The Dodgers Need A 75-Game Series
1:27 PM EDT on October 12, 2023
It's not difficult to pinpoint why the Los Angeles Dodgers, perpetual 100-win team, got swept by the Arizona Diamondbacks: If your starting rotation has a 25.07 ERA over three games, you're probably going to lose. In the final game, Lance Lynn managed to save his big blow-up inning for the bottom of the third, and then he gave up four runs on a record-breaking four home runs, in classic Lance Lynn fashion. Look, if a guy gets a home run recalled because it went foul and then immediately hits another home run on the following pitch, maybe it's time to accept that it just isn't your series.
And that evaluation does a bit of disservice to the Dodgers pitching staff. The first game was a bona fide blowout, the final two games were only 4-2 losses. After Lynn left the game, Dodgers relief pitching gave up no runs over 5.1 innings pitched. The game before, the bullpen gave up one run in 7.1 innings pitched. There's always plenty of blame to apportion, so let's not forget that with the exception of Will Smith, the Dodgers' star players couldn't hit either. It's fine if a team's second-best hitter in the postseason is a 35-year-old J.D. Martinez—he's a designated hitter, it is literally his only job—but it isn't ideal if Mookie Betts, who was an MVP-caliber player over the regular season, has zero hits over 12 plate appearances, and Freddie Freeman has only one.
In a vacuum, it's a postseason experience that could be chalked up to misfortune. The starting rotation lost their grip at the exact same time that the Dodgers' batters went cold—this can happen over the course of three baseball games! And it's a testament to the Dodgers' system (and to Betts and Freeman and the mangled mass of duct tape and muscle tissue that composes Clayton Kershaw's shoulder) that they even won 100 games with the roster they fielded. As an incomplete injury list, they were down Walker Buehler, Dustin May, and Gavin Lux—that doesn't make losing to a frankly pretty mid Diamondbacks team feel any better, but it is understandable that the Dodgers in the NLDS played out how the Dodgers in the regular season likely would've without Betts and Freeman.
Unfortunately history exists, and the Dodgers have won over 100 games in each the past four non-shortened seasons, but made it out of the NLDS in only one of them. It's a streak of postseason failure no doubt exacerbated by the fact that the accursèd Houston Astros had just clinched their way into the ALCS for the seventh-straight season. Yes, the MLB postseason is random compared to other leagues, extremely so. According to Michael Lopez et al., MLB would require an approximately 75-game series to match the NBA's rate of the better team advancing, which, for some reason, is a postseason format that'll never see the light of day.
Only, it's just hard to break out the "random number generator go brrr" excuse if the Astros are somehow pulling it off every year, which means that it's time to go digging into intangibles like clubhouse culture and clutch factor. Culture is the one factor that the general public has zero access to, unless you are the 2023 Chicago White Sox. And though you could point out the fact that Betts has an underwhelming .710 OPS over 264 total postseason plate appearances, according to little statisticians and their little models and spreadsheets, clutchness isn't actually an indentifiable trait in hitters.
So I guess I'm breaking out the "random number generator go brrr" excuse anyway, and suggesting that if there is a 100-win team (or a team with 100-win vibes) beating the odds and making it to the championship series every year, that it isn't so strange that there might also be a 100-win vibe team making it only thrice in the same timespan. It's hacky math, if you can even call it math—postseason success and statistical averages don't operate like yin and yang—but most immediate postseason reactions operate on the shaky tenets of emotional truths anyway, and acknowledging the existence of luck is one of them.
But pointing at luck is not cathartic. Maybe the worst thing about the sweep, other than the fact that it happened, is that the typical response of "fire everyone into the sun" doesn't work. Even luck-challenged San Diego Padres fans can insist that the team should trade Juan Soto, even if the train of thought boggles the mind. There is some clearer blame to go around with the Dodgers' broader front-office decisions—opening up a three-game series after a bye week with a line-up of duct-tape arm Kershaw, Bobby Miller, and Lynn, the big trade deadline acquisition, isn't great—but that could be alleviated by mentioning, again, that Buehler and May are out with injury. Dave Roberts can't do anything about his players not hitting. Now Dodgers fans and management are stuck in the awkward limbo of trying to figure out what to do if you have great players and they just don't perform in the three games that most heavily influence the course of offseason. I mean, even if you believe in clutchness, what are you gonna do about it? Trade Mookie Betts?