The Los Angeles Dodgers have dug themselves an early hole in the NL West race, with a record of 12-15 and sitting seven games back of the frontrunning Arizona Diamondbacks. It goes without saying that it’s too early to panic, but it’s not to early to feel some modest urgency. Particularly with Los Angeles visiting Arizona for a four-game series starting tonight. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at why the Dodgers are losing games.
The short-term issues can be boiled down exclusively to poor bullpen performance. Los Angeles is just 4-for-11 on closing save opportunities, the worst performance in the National League. Kenley Jansen, their outstanding closer is mucking along with a 5.59 ERA. In a pen where seven different pitchers have made at least ten appearances, four of them have ERAs on the high side of 4.50. In most cases, a lot higher. The bullpen ERA is 11th in the NL. No one is going to win with production like that.
Injuries are also playing a role. Justin Turner, the excellent LA third baseman, broke his wrist and is sidelined until the end of May. Rich Hill, the oft-injured veteran pitcher, has hit the disabled list with a finger infection.
Normally an injury this minor, this early in the year, wouldn’t make a ripple, but this is Rich Hill. His career has been marred by injuries and the fact he was able to make 25 starts for the Dodgers last year and post a 3.32 ERA, was a big reason they ran away with the NL West. If this minor blip is a sign of things to come—and the track record suggests that it is—then manager Dave Roberts is going to have a serious depth problem to deal with.
Ross Stripling, who makes what would have been Hill’s start tonight, is more than adequate as a replacement, but Stripling’s 0.63 ERA in ten appearances marked him as the struggling bullpen’s biggest bright spot. So whether it’s the bullpen or the back end of the rotation, there’s no avoiding the need for another arm.
If the Dodgers can keep the ship steady here in the early part of the season, there are still plenty of strengths on this team. Clayton Kershaw is pitching well, with a 2.84 ERA in six starts, even if the other problems LA is having means they’re losing his starts. We also know Kershaw is more than capable of pitching far better than even that solid ERA.
Los Angeles is also hitting. They’re fourth in the league in runs scored and they are doing it in ways that are sustainable. There’s a good mix of hitters off to good starts—i.e., Cody Bellinger, and those who are out a little slow and will certainly pick up the pace—Corey Seager for example. What’s more, the Dodgers rank best at the basics—simply getting hits, drawing walks and driving the ball in the gap. The home run ball has not played a big part of their offense early on, therefore leaving them less susceptible to a sudden dry spell.
The smart money in Las Vegas isn’t overreacting to the seven-game deficit in the NL West. Los Angeles is still 10-1 to win the World Series, while Arizona is priced at 16-1. In a Vegas world that often overreacts to short-term trends even more than Wall Street, that’s significant. But the combination of the seven-game gap, along with the fact that pitching depth and bullpen performance may not lend themselves to easy solutions, make the Dodgers worth keeping a close eye on early in this season.