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World Series? Not so fast–The Dodgers have a pitching problem

The Dodgers should be favorites to win the World Series. But that won't be as easy as it looks with some serious pitching problems to address

Something wrong will have happened if the Los Angeles Dodgers, who just set their franchise single-season wins record, do not win the World Series. 

This is now always the expectation for the Dodgers, who have been by far and away the best regular-season team in baseball for the past decade. But with only one World Series win in that span to show for it, and that win coming in the shortened season at that, it’s just as easy to call them the biggest disappointment in the sport over the last decade. If they fail again this year, that disappointment will only grow deeper. 

Yes, MLB’s playoffs are quick and generally unpredictable, and any baseball team can reasonably beat any other four times in a seven-game span. The Dodgers are not the only historic MLB team to fall in the playoffs, nor should that take away from their excellence over the past ten years. But if the greatest team in franchise history can’t get it done in the postseason, it might be time to start asking questions about how the Dodgers run the show.

And for the Dodgers, a lot is already going wrong right before the playoffs start. 

Who’s going to close games?

The biggest news of the past week is manager Dave Roberts’s decision to remove Craig Kimbrel from the closer role. Roberts doesn’t get a lot of these decisions right, but Kimbrel has been basura this year and deserved his relegation. The trouble is, no one knows who is going to step into that role.

And that’s a problem, because the playoffs turn even the most intelligent, level-headed managers into confused children who forget how to manage a pitching rotation. The Dodgers’ ability to rely on top-end starting pitching for seven innings and then Kenley Jansen for the last two was a solid strategy for winning playoff games. But Kimbrel is no Jansen, and while there are other options in the bullpen, it’s unclear exactly who will show out.

Evan Phillips has emerged as the team’s workhorse, but he’s pitched a total of two playoff games in his five big-league seasons. Brusdar Graterol has once again pitched great in middle-relief, but has only three career saves, all from this season. Roberts got creative in 2020 using starters like Tony Gonsolin, Julio Urías, and David Price in relief during their World Series run, but that may not be an option this year. 

Should we mention the starting pitching looks just as shaky as the bullpen right now?

Dodger blue leans a bit left

The Dodgers got only twelve starts this year from Walker Buehler, last year’s most productive player, and it didn’t seem to matter. Gonsolin stepped up and went 16-1 with a 2.10 ERA. Tyler Anderson came out of nowhere to win fifteen games and lead the team in innings. Urías might be the best pitcher in baseball. So why is this a bad thing?

Well, Gonsolin has been injured for a bit and only just started throwing regularly again. Anderson has pitched a total of seven career innings in the postseason. Buehler is out for this year and much of next year, probably, and there’s no telling if playoff Clayton Kershaw is going to bite the Dodgers again. Urías can probably be relied upon, but after that, the Dodgers have a lot of questions. 

Photo credit: Harry How, Getty Images

The Dodgers also have a weird quirk heading into the postseason: All of their best-available starting pitchers are left-handed. Do you know who mashes left-handed pitching? The Atlanta Braves, St. Louis Cardinals, and Philadelphia Phillies, currently ranked second, third, and fourth in the National League in batting average against lefties. The Dodgers will likely face one or two of those teams in the playoffs.

And there’s also the Mets. Of the fourteen NL teams the Dodgers played this year, they only failed to win a series against two: the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the New York Mets. The Mets took four of seven games against the Dodgers this year, coincidentally the number it would take to knock the Dodgers out of the playoffs like the last two times they met in the postseason. Funny how that happened. 

Still World Series favorites

The Dodgers’ pitching concerns may not matter if they can hang ten runs a night on their opponents, which can reasonably be done with a lineup that starts with Mookie Betts, Trea Turner, and Freddie Freeman. They could pitch David Price for nine innings and could still win comfortably. 

Photo credit: Robert Gautier, Los Angeles Times

But the primary strategy for playoff teams hasn’t changed in the last twenty years: Start two Cy Young contenders at the top of the rotation twice and bridge the gap to a shutdown closer. The Dodgers have used that strategy for a decade, but right now there are a lot of pieces missing from that plan. 

And even though this is one of the greatest baseball teams we’ve ever seen, the NL playoffs won’t be easy for anyone. The Cardinals feature two MVP candidates and a GOAT at the top of his game. The Braves are the defending champions. The Mets have those two Cy Young contenders and a shutdown closer

But the Dodgers still have the best talent in the majors, and they should still be favored to win it all. Fangraphs only gives them the second-best odds to win the World Series (behind the Astros and only 0.1% higher than the Mets), but it’s hard to argue with their record-setting season. Though if they end up falling short, it might once again happen on the mound.