In a sense, there isn’t that much wrong with the Dodgers. They won on Thursday — albeit barely — and they stand in first place in their division. You could excuse them if they’ve gotten used to that. The last time the Dodgers weren’t in first place was one night in the last week of May. Prior to that, you’re looking at the second week of the season. All year long, they’ve been positioned well, and they have two unbelievable starting pitchers, and they’re heavily favored to advance to the first round of the playoffs. The Dodgers aren’t struggling. Most of the teams in baseball would be ecstatic to be where they are.
But, of course, not every team is equal, and given the Dodgers’ resources, it feels like they should be doing better. It feels like they should be almost unstoppable, unless they were to be brought down by injuries, like the Nationals. One could reasonably assert that the Dodgers should be running away with things, and that it’s worrisome they’re still fending off the Giants. The Dodgers might not make the NLDS. It’s unlikely, but very possible. Things just feel underwhelming. Observers feel it. The players themselves feel it.
Look over the numbers, and there’s one glaring curiosity. What might be one explanation for the Dodgers’ performance? You might be familiar with wOBA, which is like a better version of OPS. Right now, the Dodgers offense ranks third in wOBA in all of baseball. They lead the National League. What could be better than pairing a good offense with two proven aces? And yet, the Dodgers rank 18th in baseball in runs scored. By one measure, they’re tremendous. By another, they’re average. This is an unusual discrepancy.
See, team wOBA tends to track very closely with team runs. That’s more or less how the stat is designed, and in the below plot, you can see the strong relationship. Here’s team wOBA and team runs per game, going back to 1969, which is as fine a dividing point as any:
I’ve highlighted this year’s Dodgers. You see their yellow dot below the best-fit line, which shows that the offense has underachieved what might otherwise be expected, based on wOBA alone. The Dodgers, as a team, own a .327 wOBA, and have scored 4.11 runs per game. According to the line’s equation, you’d expect 4.11 runs per game from an offense with a .312 wOBA. Also according to the line’s equation, you’d expect the Dodgers to be averaging 4.60 runs per game. That means they’d be 0.49 off the expectation.
That’s a big difference. Here’s a table of the 10 biggest such observed differences over the window:
10 Most Underachieving Offenses
1971 White Sox
1974 White Sox
Just based on their team wOBA, the Dodgers have underachieved by about a half-run a game. That’s not as bad as the 1981 Yankees (who played a shortened season), but it’s still bad, ranking in the worst 1% out of the whole sample. It would be the biggest negative difference since 1981, were it to hold up. Among more recent teams, the 2005 Diamondbacks finished at -0.34. With this season most of the way over, the Dodgers are poised for a lousy finish in this regard.
What is a difference of a half-run a game? Maybe that seems big. Maybe that seems small? I don’t know how it seems to you. But if you multiply, it works out to 62 missing runs. So far, I mean. That would work out to approximately, say, six wins. Give the Dodgers six more wins, and they’d have far less to worry about. They’d just about have the division wrapped up. They’d be coasting, giving players rest to keep them fresh for October.
Alas, here we are, and the Dodgers haven’t scored as often as you’d think. Sometimes, this happens because of bad timing with regard to situational hitting. If a team is good with the bases empty and bad with men on, then you’d expect some kind of offensive underachievement. But while the Dodgers technically fit that mold, it’s not a great explanation. They’ve had baseball’s best offense with the bases empty. They’re tied for fourth with men on. They’re seventh with runners in scoring position. Situational hitting doesn’t seem to get to the heart of it.
But still, the Dodgers have scored 27% of runners, against a league average of 30%. That puts them third-lowest. By approximated strand rate, the Dodgers are 11th-worst as a team since that 1969 cutoff. One thing that’s definitely hurting? Baserunning. wOBA accounts for the things that happen at the plate. That’s most of what hitting is, but it’s not everything, because you still have to run the bases. And from the evidence, the Dodgers haven’t been very good at that. By the leaderboard we have at FanGraphs, the Dodgers have been the worst baserunning team in baseball this year. If you believe that number, baserunning accounts for about 19 or so of those missing runs. Could be more, could be less. It’s an estimate. But we know enough to say this hasn’t been a strength, and that’s one reason why the offense hasn’t scored enough, relative to its rate stats.
No team in baseball has been worse at stealing bases. Yet that’s not the whole picture, because there are other baserunning events, and the Dodgers have been poor at those, too. If you look at individual players, Adrian Gonzalez has been the least-valuable baserunner, followed by Yasmani Grandal. Neither is much of a surprise. Then you get Alex Guerrero, and A.J. Ellis, and so on and so forth. No individual player has crippled anything, but little things have added up. I’m under no obligation to note that Yasiel Puig’s baserunning has been a slight positive, but I feel like he could use the decent press.
One other completely hidden factor: The Dodgers rank last in baseball in times having reached base on error. Errors don’t get counted into wOBA, but they do obviously lead to runs, so by reaching on fewer errors, the Dodgers come out looking worse. It’s hard to know how much of this is luck and how much of this is something else, but the Dodgers have posted a low team groundball rate, and that’s where most such errors happen. If you counted errors into wOBA, then the Dodgers wouldn’t look as strong. It helps the explanation.
The way I figure, it comes to four things. Very slightly, the Dodgers have underachieved with men on base. They’ve been a bad baserunning team. They’ve very infrequently reached on errors. And then some of this is probably just simple bad luck. Combine those and I imagine you can account for the missing half-run a game. You at least get close. That’s why the Dodgers haven’t scored as many runs as you’d think.
And maybe they’re not worried. Maybe they can teach better baserunning. Maybe they’re happy to take Gonzalez’s excellent bat with his below-average legs. (They probably are.) Maybe they figure there’s nothing to be done about randomness, and they’d presumably be right. For the Dodgers, the most important thing is hitting the ball well. Everything else is secondary, and when it comes to hitting and taking pitches, the Dodgers have been one of the very best. So you’d expect the run production to be among the very best. The Dodgers might deserve a little better, and they might get it. They just haven’t yet. It’s why the race is a race.