Despite winning 100 games in 2023, Los Angeles had to settle for watching the Rangers and their many former Dodgers in the Fall Classic.
(Former) Dodgers win the World Series!
That was almost the headline fans were expecting halfway through the season. Instead, the Dodger faithful had to content themselves with cheering on the five former Dodgers on the Texas Rangers as they won the 2023 World Series. Those Dodger alumni all had quite significant contributions as well: SS Corey Seager won World Series MVP, SP Nathan Eovaldi dealt his fifth win of the postseason in the clinching Game 5, RP Josh Sborz got his first save of the entire year in the clincher, and both SP Andrew Heaney and SP Max Scherzer started a game in the Fall Classic. All the current Dodgers watched it like the rest of us.
How could it have come to this?
In 2022, the Dodgers won 111 games in the regular season, won their 112th in their postseason opener, and then proceeded to collapse. Scoring just seven runs over their final three losses to the divisional rival Padres, they were usurped by an opponent with 22 fewer wins.
Entering October this year, they couldn’t possibly do any worse.
And yet… they did. From the first batter of the NLDS to the final out, the Dodgers were utterly shellacked by another NL West foe, this time the Arizona Diamondbacks. In three games, the Dodgers shifted from the surprise juggernaut they were in the regular season to a downtrodden squad suffering from injuries and inexperience. Three games in early October withered the outlook on the 2023 campaign from an impressive, exciting scrappiness to abject failure.
What in the world went so wrong?
In two words, batting and pitching. Okay, baserunning and fielding are usually not what tanks your season, but, seriously, the starters were crushed, and the top of the order went silent.
One of the lowlights of the Dodgers’ short postseason run was SP Lance Lynn surrendering four home runs in a single inning, the only such instance in MLB postseason history. And yet, Lynn put up the best performance of any Dodgers starter in the NLDS.
Maybe you should read those last two sentences again and let that sink in before proceeding.
Lynn’s four-run, seven-out performance bested SP Bobby Miller’s three-run, five-out performance and SP Clayton Kershaw’s six-run, one-out performance. Lynn certainly seemed to be the most volatile of the Dodger postseason starters entering October, considering his high ERA despite periodic gems and occasional collapses against good offenses (see: Atlanta Braves).
Bobby Miller, following a record-breaking start to his career, looked more like a rookie before regaining some of his fireballing prowess later in the season, at times playing like a seasoned veteran. His rough, short-leashed outing in Game 2 was unexpected, but not inconceivable.
The Dodgers could have survived Miller’s and Lynn’s struggles, considering they are not quite as consistent as SP Ryan Pepiot, who had caught fire, and Kershaw, the backbone of the pitching staff. And so, while Lynn started the elimination game for the Dodgers, he wasn’t the one that doomed them.
Clayton Kershaw has a very-rarely-talked-about history of struggles in the postseason (insert eye-roll emoji here). Still, his experience on that stage made him the undisputed Game-1 starter. He was set up for a comfortable victory, with maximum rest and an opponent 16 games worse than Los Angeles. Although the situation was advantageous, the stakes were high: the Dodgers were coming off an abysmal performance in the 2022 NLDS, and their shallow rotation desperately needed him to go deep.
Kershaw threw the first pitch of postseason Dodger baseball. Fouled off. This was the high point of the Dodgers’ playoff run, ahead in the count against the leadoff hitter in the top of the first.
If only the postseason could end right there for Los Angeles, concluding the Dodgers’ inspiring, exciting 2023 season on a positive note. Throw a strike to 2B Ketel Marte, then pack your bags for Cabo with a smile on your face. But alas, one pitch does not a playoff series make. It was all downhill from there.
Marte scorched the very next offering at 115.7 MPH for a double. After that, single, single, double, home run, groundout, walk, and double.
Clayton Kershaw is, by some metrics, the greatest pitcher of all time. He has the lowest ERA of any pitcher in the live-ball era with at least 1,500 innings (at 2.43, nine points ahead of second). He’s the only pitcher in the top 20 to begin their career in the 21st century. It’s a testament to baseball that a pitcher as generationally dominant as Kershaw can still surrender one of the worst starts in baseball history.
I’m not here to rag on Kershaw. He propelled Los Angeles into their dominance of the 2010s, and he (eventually) pitched them to a World Series championship. While his blowup in Game 1 was enormously costly, he was undoubtedly working through a nagging shoulder injury. And even if he was as effective as he had been all season, the Dodgers were never going to win a best-of-five series in which they put up a total of six runs.
The Top of the Order
OF Mookie Betts and 1B Freddie Freeman had two of the best hitting seasons in Dodgers history. Both are in the running for NL MVP, combining for 68 home runs, 209 RBIs, and a .319 batting average. They went a combined 1-21 in the NLDS. Los Angeles had four players hit for at least 29 home runs and 100 RBIs in the regular season. They hit one in the playoffs, a solo shot from DH J.D. Martinez.
The Dodgers would not be hosting an NLDS series after a bye without the contributions of Betts and Freeman. The two amassed a combined 15 WAR in 2023, meaning Los Angeles likely wouldn’t be in the postseason at all without them. When two players are that essential to the success of the Dodgers, their disappearance can (and did) tank the team. Maybe the lineup depth issues that led everyone to predict a somewhat down year for Los Angeles were there all along.
Dave Roberts has long been the whipping boy of the Dodgers’ postseason struggles, and often for valid reasons. This time around, Roberts deserves some credit. He put Los Angeles in whatever position he could to win, and the players did not come through. He managed Game 1 adequately, considering the game was quickly out of reach and he had to preserve his bullpen as best he could while handing them 8⅔ innings.
The second game was a masterclass. Roberts said he would treat it like a Game 7, and he did. As Bobby Miller struggled to finish his second inning, Roberts yanked him. RP Brusdar Graterol excellently slammed the door on the Diamondbacks’ early-inning threat. He and three more out of the bullpen held Arizona to one run over 7⅓ innings. Of course, it wasn’t enough, with Miller’s three runs allowed being more than what LA could muster through the whole game anyway.
Roberts entered Game 3 with the support of most attentive Dodgers fans. But his management of Los Angeles’ final game was less assured. He was decidedly aggressive in Game 2, trying to put the Dodgers back in the series, but he seemed more reserved when the season was officially on the line.
The first questionable decision came with the starter: Lance Lynn over Ryan Pepiot. Pepiot had been elite since returning from injury, and Lynn was shaky. Presumably, Roberts preferred Lynn’s experience over Pepiot’s youth. Pepiot did not pitch at all in the game, which seemed to be the plan all along: it would be the midseason acquisition with the season on the line.
Coaches and managers will always be judged not based on their intentions or strategies but on their results. Across sports, this is the case: a coach who goes for it on fourth down with the game on the line and makes it is hailed as a swashbuckling, swaggering play-to-win guy, whereas the one that misses is a reckless, ill-advised decision-maker.
So, if Lynn deals, and Pepiot keeps the Dodgers afloat in Game 4, Dave Roberts is on top of the world. That’s not an unimaginable scenario. With Kershaw’s Game 1 implosion and lingering injury, it could make sense to save Pepiot in most Game 3 situations.
But maybe not the one in which Lynn gives up four home runs in the third inning?
Lynn gave up more home runs than anybody in the regular season. So after Ketel Marte made it two home runs in three batters to start the third for Lynn, Roberts probably should have read the room. Sure, the Diamondbacks were 22nd in home runs in the regular season, but they had hit seven at this point in the NLDS.
Considering the Dodgers mustered two runs total in nine innings, this was essentially Roberts’ last chance to save the club. The bullpen held Arizona scoreless, so maybe Game 3 would have gone to extras if Roberts had pulled Lynn with one fewer out recorded.
We’ll never know. And it hurts a little more to think that the only pitcher on the Dodgers’ NLDS roster who didn’t touch the mound was the starter with a 2.14 ERA.
What now? The Dodgers have 18 players entering free agency, not including the recently-extended 3B Max Muncy or RP Blake Treinen, after the team picked up his club option. That free agent class is highlighted by Martinez, 2B Kiké Hernandez, OF Jason Heyward, and Clayton Kershaw.
Kershaw is the most interesting case, considering he just underwent shoulder surgery and is only “hopeful” about playing next season. He’s also expressed interest in playing for his hometown Rangers, and that interest might turn into desire now.
If Kershaw departs, C Austin Barnes might not last long in Los Angeles. His -1.2 WAR last season doesn’t factor in his value to Kershaw as his personal catcher but would otherwise make him replaceable. However, it was his first true down year after multiple quality seasons as a backup (along with one memorable hit).
Considering Hernandez is also a free agent, there’s a chance the only player on the Dodgers’ roster come next April who was part of the 2017 World Series team is UTIL Chris Taylor. That’s consistent with the usual rate of roster turnover, but it’s still striking for a team as consistently good as the Dodgers.
As far as potential incoming signings, there might be a guy coming out of that city just south of LA that piques their interest. And if they don’t win the DH Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes, there are plenty of worthy options, including Snell, SP Jordan Montgomery, SP Aaron Nola, and even OF Cody Bellinger.
So, while a 3-game NLDS exit hurts, remembering this season seemed to be a reset year to potentially go all-out this offseason makes it less painful.
The 2023 season ended in frustration and disappointment. You can’t win them all. But if the Dodgers do what others expect of them this winter, maybe the 2024 Fall Classic will feature more than five Dodgers.
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