So far this season, the Dodgers offense has been under the brightest spotlight.
With former MVPs and perennial All-Stars dotting the batting order, that group has seemingly received the most attention during the team’s 11-4 start to the season, which now includes four consecutive series victories after the Dodgers took two of three from the San Diego Padres this weekend.
Indeed, the Dodgers bats have been productive. They rank eighth in the majors in batting average (.245), sixth in on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.737) and fifth in home runs (17). They’ve been the best team in baseball with runners in scoring position, batting .305 in such situations.
Most important, they are averaging 5.47 runs per game, more than any other team in the big leagues.
“This is the craziest lineup I’ve been part of,” Cody Bellinger said.
Through two weeks, the Dodgers pitching has been just as good — if not better.
Entering Monday, the team ranked first in MLB in earned-run average (2.22), walks and hits per inning (0.95) and batting average against (.191). They’re 13th in strikeouts but have issued the fewest walks, amounting to the best strikeout-to-walk rate in the majors (3.91). And in most games, they’ve been stifling, holding opponents to three runs or fewer in 13 of 15 games so far.
Here are five takeaways on that and more as the Dodgers head into a three-game series against the Arizona Diamondbacks this week.
Best on the mound
There have been few trouble spots from any part of the Dodgers pitching staff so far.
Their rotation has been terrific, with only Walker Buehler — the opening-day ace and arguably the most talented arm on the team — currently owning an ERA above 3.00.
Their bullpen has been lights out, blowing only one late-inning lead thus far (in a game against the Cincinnati Reds the Dodgers went on to win by six runs anyway).
The numbers underlying have been stellar as well, with the Dodgers giving up the lowest rate of “hard hit” balls and lowest average exit velocity, according to Baseball Savant.
This weekend was perhaps their best showing on the mound yet.
Against a banged-up but solid Padres lineup, Julio Urías gave up one run in five innings Friday. Tyler Anderson filled in for the injured Andrew Heaney on Saturday with a 4 ⅔-inning, two-run outing. Clayton Kershaw continued his strong start to the campaign Sunday, pitching five innings while giving up only one run.
The relievers were even better. Despite missing Blake Treinen because of an injury, losing David Price on Sunday to a positive coronavirus test and calling upon closer Craig Kimbrel for only one inning at the end of Sunday’s blowout, the group combined to give up only one earned run in 13 innings across the series.
Bullpen depth emerging
Even before the final two games of this week’s series, manager Dave Roberts had a declaration to make about this year’s bullpen.
“It’s the deepest bullpen we’ve had since I’ve been here,” he said.
Indeed, during the first couple of weeks, the Dodgers have received production from almost every reliever who has taken the mound.
Kimbrel and fellow newly acquired veteran Daniel Hudson have settled in nicely. Kimbrel has converted all three of his save opportunities. Hudson also has a save and hasn’t yet given up a run.
Brusdar Graterol has shown signs of development. Thanks to early consistency with his 100 mph two-seamer and increased reliance on a complementary cutter, the 23-year-old right-hander is also scoreless through six appearances.
Alex Vesia and Phil Bickford have thus far backed up their breakout performances from 2021 with flawless ERAs of their own.
Evan Phillips and Justin Bruihl, meanwhile, look primed to become the next unexpected success stories on the back end, each earning Roberts’ trust to pitch in higher-leverage roles.
“We’re always looking for guys like that, and you look at our bullpen, it’s constructed [with] about four or five of those guys that … have taken advantage of some opportunity,” said Roberts, who has more bullpen reinforcements in Tommy Kahnle, Caleb Ferguson and Victor González all due back from injury in the coming weeks.
“You’re always gonna have to tap into those guys. Top to bottom we have a lot of good arms.”
Kershaw’s calculated workload
Since the day he re-signed with the team this spring, Kershaw has made it clear his focus this season is on winning a championship — especially after an elbow injury kept him out of the playoffs.
As a result, the left-hander’s workload has been carefully managed so far this year, with he and the team keeping his long-term health front of mind after a lockout-shortened spring.
The latest example came Sunday. Kershaw navigated five innings without much stress, and felt as though he was “gaining some momentum” with his pitch count only at 75.
However, Roberts decided to end his day there, going to the bullpen at the start of the sixth. Afterward, Kershaw said he felt as though he could have kept pitching but said he was supportive of the decision.
“This was kind of a bigger-picture thing,” he said.
It followed a pattern from his first couple of starts, when he was pulled six outs shy of a perfect game in his season debut before throwing 87 pitches over five-plus innings in his previous outing.
Not over-exerting himself out of the gate, Kershaw hopes, will help him be able to contribute up to, and during, October. He said Sunday that he expects he and the team will continue to be mindful of his workload through at least the end of the month (he is scheduled for one more start in April).
“The restrictions come off in May, would be my guess,” Kershaw said. “But for now, with the build-up the way it was [during a shortened spring training]it was the right decision.”
Lineup finding consistency
After one of his team’s rare off nights at the plate in Saturday’s 3-2 loss, Roberts said he was looking for more consistency from his group — which had excelled at producing big innings but was still susceptible to mid-game lulls too.
They responded in Sunday’s 10-2 win, scoring in five of the first six innings en route to their first double-digit run total of the year.
“It was really the first time all year we tacked on runs,” Roberts said.
In addition to home runs from Cody Bellinger and Freddie Freeman, it was a couple of the team’s previously slumping hitters who helped.
Mookie Betts finished a roller-coaster weekend on an upswing. After entering the series as arguably the club’s coldest hitter, he hit two home runs in a cathartic performance Friday, struck out four times in a frustrating display Saturday, but then bounced back on Sunday by reaching base three times (a single and two walks) and scoring three runs.
Justin Turner, who has been mired in a familiar April slump, found some much-needed production on Sunday as well. He had a sacrifice in his first at-bat, saw 11 pitches before finally striking out in his second, then hit singles in the fifth and sixth innings to finish two for four.
Success on the bases
Something else the Dodgers have been good at this season: stealing bases, tied for first in the majors with 13 swiped bags.
In recent years, the Dodgers haven’t been one of baseball’s more aggressive base-stealing teams. And even Roberts acknowledged their high total to this point is “very surprising.”
“I’m proud of it,” he added. “But I don’t think that’s gonna hold for very long.”
It is a reflection of the Dodgers’ strong baserunning instincts, though, which Roberts praised again on Sunday. They might not keep getting ample chances to steal as the season goes on, but Roberts is confident the group can benefit from taking extra bags on fly balls, and going first to third when opportunities arise, to help manufacture runs.
“We do a great job of valuing the walk, taking 90 feet and running the bases,” Roberts said. “I’ve said this all year — we run the bases as well as we have since I’ve been here.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.