On the first day of July, the Los Angeles Dodgers woke up to find themselves in exactly the same place they’d been for most of the previous two months: buried in last place in the National League West. They were barely more than a week past a loss that had put them a season-high 9½ games out and 12 games under .500; as late as June 22, they had more losses than all but four other teams.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way for a club that had famously gone from the penniless depths of the Frank McCourt era to the dizzying heights of the Guggenheim group and their seemingly bottomless pockets. The nouveau riche Dodgers were supposed to storm through the National League, stomping over anyone foolish enough to stand in their way. Instead, the most popular discussion topic among fans has been when — not if — manager Don Mattingly would be fired.
But thanks to some fortunate circumstances, the Dodgers have managed to stay within spitting distance of first place. Here are three reasons they are the most dangerous losing team in baseball.
While many like to point to a lack of chemistry or some karmic retribution for the spending spree for the failures of this team, there’s one very clear reason to point to: a total inability to stay healthy. The Dodgers have used the disabled list 20 times on 15 players, with maladies ranging from the expected (Chad Billingsley’s elbow giving out) to the unfortunate (Hanley Ramirez injuring his thumb in the final innings of the World Baseball Classic) to the downright absurd (Zack Greinke breaking his collarbone during an April brawl).
The injury bug was so severe that the mocking of “$200 million dollars bought this?” — while understandable — was somewhat off the mark, since so much of that dollar amount was sidelined at any given time. Put it this way — the Dodgers played their 83rd game of the season in Colorado on Wednesday night, and it marked the first time that Mattingly was able to have Greinke pitching in front of both Ramirez and Matt Kemp.
2. Bad division
In most divisions, these kinds of injuries would have sealed their fate. The Dodgers would have been 13 games out on July 1 if they played in the NL Central, and at least nine out in every other division except the AL Central. Since even the third-best team in the NL Central had eight more wins, the wild cards would seem to be out of the question, making a path to the playoffs a difficult one.
Fortunately for the Dodgers, they play in the NL West, a division that has no truly terrible clubs but also no clearly good ones. The Arizona Diamondbacks currently sit in first place but are just one game over .500 themselves after a 7-14 slide over the last three weeks. It’s been so bad in the NL West that since June 1, Colorado, San Diego and San Francisco represent three of the four worst teams in the league.
Still, the good luck of playing in such a lightweight division wouldn’t have really mattered if the Dodgers had continued playing like they had been all season, watching Luis Cruz pop out endlessly while Kemp struggled to regain his form after offseason shoulder surgery. While the earlier losses still count in the standings just as much as any other, the roster that put the team in that hole is markedly different from the one Mattingly is rolling out today.
3. Puig and the gang
The Dodgers’ ascent up the standings all starts with Cuban sensation Yasiel Puig, who arrived on June 3 after Kemp, Carl Crawford and catcher A.J. Ellis all went on the disabled list. Despite some apprehension over whether the raw Cuban was ready to handle the bigs, Puig has taken the sport by storm. In his debut, he showed off a rocket arm by ending the game with a 9-3 double play from right field; in his second, he hit two home runs. He hasn’t stopped yet, putting up a ludicrous .443/.473/.745 line in his first month and finishing second only to Joe DiMaggio as far as hits in the first month of a career.
Yet even the smashing play of Puig wasn’t really enough, as the team lost 10 of his first 17 games. But on June 14, Ellis returned from the disabled list, taking playing time away from Tim Federowicz (.244 wOBA) and the since-released Ramon Hernandez (.315 wOBA). That same day, Ramirez returned to the lineup full-time after a stop-and-start comeback from an injured hamstring, adding a red-hot .472 wOBA to a team that had suffered through months of lousy play from Dee Gordon (.235 wOBA) and Justin Sellers (.236 wOBA). In the bullpen, strikeout machine Kenley Jansen took Brandon League’s job, while free-agent bust Matt Guerrier was moved in favor of younger talent.
It goes on. Plate appearances that had previously gone to ineffective bench players like Jerry Hairston Jr. (.287 wOBA) and Skip Schumaker (.274 wOBA) were now going to Puig. Rather than the atrocious Cruz (.155 wOBA), the shockingly rejuvenated Juan Uribe (.321 wOBA) took over at third. As Crawford (.358 wOBA) returns this week to give the team the leadoff hitter they were missing, Mattingly will finally have his full team, and we’ve seen what that collection is capable of as they’ve won nine of their last 10 — and picked up seven games in nine days.
Mattingly hasn’t suddenly become a better manager, but he is running a different team. Thanks to a division that didn’t put this club away when they had the chance, the ongoing brilliance of Clayton Kershaw and the massive impact of Puig, the Dodgers are poised to make a lot of noise down the stretch — even if, for now, they’re still under .500.