Young stars like Cody Bellinger, Yasiel Puig and Corey Seager draw most of the attention for the Dodgers’ league-leading offense, but unsung contributor Chris Taylor (pictured) has started games at five different positions while lengthening the lineup. That roster depth had the Dodgers winning at a record pace. (Photo by Lachlan-Cunningham/Getty Images)
In August, analyst Joe Sheehan examined the nine teams to record .700 or better winning percentages. The two best, the 1906 Cubs (.763) and 1909 Pirates (.724), played more than a century ago and played a far different game, but they helped illustrate his point.
The 1906 Cubs lost the World Series, and so did three of the other eight teams to win 70 percent of the time or more.
In the last 70 years, since the end of World War II, two of the three teams that finished above .700 did not win it all.
The 1954 Indians (111-43, .721) were swept in the World Series by Willie Mays and the New York Giants. The 2001 Mariners (116-46, .716) scraped by the Indians in the American League Division Series in five games before losing to the Yankees in a five-game AL Championship Series.
That brings us to the 2017 Dodgers, who went 91-39 (.700) through 130 games. Health permitting, Los Angeles will have Clayton Kershaw, the best starting pitcher of this era, in October. They have rotation depth in the form of Rich Hill, Yu Darvish, Alex Wood, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Kenta Maeda. They seem to have a small village of relievers leading up to closer Kenley Jansen. They will see if No. 1 prospect righthander Walker Buehler’s power stuff plays in short stints.
The Dodgers’ commonality with the 1954 Indians, 1998 Yankees (114-48, .704) and 2001 Mariners is their depth. Those Yankees received 54 wins in 93 starts out of Andy Pettitte, David Cone and David Wells and had a superb walk-up line to Mariano Rivera. They also had a fourth starter in Orlando Hernandez who was an October giant, which enabled them to survive after falling behind the Indians two games to one in the ALCS.
That Yankees team exemplified professionalism, from Derek Jeter to Bernie Williams to Jorge Posada, and when they finished sweeping the Padres in the World Series that year, some argued they were a better Yankees team than the 1927 or 1936 versions.
As president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi took the Dodgers from the McCourt era to a younger, more flexible, less costly team, there have been obvious key players, among them young stars Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager. But the Dodgers’ excellence around the margins has played an equally large role.
They astutely signed Justin Turner, who had been non-tendered by the Mets. In a minor trade last June, they picked up Chris Taylor, a productive hitter who can play every position but catcher and pitcher. They acquired Austin Barnes as a throw-in when they traded Dee Gordon to the Marlins after the 2014 season, and Barnes is a strong defensive catcher who also plays second base. Utilityman Enrique Hernandez hammers lefthanders.
On the pitching side of things, the Dodgers have so much depth that Ryu and Brandon McCarthy have been willing to pitch out of the bullpen when needed.
Veterans Curtis Granderson and Chase Utley are battle-tested professionals who have impacted the clubhouse. Last winter, Hill and Kershaw called Friedman to argue on behalf of re-signing free agent Utley, a fact that Friedman already appreciated.
Hill tells friends that this is the best team, in terms of atmosphere and accountability, that he’s ever seen. “We have something here that’s bigger than any individual,” he said.
Case in point: Yasiel Puig is riding the current of this river. He has fun. He hustles. “He is the best defensive right fielder in the game and has to win a Gold Glove,” manager Dave Roberts said. Puig has a terrific relationship with hitting coach Turner Ward, and this season the 26-year-old has punished righthanders.
Most players will credit Roberts—and his energetic, tireless coaching staff—with changing the Dodgers from a collection of mercenaries to a cohesive team. Sure, the Dodgers have the highest payroll in the game, as the 1998 Yankees did, but they are succeeding in terms of scouting and player development, also like those Yankees.
The largest contracts handed out by Friedman and Zaidi went to their own veterans Jansen, Kershaw and Turner, while the Dodgers acquired Barnes, Logan Forsythe, Yasmani Grandal, Hernandez, Taylor and Wood in underestimated deals.
Even if the 2017 Dodgers fall to the Cubs or Nationals in the National League playoffs or the Astros, Indians or Red Sox in World Series, their season will not be a “failure.”
With a young team, a booming player development system and incredible market resources, the Dodgers are positioned to be a major power for the next few years. That could help them avoid the fate of the 1954 Indians, who didn’t win another pennant for 41 years, or the 2001 Mariners, who haven’t qualified for the postseason since. n