If you think Dodgers are in World Series due to payroll, you aren't paying attention
The Dodgers are back in the World Series thanks to a smartly built roster, analytics and more
If you're a fan of any MLB team that's not the Dodgers, it's easy to become cynical. They rolled into the season with the highest payroll in the majors (by far) at $242 million. Then they added pieces throughout the season, most notably the great Yu Darvish. When your team's payroll is higher than the GDP of several island nations, it's tough not to look in from the outside, and see success as anything more than outspending opponents into submissions.
So when the DodgersThursday night to advance to their first World Series in 29 years, the derisive sneer army had its pet retort ready to go.
But here's the thing: The Dodgers won this game in large part because of Chris Taylor. And Charlie Culberson. And most of all Enrique Hernandez. None of three players were projected to play much this season. All three made either the league-minimum salary, or just a couple bucks more, this season. Combined, they made less than $2 million.
The Dodgers don't lack for high-priced stars, of course. Hitting star/actual Hobbit Justin Turner is in the first year of a four-year, $64 million contract. Rich Hill was considered a bargain signing last winter, and he's also averaging $16 million a year on his three-year deal. Darvish would've been a coup for any team at this year's trade deadline, but the Dodgers were especially well positioned to not think twice about paying the remainder of his Z-million salary this year. Then of course there's Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher on the planet who's paid accordingly at $35.6 million in 2017. Kershaw smoked Cubs hitters Thursday night, firing six innings of tidy one-run ball, in the process running his lifetime record in playoff series-clinching games to 3-0. So much for the notion that he can't come through in October.
Much of the Dodgers' sky-high payroll, though, comes from players making minimal contributions in the playoffs -- or less. Andre Ethier saw just 34 at-bats all season, and made $17.5 million. Injuries turned Adrian Gonzalez into a non-factor this year, he wasn't healthy enough to make the playoff roster, and he made $22.4 million. Scott Kazmir didn't throw a pitch all season, and he made $17.7 million. Injuries limited Brandon McCarthy to 92 ⅔ innings pitched (and kept him off the playoff roster), yet he banked $11.5 million.
Think those are bad? The Dodgers cut Sergio Romo, and were left to cover the $1.8 million left on his deal as he played for the Rays. Matt Kemp collected $3.75 million in Dodgers checks this year, and he's a Brave. The Dodgers dumped Cuban import Hector Olivera on Atlanta too; two years later he'd been suspended for domestic violence and washed out of the league, landing with the independent Sugar Land Skeeters... and somehow the Dodgers owed him $4.7 million too. And while Carl Crawford was by all accounts a good citizen and well-liked teammate, his legs failed him, so the Dodgers paid him $21.9 million this season while he enjoyed retirement.
Make no mistake: It's a damn fine luxury to be able to spend $92 million in basically dead money, then roll to the best record in baseball and a spot in the Fall Classic. But check out the origin stories of many other Dodger players, and you can see how the team's plan of attack worked so well when it came to building a winner. The Dodgers wouldn't have gotten here because of Kershaw and some other lavishly-paid stars...but they also wouldn't have made it without youth, data, and depth.
The youth could be found in players like Cody Bellinger. The 22-year-old fourth-round pick turned 39-homer Rookie of the Year shoo-in has kept pouring it on in the postseason, cracking three hits, scoring two runs, and knocking in one during the Dodgers' clincher. He was one of seven Dodgers among the team's 10 most oft-used position players to check in at 28 or younger this year -- with six out of 10 at 26 or younger.
The use of data can be subtler in its execution. But we saw it in multiple ways this season and this postseason. We saw it as the Dodgers finally fixed their long-standing bullpen woes by pulling fall-from-grace relievers like Brandon Morrow, Tony Watson, and Tony Cingrani off the scrap heap. Rather than fixate on those pitchers' woes, the Dodgers played up their strengths. Cingrani wasn't the erratic fireballer you couldn't trust to save games...he was the guy you bring in for the right matchups, and get the most out of his mostly one-pitch repertoire. The Dodgers didn't just use data for shrewd player acquisitions either. We should acknowledge that the direction of balls in play can be tough to predict, and that luck plays a major role in baseball. But damn, check out Anthony Rizzo's spray chart in his first three at-bats of Thursday's game, and think about how mercilessly the Dodgers' shifts wrestled him into submission.
But the star of the show in the Game 5 clincher was the Dodgers' depth. We already feted Chris Taylor after his stellar performance in Game 3. He was a menace again Thursday night, reaching base three times and scoring twice. He was also responsible for one of the biggest plays of the game, even though it might not have been obvious at the time. If the Cubs were going to have any chance in Game 5, they needed Jose Quintana to produce a lights-out start, taking the burden off an overtaxed, overmatched bullpen that didn't have Wade Davis available. So when Taylor came up to lead off the game, he worked Quintana like a rented mule, before finally walking on the lefty's ninth pitch.
Taylor saw a total of 58 pitches over the past two games, made an athletic running catch in center, and continued to flex his bona fides as one of the best all-around players in the league, and also one of the most unlikely. Oh, and how'd Taylor become a Dodger? Through a seemingly negligible trade with the Mariners last season, for busted pitching prospect Zach Lee.
Charlie Culberson also came up big in Game 5. He made multiple impressive defensive plays, including a slick charge-and-fire to get Kris Bryant by a hair in the first, and a sprawling stop in on a bad hop in the second, followed by a strong throw to first from his keister to nip Willson Contreras charging down the line. He also showed out at the plate, banging out three hits to raise his NLCS tally to 5 for 11 with two doubles and a triple. All that from a player who saw just 13 at-bats in the entire regular season, and came to the Dodgers as a modest minor league free agent two years ago.
Then there was the night's master of ceremonies, Enrique Hernandez. Only nine players had ever hit three home runs in a postseason game before Thursday night...and Hernandez improbably became the 10th. He cracked a first-pitch blast over the center-field wall to lead off the second, an opposite-field grand slam in the third to blow the game open, and another opposite-field job in the ninth that sent his teammates into fits of ecstasy.
Watch Hernandez's reaction on the grand slam...
...Yasiel Puig's quintessential Puigian reaction to same...
...and the thoughts-for-Puerto Rico messages on his cap...
...and try not to smile.
Hernandez's path to L.A.? As the fourth or fifth name in a seven-player deal with the Marlins three years ago.
Imagine being a team that loses its two-time All-Star shortstop to injury before the start of a series, yet doesn't sweat it at all because of its depth. Now imagine that the three position-player stars of the clinching game were the three players who battled for the right to make the club out of spring training as the final infielder on the roster. The Dodgers didn't just win without Corey Seager. They steamrolled the Cubs, and did so thanks in large part to not one, not two, but three players who all served as Seager's backups this season.
You can run this same where-the-hell-did-they-come-from exercise with plenty of other Dodgers too. Before Turner earned his $64 million extension, he was a two-homer utilityman for the Mets who made a microscopic-by-baseball-standards $1 million in 2014. He's since developed into a borderline MVP candidate in Los Angeles. If Hernandez was the fourth or fifth guy in the seven-player deal with Miami, Austin Barnes might've been the fifth or sixth, and he became a .408-OBP terror as a multi-position threat this year with the Dodgers. Add Morrow, Watson, and Cingrani, and you have a deep stable of players that any other team could've had for next to nothing, with all of them thriving in L.A. instead.
If the Dodgers win four more games to win that elusive World Series, we might hear lamenting that only big-money teams can win it all; the yelling could be twice as loud if the Dodgers end up facing the massive-payroll Yankees. But the savviest teams won't see the enduring lesson of the 2017 season as outspend everyone. Whether those rivals push $200 million or $80 million with their own bucket of contracts, they'll seize on a much more useful takeaway: Sweat the small details. Because when the stakes are highest, those small details can make a huge difference.
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