By Cliff Corcoran
The Dodgers are returning to the World Series for the first time in 29 years, and they are doing so looking every bit like the juggernaut that tore through the heart of the regular season, compiling a 91-36 (.717) record by Aug. 25. Their 11-1 win over the Cubs in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series Thursday night was just the seventh clinching postseason game in the World Series era to be decided by 10 or more runs. On the postseason as a whole, the Dodgers are 7-1 and have outscored their opponents 48-19.
Impressive as LA has been, however, when the story of the 2017 Los Angeles Dodgers is told, it will necessarily include the 25-game stretch from Aug. 26 through Sept. 20 during which they managed just five wins, at one point going on an 11-game losing streak. How was a team this good that bad for so long, and how did they manage to correct their course so completely in so short a period of time?
One clue is to look at the Dodgers' bullpen, which has been a sensation this postseason. In the just-completed NLCS, LA's 'pen didn't allow a single run, combining to throw 17 scoreless innings over five games against a Cubs lineup that scored 5.72 runs per game in the second half of the regular season. In those 17 innings, they allowed just four hits, one walk, and struck out 22. On the postseason as a whole, the Dodger 'pen has posted a 0.94 ERA and 0.49 WHIP in 28 2/3 innings, walking just two against 32 strikeouts. However, from Sept. 1 through the end of the regular season, the Dodgers' bullpen posted a 5.30 ERA and 1.53 WHIP while taking seven losses.
But we're talking about different players who were the problem, really. The seven relievers on the Dodgers' NLCS roster -- closer Kenley Jansen, setup man Brandon Morrow, Deadline-addition lefties Tony Cingrani and Tony Watson, righty Josh Fields, long-man Ross Stripling, and converted starter Kenta Maeda -- posted a 2.76 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and 4.69 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 62 innings of relief in September. Limit that to just Jansen, Morrow and the Tonys, and you get a 1.35 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 12.15 K/9, and 4.91 K/BB in 40 innings of relief in September.
The other eight men to pitch in relief for the Dodgers in September -- Pedro Baez (who was on the Division Series roster but not used), lefties Luis Avilan and Edward Paredes, righties Josh Ravin and Brock Stewart, extra starter Brandon McCarthy, and rookies Walker Buehler, Wilmer Font, and Fabio Castillo, combined to post an 8.46 ERA, 2.00 WHIP, and 1.64 K/BB in 50 innings of relief in September. Of that bunch, only Avilan and Stewart had an ERA below 6.00 on the month, and only Avilan had a WHIP below 1.50. Together, those nine pitchers allowed 50 runs in those 50 innings of relief. That's 38 percent of the runs allowed by the entire Dodgers' pitching staff, starters included, in September.
The poor performance of those nine pitchers (well, eight, since Avilan might have made the postseason roster if not for a sore shoulder) contributed significantly to the Dodgers' skid. Also, over those 25 games, Baez posted a 14.21 ERA in nine appearances and took four losses, while Josh Ravin posted a 10.80 ERA in eight appearances.
Another factor at play was the expansion of rosters in September. Buehler, Font and Castillo were all September callups. Stewart had been up earlier in the year but returned to the active roster in September, and McCarthy was activated from the disabled list on Sept. 22 (admittedly after the team's skid). Had the roster been limited to just 25 men, it's likely that none of those five would have pitched for the Dodgers in September. But they did, and they combined to allow 24 runs in 26 2/3 innings of relief.
Loathe as I am to lend any sort of credence to the idea that complacency contributed to the Dodgers' slump, the 21-game lead the Dodgers had in the National League West heading into their 25-game skid was likely a factor here. I don't mean in terms of the effort of the players on the field, but in terms of the selection of who would get playing time. With such a wide margin for error, the Dodgers were able to give opportunities to untested pitchers without risking the division, something that might not have been possible had they been neck-and-neck with the D-backs.
The same phenomenon can be seen on the other side of the ball. That big lead allowed the Dodgers to give playing time to September call-ups such as Alex Verdugo, Rob Segedin, and O'Koyea Dickson, who combined to hit .180/.241/.280 in 50 plate appearances. Far more significantly, it allowed the Dodgers to have a long leash with late-August addition Curtis Granderson, who hit .161/.288/.366 in 132 PA after being acquired from the Mets on Aug. 19.
Here's where the bad luck comes in. In Granderson's first game with the Dodgers, rookie sensation Cody Bellinger sprained his ankle, resulting in a 10-day disabled list stay, which was followed by a brief slump. The day before the team activated Bellinger from the DL, shortstop Corey Seager began missing starts due to an elbow injury. That precipitated a slump for Seager, whose bat went cold until the final week of the season. At the same time, center fielder Chris Taylor and catcher Yasmani Grandal began slumping at the plate, as well. This all happened right around the start of the Dodgers' skid on Aug. 26, and it's no wonder that the Dodgers had trouble winning games with five of the eight non-pitchers in their lineup either hurt, mired in slumps, or both.
With that big lead in their division, however, the Dodgers could afford to wait for those hitters to right themselves, which Bellinger, Seager and Taylor all eventually did. Grandal ultimately lost his starting job to backup catcher Austin Barnes, who finished strong and raked in the Division Series. Meanwhile, with the Dodgers facing lefties in four of their first seven games this posteason, Granderson's continued struggles have been tempered by platoon partner Enrique Hernandez, who turned in a performance for the ages in Thursday's Game 5 with three home runs, including a game-breaking grand slam, and seven RBIs.
The conclusion here is that the Dodgers were able to return to their pre-slump dominance by simply getting leaner and meaner. Their roster is back to 25. Their bullpen, aided by the postseason's extra days off, is able to rely heavily on its best arms, taking pressure off the rotation, in turn. Their slumping hitters have either found their groove (Taylor was the co-MVP of the NLCS along with third baseman Justin Turner) or been replaced. Among the 10 Dodgers with 10 or more at-bats this postseason, Granderson is the only one with an OPS below .800.
Folding in the last 10 games of the regular season, the Dodgers have now won 15 of their past 18 games (a .833 winning percentage), and their luck has returned. Remember when Seager's absence in the NLCS was supposed to be a big blow to the Dodgers' chances? Well, Seager's replacements -- shortstop Charlie Culberson and, via Taylor's occasional shifts to shortstop, center fielder Joc Pederson --combined to go 6-for-18 with three doubles and a triple in the NLCS, batting .333 with a .611 slugging percentage. Add Seager's Divsion Series performance (the Dodgers do expect to have Seager back for the World Series), and LA shortstops have hit .345/.457/.724 this postseason.
Best of luck to the American League pennant winner. They're going to need it.
Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.