The Dodgers Aim for History—and a Championship

In baseball, having the best regular season rarely leads to a World Series win. But the Los Angeles team is hoping to defy the odds.

The Dodgers celebrate a win against the San Francisco Giants.
The Dodgers celebrate an 11th-inning win against the San Francisco Giants in July. (Mark J. Terrill / AP)

On the afternoon of July 31, Major League Baseball’s trade deadline, the Los Angeles Dodgers acquired Yu Darvish, the best pitcher on the market, from the Texas Rangers. Four days later, Darvish debuted in his new team’s gray and blue road uniforms, lasering fastballs and looping curves for seven shutout innings. The Dodgers beat the New York Mets, 6-0, improving the best record in baseball this season to 77 wins against 32 losses. Said the catcher Yasmani Grandal of Darvish after the game, “It’s hard to say you can get any better than he was tonight.”

Grandal’s sentiment was accurate but hardly specific; the same could be said of most of the players on the Dodgers’s roster, most nights, and of the team as a whole. The 2017 Dodgers have been remarkable in every facet of the game, by any metric. They have scored the fifth-most runs in the Majors and allowed the fewest. They hit homers and doubles and play lockstep defense behind a pitching staff stuffed with aces. During one recent 50-game stretch, they won a record-tying 43 times, in every fashion imaginable: piecemeal comebacks, walk-off home runs, wire-to-wire blowouts.

Dominant teams usually present a dilemma to fans who enjoy the displays but wish for tight pennant races. But even though they are 15 games clear of the pack in their own division and all but guaranteed a playoff spot already, the Dodgers’s regular season still has plenty of intrigue left, supplied by history instead of opponents. If it maintains its recent pace, the team could break the all-time mark for wins in a season, set at 116 by the 1906 Chicago Cubs and matched almost a century later by the 2001 Seattle Mariners.

Despite those gaudy aims and a quarter-billion-dollar payroll that ranks as the highest in baseball, there is a likable aspect to the roster, an almost quaint adherence to the ideal of the well-rounded team. The Dodgers have their superstars, of course—Darvish joins Clayton Kershaw, the franchise’s icon and the decade’s best pitcher, and the shortstop wunderkind Corey Seager, as names even casual followers of the game will recognize—but their role players and fill-ins have contributed just as much to the trailblazing season. When Adrian Gonzalez, the entrenched All-Star first baseman, left the team in June with a back injury, the rookie Cody Bellinger stepped in and soon found himself near the top of the National League home-run leaderboard. Chris Taylor and Justin Turner, peripheral players prior to joining L.A. in recent years, both rank in the top 10 in NL batting average. Alex Wood, who before this season was known more for his gyroscopic throwing motion than for his results, has performed ably as the team’s top pitcher while Kershaw has sat with a short-term back ailment of his own.

The Dodgers’s manager Dave Roberts—the reigning manager of the year, befitting this superlative team—maintains calm. “It is history in the making,” Roberts acknowledged recently, “But when you get back to the day-to-day, I don’t think anyone is really thinking about that.” His players might not be getting caught up in the hype, but the rest of the sports world is. The Dodgers have accomplished what the NBA’s Golden State Warriors did two seasons ago, when they broke their sport’s regular-season record of 72 wins: turned the sometimes-dull formality of playing out the schedule into an event in and of itself. Every day brings new stories about L.A.’s chances of reaching the historic mark, and the traditionally stodgy baseball media have adopted an industry-wide attitude of outright awe. A recent headline, “Why We Should All Root for an Astros-Dodgers World Series,” summarized the perspective of fans and journalists alike: This Los Angeles team is a movie nobody wants to end.

Monumental regular seasons do not necessarily lead to championships. Neither of the 116-win teams won the World Series, and over the past decade, the team with the best record has claimed the title only four times. All of the statistical sense-making of the 162-game baseball schedule disappears in the short series of the playoffs, where hot streaks have outsized effect and long-term steadiness doesn’t count for much. The Dodgers have their own recent history of failure to contend with, too. They have reached the playoffs in each of the past four years without advancing to the Series; their last championship came almost three decades ago, in 1988.

The Dodgers’s ultimate hope, then, is that this year’s assemblage of talent is good enough to overcome the flukiness inherent to the postseason. They aim to be not only favored but also foolproof, to have enough fallback options and contingency plans to answer any bit of bad luck with some squirreled-away parcel of virtuosity. The comparisons to the Warriors are double-edged; that record-breaking Golden State team ended up losing in the NBA Finals. So while the Dodgers are surely happy to put on a show for the remaining month and a half of the regular season—and baseball fans are thrilled to watch it—the real test will have to wait until October, when their banked wins evaporate and they have to prove themselves all over again.