The 2017 postseason began on the last day of July — at least it did in the National League. And if the Los Angeles Dodgers are the regular-season team no one can beat, they now look almost as unbeatable as we peek ahead to the playoffs.
Let’s get the obvious caveat out of the way. No team — no matter how powerful on paper they are, no matter how many regular-season wins they roll up, no matter how overpowering their run differential might be — is guaranteed a thing when it comes to October baseball. Luck, randomness, small sample size, frame it however you like, but always remember that their role in the playoffs is so strong that any single series result can hardly be called a surprise.
A quick history: Of the 15 best teams in the divisional era (since 1969) based on Pythagorean winning percentage, only four went on to win the World Series. These Dodgers, by the way, are on pace to move to the top of that list. Their Pythagorean percentage (.685) translates to a 111-win team over a full schedule. Their odds to win the NL West before Monday’s trade deadline stood at 100 percent. After the deadline? Still 100 percent.
There was only one needle for Dodgers president Andrew Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi to move on Monday: the playoff needle. The addition of top-of-the-rotation starter Yu Darvish and bullpen lefty Tony Watson had nothing to do with staving off the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks and everything to do with matching up against the Chicago Cubs and Washington Nationals.
The Dodgers are as all-in as a contender can be, which is not surprising for a franchise that has spent more in payroll than anybody over the past few years and have not been to the World Series since 1988.
Let’s start with Darvish, who is coming off his worst-ever outing. He allowed 10 runs in 3⅔ innings on July 26 in a 22-10 loss to Miami in his final Texas start. His game score (6) was easily the lowest of his 122 career starts, and Yahoo’s Jeff Passan reported he had been tipping his pitches.
That wasn’t an ideal way for Darvish to finish his time in Texas, but it would be wrong to focus too heavily on it. Still, Darvish has largely been up and down the past two seasons. Here is a quick comparison of how he stacks up against his new Dodgers rotation mates since the beginning of the 2015 season:
Darvish slots in with Rich Hill and Alex Wood by most measures — on a different tier than Clayton Kershaw. Assuming a healthy Dodgers rotation for the playoffs, you could pencil in either Darvish or Hill for Game 2 to follow Kershaw, with Darvish likely getting the nod because he works deeper into games.
For further context, consider my system for rating starting pitchers by tiers. In that system, Darvish slots as a No. 1. Kershaw is on the exclusive “ace” tier, along with Boston’s Chris Sale and Washington’s Max Scherzer. Wood and Hill are both No. 2s. No one else on the L.A. roster rates as high as a No. 3.
Compare the new probable rotations of the three leading NL contenders by that system:
Clayton Kershaw (A)
Yu Darvish (1)
Rich Hill (2)
Alex Wood (2)
Jon Lester (1)
Jose Quintana (1)
Jake Arrieta (1)
Kyle Hendricks (2)
Max Scherzer (A)
Tanner Roark (2)
Gio Gonzalez (3)
The Dodgers’ staff was built upon depth both in the rotation and the bullpen, with Kershaw and superstar closer Kenley Jansen serving as the foundation pieces. But when you get into the postseason, those depth guys look a lot less impressive when you start matching them up against the rotation mainstays of the other prime contenders. That’s no longer a problem for the Dodgers, who can go toe to toe with whoever survives the likely Cubs-Nationals matchup in the division series.
As for the relievers, before their deadline deals, the Dodgers’ primary lefty relievers were Luis Avilan (3.30 ERA in 30 innings) and Grant Dayton (4.94 ERA in 23⅔ innings), both of whom have been on and off the disabled list this season.
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Watson’s 2.43 ERA since 2014 ranks 11th among all relievers, and he has logged time as a closer. Watson has been good against hitters from both sides of the plate during his career, but his OPS against lefty hitters (.569) is outstanding. (Tony Cingrani, also added on deadline day, is more a depth option and has been hit pretty hard this season.)
Think of it like this: You’re in the sixth or seventh inning of a close game against the Nationals or Cubs. Men are on base. It’s too early for Jansen, and one of Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber or Jason Heyward is due up. If you’re Dave Roberts, who are you going to call? Watson, Dayton or Avilan? Yeah, it’s probably Watson, and that’s why this move was an important upgrade for L.A.
Just to be clear, in my mind the Dodgers were the World Series favorites when the day began, and they would have remained so even if they had not made a single move on Monday. That’s the case even taking into account the moves the Cubs and Nationals both made to upgrade their own rosters. But the addition of Darvish and Watson not only improves the matchups for the Dodgers in a postseason showdown, it actually increases the gap in roster value L.A. enjoyed before all the various deals were completed.
What do you get the team that has everything? More. When it comes to the crapshoot that is the MLB postseason, more is always better.