2020 MLB Organization Of The Year: Los Angeles Dodgers
It’s good to be rich. Always has been.
As one of baseball’s blue-chip franchises, the Dodgers have never been short on resources. The club plays in 58-year-old Dodger Stadium, one of baseball’s crown jewels that draw with nearly four million fans a year and cashes a fat check annually from one of the richest TV deals in professional sports.
But to be rich and smart, that’s when special things can happen. That combination produces things like three National League pennants in four years, a World Series title and a second Organization of the Year award from Baseball America in that four-year span.
“Organization of the Year is an incredible honor,” Dodgers team president and CEO Stan Kasten said of his franchise winning the honor for 2020. “To do that in a year when we won the World Series, to do that in a year when we are also the ESPN Humanitarian Team of the Year, to do that in a year when we are also hosting the largest Covid testing site in America (in the parking lots outside Dodger Stadium), to do that in a year when we opened up the stadium to a massive voting center—these are things that make me very, very proud of our organization.
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“I mean, in a difficult year for everyone, the Dodgers have risen above this in a way that very few organizations ever have a chance to do.”
Kasten is justifiably proud of the way the Dodgers met the challenges of an unprecedented season.
On the field, no team was better. The Dodgers’ 43-17 record in the shortened regular season translates to 116 wins in the standard 162-game season.
In the postseason, they went 13-5, dispatching the Rays, Padres and Braves, the teams that had the second-, third- and fourth-best records in baseball, along the way to their first World Series title in 32 years.
That it came in a world of daily testing, coronavirus outbreaks, quarantines, postseason “bubbles,” alternate training sites and a total disruption of baseball’s precious daily routine makes it the most unique success in major league history.
“I think in years past, when I have complained about being overwhelmed or busy—I had no idea what 2020 was gonna look like,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said.
Third baseman Justin Turner thinks that winning a championship during baseball’s pandemic-adjusted season increased the degree of difficulty.
“In a lot of ways it’s been more challenging (than a standard year),” he said, “with the expanded postseason, the best-of-three Wild Card Series, which presents a lot of challenges that obviously weren’t there before; the 60-game season where a lot of guys didn’t have as many at-bats under their belt or innings under their belt.
“So there’s a lot of things that go into this that you can make an argument to say it might be even more difficult.
“But obviously we understand this is a different season. That was one of the first things we talked about when we got back together—that no matter how many games we played, no matter what the postseason looks like, if there’s a championship to be won (then) we’re going to go after that and do everything in our power to win it.”
The Dodgers defeated the Rays in six games in the World Series with a roster that featured more homegrown players—14 of the 28 players on their World Series roster—than any other team in the postseason.
National League Championship Series and World Series MVP Corey Seager was the Dodgers’ first-round pick in 2012, the year that the Guggenheim Group took over as owners. Pitching hero Julio Urias was signed out of Mexico that same summer. So was Victor Gonzalez, one of four rookies in the Dodgers’ postseason bullpen. The five pitchers who started their 18 postseason games—Walker Buehler, Tony Gonsolin, Clayton Kershaw, Dustin May and Urias—and four of the five who were credited with postseason wins have never thrown a pitch for another organization.
“We were all proud of that. That is what we set out to do. That was our plan,” Kasten said, pointing out the Dodgers’ homegrown preeminence among postseason teams.
“No organization can have sustained success without strong player development. I think I’ve said that maybe a billion times to media and internal people. But that is what I believe and Andrew came in here with that same mindset.”
The Dodgers had already won the first two of their current run of eight consecutive NL West division titles when Kasten pried Friedman away from his small-market kingdom in Tampa Bay. Friedman’s arrival brought the Dodgers into the 21st century with a commitment to state-of-the-art player evaluation and the most sophisticated player development engine in baseball.
“It is everything,” Kasten said of the importance of putting the right person in charge of baseball operations. “First of all, in any business, it’s the staff. It’s your organization. It’s your front office that makes you or breaks you. It’s the single most important thing a team president does.”
Kasten has a running gag with Friedman, teasing his president of baseball operations about the “Jedi mind trick he plays”—maintaining his image as a wizard of small-market economics “while we’re leading the world in payroll every year.”
Friedman’s expenditures in his first years in Los Angeles featured a large amount of dead money, using the franchise’s resources to absorb mistakes and buy its way out of bad contracts that might have sunk other teams, while also swinging trades in their favor by absorbing other team’s mistakes and bad contracts.
The strategy positioned the Dodgers to take a big swing—and they connected, acquiring Mookie Betts from the Red Sox on the eve of spring training and then signing him to a $365 million contract extension that could keep him in Dodger blue through the 2032 season.
It paid off in a big way.
In his first season with his new team, Betts turned in an MVP-caliber season, becoming just the sixth player in franchise history to win both a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger award at his position. He displayed leadership skills that marked him as a 21st-century Kirk Gibson, who was the pivotal acquisition who put the 1988 Dodgers over the top.
“Mookie’s pretty special,” Dodgers lefthander Clayton Kershaw said. “He just does things on the baseball field that not a lot of people can do and he does it so consistently, which I think separates him from a lot of guys.
“I think it’s just the baserunning, the consistency of everything he does, the defense. He does some special things like hit homers, take the extra base and things like that. The day-in, day-out consistency of what he does on the baseball field separates him. I mean, you might see one game and not really appreciate Mookie to his full potential, but now that we’ve seen him for . . . a full season, you kind of get to appreciate it on a day-in, day-out basis now.”
Friedman’s ability to choose talent—in the front office and on the field—has been key to elevating the Dodgers.
Baseball’s final four this October had front offices led by executives hired by Friedman at some point in the past. The Rays’ Erik Neander and the Astros’ James Click were both hired as interns in Tampa Bay by Friedman, while the Braves’ Alex Anthopoulos spent two seasons in the Dodgers’ front office.
Other examples litter the game. In San Francisco, former Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi is the Giants’ president of baseball operations and former Dodgers farm director Gabe Kapler is the team’s manager. Twins farm director Jeremy Zoll was hired away from the Dodgers. Rangers manager Chris Woodward and the Tigers’ new bench coach George Lombard were part of the Dodgers’ coaching staff when Dave Roberts was hired as manager in 2016.
At the same time, Friedman has elevated the Dodgers’ use of analytics in player evaluation and game strategy to a level of sophistication only dreamed of not that long ago.
“We made improvements the few years before (hiring Friedman),” Kasten recalled. “I thought we had made progress. I thought we were middle of the pack. Andrew came in here and when he had spent a month or two here, he felt we were well below the midpoint. Now we are at the top.
“We couldn’t be in the middle of the parade or the back of the pack. We had to get to the front. And Andrew helped us do that.”
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The contributions of the analytics department have been “extraordinarily important,” Kasten said, and “there is no question in my mind we would not be where we are today without Andrew and his hiring of his staff.”
But Friedman insists any successful organization can’t be so wedded to the numbers the analytic arm of baseball ops churns out that it becomes impersonal, viewing players as interchangeable robots.
“I think there are narratives out there in terms of if you use information to help guide decisions,” Friedman said. “But, at the core of what we do—we’re involved with trying to provide the best environment and culture for people to thrive, and I don’t think that’s different in any business.
“It was something that was really important to us when I was with the Rays and it’s something that’s really important to us now. I think when guys are more comfortable, they perform better. And I think that stems from having honest conversations with people and just the consistency of message and everyone really being on the same page.
“It doesn’t mean that we don’t disagree. But I think culture is incredibly important to organizational success.”
Nothing, however, is more important than talent, and the Dodgers have annually assembled one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the game under Friedman. Their ability to find value where others missed it—Max Muncy and Chris Taylor are prime examples—is yet another separator.
“A lot of it stems from really valuing guys who can do a lot of different things on a baseball field, and add value on defense, on the bases, in the batter’s box, pitchers who have multiple weapons and can execute pitches,” Friedman said of his guiding principles in player evaluation.
“And we do a lot of digging on people’s makeup and their work ethic, trying to get a feel for how they will fit within our environment . . .
“I think the overarching color is culture and environment— in our front office, in our clubhouse. It’s something that is extremely important to all of us and it’s a difficult thing to put your finger on and to quantify, but it’s one of those things that when you have it, you know it and when you don’t, you know it in the most glaring ways.”