Skip to main content
Menu
NL West Preview: The Dodgers Are Still Trying To Outspend (And Out-Talent) Everyone Else

In honor of the 2022 Major League Baseball season, which starts April 7 — and is actually a thing! — FiveThirtyEight will be focusing our attention on the most intriguing team in each division. Today we take a look at the National League West, which once again features a juggernaut L.A. Dodgers team that looks like the sport’s most dominant on paper.

Making sense of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ recent legacy is difficult. Over the past five seasons, L.A. has won an MLB-best 451 games, checking in as the only team with a plus-1,000 run differential in that span. It also climbed to the top of the baseball mountain to win the World Series during the 2020 pandemic season — in many ways, an accomplishment with few precedents in all of MLB history. And yet, there remains the lingering sense that the Dodgers should be doing more with their opportunities throughout this run.

For example, the team will go into this season as the best in baseball according to the blend of projections we use to set preseason Elo ratings,1 with a composite win total of 98.9. That’s a lot; the gap between L.A. and the No. 2 Atlanta Braves (6.7 wins) is nearly the same as the gap between Atlanta and the No. 11 New York Mets. After signing ex-Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman to a six-year, $162 million contract in mid-March, Los Angeles boasts a truly absurd amount of talent up and down its roster.

That makes L.A. a formidable championship pick for 2022, to be sure. And yet, we’ve seen this movie many, many times before. Going back to 2016, when we first rolled out our composite-based Elo prediction model, the Dodgers have ranked first in preseason talent three times, second twice, and never once ranked outside the top three.

The Dodgers have been preseason-projection darlings

The top three teams in FiveThirtyEight’s preseason Elo ratings by season, 2016-22

Season No. 1 Team No. 2 Team No. 3 Team
2022 Dodgers 1586 Braves 1555 Yankees 1554
2021 Dodgers 1599 Yankees 1572 Padres 1561
2020 Dodgers 🏆 1584 Yankees 1571 Astros 1570
2019 Astros 1577 Yankees 1569 Dodgers 1562
2018 Astros 1577 Cleveland 1576 Dodgers 1568
2017 Cubs 1572 Dodgers 1556 Cleveland 1554
2016 Cubs 🏆 1559 Dodgers 1544 Mets 1535

Preseason Elo is based on a composite of the previous season’s final Elo ratings and three statistical projection systems.

Sources: ClayDavenport.com, Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs

In spite of all that on-paper dominance, the Dodgers have only that single World Series — won during a shortened, 60-game campaign — to show for it. In fact, they’ve won more of what we call “Paper Championships” — cases in which a team finishes the postseason No. 1 in Elo despite not actually winning the World Series — than actual championships, including another one just last season.

The Dodgers are no strangers to winning … on paper

MLB “Paper Champions” — teams that finished the postseason ranked No. 1 in Elo despite not winning the World Series — since the 1994 strike

📜 Paper Champ 📜 🏆 Actual Champ 🏆
Season Team Elo Team Elo
2021 Dodgers 1609 Braves 1570
2019 Dodgers 1592 Nationals 1583
2017 Cleveland 1597 Astros 1575
2014 Orioles 1559 Giants 1541
2012 Rays 1571 Giants 1561
2011 Yankees 1579 Cardinals 1555
2010 Phillies 1567 Giants 1564
2008 Red Sox 1568 Phillies 1562
2006 Twins 1550 Cardinals 1531
2005 Cardinals 1567 White Sox 1566
2003 Yankees 1569 Marlins 1551
2001 Athletics 1595 Diamondbacks 1563
2000 Giants 1559 Yankees 1539
1997 Yankees 1572 Marlins 1532
1996 Cleveland 1567 Yankees 1544
1995 Cleveland 1597 Braves 1577

The version of Elo used here is from our forecast interactive, which has an adjustment for starting pitchers and other factors.

Source: ESPN

A counter to that criticism is to simply look at the list of paper champs — many seasons have one of them! (It’s happened 16 times in the past 27 seasons, to be exact.) Baseball is an unpredictable sport with an even less predictable postseason, and there’s no easy explanation for why certain teams over- or underperform in the most important of games. Simply put, the best team doesn’t always win. And in order to even fall short in the playoffs again and again, you have to be a postseason fixture in the first place. (Impressively, the Dodgers are looking at a 10-year playoff streak if they make it back this season.)2

One seeming way to insulate against letdowns is to spend tons of money, and boy, have the Dodgers done that; including 2022, L.A. has ranked first in payroll in five of the past 10 seasons and among the top three all but two times. That deep-pocketed approach leads to the kind of depth that can keep a team piling up wins despite numerous setbacks. But the Dodgers’ championship machine is expensive and burdensome to maintain — and last year it didn’t even yield a division title (despite 106 wins), as the archrival San Francisco Giants unexpectedly rattled off 107 victories and later pushed L.A. to the brink in their division series showdown.

Still, the Dodgers are at it again with their familiar formula: Spend a lot, stack a team with as much talent as humanly possible — between Freeman, right fielder Mookie Betts, center fielder Cody Bellinger and pitcher Clayton Kershaw, L.A. has four former MVPs on its roster, plus multiple other MVP and Cy Young candidates3 — and figure out how the pieces fit as they go. Manager Dave Roberts and his front office — led by Andrew Friedman, president of baseball operations — do a great job of embracing roster redundancies and moving parts. They’ve placed themselves at the forefront of emphasizing positional flexibility while finding a way to consistently boast one of baseball’s best defenses. (Though L.A. ranked just 19th in fielding wins above replacement4 last season.) The introduction of the designated hitter in the National League should only give the Dodgers more options to slot in and out of their lineups.

This is the only way the franchise knows, and it makes Los Angeles as close to a sure thing as baseball has to offer — in the regular season, at least. While the Giants and San Diego Padres aren’t exactly slouches in this division, there is cause to think San Francisco will regress some after its out-of-nowhere franchise-record win total in 2021, and even more reason to question San Diego’s potential as a challenger for the West crown. But even so, an expanded postseason makes Los Angeles’s brute-force method of pursuing championships less effective than it already was (which was to say, not very). While no other team is in the Dodgers’ neighborhood talent-wise, that’s been true many times before — and yet, the odds are that we find ourselves right back here next spring, asking the same questions about their ability to convert talent into titles.

Footnotes

  1. Which gives two-thirds weight to an average of the projections found at Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs and Clay Davenport’s site, and one-third weight to a regressed form of last season’s final end-of-year Elo ratings.

  2. If that happens, they would join the 1991-2005 Atlanta Braves and the 1995-2007 New York Yankees as the only teams in history to make the playoffs for a decade straight or longer.

  3. Julio Urías, Walker Buehler, Trea Turner and Max Muncy all finished among the Top 10 in their respective award races last season.

  4. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, for which you can download data on GitHub.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Comments

Latest Interactives