The Science of the Comeback: How the Dodgers Turned the 2018 Season Around

Dodgers, Max Muncy, Chase Utley, MLB
(AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

The Los Angeles Dodgers are on another one of their infamous tears, having won 27 of their last 38 games after a six-game losing streak and season-low 10 games under .500 in mid-May. This is the stuff beat-writers dream of—a Dodgers team featuring an All-Star candidate in Matt Kemp that was considered a strong DFA candidate before the season began. Max Muncy is 2018’s 2017 Chris Taylor, and an almost entirely rebuilt rotation has filled in for injured stars, with Ross Stripling turning himself into Clayton Kershaw 2.0.

But how do the Dodgers continue to create storylines of players seemingly coming out of nowhere with meteoric rises to elite production? The Dodgers coaching staff is a conversation starter, so is circumstantial bad-luck-turned-good. Injuries, off-season preparation, and sabermetrics leave their marks throughout the investigation. Here are the behind-the-scenes factors that make the Dodgers a consistent threat and media darling, even when all looks grim:

Filling in the (Shortstop) Holes

When news broke of All-Star shortstop Corey Seager‘s pending Tommy John surgery, the collective groaning of Dodgers fans could be heard all the way down the I-5 Freeway. It seems the best version of the Dodgers is the one that overcomes adversity. Insert Muncy for Justin Turner and Seager, and make headlines. You could make the argument that Stripling’s performance on the mound this season is just as important as a replacement for Kershaw.

Taking a deeper look at sabermetrics, both Muncy and Stripling seem to be on an impossible pace their history can’t keep up with. However, here’s where the other factors come into play.

Muncy, under hitting coach Darren Bush, featured a much more level swing, and a small shuffle of his front foot. This led to solid contact and average exit velocity on balls in play, but Muncy’s balance was off on breaking balls and his torque was minimal on fastballs. In 2017, Muncy spent the entire season with Triple-A Oklahoma City hitting coach Shawn Wooten, and the real man behind the scenes, hitting consultant Craig Wallenbrock. These two men gave Muncy a better timing mechanism with a small leg kick, and provided Muncy with advice on adding a slight upturn to his swing. The result was increased bat speed due to body mechanics, and Muncy’s swing now generates lift. Muncy’s new swing mimics the trend in Major League Baseball, where hitters are relying less on bunt hits and stolen bases, and more on instant power. This make-or-break approach has added excitement back into the game.

Muncy has added production to a line-up that features a struggling Cody Bellinger and Yasiel Puig (though both are getting hot as of late), and stabilized the Dodgers’ lineup. Muncy is a prime example of how an individual player can change the course of a game with a singular performance. Muncy has gone from nullified WAR to 2.2 already in 2018, and is on pace for nearly 7 WAR by the end of the regular season.

Like Muncy, Stripling has made some magnificent adjustments. Front and center is his new off-speed stuff, including a curveball that is averaging an increase of nearly 2 miles per hour in velocity, while also featuring increased movement. Stripling’s confidence in his stuff has changed his approach to hitters. Looking at Stripling from 2016 through last season, he frequently tried to sneak in and locate fastballs, which periodically turned into costly misses.

(Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports)

In the 2017 World Series, Stripling’s fastball missed several times over the middle, and the Houston Astros were all over it. This season, however, Stripling is using a greater percentage of breaking balls, especially ahead in the count. According to Baseball Reference, Stripling’s batting average against (BAA) when he is behind in the count, but any count in which he has two strikes, opponents are hitting less than .200. Couple this with his 68% breaking balls when ahead in the count, and the difference becomes clear.

Roster Depth Cannot Be Understated

Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Kershaw have all missed significant time. As former Dodgers GM Ned Colletti famously said, “Pitchers break.” Following his example, current Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi has been reluctant to empty the farm system in favor of mid-season rentals. This has allowed a handful of understudies to receive Major League experience, and step into roles without scouting reports working against them.

(Mandatory credit: Orlando Ramirez/USA TODAY Sports)

The league has yet to figure out Walker Buehler, although he was torched by the Chicago Cubs on Thursday. Eric Goeddel has flourished under pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, and position players like Breyvic Valera and Joc Pederson have complimented platoons admirably.

Playing Up to Their Potential

All sabermetric and mechanical approaches aside, the Dodgers are simply playing up to their potential now that they are healthy. The Dodgers ownership group has put together a talented team with depth, and fans should expect at this point to only see minor trades at the deadline, given the Dodgers playoff-ready roster that is currently existing. After all, these are largely the same Dodgers that went on a franchise-best and best in MLB since 1912 50-game stretch last season.

Up Next

Here comes the yearly gossip on the trade deadline. The Dodgers will be looking to upgrade in the infield, and perhaps primarily at second base. Logan Forsythe owns a .223 batting average as a member of the Dodgers, and Forbes’ Howard Cole recently wrote a fairly scathing piece on why he needs to go. Would the Orioles take him in a Manny Machado deal? It is unlikely the Dodgers will make such a big move, but it’s fun to wonder.

While we’re at it, why not throw Cole Hamels into the Dodgers’ target mix? Dennis brought up Hamels a few weeks back, and MLB.com‘s Jon Morosi says the likelihood of Hamels being traded is increasing with every game.

 

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2 thoughts on “The Science of the Comeback: How the Dodgers Turned the 2018 Season Around

  1. Good stuff Todd, although I don’t see us going after Hammels. Too much contract to absorb. It would be one thing to go after a stud like deGrom but to me Hammels is just more of what we already have. Speak of a win-win, wouldn’t it be great to get Machado and remove Forsythe all in one trade. Of course, that would probably cost us our 10 best prospects.
    For those of you who skipped over the reference to Craig Wallenbrock in Todd’s post, go back up and click on the name. It will take you to an October 2017 ESPN article on this guy. Well worth the read.

    Like

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