MIAMI — There is a point at which a good team playing bad baseball loses the benefit of the doubt and must be considered, by virtue of the overwhelming evidence, simply a bad team. The distinction does not carry a firm date or any other definitive marker, but you know it when you see it. And by all appearances and measures, some time over the past week or so, the Los Angeles Dodgers zoomed past that point at an alarming rate of speed.
The benefit of the doubt has lasted longer for the Dodgers than it would for most teams, seeing as how they came into 2018 with much the same roster that won 104 games, earned the National League pennant and took the Houston Astros to Game 7 of the World Series before bowing out last fall.
But there is very little justification for extending that benefit, or for speaking of the Dodgers any longer as a true contender that simply hasn’t put it all together yet.
Seven weeks into the 2018 season, the Dodgers are baseball’s most expensive disaster, a $187 million roster struggling to stay out of last place while off to the worst start, 17-26, in the franchise’s 60-year run in Los Angeles.
Although a 7-0 victory Thursday over the Miami Marlins — a bare-bones outfit with which the Dodgers had an identical record at the start of the day — allowed them to avoid a second consecutive sweep at the hands of one of baseball’s worst teams, the Dodgers are just a game ahead of fifth-place San Diego in the NL West and and eight games behind first-place Arizona.
“As of a couple weeks ago, we still felt like it was early,” Dodgers General Manager Farhan Zaidi, who accompanied the team on its East Coast trip, said Wednesday with a tone of grim acknowledgment. “And since then, we’ve had a bad couple of weeks, and we’re really in danger of kind of losing contact with the rest of our division. There’s a lot bigger sense of urgency now. . . . The players recognize it, and as a front office we have to assess whether there’s anything inside the organization or outside the organization that can help get us playing better baseball.”
This month, the Dodgers have enjoyed a soft schedule, with 10 games against last-place teams in the middle of rebuilds — the Padres, Cincinnati Reds and Marlins. Thursday’s win gave them exactly two wins in those 10 contests. Imagine how the Dodgers are going to look against teams that are actually trying.
Such a test comes this weekend, when they visit Nationals Park for three games — weather permitting — against the Washington Nationals, a team widely expected to compete against the Dodgers all year for supremacy in the NL, and a team that has gone through its own tribulations. On April 28, a point at which you could still reasonably argue it was early, the Nationals were at a low ebb, at 11-16 and six games out of first place in the East. The Dodgers were 12-14, seven games out in the West.
But since then, the Nationals, as good teams are known to do, have righted themselves, going 13-2 and closing in on first-place Atlanta, while the Dodgers, 5-12 since then, keep finding new depths.
“The effort is there. Guys are not playing lazy,” said closer Kenley Jansen, who has already allowed six walks and three homers this year, after allowing just seven and five in all of 2017. “We still have that confidence, but we gotta go now. It’s time. We have to play with a chip on our shoulder and find it.”
Injuries have undoubtedly contributed to the Dodgers’ woes. Shortstop Corey Seager was lost for the year to an elbow injury a month into the season. Third baseman Justin Turner (wrist) only made his 2018 debut this week (and his five RBI on Thursday fueled the Dodgers’ win). Ace Clayton Kershaw is shelved with shoulder tenderness for at least a few more days. Starting pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu (groin) and reliever Tom Koehler (shoulder) are expected to be out until at least July.
But at this point, there is not a facet of the game where the Dodgers can be said to excel. Their offense entered Thursday ranked 21st in the majors in on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.705) and tied for 24th in homers (39). The bullpen had a 4.54 ERA and was tied for first in the majors with 10 blown saves and 24 homers allowed. And in defensive efficiency — the rate at which a defense turns batted balls into outs — the Dodgers rank 27th, a remarkable drop-off after they ranked second in MLB in 2017.
Again, it must be said: This is more or less the same team that had the best record in baseball a year ago.
“It’s a mystery,” said Manager Dave Roberts, whose perpetual optimism has been tested. “We’ve had some adversity, but honestly, every team is dealing with their share of adversity. I know it’s not from lack of preparation or effort, but the bottom line is, you still have to win games. I still believe in the parts, the pieces, but it just hasn’t been happening. Whether it’s the hitting one night or the pitching the next night, we just haven’t synced up.”
Chalking it up as some sort of cosmic “mystery” is perhaps more palatable for the Dodgers than the alternative, which is to acknowledge that perhaps there were mistakes made in evaluation and organizational strategy — that the front office didn’t do enough in the offseason (“If we had to assign blame at this point,” President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman told the Los Angeles Times this week, “it should be me who is taking that.”) Or that the Dodgers’ collection of young talent, once the envy of baseball, is not as good or as deep as they believed.
On that last point, it is difficult to overlook the acute regression of some of their young hitters, many of whom formed the backbone of the 2017 pennant winners. In terms of OPS, 22-year-old Cody Bellinger, last year’s NL rookie of the year, is down 133 points from 2017. Seager, 24, was down 110 points before his injury. Center fielder Chris Taylor (27), who has been shifted to shortstop in Seager’s absence, is down 114 points. Catcher Austin Barnes (28) and outfielder Joc Pederson (26) are down 178 and 42 points, respectively.
And topping them all is mercurial, 27-year-old right fielder Yasiel Puig, whose .563 OPS entering Thursday — down a whopping 270 points from 2017 — ranked 214th out of 224 batters in the majors with at least 110 plate appearances. A year ago, he hit 28 homers. The one he hit Thursday against the Marlins was just his third of 2018.
A mystery, indeed. Unless, of course, something else is going on. And maybe there is.
For one thing, it appears the rest of baseball has changed its approach to pitching to the Dodgers. In 2017, according to Statcast data, their batters saw fastballs on 51.7 percent of all pitches, the second-highest rate in the game. This year, entering Thursday, the percentage was 41.1 percent, dead last. The difference has been made up largely in curveballs and change-ups.
It’s almost as if the rest of the majors noticed how the Astros largely shut down the Dodgers’ offense (to the tune of a .205 batting average, .290 on-base percentage and .393 slugging percentage) in the World Series with a steady diet of off-speed and breaking pitches.
“The skill sets on our guys are real,” Roberts said of the change in approach from opposing pitchers. “But it’s a game of adjustments. You see the way they’re pitching [the young hitters] — our guys have got to make adjustments. That’s what separates a good player and a player who’s consistent year in, year out. But the league has certainly adjusted.”
The question now, of course, is what to do about this mess. And the answers are elusive. Making a major addition that would mortgage a chunk of the Dodgers’ future — such as a trade for Baltimore Orioles shortstop Manny Machado — would appear to be out of the question at this point when the team isn’t anything close to a contender.
The bullpen is one obvious area to tweak, but the Dodgers’ modus operandi of piecing it together on the fly — which worked out well last year, when Brandon Morrow arrived from Class AAA in May and immediately became a force, and July brought the trades for late-inning pieces Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani — isn’t assured of working again.
Zaidi, in fact, argued the Dodgers’ bullpen isn’t as bad as it has looked and indicated the front office was inclined to ride it out with the current group.
“The bullpen is the kind of thing that gets magnified when other parts of the team aren’t in sync,” he said. “I think more than any other team in baseball, we have created a very high level of difficulty for our bullpen. We’ve handed them a lot of slim leads with a lot of game left. . . . A lot of times the weaknesses of a roster all sort of funnel toward the bullpen. That’s where it shows up. And that’s what I think you’re seeing.”
In recent years, the Dodgers spent money on players with abandon, leading the majors in total payroll by nearly a quarter of a billion dollars over the past half-decade — a span that coincided with five straight NL West titles. But this winter, in an effort to get under the luxury-tax threshold of $197 million — thus resetting their tax rate for future offseasons — they let key pitchers Morrow, Watson and Yu Darvish depart as free agents.
The long-term strategy appeared sound: compete in 2018 behind essentially the same roster that nearly won it all in 2017, then wield their financial might again this winter to retain Kershaw (who could opt out and become a free agent) and perhaps sign another premium free agent — such as reliever Andrew Miller — or allow Kershaw to walk away and use the money on Machado or Bryce Harper.
That plan didn’t account for the crash-and-burn of April and May. And it sounds as if it may be time for a new plan for the Dodgers.
“We’re not starting any kind of clock [or declaring] that, ‘We’re going to start making changes on this day,’ ” Zaidi said. “But I do think that now, we’re probably more actively thinking through and even engaging teams in scenarios that might help this club. For the first month, you kind of let things play out. But we’re probably at the stage now where we have to take a more proactive approach.”