Less than a month ago, the question surrounding the Dodgers wasn’t whether they would manage to fend off the San Diego Padres for the NL West crown. That seemed like a certainty. The question facing the Dodgers was whether they would beat the 2001 Seattle Mariners record of 116 wins in a season. After beating the Padres 2-0 on April 17, the Dodgers were 13-2 and looked like who we thought they would be: the best team in the world.
Since then, the indestructible Dodgers have begun to self-destruct. They have lost 15 out of their last 20 games. Thanks to their incredibly hot start, they still have a winning record at 18-17, but this level of mortality is unfamiliar territory for the Dodgers. If they lose Tuesday’s game against the Mariners, it will be the first time they’ve had a .500 record this deep into the season since June 9, 2018.
The good news for the Dodgers is that the NL West team that’s leading the division isn’t the Padres, who have similarly been “slow” to start, it’s the Giants whose success is less likely to continue. It’s a long season, and this disastrous stretch has tripped them up rather than bury them in a hole. There’s no doubt that the Dodgers can recover. It’s just a matter of when and how.
Injuries have certainly impacted the Dodgers. Any team will miss having Cody Bellinger in the starting nine or Dustin May in the rotation, but the Dodgers were supposed to be uniquely equipped to weather losses to the IL. In the past, the Dodgers have filled the bench with players who could have been starters on lesser teams, but the 2021 bench has been conspicuously bad.
Lux has been the starter when he hasn’t been on the IL, but with a performance like this, he’s destined for the bench. Austin Barnes is hitting like the glove-first catcher he is, and 2017 looks more and more like an outlier with every passing at-bat. Zach McKinstry got off to a good start, but he’s on the IL with a strained oblique. Edwin Ríos is likewise on the IL, and his propensity to whiff has outweighed his immense power. That leaves Matt Beaty as the lone bench player who hasn’t been terrible.
Whether it’s because of lingering wrist issues or not, Lux is falling well short of his modest projections. After getting left off the World Series roster, ZiPS had Lux at a 94 wRC+ for the season, but the 23-year-old is currently 50 points lower than that. He’s slashing .209/.247/.267 on the season, and his career slash line isn’t much better than that. Across parts of three seasons, Lux is a .210/.266/.335 hitter, so he’s never looked like the perennial All-Star he was supposed to be. That’s not saying that he never will—the fact that he has played in three seasons at 23 is a mark in his favor regardless of how he’s hit—but it’s harder to overlook his growing pains when the team isn’t winning.
The Dodgers rotation was supposed to be the best in baseball and it has been. At least, it has by xFIP (3.06) and fWAR (4.7). With injuries to Dustin May, David Price, and Tony Gonsolin, the bulletproof depth has quickly deteriorated. After winning the fifth spot out of spring training, May is out for the year recovering from Tommy John surgery. Gonsolin has yet to make a start as he’s dealt with shoulder inflammation. Price has a strained hamstring, and the Dodgers are hopeful that both he and Gonsolin can return before the end of the month.
In the meantime, the Dodgers still have Clayton Kershaw, Trevor Bauer, Walker Buehler, and Julio Urías, but that leaves a question mark in the fifth spot. Edwin Uceta took the start last time around, but he’s been optioned to Triple-A. This might create an opportunity for Josiah Gray, but he’s only made one start above Double-A.
The rotation can still weather what would be a catastrophe for other teams, but the bullpen has been a sore point. The relief corps has also been impacted by injury. Brusdar Graterol has only made three appearances. Corey Knebel is on the 60-day IL, and Scott Alexander is out, too. These injuries have made for a rotating cast of backend arms. Joe Kelly, Garrett Cleavinger, and Dennis Santana have all gotten knocked around. At the top, things have been shaky as well. Kenley Jansen is striking out fewer batters than ever (just 25.4 percent) and he’s also walked 14 batters in 14 1⁄3 innings.
If there is a way for the 2021 Dodgers to fall apart, it would follow the formula of what’s happening now: myriad injuries, poor performances from the bench. Of course, it’s only May 11, and the season is far from over. FanGraphs still gives the Dodgers a 94.2 percent chance of making the playoffs and a 57.2 percent chance of winning the division for the eighth year in a row. Good teams go through bad stretches all the time. Yankees fans littered the field with baseballs and garbage because of a team that has since gone 13-8. The A’s started the year 1-7, and have been the best team in baseball more or less. By the end of the week, this rough stretch could be forgotten.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.