When I was in college, some friends and I were watching the MTV Music Awards, which, now that I’ve typed those words, doesn’t really seem like me. Huh. Anyway, two of my friends got into an argument about whether Pink (the singer, not the color) was attractive. One friend insisted that she was “smokin’ hot.” The other, who was a bit more of a prude, found her quite unattractive. The funny thing was, they each had only one piece of evidence to support their positions, and it was the same exact evidence: “She’s hardly wearing any clothes!”
The point is, sometimes the same evidence can be used to support two diametrically opposed positions. Which is relevant because what I’m about to say could be very good or very bad, depending on what you think it means.
Last season, the Los Angeles Dodgers went 13-22 over the last five weeks of the season, but they still won 104 games, had the best record in baseball, and went to Game 7 of the World Series. So far this season, the Dodgers are a similar nine games under .500, sitting at 17-26 a little over a quarter of the way into the season.
You can look at this two ways. On one hand, the Dodgers have much the same team as last season, so if they won a ton of games last year despite one terrible stretch, it’s entirely possible that they will break out and have a perfectly fine season in 2018 and move back to the top of the National League West. On the other hand, the Dodgers are 30-48 over their past 78 regular-season games, and 40-53 over their past 93 games even counting their deep postseason run, so maybe they’re just … not that good?The @Dodgers need some key players to step up closer to last year's production levels if they're going to dig out of their current hole.Click To Tweet
There are reasons to believe that the Dodgers are better than their current record. For all the talk of the Dodgers punting last offseason and prioritizing getting under the competitive balance tax threshold, it’s not really as if they lost key players or missed out on free agents who would have made the difference this year. Other than Brandon Morrow (who the Dodgers were never going to re-sign anyway) and Corey Seager (out for the season with Tommy John surgery), the key parts of last year’s team are all still in place. The problem is simply that a bunch of them haven’t played well so far. Some examples:
Kershaw has been good this season, but he hasn’t been Clayton Kershaw Good, and now he’s on the disabled list. His 2.86 ERA would be a positive for most pitchers, but his velocity has been down, his command has struggled, and he has given up too many home runs — his homer per fly ball rate last year was already the highest of his career at 15.9 percent, but it has jumped to 19.4 percent so far this year.
On the bright side, if the velocity drop was related to the bicep tendinitis that eventually landed Kershaw on the DL, perhaps we might see more vintage Kershaw when he returns healthy.
Bellinger has made some minor improvements in his offensive game, specifically in his strike zone recognition — he’s swinging at fewer pitches outside of the zone and making contact with a higher percentage of the non-strikes he does swing at. But his popup rate has skyrocketed from 8.4 percent last year to 17.0 percent this year, with a corresponding drop in his homer per fly ball rate — 25.2 percent in 2017, 11.3 percent in 2018.
Bellinger has also increased the percentage of pitches he swings at inside the strike zone (from 64.7 percent to 67.8), which could be a good thing, except that his contact rate inside the zone has dropped from 78.1 percent to 71.9. This has led to pitchers pounding the zone more; 50.2 percent of the pitches he has seen have been in the strike zone, compared to 43.9 percent last year. Correspondingly, Bellinger’s walk rate has dropped from 11.7 percent to 8.8, causing his on-base percentage to plummet from .352 to .331.
The eye test points to a pretty big hole in Bellinger’s swing on high fastballs. On the other hand, the big hole that was exposed last offseason — back-foot breaking pitches from right-handers — hasn’t been a big issue so far this year, so Bellinger and hitting coach Turner Ward might be able to figure out the high fastball problems. (The solution might be the same, too: stop swinging at those pitches you can’t hit.)
Last year, Puig had an .833 OPS; this year, it is .622. Enough said, right? The good news for Dodger fans is that his OPS was .500 when this week began — Puig is 4-for-12 with three home runs and four walks in the past four games.
Taylor’s .850 OPS last year made him one of the most valuable center fielders in baseball. This year, his OPS sits at .736. Like Bellinger, Taylor is hitting more popups and fewer home runs, and his contact rate on pitches in the strike zone has gone down. But like Puig (albeit more gradually), Taylor is showing signs of breaking out of his slump.
Jansen came into the season with a 2.08 career ERA and 1.84 career FIP. This year, those numbers are 3.57 and 4.33, respectively. His velocity was down by several miles per hour early in the season, and he allowed six runs — including three home runs — in his first seven appearances. But in Jansen’s last 10 appearances, he has allowed just one run in 11 innings. Jansen still doesn’t quite look like the Jansen of years past, but there are indications that he is moving past his early-season struggles.
There are others we could list. Austin Barnes hasn’t hit nearly as well this year as he did last year (although the early success of Yasmani Grandal — Barnes’ theoretical platoon partner — has largely made up for that). Logan Forsythe, who looked like he had figured things out at the plate late last season, has been bad offensively and spent more time on the disabled list. Justin Turner broke his hand in spring training and missed the first 40 games of the season. The bullpen has had some shining moments but has struggled overall.
Simply put, the Dodgers have several players underperforming and very few overperforming. Grandal has been outstanding, but he has come down to earth a bit in the past few weeks. Matt Kemp has been a very good hitter, but not abnormally so — if anything, the surprise there is that Kemp’s defense has been good enough to keep him in the lineup. But beyond those two, there are plenty of Dodgers who, if they could just perform somewhere close to last year’s performance, would help turn the team back into the division front-runners everyone expected them to be coming into the season. It’s not realistic to expect everyone to have a career year every year, but it also seems unlikely that so many players will stay so cold for this entire year.
A breakout is probably coming for the Dodgers. The two big questions are: How big of a breakout? And is it too late? They have dug themselves a pretty big hole, and while it’s not insurmountable, it’s not ideal. If they are going to win their sixth straight NL West title — or even grab a Wild Card spot — they need to start that comeback sooner than later.