“We were kind of behind the eight ball from the start,” Betts said.
Betts alluded to the Dodgers’ pitching attrition — they had lost Clayton Kershaw on the final weekend of the regular season and used Scherzer in relief to close out an epic NL Division Series. But his message applied broadly to the way his franchise navigated its World Series defense. The Dodgers have greater financial resources and more brainpower than any franchise in baseball. Somehow, they managed to transform those advantages into burdens.
The Dodgers used their financial might last offseason to sign Trevor Bauer. Their organizational depth added undue pressure on young players. Their innovative approach to pitching led them to overtax pitchers and deploy their best arms in unconventional ways that diminished their abilities rather than amplifying them. The Dodgers assembled the most talented team in baseball, and their own decisions managed to undermine that talent.
It would be easy to say it was just not the Dodgers’ year because of injuries. But the Braves played without supernova outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. and top pitcher Mike Soroka, among other losses. The series illuminated the basic difference between the Braves and Dodgers. The Dodgers tried to manipulate the game. The Braves simply played it.
A joylessness shrouded these Dodgers. The Boston Red Sox pushed one another in a shopping cart, the Braves rallied around a reserve who brandished pink plastic swords, and Carlos Correa tapped his wrist to let his Houston Astros teammates know October is his time. When Dodgers players mobbed one another after outlasting the San Francisco Giants, it felt less like an outpouring of elation than the release of tension.
The apparent exhaustion could have come from several sources: facing the toll of trying to repeat, bearing the burden of being heavily favored, sifting through the wreckage of the front office’s decision to sign Bauer, withstanding season-ending injuries to Max Muncy, Justin Turner and franchise talisman Kershaw. In the playoffs, it may have also come from how the front office handles its roster. When management treats players like interchangeable widgets, baseball feels to players more like work and less like a game.
The focus of the Los Angeles approach has mostly landed on its pitching staff. Julio Urías, a 20-game winner, pitched four innings of relief in a decisive NLDS Game 5, then threw another relief inning in the NLCS before he got shelled in Game 4. Scherzer noted his “dead” arm after a short start that followed his appearance as a closer in Game 5 of the NLDS. The Dodgers’ handling of their pitching staff took a physical toll, as Manager Dave Roberts acknowledged.
For a better example of how difficult it can be to play for the Dodgers, consider the season of Gavin Lux. A former No. 1 prospect in his third season, Lux began the year as the Dodgers’ everyday second baseman. When he scuffled, the Dodgers sent him down. For most franchises, Lux would have been accruing service time and adjusting in the majors. The Dodgers’ depth and resources, which they used to acquire Trea Turner, meant Lux was exiled for portions of the year to Class AAA Oklahoma City.
“It’s pretty easy to look around the league and say like, oh, yeah … maybe on this team I wouldn’t have got sent down, obviously,” Lux said this postseason. “But there’s a lot of really good people here to learn from, a lot of really good players to learn from and guys who have been around and a lot of superstars, future Hall of Famers. So for me it’s like, it’s looking at it as a blessing as opposed to the other way around.”
In September, the Dodgers heaped another challenge on Lux. He played outfield for the first time as a professional at Oklahoma City, one appearance in left and another in center. When he returned to the majors in mid-September, Lux had become an outfielder. He started in center field for much of the NLCS.
“If you would have told me a couple months ago that I’d be playing in the outfield in the playoffs,” Lux told the Los Angeles Times, “I’d have said you were crazy. … There is only so much you can replicate in practice. Still learning a lot out there on the fly. Looking at it as a challenge.”
Lux has the tangible attributes — athleticism, arm strength, instincts — to play outfield. But baseball players are more than walking collections of attributes. Lux had to play with the pressure of learning a new position under the harshest glare. When a soft liner landed in front of Lux during a Braves rally in Game 4, Urías lifted his arms on the mound, looking into center field. So it went for the best team money could buy run by the smartest guys in the room: frustration built upon frustration.
The Dodgers’ front office took its obsession with finding small edges too far. The Dodgers had all the advantage required through sheer talent. Allowing that talent to play with confidence should have been the priority. By rearranging roles, the Dodgers maximized their situational edge in theory while diminishing their talent edge in practice.
They never recovered from the ill-conceived, shameless signing of Bauer. The Dodgers could not have known he would be accused of punching a woman unconscious during rough sex, allegations that put him on MLB’s exempt list from July 2 on. They did know he had targeted women with abuse over social media and had a record of misogynistic statements. They knew he had an abrasive personality and a history of insubordinate behavior, such as heaving a baseball over the center field fence when his manager removed him. Aside from the ethical failure of signing him, Bauer was a talented pitcher but a $34 million-per-year gamble not worth taking.
It may be reductive to tie the Dodgers’ failure to their gloominess. It’s hard to play with joy when Logan Webb is mowing through your lineup or Drew Smyly is dotting curveballs at the knees or Eddie Rosario won’t stop destroying baseballs. No one is happy when losing. It may also seem wrong to call their season a failure. They won 112 games in the regular season and playoffs, and on a night when they could have wilted, they scored 11 runs to force Game 6. If Buehler didn’t miss with a cutter in the zone to Rosario in the fourth inning of Game 6, the Dodgers may well have been playing Game 7 on Sunday night.
But the Dodgers spent $260 million on their payroll with only one goal. It’s also true that treating players like cogs makes it more difficult for them to respond to adversity.
The Dodgers will be back. They are a player-development machine with the financial resources and willingness to outspend all rivals. Their acquisition of Turner provided them with a talent upgrade this season and also insurance at shortstop in 2022 should Corey Seager sign elsewhere in free agency. Kershaw and Scherzer are free agents, but the Dodgers should have Dustin May back for the stretch run of next season.
When the Dodgers return to the postseason, they can find a lesson in their title defense. When you have the best players, just let them play.