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Los Angeles Dodgers 2023 Mid-Season Report

The Dodgers have played half of the 2023 MLB season, leaving lots to discuss, from a high-octane offense to a bumpy (but ascendant) bullpen.

The picturesque sunset at Coors Field has faded into the dark night sky as the Dodgers and Rockies wrap up. Both ball clubs appeared to have the game put away at one point. Colorado stormed out to a 4-0 lead by punishing Dodgers SP Michael Grove, who needed to halt his development in the minor leagues because of the big league rotation’s eviscerating slew of injuries. But Grove left the game on track for a win after a six-run explosion by Los Angeles in the fourth inning.

The bullpen, the weakest link on an underperforming Dodgers team, had come roaring back as of late, even delivering a shutout against the Angels. Unfortunately, RPs Victor Gonzalez and Nick Robertson brought back the old ways, surrendering a five-run rally to Colorado in the sixth. The Dodgers battled back in the 8th, closing the gap to 9-8 thanks to the ever-elite OF Mookie Betts and 1B Freddie Freeman and the resurgent OF Jason Heyward. 

Entering the top of the ninth, two rookies bookended the three batters due up: SS Miguel Vargas and OF James Outman. At an earlier point in the year, this might seem like a recipe for a comeback. Both players teased potential Rookie of the Year campaigns early on. Now, they were the weakest part of the lineup taking the last gasp of a thrilling seesaw battle. Vargas was subbed out for 3B Max Muncy. Outman represented the Dodgers’ last hope as the tying run with two outs. He quickly fell behind 0-2, a habit of his with an astronomical 35% strikeout rate. Colorado’s CP Justin Lawrence, one pitch from finally delivering the Rockies’ first 2023 victory over their division rival, dials up baseball’s trendiest new pitch: the sweeper.

Lawrence’s sweeper was on target throughout his outing, including the pitch prior, which ended up closer to the Los Angeles logo sprawled on Outman’s jersey than it did to his ill-advised swing-and-miss. Lawrence’s putaway starts outside and sweeps in, but he misses his spot, and the pitch never makes it back to the zone. Still, the swing-happy hands of the rookie in the box should fall for it. Not this time. Down to his final strike, Outman makes one of his most mature takes of the year. Unfortunately, home plate umpire Lance Barrett thought differently. Strike three called. Game over.

Season Overview

The story of the Dodgers’ 9-8 loss to the Rockies on Wednesday night has been the story of a large part of the season for Los Angeles: one of their 21 blown-lead losses, the same total they had all of last year. The offense remained powerful (albeit a bit streaky), but the bullpen could not come close to replicating its dominance from last year despite many familiar faces.

But amidst a season many are quick to declare a disappointment, Los Angeles has put things together. Excluding the aforementioned rough Gonzalez-Robertson inning, the bullpen has an ERA of 0.20 over the last two weeks. Zero point two zero. That’s one earned run over the last 46 innings. And when the bullpen shines, the Dodgers shine, having won seven of their last ten. Amidst so much uncertainty entering the season, they are still 10 games above .500 and hold the fourth-best record in the National League. All the big names at the top of the lineup are still contributing in huge ways (including All-Star starters Betts, Freeman, and valuable acquisition DH J.D. Martinez). There’s plenty of space to improve, but the Dodgers are still formidable.

Pitching Conundrums

The bullpen seems to be the most glaring issue at hand, one to address at the deadline. However, with three wild cards and multiple winnable divisions, fewer teams figure to be sellers. Also, one of the top bullpen trade pieces, RP Aroldis Chapman, is already off the market. RP Daniel Hudson’s return to the active roster on Friday after more than a year should help calm the panic surrounding who can handle high-leverage opportunities.

The starting rotation features some undoubtedly bright spots, including the ever-dominant SP Clayton Kershaw and the newly elevated SP Emmet Sheehan, who boasts a 2.65 ERA through three starts straight from Double-A Tulsa. Sheehan has pitched well enough to stick around. SP Bobby Miller looked like a godsend, putting up a superhuman 0.78 ERA through four starts before coming back to Earth lately. He’s swapped out his historic stretch for a 9.39 ERA over his last three starts. SP Tony Gonsolin, despite a healthy 3.30 ERA, has an xERA of 4.26 and just 11 starts. He has never pitched more than 130 innings in a season, and his career postseason ERA of 9.20 leaves much for him to prove.

The rest of the Dodgers rotation is dealing with injuries and/or struggles. SP Julio Urias finally returned on Saturday in place of Grove, but he needs to reestablish his reputation as an ace, as Urias has clunked his way to a 4.94 ERA, more than double last season’s mark. SP Dustin May is still working his way back from an elbow strain, with the Dodgers hopeful he can return at some point in this season. He has appeared in just 15 games over the last 25 months and has pitched fewer than 200 career innings.

Rotation Reflections

SP Noah Syndergaard endured a very rough season (1-4 with a 7.16 ERA) before being placed on the injured list for a mental reset. It’s unclear whether or not he’ll pitch again for Los Angeles. SP Ryan Pepiot would probably have an established spot in the major leagues by now if not for his oblique injury, which he suffered just before Opening Day. At the moment, the bullpen has to handle the fifth start in the rotation after SP Gavin Stone proved to not yet be ready for The Show.

Before you call out Dave Roberts and Andrew Friedman for letting part of last year’s pitching staff go, it’s worth mentioning that SP Andrew Heaney and SP Tyler Anderson have 4.38 and 5.54 ERAs, respectively. They have not been worth their contracts to this point.

Sheehan represents a larger movement toward saving the Dodgers pitching staff, coming from a fantastic Drillers rotation.  How fantastic? As Joe Davis pointed out in a game broadcast, these guys were tied with the Miami Marlins for the hardest-throwing pitching staff in all of professional baseball. Sheehan is the first to debut, but more help should be on the way. And don’t forget about SP Walker Buehler, who’s still recovering from his second Tommy John surgery but aims at a return in the final month of the season. 

Offensive Success

On the offensive side, this season has been electric. The lineup is second in the NL in runs per game and home runs. They also lead the majors in walks per game. That’s not going to make any headlines, but it helps supplement their offense, which ranks 19th across baseball in batting average.

As for individual player performances, C Will Smith has done more than enough this season to fill the shoes of SS Trea Turner as the final piece in the new Big Three at the top of the lineup. Plenty of new faces dot the lineup, either as veteran acquisitions or rookie call-ups. Early on in the season, it appeared the rooks would prove to be more valuable, with Outman winning Rookie of the Month in April and Vargas going on an extended hot streak soon after that. However, both have since cooled off, and the veterans, including the aforementioned Heyward and Martinez along with OF David Peralta, have proved to be the catalysts of offensive dominance at the middle of the order. 

Two players on the roster are looking to improve their offensive contributions in the second half of the season. Backup C Austin Barnes has often been a consistent and durable piece in the catching tandem (including chasing SP Blake Snell in the 2020 World Series-clinching Game 6). This season, he has been in an extended slump best summarized by his -10 OPS+ (100 is the MLB average). SS Miguel Rojas, despite consistently sterling defense, has not been much better. Both could be squeezed out of a roster spot–especially come playoff time–if they can’t pick it up.

Around the NL West

Come midseason, it’s the Arizona Diamondbacks who rule the West. It was certainly plausible to imagine the Dodgers looking up at first place at this time in the season, but the far more likely squad to be ahead of them was the San Diego Padres. Instead, San Diego has failed to break above .500, allowing the San Francisco Giants’ recent surge to push the Padres into fourth. 

Arizona has been a surprise juggernaut this season and will present Los Angeles with an unexpectedly daunting obstacle in their quest for a 10th division title in 11 seasons. Despite an expanded postseason format, the path to the playoffs seems harder than ever. There may not be enough sellers at the trade deadline to make an impactful difference for Los Angeles, and the Dodgers could find themselves clawing to the finish line. Every regular season game, whether it be in early summer or September, should matter deeply, far more than in seasons past. And isn’t that kind of the point?

All stats through Saturday, July 1.

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