After losing on a 14th-inning walk-off home run by the Giants’ Andrew McCutchen on Saturday, the Dodgers found themselves one swing of the bat away from falling to 2-7 to start the 2018 season — a pit that few teams escape, even in this age of expanded playoffs — during the 10th inning of Sunday’s game at AT&T Park. Fortunately, Kenley Jansen was finally able to tap into the mojo that’s made him one of the game’s best closers, striking out the Giants’ final two hitters to preserve a 2-1 victory, the Dodgers’ first win in a week. Even so, at 3-6, the defending NL champions are off to the worst start of any of the presumptive preseason favorites. How worried should they be?
The Dodgers entered 2018 just about as heavily favored to win their division as any team. But because Major League Baseball insists upon games being played on the field instead of on paper or pixel, things haven’t gone as planned, and they’ve matched the franchise’s worst start of the Wild Card era.
Now, nine games is a small sample size, obviously — just 1/18 of a season, in fact. While such a hiccup wouldn’t raise an eyebrow anywhere else in the schedule — each of last year’s 10 playoff teams went through at least one skid of 3-6 or worse, with the Dodgers themselves (in)famously losing 16 of 17 late in the year — it gets late early out here, as Yogi Berra allegedly said. Since the start of the 1995 season, 114 teams have begun the season 3-6, of which just 18 (including the 1996 Dodgers) made the playoffs. That’s 16%, which sounds high until you consider that, in the period during which two clubs from each league have qualified for the Wild Card, one-third of all teams makes the playoffs. Since 1995, 29% of all teams have done so. With apologies to the post-2001 Mariners, the dance just isn’t that exclusive.
Historically speaking, the real point of inflection through nine games is at 2-7, where just two Wild Card-era teams out of 37 (5.4%) have made the playoffs — namely, the 2001 A’s and 2007 Phillies. It’s four out of 54 (7.4%) if you count the two teams that began 1-8 (the 1995 Reds and 2011 Rays). Prior to the Wild Card era, just seven teams that started 2-7 made the playoffs, including two often referenced in the context of miraculous comebacks, the 1914 Braves and 1951 Giants. But these Dodgers aren’t in such dire straits yet.
Though they’re three games under .500, the Dodgers have outscored their opponents 29-27; until Sunday’s win, however, they were 0-3 in one-run games. They lost their first two games of the season 1-0, both on solo homers by the Giants’ Joe Panik — an unprecedented occurrence in baseball history — and, last Monday, lost a 15-inning, 8-7 heartbreaker to the Diamondbacks. Extra innings has been a theme: through nine games, the club’s pitchers have thrown 89.1 innings. You do the math.
For all of the handwringing, the Dodgers have basically had two problems thus far:
- Their offense has sputtered in the absence of Justin Turner; and
- Jansen has not been himself.
On the first front, the team has averaged only 3.22 runs per game, “hitting” just .213/.285/.293. They’re one of only two teams (the Brewers are the other) to be shut out three times thus far, and so far, they’re last in the NL in batting average, on-base percentage, and wRC+ (64) — and second-to-last in slugging percentage and home runs (four). Entering Sunday’s game, part-timer Chase Utley and the catching tandem of Yasmani Grandal and Austin Barnes were the only players with a wRC+ above 100. Last yearn’s magic simply hasn’t been there for Cody Bellinger (.273/.314/.394), Corey Seager (.206/.308/.206), or Chris Taylor (.205/.220/.282,), but they’re hardly alone.
Turner, who last year ranked fourth in the NL with a 141 wRC+ and ninth with 5.4 WAR, suffered a broken left wrist when he was hit by a Kendall Graveman pitch on March 19. He’s not expected back until mid-May. In his absence, Logan Forsythe has shared third-base duties with Kyle Farmer. That pair is hitting a combined .147/.237/.235 (40 wRC+) in that capacity, while Barnes, Forsythe, Utley, and Kiké Hernandez have combined to hit .176/.300/.324 for a 67 wRC+ as second basemen.
The offense has been pitifully inept against both righties (67 wRC+) and lefties (58 wRC+). The bigger problem, however, hasn’t been pitcher handedness but rather situational hitting: the team’s 49 wRC+ with runners in scoring position is better than only the Giants’ 14 wRC+ mark among all teams. Some of this is just bad luck, as four players (Bellinger, Forsythe, Seager, and Yasiel Puig) have all produced an average exit velocity of 90 mph or better, a threshold that none of them maintained last year.
As with the team’s record, the sample sizes for all of the above are vanishingly small and would escape notice at any other time in the season. They’re probably not worth fretting over. What’s of considerably more concern has been the shakiness of Jansen. Because he shouldered such a burden during last year’s postseason run, pitching in 13 of the team’s 15 games and throwing 12.3% of their total innings (compared to 4.7% during the regular season), the Dodgers took it slow with the 30-year-old closer this spring, but an illness and a bout of hamstring tightness didn’t help his cause. He’s struggled with his mechanics and velocity thus far. According to Brooks Baseball, his cutter averaged 93.6 mph last year. In his four outings this year, he’s averaged 90.8, 91.8 , 92.5 and 93.2 mph — moving in the right direction, at least, but not there yet, and without his typical command.
Jansen served up a Panik-inducing 89.6 mph meatball on his second pitch of the season, producing the San Francisco second baseman’s second game-winning homer. It was the second-slowest cutter he’d thrown that had produced a a homer in his nine-year major-league career, after an 89.2 mph cutter hit by Martin Prado on June 14, 2014. In his next appearance, Jansen walked two hitters and surrendered a game-tying three-run homer to Chris Owings, leading to the aforementioned 15-inning affair. Last year, Jansen didn’t yield his first homer until May 21, his 17th appearance, and didn’t walk his first batter until June 25, his 31st appearance. He walked his second batter and gave up his second homer on July 4, his 33rd appearance. The only regular season save he blew was on July 23, his 48th appearance of the year.
Like another famous practitioner of the cutter, Jansen has been so great that he’s set a nearly impossible standard for himself, but perhaps the most unsettling aspect of his season was that the man who led all NL pitchers in swinging-strike rate last year got just one swinging strike in those first two appearances, and needed until his third appearance and 14th batter to notch his first strikeout of 2018. Never in his big-league career had Jansen begun a season without striking out at least one hitter in his first inning of work.
On Sunday, protecting a 2-1 lead after Farmer’s RBI pinch-double in the 10th, Jansen finally appeared to resemble the guy in the catalog. He whiffed Pablo Sandoval on five pitches and, after yielding an infield single to Hunter Pence, struck out Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt, as well. His total of six swinging strikes was one more than in his three previous outings combined.
Because the woes of Jansen and the offense — which has left him almost no margin for error — have loomed so large, it’s been easy to overlook what’s gone right for the Dodgers. The staff as a whole leads the NL in FIP (3.03) and walk rate (6.9%) and is third in the NL in ERA (2.72), and fourth in K-BB% (17.1 points). Clayton Kershaw has allowed just four runs in 19 innings, striking out 19 while walking three. Alas, he has allowed three homers, which is one for every run of support the Dodgers have produced in his starts. The team has really only had two bad starts, one apiece from Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill, and the Dodgers wound up going extra innings in both games. The bullpen, which includes newcomers Scott Alexander, JT Chargois, and Wilmer Font, is something of a work in progress, as nobody’s really got a defined role besides Jansen. That said, holdovers Tony Cingrani, Josh Fields, and Ross Stripling have yet to walk a hitter or allow a run.
Odds are that the Dodgers will be just fine. Despite that ugly 3-6 mark, our playoff odds still give them an 86.4% chance of reaching the postseason — second only to the Cubs among NL teams — and an 11.1% chance of winning the World Series, the majors’ fifth-highest mark. They could stand to catch a break here and there, particularly with a frontloaded schedule that has them facing the Giants and Diamondbacks 22 times in their first 36 games, but this is still a team with a strong shot at its sixth straight NL West title.
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.