Major League Baseball

Are the Dodgers back on track to be the National League's best?

May 14

By Pedro Moura
FOX Sports MLB Writer

The Dodgers are a behemoth, the most talented team in baseball, and they played like it for the first 16 days of the 2021 season.

Yet, for the three weeks that followed, they were the worst team in baseball. Their offense rarely staked them to leads. The few they did, the bullpen blew.

They were hurt, yes, but they were whole enough that the stretch defied any logical explanation. It continued happening only because it was already happening.

"It’s an odd space to be in, because we aren’t gonna start scoring unless people are energized, but it’s like the chicken-or-the-egg situation, which one comes first," right-hander Trevor Bauer said on his YouTube channel. "Do you get energized if you don’t have anything to get energized about? But if you’re not energized about something, it’s hard to have something to get energized about? It’s just bad, all around bad. Everything’s bad right now."

Bauer posted the video Thursday, but he was speaking as he departed Angel Stadium after a May 7 loss, the team’s 15th in 18 tries. He referenced "bad energy" in the Dodgers’ dugout. Two days later, after another loss, he made headlines for saying in a postgame press conference he was "pissed" about the team’s play.

It took one swing, and one celebration, to get things turned back in the right direction.

The Dodgers had four outs to spare and a run to score when Gavin Lux homered and screamed encouragement to his teammates Tuesday at Dodger Stadium.

Lux said he had never expressed so much joy on the field before. T-shirts were rushed into production. Fun was had. Jokes were even made, about ex-teammate Joc Pederson’s bat flip on a sacrifice fly last week, about Lux’s tight pants.

The next night the Dodgers were obviously energized, as I got to witness in person at Dodger Stadium.

When Max Muncy roamed deep into foul territory to make a fourth-inning snag, Lux grinned. In the bottom of the inning, when Will Smith’s pop-up landed in short right field, loading the bases, Smith smirked at first base and Justin Turner chuckled at third. The players continued laughing when Matt Beaty drove in two with a double.

An inning later, Muncy let out another laugh while finishing the final 90 feet of a home-run trot.

The Dodgers received breaks and created their own, and they beat the Mariners again, more comfortably the second time. They’re now 20-17.

"This is the team that we are, and we really haven’t showed it all the last couple weeks," Muncy said afterward. "It’s been frustrating. It’s been a long couple of weeks. But hopefully these two games can jumpstart us a little bit."

Muncy then repeated some of the team’s central tenets.

"We have a very good team. We have a very good clubhouse," he said. "What we just went through is frustrating to say the least, but hopefully we can get back to what we do best. If we can get back to doing that, you’ll see what you see."

What we see might depend on who we see and when we see them. Four Dodgers starting pitchers are healthy and performing. A fifth, Tony Gonsolin, is on his way back. The bullpen has been wild, to an extreme that can’t possibly continue. Kenley Jansen won’t be walking almost a batter an inning all year long.

It is the offense that’s most worthy of study. By some measures, the Dodgers are not hitting drastically differently in 2021 as compared to their dominant 2020. They are still controlling the strike zone, still swinging at the same number of pitches in the zone, and even reaching for fewer pitches outside of it, according to Statcast data.

They are, though, making contact on fewer of those swings, inside and outside the zone. Those gaps amount to an increase in missed swings that’s tied for the fourth-most in the majors. Their strikeouts have increased by the third-greatest margin in the majors, on par with their walks. 

And no team has experienced a steeper drop in hard-hit balls than the Dodgers. They have hit 40.2% of their balls in play hard this year, compared to 43.9% a year ago.

An overreliance on expected bench players like Sheldon Neuse might explain the Dodgers' poor offense through much of the season thus far. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

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Some of that is attributable to who has been batting. Because of injuries, the likes of Luke Raley and Sheldon Neuse, intended depth pieces, have batted 76 times — and struck out 27 of them.

When Cody Bellinger and Zach McKinstry return from injury, that should improve. And, excepting Edwin Ríos, Corey Knebel, and Dustin May, the Dodgers who have suffered early-season injuries are slated to return in the coming weeks.

Some of that hard-hit decrease, and strikeout increase, might also be attributable to the way teams are pitching the Dodgers. Note that contact expert Turner’s strikeout rate is up almost 50%. Muncy observed this week that perceived rise on fastballs, or vertical movement, is up from a year ago. He indicated that could be the source of some of the lost offense.

"It’s changing quick, and we gotta change our swings to adapt with it," he said. "We’ll get there, eventually."

If there’s one thing that’ll fix the Dodgers, it’s time. Even after their bitter stretch, they are not so far back in the standings that serious worry is warranted.

Pedro Moura is the national baseball writer for FOX Sports. He most recently covered the Dodgers for three seasons for The Athletic. Previously, he spent five years covering the Angels and Dodgers for the Orange County Register and Los Angeles Times. More previously, he covered his alma mater, USC, for The son of Brazilian immigrants, he grew up in the Southern California suburbs. Follow him on twitter at @pedromoura.

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