Sunday, April 14, 2024
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What would it take for Dodgers to miss the playoffs? Five realistic risk factors for MLB’s most hyped team

The Los Angeles Dodgers will bring in the new Major League Baseball season on Wednesday morning when they open a two-game set against the San Diego Padres in Seoul, South Korea. Both contests will be held at the Gocheok Sky Dome, the host venue for the Kiwoom Heroes of the Korea Baseball Organization. This will represent the first time in history MLB games have been played in South Korea.

The Dodgers are a fitting choice to lead off the year, as no team enters the year with more hype or potential. Credit the Dodgers’ buzz to an offseason that saw them sign Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto – a pair that can be interchangeably described as the winter’s top two free agents and the best hitter and pitcher available – while also obtaining right-hander Tyler Glasnow, left-hander James Paxton, and outfielder Teoscar Hernández, among other notable veterans.

To think, those stars join a roster that already employed former Most Valuable Player Award winners Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman and also won 100 games last year for the sixth time in the past seven full-length seasons. So accustomed to winning are these Dodgers that any accomplishment short of a wins record or World Series title is met with a yawn – or, more likely, calls for the team to fire manager Dave Roberts. 

Just how good are the Dodgers supposed to be this season? Very, according to the various forecast models. SportsLine has them down for 103 wins, while Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA model says 101 and FanGraphs’ ZiPS system represents the low vote at 93. (To be fair, that, in ZiPS’ eyes, is good for the second best record in MLB behind the Atlanta Braves.) Rather than reaffirm once more that these Dodgers are likely to be very good, we decided to conduct a thought experiment by asking ourselves: what would it take for the Dodgers to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2012?

Below, we’ve identified five risk factors – all realistic, if not probable or likely – that, if they happened, could derail the hype train that is the 2024 Dodgers.

1. The rotation is compromised

We can all but guarantee that the Dodgers are going to experience turbulence with their rotation. Truthfully, it’s already happening. They’re going to enter the season with Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, and Emmet Sheehan available to pitch, and that’s just the start of it. They’ll also be without Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin, and top prospect Nick Frasso, who will miss the season after undergoing shoulder surgery.

All those absences will leave the Dodgers with a starting five that includes Glasnow, Yamamoto, Paxton, and second-year righty Bobby Miller. (Michael Grove and Gavin Stone are in a competition for the fifth and final spot in the rotation.) You don’t have to work hard to spot the downside potential with that group.

Yamamoto is the most accomplished pitcher in the world to not yet pitch in a MLB regular season game. He won three consecutive MVP and Cy Young equivalent Awards to close out his Nippon Professional Baseball career, and there’s every reason to believe he’ll be able to stand out in MLB. Still, it would be understandable if he experiences some pains throughout his first season: not only does MLB use a different ball than NPB, but it also employs a pitch clock and a tighter schedule. Besides, Yamamoto is a human being, and it’s understandable if he takes time to settle into a new country.

Glasnow and Paxton have had their fair share of success in the majors, but both feel riskier than the average bear from a health perspective. To wit, Glasnow has averaged 72 innings over the last three seasons; Paxton, meanwhile, has thrown 117 innings since the start of the 2020 campaign … with 96 of those coming in 2023.

Then there’s Miller, who set a career-high in innings with 138 between the majors and the minors. It stands to reason the Dodgers will want to be conservative with his workload, meaning that he’s probably due for a gradual increase in innings pitched. That, plus the desire to ease Yamamoto into an MLB schedule, could compel the Dodgers to turn to a six-pitcher rotation at times to keep things churning.

As such, it’s easier to envision a scenario where the Dodgers are digging into their depth early and often. Los Angeles does have an incredible number of intriguing young arms on the way – keep the names Kyle Hurt and River Ryan in mind – but there’s no guarantee those prospects will excel right away. Just last year, the aforementioned Grove, Stone, and Sheehan combined for a 6.19 ERA in 161 innings pitched.

Of course, we know that if the Dodgers rotation did experience their absolute worst-case outcome, the front office would likely just trade for reinforcements at the deadline. That’s why we’re listing it as one of several risk factors.

2. High-leverage hijinx

Too often, we view the pitching staff as two separate components: the rotation and the bullpen. It’s a sensible distinction because of the different roles and expectations, but it misses the cascading effect at play – particularly in this day and age, when teams no longer expect their starters to reliably work deep into games.

If the rotation proves unfit to carry a heavy load, that could put more pressure on the Dodgers bullpen, which could lead to some underperformance from the relief corps. The easiest way for a team to post a poorer record than expected is to play poorly in late-and-close and one-run situations. Just ask the 2023 Padres about that. (San Diego went 9-23 in one-run games and 2-12 in extra-inning contests en route to a disappointing 82-80 mark.)

The Dodgers have proven to be great at finding useful bullpen arms when they need them, but we will point out that they have a fair amount of arms with error bars. What happens if Joe Kelly reverts to his White Sox form? Or if Ryan Brasier pitches more like he did with the Red Sox? Or if Blake Treinen, Daniel Hudson, and J.P. Feyereisen hurt themselves again? As with the rotation, it’s all about the sequencing and severity. Some of the above is likely to pass. All of it, at once? Not as much. 

The absolute doomsday scenario, where the rotation and bullpen both experience their health and performance woes simultaneously, is remote but not impossible. The snag is, yet again, that the Dodgers would surely move on and find a fix to their relief issues.

 Speaking of which, let’s move on to the next section.  

3. Injury bug disrupts

We’re fond of pointing out that player health is the great unknown for public analysis. We cannot identify who will (or won’t) get hurt in any given season with confidence. That’s unfortunate because seasons are often decided by that invisible force. 

An obvious risk factor to these Dodgers, then, is if the injury bug took up residence in their clubhouse, sidelining numerous players for various lengths of time. 

We hope you agree that’s a fair observation to make. Alas, we must concede that the Dodgers have established a precedent where they’re able to overcome mass injuries. Last season, they recorded the second most days missed because of injury in the majors – behind only the Los Angeles Angels – and they still won 100 games

We will note that the who matters in these cases. Your fifth reliever missing 15 days counts the same as your starting catcher, but one has a greater impact on wins and losses. These Dodgers are absurdly deep, though, to the extent that the injury bug would have to impact several top performers to wreak carnage. Ben Clemens, a must-read author at FanGraphs, recently revealed that Los Angeles would be projected to finish at .500 even if their four best players were removed from the roster

Perhaps it’s worth viewing that finding from a different angle.

4. Stars scuffle

Maybe a more imposing risk factor for the Dodgers isn’t their top stars – Ohtani, Betts, Freeman included – missing time because of injury. Maybe it’s them collectively having down years. After all, when a star player is hurt, they’re replaced in the lineup by a player who has a chance to be effective; when a star player is slumping, the team is unlikely to bench them. That can end up being a drag on the lineup if the spiels stack.

There isn’t any reason to think that the aforementioned trio will struggle, and there especially isn’t any reason to think all three will do so for prolonged stretches. This entire piece is a thought experiment, however, so let’s continue to play devil’s advocate while acknowledging that sometimes great players have spotty years.  

So, say Ohtani has trouble finding his rhythm without pitching (he did not experience that issue last time he couldn’t pitch); say Betts has a showing like 2017 (still good), and say Freeman starts to show the signs of wear and tear that come from being 34 and reliably playing almost every single game (he’s missed a total of 11 games in six seasons). Under such a scenario, the Dodgers would receive significantly worse production than they anticipated over the course of 2,000 premium plate appearances. 

Shy of the MVP Three completely cratering, some collective underperformance would have no chance of sinking the Dodgers on its own. But it could do some damage if paired with a few of these other risk factors.

5. Unexpected ascents

The Dodgers haven’t just been a constant presence in the playoffs since 2013, they’ve been the kings of the National League West. For this risk factor, we’re thinking back to the 2021 season, the only time they’ve fallen short of a division crown in 11 years. That was the year that the San Francisco Giants shockingly won the West and 107 games.

Do we think any of the Dodgers’ NL West foes are likely to have a similar year? No, though we certainly think the playoffs are possible for the Diamondbacks, Padres, and Giants. But that’s the point, right? No one expected the 2021 Giants to do what they did. Weird things happen every night and every year in baseball. If one of those West rivals were to blaze the field all summer with unexpected brilliance and capture the division, it would reduce the Dodgers’ playoff chances to an extent.

Granted, that possibility would be magnified if the playoffs hadn’t been expanded in recent years. As it is, the Dodgers would have to see some of these other risk factors come to fruition for them to be at serious risk of missing out on October. And isn’t that the kicker of this whole exercise? Here we are, dreaming up an unhealthy cocktail of misgivings that would wreck most teams in the name of trying to write the Dodgers out of the postseason … and we still can’t convince ourselves that it would be enough.

If you ask us, that might be the best compliment you can give these Dodgers: they look so good and so deep on paper that it’s hard to figure out how they could fail, even when approaching their season with pessimistic eyes. 

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