By Pedro Moura
FOX Sports MLB Writer
The Dodgers just finished the most grueling stretch of their season, a 30-day period in which they played 31 games. They won 19 of them, which kept them on a 105-win pace for the year. By most measures, the month was a roaring success.
By their standards, it was a little less so. Pennsylvania’s lowly teams troubled them, as the Dodgers lost nine of 13 against the Pirates and Phillies. Last weekend in Los Angeles, they could manage only a split with the Mets, the team that might most challenge them in October. And some of their stars remain concerningly far from their trademark form.
It’s a strange situation in which the Dodgers find themselves. Their run differential leads the sport, and they lead their division — but only by a couple of games over the Padres. The Dodgers are not exactly dominating as expected. They have gotten to this point on the strength of unexpectedly great performances from the likes of Tyler Anderson and Tony Gonsolin.
When the season began two months ago, those two formed a sort of piggyback as the Dodgers’ collective fifth starter. They have instead combined to log a 2.11 ERA over more than 100 innings across 20 games, 18 of them starts, forced into action because of injuries to the rest of the staff. By Baseball-Reference calculations, Anderson and Gonsolin have been two of the Dodgers’ four most valuable players this season.
The Dodgers’ expected top two starters, Walker Buehler and Julio Urías, have been their 10th- and 12th-most valuable players, per Baseball-Reference. Both pitchers have been reasonably effective, but the underlying statistics say they have been even worse than the numbers show.
The contrast shows just how surprising the first third of this season has been. Clayton Kershaw has been hurt. Buehler has been bad lately. Urías has been OK. Justin Turner and Cody Bellinger have been well below average. Max Muncy was unlucky and ineffective, and now he is hurt. Gavin Lux still hasn’t broken out. The team’s best reliever has not been hired-gun closer Craig Kimbrel or shutout setup man Blake Treinen or hard-throwing young man Brusdar Graterol but grizzly veteran Daniel Hudson, signed to an affordable, one-year deal in the offseason.
Yet the Dodgers are on pace to outpace even the most sanguine of expectations for their 2022 campaign. They remain more than 99.9% likely to make the playoffs, by Baseball-Reference calculations, and 97.8% likely by FanGraphs‘ measurements. That’s a testament to the depth they have assembled in Los Angeles. Many elements to their machine can stop functioning, and they as a whole can keep humming along.
Even if it doesn’t always feel like they’re cruising. They have not dominated the dregs of the league like they or their fans expect.
“I think we haven’t really played that great,” right fielder Mookie Betts recently told reporters. “I know we’re winning games and finding ways, but we haven’t really for a stretch put together all four facets — baserunning, defense, hitting and pitching. I think we do it all well, but we slack in certain areas when we don’t need to. It comes back to hurt us, but luckily we’re a good team and have managed.”
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Betts has been the one dominant member of the Dodgers, and even he started slowly. But over the past month, he has been baseball’s best player, powerful at the plate and efficient on the basepaths and smart in the field. He’s so hot right now that Mets manager Buck Showalter pulled his starter over the weekend during an at-bat against Betts — after a first-pitch strike he fouled off.
For the Dodgers, Betts is their brightest spot so far. At his best, he’s an MVP talent who can carry a team for months, even in October. Around him, Freddie Freeman and Trea Turner have been solid enough to provide confidence.
The most concerning part of their season has been Buehler, who has pitched to a 6.66 ERA in his past five starts. No matter how many regular-season wins the Dodgers manage, if they don’t have the normal Buehler back by October, they are not the same force they are with him. No one in the organization can replace him as an ace so soon.
There is still time. In all of his public statements, Buehler has demonstrated awareness of his predicament. The key to the next two-thirds of the regular season — for him and for the team — will be him getting back to the ace he has been. The Dodgers need him.
The teams the Dodgers are likely to face if they advance in October — the Mets, perhaps the Yankees — have elite pitching staffs. Or, in the Mets’ case, they could have one, if Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom get healthy. That’s the category the Dodgers fall into right now. If Kershaw returns well from injury this week, if Buehler regains his form, they’ll have an elite staff.
If not, they’ll have uncertainty.
Pedro Moura is the national baseball writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the Dodgers for three seasons for The Athletic and, before that, the Angels and Dodgers for five seasons for the Orange County Register and L.A. Times. More previously, he covered his alma mater, USC, for ESPNLosAngeles.com. The son of Brazilian immigrants, he grew up in the Southern California suburbs. His first book, “How to Beat a Broken Game,” came out this spring. Follow him on Twitter @pedromoura.
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