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.
|Season||No. 1 Team||No. 2 Team||No. 3 Team|
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.
|📜 Paper Champ 📜||🏆 Actual Champ 🏆|
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.