Tuesday evening, the Los Angeles Dodgers will open the 2018 World Series in Fenway Park against the Boston Red Sox, extending what has been, by some measures, one of the more successful runs in recent MLB history. The Dodgers have reached the postseason in each of the past six years, the longest current streak in baseball, and have done so each time by winning their division, avoiding the one-game wild-card playoff. They’re annually stocked with all-stars and other honorees; since 2013, Dodgers have accounted for two Cy Young Awards, an MVP, two Rookie of the Year awards, and a Manager of the Year award. They’re the decade’s stalwart, combining new-school analytic know-how—the president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman made his name with the cash-strapped and cutting-edge Tampa Bay Rays of the late 2000s and early 2010s before coming to L.A. in 2014—with deep, major-market pockets.
Fans who have watched them only in the fall, though, might be more familiar with the qualifications to the team’s success than with the success itself. For all the regular-season prosperity and individual accolades, this era of Los Angeles baseball has yet to deliver a championship. The Dodgers have run the gamut of playoff disappointment these past few years, flaming out in the divisional round, losing nail-biters in the National League Championship Series, and, last October, dropping the seventh game of a scintillating World Series. “When you put everything, every ounce of your being into something and you come up short, it hurts,” the manager Dave Roberts said after last year’s series. It’s a pain this team has become accustomed to.
If they don’t quite meet the century-spanning standards of the iconic baseball curses, the Dodgers nevertheless give this year’s Fall Classic its cleanest redemption narrative. The Red Sox have won three titles since 2004; L.A.’s last one came back in 1988. As such, a potential victory would likely be talked about in the clichéd terms of failures corrected and tribulations overcome—of the differences, in other words, between this year’s team and the previous ones. But it may be closer to the truth to understand the quest for a World Series championship as an inherently chance-dependent, multiyear process, and to understand the Dodgers, win or lose, as the fluky system’s smartest players.
Since MLB expanded its postseason in 1995 to three rounds—the league would tack on the one-game wild-card round in 2012—observers have tracked its highly unpredictable nature. Baseball is a sport designed for the long term; differences in quality between teams that may not show up in a given game or month make themselves known over a 162-game season. A five- or seven-game playoff series amounts to a drastic shrinking of scale, which makes lucky bounces and aberrational streaks, not true quality, the biggest components to success. “We allow small sample sizes and random events to determine the champion,” said the Oakland Athletics executive and analytics trailblazer Billy Beane in 2013. “That’s how it is in baseball.” Only three times in the past decade has the team with the most regular-season wins won the World Series.
Building a team that can reach the playoffs year after year, then, is paramount, and arguably nobody in the current era has done so better than the Dodgers. They’ve shelled out big contracts, routinely landing at or near the top of MLB payroll rankings, but they’ve also incorporated Friedman’s gifts for scouting overlooked talent, building a minor-league system, and assembling a flexible roster. Whereas other teams might load up for a one- or two-year run at a title, Los Angeles takes a longer view. “We feel like our responsibility is to do everything we can to sustain a certain level of success,” Friedman said in 2016. “As you look at it over a five-year period, a seven-year period, a 10-year period, we’re able to play through that time period as an upper-echelon, elite-level team.”
This year’s team isn’t the best of the current run; that would be 2017’s, which won an NL-leading 104 games en route to World Series heartbreak. It may be the most illustrative, though, of the depth and resourcefulness that have allowed the Dodgers to maintain their relevance for so long. After a 16–26 start to the season, Los Angeles turned things around behind contributions from seemingly every corner of the organization. Max Muncy, a formerly below-average Oakland Athletic who came to the Dodgers on a minor-league deal in 2017 and got called up this season as an injury replacement, ended up mashing 35 home runs. Justin Turner, who arrived in L.A. as a similar long shot in 2014, continued his ascent as a hard-hitting savant of the strike zone.
When Corey Seager, the MVP-candidate shortstop, suffered an elbow injury early in the season—an event that might have ruined a lesser team’s chances—the outfielder Chris Taylor stepped ably into the position. When, in July, the Dodgers wanted a more substantial replacement, they dipped into their trove of minor-league assets to land Manny Machado, the prize target of this season’s trade deadline. It was the flame-throwing rookie Walker Buehler, not the generational left-hander Clayton Kershaw, who pitched the Dodgers to the win in their 163rd-game tiebreaker with the Colorado Rockies for the NL West crown.
To watch these Dodgers is to be aware, to an uncommon degree, of the flux at work behind the games themselves, the allotting of resources and positioning of players for eventual success. Roberts has described his managerial strategy as “You go through their lineup and see every situation that might present itself,” and it’s easy to see a similar mind-set directing the front office. That forward-looking tendency manifests, on one level, in an adaptive on-field team; Taylor, returned to his outfield perch, made a crucial sliding catch in the deciding seventh game of the NLCS against the Milwaukee Brewers, as much a metaphor as an out.
But it also gives off a sense that, on the larger scale, the Dodgers will continue to delay the regression that often comes quickly for championship contenders, to hold on to their all-important place in the postseason lottery. Under Friedman, there seems to be an endless reserve of minor-leaguers to bring into the fold and overlooked prospects to sign. The old Brooklyn Dodgers credo—“Wait till next year”—rings true, in its way, for the West Coast iteration of the team.
In the shorter term, the Red Sox are deserving World Series favorites. They have the series’ best player in outfielder Mookie Betts and won 108 regular-season games to L.A.’s 92. Meanwhile, if L.A. pulls off the upset, the story will follow well-worn patterns. It’ll focus on Kershaw sloughing off his occasional postseason struggles, or Roberts pulling the right strings, or some unlikely savior emerging from the Dodgers’ depth chart. The more accurate telling would be broader, though, and make for less gripping television. The Dodgers’ eventual triumph, if it comes, will be of a piece with their setbacks, all part of the same solid approach: to hang in as long as they can, to get to the games that matter as often as possible.
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