If anyone else had won the 2020 World Series, the prevailing sentiment would have been that it didn’t count. In a 60-game season with a playoff field of 16 teams, anyone could luck their way to a championship. The Marlins, who might have been fortunate to win 75 games in a normal year, made it to the second round. Meanwhile the Astros, who underperformed and went 29-31 in the regular season, still came within one game of winning the American League pennant. The format provided opportunity and forgiveness for the mediocre teams of MLB, but it hurt the teams at the top.
Before the pandemic annihilated the regular season and Rob Manfred annihilated the postseason, the Dodgers were favorites to take the crown. FanGraphs gave the Dodgers a 20.2 percent chance of winning the 2020 World Series as of March 11. When the news came that the postseason would be expanded, the Dodger’s chances dropped by nearly five points overnight. They went from having a large lead over all but the Astros to just barely standing above the scrum.
Still, after years of getting knocked out by clearly inferior or teams who were later caught cheating, the Dodgers finally prevailed over an obstacle meant to keep them from their rightful title. Last year, the Dodgers broke a 32-year drought, and this year, they’ll try to snap a 12-monther.
Even with their divisional rival, the Padres, launching themselves into baseball’s S-tier, the Dodgers’ chances of winning it all are even better than they were a year ago. FanGraphs gives the Dodgers a 21.8 percent chance of winning the World Series, a five point lead over the next likely team: the Yankees. When you take a look at the Dodgers who aren’t guaranteed a starting job, it becomes obvious why they’re still the best team in the world.
Until late Monday, the battle for the fifth rotation spot was down to Tony Gonsolin, Dustin May, and David Price. Over the last two seasons, those three have maintained FIP’s of 3.02, 3.96, and 3.62 respectively. Usually, a team is thrilled to get league average innings from its fifth starter, but by ERA+ over the same time frame, the worst the Dodgers can do with this spot is 14 percent better than league average.
Dustin May has been given the job, but there’s no wrong move here. In Gonsolin, the Dodgers have a pitcher who can throw in the mid-nineties with one of the nastiest splitters in the game. Dustin May sees Gonsolin’s 95 mph heater and raises him triple-digits. Of all the pitchers that threw at least 50 four seamers in 2020, only Garrett Crochet and Domingo Tapia threw harder than May on average. David Price, of course, has a proven track record and the only question around his game is whether he can stay healthy and on the field. Prior to opting out of the 2020 season, Price had only thrown more than 150 innings once from 2017 to 2019.
Some combination of two of them will be unjustly relegated to the bullpen which is the Dodgers’ relative weakness. By fWAR, LA’s bullpen ranked second in the majors in 2020, but they will be without their top contributor, Jake McGee, this year. The Dodgers could do much worse in the eighth and ninth inning than Blake Treinen and Kenley Jansen, but it’s also undeniable that both pitchers’ best days are behind them.
In Victor González’s debut season, he struck out 23 batters in 20 1⁄3 innings while walking only two. Not since High-A had the lefty posted a strikeout rate so high, and his control is good, but a 2.5 percent walk rate is unsustainable. Still, he’s a quality arm, and he was practically unhittable in 2020.
The Dodgers offense is perhaps less deep than it was last year with the departures of Joc Pederson and Enrique Hernández, but they still project to be the best in baseball. Collectively, PECOTA expects the Dodgers to lead the majors with a 117 DRC+. Obviously any team that features Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger in the heart of the order is going to hit, but the lineup is stacked from top to bottom.
The “weak link” in the starting nine is Gavin Lux who is projected for a 105 DRC+. ZiPS projects him for a 102 wRC+, and last year, hitters batting eighth in the lineup (where Lux would typically fall based on his numbers with no DH) hit for an 86 wRC+. If Lux is only two percent better than league average, he’s still 16 percent better than other teams’ eighth-best hitter.
That’s assuming Lux hits to his projections though. Lux only got into 19 games last year, and he never got things going. He slashed .175/.246/.349 in 69 plate appearances. In two partial major league seasons, Lux hasn’t yet lived up to his potential, but he has also never received consistent reps in the bigs. That will change in 2021 as the starting second base job is his to lose.
With Lux starting at second, Chris Taylor will be free to roam around the field, spelling Bellinger in center, Corey Seager at short, and Justin Turner at third. Beyond Taylor, the bench is thinner than it has been in recent years with Edwin Rios, Zach McKinstry, and Matt Beaty expected to break camp with the team. In 139 major league plate appearances, Rios has hit .260/.338/.634 for a 152 wRC+, but one has to wonder how much longer he can keep that up. McKinstry is more of a glove-first player who has spent most of his time at second, but is expected to play utility role.
The Dodgers aren’t the best team in the majors because their rotation is headlined by Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw or because they have Cody Bellinger hitting behind Mookie Betts. They’re the best team in the majors because they players they have in the margins would be marquee players elsewhere. Not having a rotation spot for Tony Gonsolin or an everyday position for Chris Taylor is a problem every other team would love to have.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.