Joey Ricotta | November 16th, 2019
Another great season and a trip to the playoffs, following a 106-56 regular-season record that brought the Los Angeles Dodgers to their seventh straight NL West first-place finish. However, the playoffs proved to be a different story, as the Dodgers were knocked out even earlier than in recent years, failing to reach the World Series for the first time in three years. They fell to the eventually World Series champions, the Washington Nationals in five games in the NLDS. Let’s take a look back on the season, as well as a look forward to 2020.
Make sure to check out all of our other MLB team recaps here.
What Went Right
Most things, in fact, went right, as is normally the case when a team goes 106-56 in the regular season and captures a division title. Cody Bellinger had a true breakout season. On Thursday, he was named the National League MVP, beating out Christian Yelich and Anthony Rendon. After slashing .267/.352/.581 with 39 HRs and 97 RBIs in his NL Rookie of the Year campaign in 2017, Bellinger regressed in 2018. He played in all 162 games (30 fewer in 2017) and hit only .260 with 25 HRs. This past season, he exploded, slashing .305/.406/.629 with 47 bombs and 115 RBIs. It was a tale of two seasons for Bellinger, as he did most of his damage in the first half of the season, hitting .336 BA with 30 HRs, compared to .263 BA with 17 HRs in the second half. A great season nonetheless, and a more than deserving NL MVP Award to show for it. Bellinger gets a plus in the defense category as well, as he won his first Gold Glove Award for his stellar glove work in the outfield and at first base.
The fine work with the sticks didn’t end with Bellinger. The Dodgers hit a National League record 279 home runs. Max Muncy proved 2018 wasn’t a one-hit-wonder, smacking 35 homers for the second year in a row while driving in a career-high 98 runs. Joc Pederson had the best season of his career when it comes to home runs, average, and OPS. Corey Seager tied with Anthony Rendon for the National League lead with 44 doubles, while playing in 12 fewer games. Justin Turner did his thing, matching a career-high 27 home runs while batting .290. Going into the season, the buzz was surrounding catching prospect, Keibert Ruiz. But another catching prospect, Will Smith made his debut and a major impact this season. Smith slashed a .253/.337/.571 with 15 HRs and 42 RBIs in only 54 games.
On top of a great offensive unit, the pitching staff was superb. They led the Majors in ERA (3.37), WHIP (1.10), and finished second in batting average against (.223). Walker Buehler pitched 21.2 scoreless postseason innings before allowing an RBI single to Juan Soto in the sixth inning in Game Five of the NLDS. He also had a terrific regular season, going 14-4 with a 3.26 ERA. Hyun-Jin Ryu (more on him later) and Clayton Kershaw were excellent in the regular season as well, anchoring a starting staff that had the best ERA (3.11) and WHIP (1.07) in the Majors.
What Went Wrong
To put it briefly, Game five of the NLDS was the Dodgers’ undoing. Manager Dave Roberts‘ decision to go with Kershaw, a pitcher whose history in the postseason isn’t good, warrants questioning. Obviously, the decision didn’t work, Kershaw got out of the seventh inning to hold the lead but then gave up back-to-back homers to start the eighth.
Roberts has to receive some scrutiny. It’s one thing for Kershaw to start a game (as he’s used to doing), give up a few runs and get pulled early, and it’s another to enter the game in the 7th, 8th, or 9th inning. If you give up runs early, your team still has a lot of time to make up ground. Plus, asking a guy to do what he’s not normally used to is a risky move. At this point, it’s well documented. Kershaw doesn’t have good postseason numbers and he was out of his comfort zone pitching out of the bullpen. The look from Kershaw in the dugout afterward says it all.
The other side of the Roberts argument is the lack of trust in the bullpen options. While the bullpen was solid for the most part, as they tied for the fourth-best ERA (3.85) in all of baseball, they were terrible in high leverage spots. According to FanGraphs, the Dodgers were third-worst in high leverage situations, with a 9.88 ERA. Ironically, the only teams worse than them were the Washington Nationals (10.91 ERA) and the Seattle Mariners (10.10 ERA).
Clayton Kershaw didn’t pitch well in the playoffs, but Joe Kelly also was roughed up, allowing six earned runs, including the go-ahead Grand Slam to Howie Kendrick in Game Five of the NLDS. Kelly was good in the 2018 postseason for the Boston Red Sox, pitching six scoreless innings in the World Series AGAINST the Dodgers. In his first season WITH the Dodgers, Kelly posted a 4.56 ERA in 55 games pitched. Along with being inconsistent, he was dealing with a nagging injury and barely used leading up to the playoffs. Instead of making Kelly go out for a second straight inning, maybe Roberts should’ve used Kenley Jansen or even Dustin May?
Some big names on this list and despite the season Ryu had, Jansen, remains the biggest name of the bunch. Jansen had a player option but has decided to pass on opting out, likely due to his recent regression.
By all accounts, it was the worst year of Jansen’s career. He had the most blown saves and the highest ERA of his career. The fewest saves since 2013 and it’s not like he missed a bunch of time with an injury or something. Jansen pitched in 62 ballgames. A marker he has only failed to reach once since the 2011 season.
The Dodgers will definitely have a decision to make soon, on whether or not they want to re-sign Ryu. I was saving his stats for this section of the article, but he very well belongs in the “what went right” section. Ryu led all of the Majors with a 2.32 ERA and was named one of the three finalists for the NL Cy Young Award, along with Max Scherzer and the eventual winner Jacob deGrom.
There were rumblings that Russell Martin may retire, but according to Jon Heyman, he plans to play in 2020. However, with breakout catcher Will Smith and Austin Barnes in the mix, a return to Los Angeles doesn’t seem likely.
As he’s dealt with most of his career, Rich Hill had another injury-riddled season, starting only 13 games. When he was healthy, he was pretty good, pitching to a 4-1 record with a 2.45 ERA. We’ll have to see if Hill will be brought back on a team-friendly contract. With the talented young depth of pitchers the Dodgers have, Hill’s age and continued injury issues, that’s a real question.
Players to Watch in 2020
We all know about Bellinger, Muncy, Turner, Seager, guys like that. But what are some other names that could make an impact in 2020?
Gavin Lux – Lux was kind of a surprising call-up in 2019, although he was ready to be. After a great 2018 campaign where he hit .324 between both High-A and Double-A, Lux started this year at Double-A. He batted .313 with 13 HRs and was then promoted to Triple-A where he raised his level of play, batting .392 with a higher walk rate (14.2%) and lower strikeout rate (18.1%). He’s currently the number two rated prospect on MLB Pipeline’s top 100. Gaining key late-season and postseason experience could benefit him greatly moving forward. Barring a big offseason acquisition, look for Lux to compete for a starting infielder spot to begin next year.
Dustin May – May also received his call-up, making his debut on August 2nd. Although he made an impact last season, May has a good opportunity to challenge for a regular starting rotation spot. In 14 outings last year, May had a 3.63 ERA and 1.096 WHIP.
Keibert Ruiz – Ruiz is currently MLB Pipeline’s number three ranked catching prospect. It’s difficult to say when Ruiz will get his shot. He suffered an injury last year and the emergence of Will Smith won’t help him get Big League playing time. The thing working in his favor, Russell Martin shouldn’t be around. However, Austin Barnes will be.
Tony Gonsolin – The 2016 ninth-round draft selection progressed through the Dodgers system fairly fast. Last year, he made his debut and showed why the Dodgers are high on him, holding opponents to a .177 batting average against. In 11 games pitched (six starts), Gonsolin went 4-2 with a 2.93 ERA and 1.025 WHIP. Starting rotation decisions will need to be made. Ryu, Gonsolin, May, Julio Urias, Kenta Maeda, and Ross Stripling are all in the mix to start or be used in the pen.
Adam Kolarek – Kolarek was phenomenal after being acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays. Although the Dodgers limited his usage, he had a 0.77 ERA in 11.2 innings, spread across 26 games pitched. Kolarek was certainly much better against left-handed batters. It’ll be interesting to see how he’ll be utilized with the new three batter minimum rule change, to be implemented in 2020.
This is a difficult thing to pinpoint. The Dodgers have a really solid lineup and will only get better as their young players continue to develop. They don’t have a glaring need, but there are areas they can improve. If Kenley Jansen continues to regress, they’ll need stability in the bullpen to back him up and also pitchers capable of shutting down opponents before the ninth inning. The bench could use a little tweaking and maybe an addition of another veteran hitter to pinch-hit and play every fifth day or so would help.
While the Dodgers offense produced more times than not, they struggled at times against left-handed pitching. The Blue Crew ranked 20th in the Majors in batting average (.250) and had the sixth-most strikeouts (450) against southpaws. The rumors about acquiring Francisco Lindor in a trade with the Cleveland Indians seem to be just that, rumors. Gavin Lux and Corey Seager is most likely the duo of the future. With those two, Enrique Hernandez and Chris Taylor, I don’t think up the middle is a dire need for the Dodgers. Bellinger, Pederson, Alex Verdugo, and a healthy A.J. Pollock would be a more than capable group of outfielders. However, there are also rumors swirling about a potential trade involving one of Pederson, Verdugo, or Pollock to acquire a big name like Mookie Betts.
All in all, the Dodgers aren’t in that bad of position, although the fan base and upper management are growing impatient with the team’s inability to get over the hump. As they seek their first ring since 1988, the Dodgers are still a team set up to win now. With a couple of additions, they should find themselves right back in the hunt for a World Championship in 2020.
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Main Image Credit: Embed from Getty Images
Main Credit Image: Embed from Getty Images