After winning the National League pennant, a teary-eyed Dave Roberts told Dodger fans, “This is our year.” In each of the past eight seasons, the Dodgers have won the NL West, and they’ve made it to the World Series twice (each time facing teams who were later caught stealing signs). However, the Dodgers, who have clearly been the best team of the past decade, haven’t won it all since Clayton Kershaw was in diapers.
A World Series title would exorcise a lot of the demons tormenting this team. It’s not just that they’ve come against opponents giving themselves unfair advantages, the Dodgers have also been a victim of pure dumb luck. The playoffs are famously a crapshoot. Roberts’ decisions at the helm haven’t always been perfect, but they shouldn’t backfire with such consistency. There’s no statistical significance to past postseason performance, so Kershaw should be able to make it through a month without a meltdown.
Roberts is right. This is the Dodgers’ year. The Rays are great, but the Dodgers are better.
FanGraphs playoff odds give LA a 67.3 percent chance to win the series while FiveThirtyEight gives them a 70 percent chance. Without knowing what PECOTA thinks, ZiPS is the most conservative projection and it gives the Dodgers a 53.2 percent chance to win the series. These are the sort of lopsided projections we might have expected if a seven or eight seed snuck into the Fall Classic, but the Rays are a number one seed and they were inarguably the best team in the American League this year.
Being the best team in a league that features the Orioles, Royals, Rangers, and Tigers isn’t good enough when you’re facing one of the best teams to take the field in any year. In 2019, the Dodgers put up the third-highest third-order winning percentage since 1950 and all they’ve done since is add Mookie Betts.
Up and down the lineup, the Dodgers have the definite advantage when it comes to offense. LA led the majors with a 122 wRC+ this year. They trailed only the White Sox and Padres in position player fWAR. The Dodgers are well-equipped to handle Tampa’s pitching staff.
Earlier in the season, Rays manager boasted (read: threatened) that he had a “stable full of guys that all throw 98 mph.” Tampa’s bullpen is what sets them apart from other teams, but velocity doesn’t impress the Dodgers. In 2020, LA posted a .336 wOBA against all pitches 95 mph or faster which was good for ninth in the majors. If we include 2019 as well to broaden the sample (barring the addition of Mookie Betts, this is largely the same group of hitters), the Dodgers have been the best team against high velocity with a .366 wOBA.
The Dodgers are in the World Series because of what they could do against high velocity in Game 7 of the NLCS. Kiké Hernández obliterated a 97.3 mph fastball from AJ Minter to tie the game at three. and Cody Bellinger fought off 95 mph sinkers from Chris Martin on the black until he got a pitch he could handle.
The Rays’ stable has depended heavily on Nick Anderson, but even he has been mortal as of late. That might just be sample size and a product of overuse. As Devan Fink pointed out, “a not-100-percent Anderson is still better than the vast majority of relievers in baseball.” However, if there’s a team that can get to a fully-operational Anderson, it’s the Dodgers.
For all the attention paid to Tampa’s stable of hard-throwers, the Dodgers arms are right there with them. During the regular season, LA led all of baseball in percentage of pitches thrown over 95 mph at 26.3 percent. Tampa ranked eighth in this category with 17.9 percent. To be fair, Tampa’s percentage of pitches over 95 mph has nearly doubled in the postseason.
On the Dodgers’ side, many of these high-velocity pitches came from Brusdar Graterol, Dustin May, Joe Kelly, and Tony Gonsolin. Kelly doesn’t know where the ball is going and hasn’t played an important role in the postseason thus far (unless tweets joking about who Dave Roberts will bring in for a high-leverage spot count as important). Gonsolin hasn’t been effective in his last two-outings. May and Graterol get far fewer swings and misses on their heaters than one would expect given their ability to hit triple-digits.
Then there’s of course Walker Buehler and Julio Urías. After dealing with blisters on his throwing-hand in Game 1, Buehler shut Atlanta down in Game 6, throwing six shutout innings. In the defining moment of that series for him, Buehler escaped a bases-loaded jam by throwing nine-straight fastballs of 98 mph or higher.
Walker Buehler loaded the bases with no outs. Then he did this.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) October 17, 2020
FB 99 (strikeout)
FB 100 (strikeout)
SL 87 (groundout)
Braves have to capitalize there. A huge blown opportunity and good work by Buehler vs. bottom of lineup.
Because he pitched Saturday, Buehler won’t start until Game 3. Unlike the previous rounds, there will be off days in the World Series, so Buehler would be in line to pitch a potential Game 7.
To start Game 1, the Dodgers will turn to Clayton Kershaw who last pitched in Game 4 of the NLCS. Once again, Kershaw had a less-than-stellar start, giving up four runs in what wound up being a blowout loss that pushed LA to the brink. Kershaw was probably left in too long, but he also didn’t look nearly as sharp as he did against the Brewers in the Wild Card round or during the regular season. Kershaw was originally slated to start Game 2 but was scratched due to back spasms.
Obviously, a great deal hinges on Game 1. It’s much easier to win a series if you’re up 1-0 than down 0-1, but a solid start from Kershaw wouldn’t just save the bullpen or put the Dodgers in better position. It would also help to dispel the Playoff Kershaw Narrative, so we don’t have to relitigate the same conversation every October.
Even if Kershaw falters, the Dodgers are talented enough to make it through. They didn’t need him at his best to make it past Atlanta, and their World Series hopes don’t live or die with the best pitcher of his generation. That’s how talented this ballclub is. They can’t lose. This is their year.
This is their year.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.