of shoulder inflammation that sidelined him before the All-Star break and a bout of elbow inflammation that sent him back to the IL this week.

Referring to the number of good arms available, Roberts called figuring out his October rotation “a high-class problem,” but hinted at the question marks by adding, “Maybe later on, in about two weeks when we have that discussion, even more finite, [it] may be a problem… at some point in time, we’re gonna have those hard conversations and figure out roles for guys.” That may include figuring out whether May can become a weapon out of the bullpen, or whether Gonsolin will have to pair up with another pitcher if his pitch count isn’t fully built up.

For the Dodgers, who entered this season with an expansion-era record .636 winning percentage over the previous five seasons, those injury concerns and the new playoff format (which will require leaning on back-end starters for more innings given the reduction in off-days) represent their biggest vulnerability as they attempt to add another championship. They’ve mastered the regular season, aced the test, chased the high score. If doing the same in October is another matter, it still counts as a high-class problem.

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, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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1 year ago

Obviously the Dodgers are title favorites. That said, I think Dave Roberts did not cover himself in glory with the way he managed his pitching staff in last year’s NLCS, heavily discounting the value of routine and getting burned by both Urías’s poor performance in a different role and Scherzer’s unavailability. He also seemingly pushed the wrong buttons when responding to unexpected setbacks–like starting Buehler on short rest instead of going to a bullpen that the Braves had hardly touched. So if I were a Dodgers fan, I’d be a little extra leery about going into a playoff series with question marks in the rotation.

1 year ago
Reply to  Anon21

Some of last year was on the front office and not Roberts. And it is with the benefit of hindsight.

1 year ago
Reply to  demilio

I will take credit for not having the benefit of hindsight when I called that starting Buehler on short rest instead of trying another bullpen game was a bad idea before the game started. And I think many people criticized bringing in Urías from the bullpen even before he blew Game 2.

Matt Greene
1 year ago
Reply to  Anon21

when covering oneself in glory, it’s best to remember a towel

1 year ago
Reply to  Anon21

It wasn’t just last year. It’s been every year in the postseason since 2013, even before Roberts got there– except for 2020. The management seems to forget that their postseason roster includes more than 3 starters and 2 relievers. They overwork their top 5 guys, forgetting that they have 13 man pitching staffs, staffs that usually rank amongst the top 5 in the majors.
For instance: Kershaw, Urias, Buehler have never started a regular season game on short rest in their entire careers. But they had Kershaw make short rest starts from 2013-19; Urias and Buehler last year– and all predictably came up far short from their regular season standards.
Somehow, they expect good results in short rest starts in the playoffs, after a full season of play, from guys who have never shown that type of resiliency, and who have long injury histories.