'They're The Model:' How The Dodgers' Player Development Machine Rolls On
Since Major League Baseball split the American and National leagues into three divisions 25 years ago, only three teams have won seven or more consecutive division titles.
The 1991 to 2005 Braves are the standard bearer, winning 14 straight division titles in a run that began under the old two-division format. The 1998 to 2006 Yankees followed, winning nine straight division crowns to set the stage for five World Series appearances and three consecutive championships.
The third is the present-day Dodgers.
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The Dodgers have won seven straight National League West titles since 2013, capped by a franchise-record 106 wins last season. They’ve done that while maintaining a top-five farm system for six straight years despite never picking higher than 18th in the draft. They’ve had stars age out or leave in free agency and have replaced them with young, homegrown stars again and again.
In the era of the luxury tax, caps on draft and international signing bonuses and extra draft picks awarded to small-revenue clubs—constraints the aforementioned Braves and Yankees teams were not subject to—the Dodgers have thrived in a system designed exactly to prevent such single-team supremacy.
The most concerning part for opposing clubs? Seven years in, the Dodgers show no signs of slowing down.
“They’re the model right now,” one rival NL executive said. “They’re hitting on all cylinders. They’re drafting very well. They’re developing very well. They’re obviously very good at the big league level. They’re doing it all.
“With their resources on top of it, it’s definitely a bit of an uphill battle for the rest of us.”
How have the Dodgers done it? How have they managed to maintain a behemoth in the major leagues and an elite farm system below it, a relationship that is often inverted? How have they managed to turn prospects and retreads into instant stars seemingly annually, leaving other teams to scratch their heads and wonder what they missed?
The answer, like most things in life, is multifaceted.
No discussion of the Dodgers’ success can be had without acknowledging their vast financial resources. The Dodgers play in the nation’s second-largest market, receive an average of $334 million annually from their television deal and have led MLB in attendance each of the last seven seasons.
As such, the Dodgers had either the highest or second-highest payroll in MLB every year from 2013 to 2017 and ranked in the top 10 in both 2018 and 2019, according to USA Today.
But they are not in a stratosphere unto themselves. Other high-revenue teams have similar financials, and none has been able to match the Dodgers’ record of consistently winning while maintaining an endless prospect pipeline.
From a financial standpoint, the Dodgers’ level of investment in player acquisition and development and also player welfare sets them apart.
The Dodgers employ 86 professional and amateur scouts, fourth most of any team according to the 2020 Baseball America Directory.
Between coordinators, coaches, analysts and directors, the Dodgers list 54 employees in player development, tied for seventh most in baseball.
They are one of only two organizations, along with the Red Sox, to rank in the top seven in both.
“As a staff we’re able to spend a lot of time and energy in identifying superstar staff members and recruiting them and bringing them in and developing them,” Dodgers farm director Will Rhymes said.
“We invest heavily in staff development. We have turnover because every year people get promotions with other teams and it makes us an appealing place for the high end of the market.”
The money allows the Dodgers to bring in among the most, and often the best, coaches and development staffers. It also allows them to provide their minor leaguers with better nutrition and facilities, setting the foundation for superior physical development.
The Dodgers’ five non-complex league affiliates—Triple-A Oklahoma City, Double-A Tulsa, high Class A Rancho Cucamonga, low Class A Great Lakes and Rookie-level Ogden—all play in ballparks that were built within the last 25 years and rank among the best of their respective leagues in terms of facilities quality.
This year, the Dodgers will have traveling chefs for every affiliate from Rookie-level Ogden through Double-A Tulsa, an expansion of a previous program. The two levels that don’t have a chef, the Rookie-level Arizona League affiliate and Triple-A Oklahoma City, will receive catered meals from high-end providers such as Whole Foods.
“It’s good eating,” said Matt Beaty, a corner infielder/outfielder who spent parts of five seasons in the Dodgers’ system before making his major league debut last year. “A lot of guys in other organizations, they just get leftover concession stand food or peanut butter and jellies. We definitely have it lucky here in this organization.”
The result, in time, becomes clear for all to see.
“You go in and watch the Dodgers play and it’s noticeable how good of shape their guys are in,” an opposing scout said. “I just think they’re a little ahead.”
The staff, the facilities, the high-quality food—it’s not cheap. What the Dodgers do would not be possible without the money. At the same time, other teams that have the money don’t do what the Dodgers do.
“We get players who are really young, and a lot of times the lowest-hanging fruit is simply helping guys mature physically,” Rhymes said. “Our performance and medical staffs are excellent. We feel like we have the best strength and conditioning out there. Combine that with the nutrition (and) a lot of the jumps you see in players from year to year simply comes from being in fantastic shape.”
The investment in staff and facilities and nutrition wouldn’t matter if the Dodgers weren’t bringing in talented players to begin with. On both the amateur and professional fronts, they’ve excelled.
The previous regime under former general manager Ned Colletti and scouting director Logan White drafted Joc Pederson, Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger, as well as Ross Stripling, Alex Verdugo, Jharel Cotton, Grant Holmes and Kyle Farmer.
Under current scouting director Billy Gasparino, who took over after the 2014 season, the Dodgers have drafted Walker Buehler, Will Smith, Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin, Gavin Lux and Beaty to reinforce and extend their competitive window.
Other draftees under Gasparino include Devin Smeltzer, Luke Raley, Andre Scrubb, A.J. Alexy, Dean Kremer, Connor Wong, Zach Pop and Rylan Bannon, all of whom were used in trades to acquire key veterans.
And then there is the pro side. Justin Turner, Max Muncy and Chris Taylor all reached the majors before joining the Dodgers but achieved new, unforeseen heights in Los Angeles.
The formula, according to organization sources not authorized to speak on the record, is rooted in an old scouting mantra: power comes last.
On both the pro and amateur sides, through both traditional scouting and analytics-based methods, the Dodgers aggressively seek athletic, versatile players who hit for average and have strong plate discipline, believing they can teach those players to add power with swing tweaks if the contact skills and at-bat quality are already present.
Muncy, Turner and Taylor all hit at least .275 with a .370 on-base percentage in their minor league careers and had the bat speed, hand-eye coordination and pitch recognition to get to the majors. The Dodgers saw those ingredients and unlocked new levels in them with swing adjustments.
Seager, Bellinger and Lux were all “hit-over-power” high school prospects whose power projections progressively increased in pro ball. Smith, the most successful of the Dodgers’ college draftees, hit .382 with more walks than strikeouts his final season at Louisville but had just nine home runs in three years combined. He successfully implemented a swing change at the Dodgers’ request and tied a major league record with 12 home runs in his first 28 career games last season.
What they all have in common is they were open to change, which circles back to scouts accurately gauging makeup characteristics.
“There’s got to be an openness to (go from) good to great,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “And I think that those guys, when you have that kind of openness, then you have a chance. To their credit, they’ve been open to understanding that there is more in there. That’s what it takes from the player, and the credit obviously goes to the player and the coaches as well.”
A feature of Dodgers rookies in recent years is how seamlessly they translate to the majors, seemingly immune to the ups and downs that afflict other teams’ rookies.
Seager and Bellinger won back-to-back Rookie of the Year awards in 2016 and 2017. Buehler posted a 2.62 ERA as a rookie in 2018. Last year, Dodgers rookies combined for an .806 OPS over more than 1,000 plate appearances.
For that, the players overwhelmingly credit culture and communication.
Dodgers players are presented the same scouting report format and content in the majors as they are at low Class A, helping them understand what they’re being told without a learning curve.
In a story echoed by other players, Beaty was surprised to learn when he got called up that Dodgers trainers, strength and conditioning staff and hitting coaches already knew his pregame routine after speaking with their counterparts at Triple-A.
Communication, information synchronization and player individualization have become hallmarks of the Dodgers organization. The effect has fostered an easy transition for new arrivals, who don’t have to worry about deciphering unfamiliar scouting reports or adjusting their pregame routines. They can just go out and play.
“The actual development does a really good job of not being different from the big leagues,” Seager said. “They talk about what they do up here. They work like they do up here, so once you get up here you already know what to expect and you know what you need to be able to do. You can just go out there and try to perform.”
“How laid back and egoless most of our coaches are, it really helps,” Buehler added. “I always talk about summer ball coaches or high school coaches or college coaches trying to put their stamp on you. I don’t think many guys do that here, and I think it leads to a really collaborative effort.”
That, according to Rhymes, is by design.
“We don’t want the first time that you are warming up in a major league bullpen to be the first time you’re presented with information in that manner,” he said. “As much as we can make it a similar experience and take away the newness of things, the better.
“At the end of the day we’re trying to empower our players. So we want coaches who are positive and who exemplify the values we think are important in our players. Creating lifelong learners, really high baseball IQ, people who have tremendous work ethic...That’s the environment we want our players to be in.”
The final piece, and the one most often cited by players who have joined the Dodgers in recent years, is the clubhouse culture.
Instead of being forced into subservient roles as rookies or expected to stay quiet as the new guy, first-year players are encouraged to be themselves.
“We just leave them be, let them do their thing,” said Turner, the Dodgers’ clubhouse leader. “The analogy I always use is a bowling analogy. We try to be the bumpers and make sure they’re keeping moving down the lane and don’t ever make it to the gutters. If they go sideways, we just try to give them a little nudge and keep them back going the right direction.
“I didn’t have it too bad going up with the Orioles and the Mets, but you definitely hear a lot of horror stories—a lot of stuff guys had to go through when they first came up. That’s something that we don’t think is conducive to guys being able to perform at their best. They’re here to help us win ball games and that’s what we care about. Whatever state of mind they need to be in to help us win ballgames, we want them to be in that state of mind.”
“That doesn’t happen everywhere,” Buehler said, “and our guys get more comfortable in the big leagues because of it.”
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Not everything has gone perfectly for the Dodgers, of course.
Since signing Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig in 2012, the Dodgers have spent more than $250 million on the international market and have little to show for it. The best player they signed, Cuban slugger Yordan Alvarez, was traded to the Astros for Josh Fields less than two months after signing.
Their 2017 first-round pick, outfielder Jeren Kendall, hit .219 in a repeat season at high Class A Rancho Cucamonga last year. They failed to sign their 2018 first-round pick, high school righthander J.T. Ginn, who attended Mississippi State and had Tommy John surgery this year.
Of more serious concern, Sports Illustrated reported in October 2018 that the Department of Justice was investigating MLB’s dealings in the international player market for potential violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, with the Dodgers figuring prominently.
And on the field, for all of the Dodgers’ success, a World Series title still eludes them. At 32 years, the Dodgers’ title drought is the longest since the franchise moved to Los Angeles in 1958. Their back-to-back World Series losses to the Astros and Red Sox in 2017 and 2018 have come under a cloud of suspicion due to sign-stealing allegations, furthering the franchise’s frustrations.
But as the new decade opens, the Dodgers are uniquely positioned to extend their run of dominance.
They have a scouting and development infrastructure in place that continuously develops homegrown stars. The immense prospect depth they’ve amassed allows them to keep adding impact players in trades, such as Rich Hill and Josh Reddick in 2016, Yu Darvish in 2017, Manny Machado in 2018 and, most recently, Mookie Betts and David Price prior to this season. They have a young core of superstar talent, a culture and infrastructure that allows players to flourish and the financial might to make any additions they want.
Now, the question is whether they can catch the Braves’ record of 14 straight division titles and, like those Braves, finally get over the hump and win that elusive World Series.
“They have unbelievable resources, they’ve done a very good job of player acquisition and then they’ve given their players everything they can think of to help them succeed,” the rival NL executive said.
“That’s a tremendous recipe.”