The Dodgers Are Frightening Again

Kenta Maeda has helped resuscitate the bullpen after a tough September. (Photo: Arturo Pardavila III)

The Dodgers have had one of the weirdest seasons I’ve ever seen. Through August 25th, they were 91-36. And then, out of nowhere, they proceeded to lose 16 of 17, looking like one of the worst teams in baseball for almost three weeks. Their spot in the postseason was already secure, but their late-season collapse created an easy narrative that the Dodgers were headed for another playoff disappointment.

And when they drew the Diamondbacks — a club that had beaten them 11 of 19 times during the regular season, including six losses late in the year — in the first round, the narrative got even easier. The upstart team that wasn’t supposed to be here, the one that made the big left-field upgrade in July, would take down their division rival. The Dodgers might have been the better team in the first half of the year, but the Diamondbacks were ready to prove by way of their stronger finish that they were more equipped for October.

Well, so much for all that. Last night, the Dodgers completed a three-game sweep of the team that supposedly had their number. Once again, they look like the hottest team in baseball.

With these three victories, the Dodgers have now won nine of their last 10 — or 11 of their last 13, if that sounds more impressive to you. For the last two weeks, the Dodgers have again looked like the juggernaut that was in pursuit of the all-time win record at one point. And thanks to a few key changes, they look like a very scary NLCS or potential World Series opponent.

Yu Darvish Looks Fixed

When the Dodgers acquired Yu Darvish at the deadline, there were some legitimate concerns about his season to that point. His strikeout rate was trending down, and in July, he posted his worst monthly totals of his career. After a dominant debut in Dodger blue and a decent follow-up, his next four starts were even worse than the end of his Rangers run.

Over the course of four starts from August 16th through September 8th, opposing batters hit .346/.414/.679 against Darvish. That’s a .450 wOBA allowed; Mike Trout’s career wOBA is .412, for reference. Darvish’s walks were up, his strikeouts were down, and his home-run rate was through the roof. He looked nothing like the second ace for which the Dodgers were hoping.

But as quickly as he turned into a batting-practice machine, Darvish has snapped out of his slump, and last night was the culmination of a four-start run that has basically been the exact opposite of the stretch that preceded it.

In his final three starts of the regular season, Darvish allowed just two runs in 19.1 innings pitched, running a nifty 21/1 K/BB ratio in the process. He didn’t allow a single home run in any of those three starts after allowing at least one in each of his five previous starts.

Darvish did finally give up another home run last night — to Daniel Descalso of all people — but he was otherwise completely dominant, striking out seven of 18 batters. Though his night ended with a scary hit-by-pitch, he pushed his K/BB ratio over his last four starts up to 28/1. Opposing batters have hit .132/.163/.181 against Darvish over that stretch.

This Darvish looks like the guy the Dodgers thought they were acquiring. And having another dominant starter like Darvish makes this the scariest rotation left.

The Bullpen Got Sorted Out

One of the main reasons for their late-season losing streak was the inability to hold a lead, as nearly every pitcher tasked with getting the ball to Kenley Jansen failed. If you watched the Dodgers in September only, you’d think Dave Roberts would be forced again to use Kenley Jansen in the seventh inning throughout the playoffs, lacking trust in any of his middle relievers to bridge the gap after the starters were pulled.

This group, though, not only looks like they can be trusted; they actually look like a strength.

The big addition for October was Kenta Maeda’s move to the bullpen, since the team decided they’d be better off with him there than potentially just starting Game 4. And he couldn’t have looked better in the NLDS. In two outings, he faced six batters, retiring them on four strikeouts and two ground outs. A guy who averaged 91.5 mph with his fastball as a starter sat at 94 and topped out at 96 in his inning of relief, and his swing-and-miss slider rolled through the heart of the Diamondbacks order in his first outing.

This entire postseason, we’ve seen what good starters can do in shorter relief outings, and adding Maeda as a hard-throwing strikeout guy gives the team a quality bullpen option it didn’t have in the regular season. And paired with Brandon Morrow’s 100 mph fastball and an apparently fixed Tony Cingrani, the Dodgers now have three reliable middle relievers to get the ball to Jansen.

For all the talk of the dominance of the Yankee relievers this week, it’s actually LA’s relievers who’ve posted the lowest OPS allowed of any relief corps in the postseason so far, having held the Diamondbacks to just a .507 OPS in their 11.2 innings of work.

Pedro Baez might be on the roster, but the NLDS made it clear how Roberts is going to manage his bullpen when he has a lead. And with Morrow, Cingrani, Maeda, and Jansen, the Dodgers look like they have enough bullpen arms to keep it from being just the Kershaw and Jansen show again.

They’re Resting Up

The Dodgers won their division series last year, too, but to do it, they required 101 pitches from Clayton Kershaw in Game 1, 110 pitches on three days’ rest in Game 4, and then a memorable bullpen appearance in Game 5. Jansen’s totals are almost as absurd; he went 27 pitches in Game 1, 16 in Game 3, 13 in Game 4, and then 51 more pitches in Game 5, on his third consecutive day of work.

By the time the NLCS started, the Dodgers were running on fumes. They just couldn’t match a deeper Cubs team that had finished off the Giants in four games and got to rest before the showdown for the pennant. While no one can say definitively why Kershaw got lit up in the series clinching defeat in Game 6, it was unreasonable to expect Kershaw and Jansen to carry the team by themselves indefinitely. And if Kershaw just ran out of gas after handling a ridiculous workload, who could blame him?

That won’t be an issue this year. The first-round sweep means the Dodgers will get four days off before they play again, and Kershaw will have gone eight days between his Game 1 starts in the NLDS and NLCS. Jansen did pitch in all three games against Arizona, but he threw just 16, 18, and 16 pitches in those outings, and now he’ll get a nice break before being asked to take the mound again.

Alex Wood, Ross Stripling, and Pedro Baez didn’t even appear in the LDS, while Josh Fields faced two batters and threw all of eight pitches, so if the Dodgers run into a scenario where they have an early deficit in an NLCS game and just need to eat some innings while saving their best arms, they’ll have plenty of well-rested pitchers from which to choose.

For once, fatigue shouldn’t be an issue for the Dodgers in the NLCS. If either the Cubs or Nationals are going to get through them to advance to the World Series, they’re going to have to beat a fresh, rested group that is again firing on all cylinders.

As this weird season has shown, things can turn in a moment’s notice, and we should never assume that what just happened will continue going forward. But the idea that a big September slump showed that LA was going to be an easy elimination once the playoffs began? The Dodgers just put that idea in the ground, and once again, they look like the team to beat in the National League.

We hoped you liked reading The Dodgers Are Frightening Again by Dave Cameron!

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Graves
Member
Graves

We goin to the ‘Ship y’all, we going to the ‘Ship what?
The “Narrative” that the Dbacks had the Dodgers number was laughable small sample size. they were 11 – 8 against the Dodgers, now they are 11-11.

piddy
Member
piddy

11-8 with 6 wins coming during a clearly outlying stretch in the Dodgers’ season.

mikejunt
Member
Member
mikejunt

Dodgers also went 3-4 against the Dbacks early in the year when they didn’t yet have Taylor or Bellinger on the roster. Taylor was called up during the 2nd dbacks series but didn’t start; Bellinger was called up in the first game of the next series.

They only played 2 series against them when they were playing well and went 5-1.