Finally getting over .500 for the first time this season, the Dodgers look to be past the worst part of 2018.
At times this season, the Los Angeles Dodgers have looked completely lost.
After their sixth straight loss on May 16th, the Dodgers’ record was 16-26. This marked the first time they have been at least 10 games under .500 since June 21, 2013, a span of nearly five years. For what it is worth, the 2013 Dodgers got hot, winning 42 of 54 games in July and August to win the division by 11.5 games. The 2018 Dodgers seem to be ready to ride a similar wave.
Since falling to 16-26, the Dodgers are 16-5, doubling their win total and jumping above .500 for the first time this season. That is easily the best record in the National League during this stretch (it is tied for the MLB lead with the Mariners), and their +49 run differential during this time backs up the dominant record with dominant play.
After being as many as nine games back of the NL West division lead, the Dodgers are just 1.5 out, as their hot streak has coincided with more down-to-earth play from the division foes, the Diamondbacks and Rockies.
For a team that was as many as 55 games above .500 last year in a pennant-clinching season, this road was not expected of them to begin 2018. But the Dodgers are going to be just fine, and I am going to hold with my pre-season prediction and say that they will end up as the National League West champions.
Amazingly, the Dodgers are playing this well with 10 players on the disabled list. Chase Utley, Tom Koehler, Rich Hill, Corey Seager, Dennis Santana, Tony Cingrani, Kenta Maeda, Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-jin Ryu and Julio Urias are all currently on the ten or 60-day disabled list. Those aren’t just role players, either. They’ve got their arguably two most talented players — Seager and Kershaw — all out with injuries. Seager, in particular, will not return this season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
How have the Dodgers played so well with all this talent recovering from injury?
The answer, believe it or not, starts with a former Dodgers superstar who is in the midst of the second-best offensive season of his career. Matt Kemp, who finished second in the 2011 NL MVP voting and has not played for the Dodgers in four years, is keeping the team afloat. Seriously.
Kemp, who was worth just 1.4 fWAR in his three year hiatus from the Chavez Ravine, has already been worth 2.0 fWAR this season. He’s slashing .347/.377/.582 in 212 plate appearances. His ten home runs put him on a 31-home run pace assuming 650 plate appearances. The defense, too, has not rated out as bad as it was during those three years. Matt Kemp, who was acquired this past offseason in a salary dump trade with Atlanta, has been more than a valuable asset to the team here in the first half.
All of that said, Kemp’s production probably is not sustainable. His .408 BABIP will certainly fall over the course of the year, but if the Dodgers get lucky, Justin Turner will begin to heat up as Kemp cools off. Turner, who has dealt with his share of injuries this season, has a .668 OPS to begin the year alongside a .254 BABIP.
And then there’s Max Muncy, who I can assure you have never heard of (if you’re not a Dodgers or Athletics fan). He’s slugged ten home runs in his first 144 plate appearances this season. Muncy, who was, at best, a reserve in Oakland, has been a revelation for Los Angeles. Over the last 30 days, Muncy has slashed .300/.400/.675 and has been the ninth-most valuable position player in baseball with 1.5 fWAR.
Who knows how sustainable this is? He does have a couple of things going for him. First, he walks, and he walks enough to continue to get on base even when the hits aren’t falling. Second, he does a good job of limiting soft contact. Among hitters with 140 or more plate appearances, Muncy’s soft-hit rate of 13.8 percent ranks as the 51st-lowest in the Majors, putting him in the top-21 percent of the league. That doesn’t make him an absolute master at the skill of limiting soft contact, but it is certainly something that is fueling this breakout.
The Dodgers’ pitching, too, has somehow managed to pick up the slack even with the injuries. As of right now, the team really only has three starters: Alex Wood, Walker Buehler and Ross Stripling. Stripling has only started out of necessity, as he had already been converted to a full-time reliever. Even still, those three have been brilliant. Dodgers’ starting pitchers over the last 30 days rank 8th in the Major Leagues in fWAR. Their bullpen isn’t far behind at 8th.
After having read all of this, it is a shocker to me that the Dodgers have been this competitive. The team has shown more resiliency this season than just about any other team in baseball. Just wait until all of their most positive contributors return from the disabled list; this team has the ability and talent to make a run, and grinding out these tough two months are adding a level of mental toughness that otherwise would not have been created.
The Dodgers are just fine.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.