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The Dodgers’ Championship Machine Took A Decade — And A Lot Of Money — To Build

The Los Angeles Dodgers’ championship-clinching victory in Tuesday’s World Series Game 6 was a long time coming. That was true literally — before this week, the Dodgers hadn’t lifted the trophy since 1988, one of the longest droughts in baseball — but also figuratively. Over the past decade or so, no team has made more of a concerted effort to win a title than Los Angeles. Since 2012, the Dodgers have won more regular-season games than any other club, spent more money on payroll than all but one team1 and consistently built one of the game’s strongest farm systems. They hired one of the largest analytics staffs in sports — under the direction of Andrew Friedman, president of baseball operations — went star-hunting in the trade market and pressed every other advantage they could think of. After years of falling short, everything came together for L.A. in 2020 with the best team in franchise history — and one of the best baseball has ever seen.

The Dodgers have long been one of MLB’s glamour franchises, with a rich history, an iconic stadium, top-notch uniforms and a sizable fanbase in a massive media market. (And, of course, they had the great Vin Scully on the mic until a few years ago.) All that was missing through the 1990s and into the 2000s was a championship, which eluded Los Angeles across seven managers, seven general managers and three ownership changes. It wasn’t for lack of trying; the team has long attempted to leverage its big-market status into perennial contention. But it often struggled to get the formula quite right.

From 1999 to 2003, the Dodgers spent a staggering $478,360,432 (again, second only to the Yankees) on zero playoff appearances. Shortly thereafter, they overhauled their prospect pipeline and hired a proto-Friedman of sorts in general manager Paul DePodesta, of “Moneyball” fame. But then-owner Frank McCourt pulled the plug on DePodesta’s tenure after barely two seasons. The immediate post-DePodesta Dodgers under Ned Colletti were more successful, with three postseason berths in his first four seasons, though that was followed by another multi-year playoff drought with an aging roster.

The tide truly started to turn for L.A. after McCourt was forced to sell the team as part of a messy divorce and bankruptcy saga. In 2012, the Guggenheim Baseball Management group purchased the Dodgers for $2 billion, at the time a record price tag for a sports franchise. With Los Angeles Lakers icon Magic Johnson among the investors, the new ownership group — helmed by veteran executive Stan Kasten — set about turning the Dodgers into the winning (and money-making) machine it always seemed like it should have been.

It started with investing a huge amount of money into upgrading Dodger Stadium — and also the on-field product. In 2013, Los Angeles set an all-time MLB record (which still stands) by spending $259,856,000 on its payroll, eclipsing even the Yankees’ notoriously spendthrift ways under former owner George Steinbrenner. That Dodgers team didn’t win it all, losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, but it did represent the closest L.A. had come to the World Series (two wins away) since 1988. Then the Dodgers lured Friedman away from the Tampa Bay Rays to become their president of baseball operations, and they hired Farhan Zaidi — another analytics visionary from the Oakland A’s, just like DePodesta — to be general manager. From then on, the Dodgers effectively became the model MLB franchise, a big-market club that wasn’t afraid to spend but also focused on developing players and creating a constant pipeline of talent.

Of the 690 team-seasons since 1998, only 60 have seen a team rank among the top 10 in both total major-league payroll and Baseball America’s organizational farm system rankings. The two factors so seldom coexist because there is a natural push-and-pull between loading up on talent for the future and spending to win in the here and now. In the traditional cycle of rebuilding and contending, a rebuild consists of shedding payroll and focusing on the farm system, then ramping up spending (and gutting the supply of prospects in trades) when a core is in place to contend.

But the beauty of these Dodgers is that they don’t exist in that continuum between contending and rebuilding. They rebuild and they contend, all at once, which is why they have pulled off the double-top-10 feat in each of the past six seasons — the longest streak since the Atlanta Braves did it from 1998 to 2005.2

They ascend, spend … and win

Since 1998, longest streaks for MLB teams among the top 10 in both Baseball America’s farm system rankings and payroll

Avg. MLB Ranks
Team Years Prospects Payroll streak
Braves 1998-2005 4.3 5.9 8 years
Dodgers 2015-2020 4.7 4.2 6
Yankees 1998-2002 5.0 1.2 5
Angels 2004-2007 3.0 5.8 4
Red Sox 2013-2016 4.3 3.5 4
Red Sox 2006-2008 6.3 2.7 3
Cubs 2003-2005 6.7 7.7 3
Dodgers 2006-2008 4.7 6.7 3
Rangers 2012-2014 4.3 6.3 3

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, Baseball America

Those Braves never got enough credit for being a player-development machine, but that was a crucial part of Atlanta’s dynasty-era streak of 14 consecutive division titles. Similarly, the Dodgers have used the formula to complement their big-ticket pickups — like outfielder Mookie Betts — with a constant supply of homegrown talent that includes World Series MVP Corey Seager, 2019 NL MVP Cody Bellinger and pitchers Walker Buehler and Julio Urías, who combined for a 1.50 ERA in 48 innings this postseason. (And, of course, a certain 2006 Dodgers draftee who has been through L.A.’s entire renaissance: future Hall of Fame starter Clayton Kershaw.)

The Braves never won a World Series during that streak of top 10 prospect-and-payroll seasons, a cautionary tale about the limits of machine-building in a sport as random as baseball. And Los Angeles was also looking like a warning sign for those hoping to win through sheer talent accumulation: Only two teams (one of which was that Atlanta squad) ever won more games in a seven-season span with zero titles to show for it than the 2013-19 Dodgers did.

But the 2020 Dodgers came up big where their predecessors had failed. In its previous two World Series losses, 2017 and 2018, L.A. hit fewer home runs than the eventual winners (23 to 16), struck out more (121 to 107), had an inferior batting average (.193 versus .226) and lost the on-base plus slugging battle (.728 to .617 on average). Against the Rays in 2020, though, the Dodgers flipped those numbers around, winning all of the key battles — including a commanding .819 to .672 OPS edge.

The Dodgers flipped their usual World Series script

Margins for the Los Angeles Dodgers (versus their opponents) in key statistics during the 2017, 2018 and 2020 World Series

Dodgers Margin
World Series AVG OBP BB% SO%* SLG Iso. Power OPS
2017-18 -.034 -.031 -0.8% +3.8% -.079 -.046 -.111
2020 +.035 +.061 +3.3 -6.6 +.086 +.051 +.147

*A lower strikeout percentage is better for a team.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

As part of that, Kershaw overcame his reputation for postseason miscues, winning both of his World Series starts with a sterling 2.31 ERA. His story — trying again and again (and again) to convert stellar regular-season promise into championship success — was a microcosm of the whole franchise’s battle to reach the pinnacle of the sport this past decade. So too was the tale of manager Dave Roberts, who was often criticized for in-game decisions in L.A.’s previous losses but pushed all the right buttons down the stretch of the 2020 World Series (in stark contrast with his counterpart for Tampa Bay, Kevin Cash). In steering the Dodger ship to a title, Roberts did what plenty of other well-regarded skippers (such as Joe Torre, Don Mattingly, Jim Tracy and Davey Johnson) couldn’t over the past three decades.

Maybe, in the end, this team was simply too good to not win. Across the regular season and playoffs, Los Angeles went 56-22 — which works out to a 116.3-win pace per 162 games, better than the record for single-season victories set by the Seattle Mariners in 2001. They had a +136 run differential in 60 regular-season games, the fourth-best per-game margin ever.3 And according to our Elo ratings, the 2020 Dodgers finished the season with a rating of 1612.4, which makes them the seventh-best team of the entire World Series era (since 1903) in terms of final, end-of-season Elo:

The 2020 Dodgers are one of the best teams ever

Greatest teams of the World Series era (1903-2020), according to FiveThirtyEight’s final, end-of-season Elo ratings

Year Team Wins Losses Win% Won WS? Final Elo
1939 Yankees 110 45 .710 1631.6
1906 Cubs 117 40 .745 1622.5
1927 Yankees 114 44 .722 1619.7
1942 Cardinals 110 49 .692 1619.3
1911 Athletics 105 52 .669 1613.4
1932 Yankees 112 47 .704 1612.7
2020 Dodgers 56 22 .718 1612.4
1909 Pirates 115 45 .719 1612.0
1998 Yankees 125 50 .714 1611.8
1970 Orioles 115 55 .676 1611.2
2018 Red Sox 119 57 .676 1610.1
1909 Cubs 104 49 .680 1605.7
1910 Athletics 106 49 .684 1604.9
1907 Cubs 112 44 .718 1604.6
1937 Yankees 107 53 .669 1604.0
1936 Yankees 106 53 .667 1603.6
1905 Giants 109 48 .694 1601.6
1908 Cubs 103 56 .648 1600.3
1954 Yankees 103 51 .669 1600.0
1943 Cardinals 106 53 .667 1599.0

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, Retrosheet

It may have come at the end of an imperfect season, but the 2020 Dodgers’ championship was the culmination of a long, expensive effort to create the perfect baseball machine. Along the way, L.A. proved that if a franchise invests enough, innovates enough, acquires enough talent and — perhaps most importantly — tries enough times, it can finally engineer a championship breakthrough.

Footnotes

  1. The New York Yankees, of course.

  2. Perhaps not coincidentally, Kasten served as Atlanta’s team president during that era.

  3. Trailing only the 1939 and 1927 Yankees and the 1902 Pittsburgh Pirates.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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