For a while – longer than felt right – the Dodgers weren't quite living up to their recent standards in 2023. Now, though, this modern juggernaut has found its familiar level and once again stands as one of the best teams in baseball. Given that we're now in the early stages of Major League Baseball's stretch drive, one can easily characterize this as "peaking at the right time," at least insofar as the regular season is concerned.
At this writing, the Dodgers have won 11 games in a row and are now on pace for an even 100 wins. If that comes to pass then the 2023 season will occasion their third straight 100-win campaign (a streak that would likely be reaching five had the abbreviated 2020 season been a standard one). More to the point, the Dodgers recent surge has put them within hailing distance of the Braves for the best record in all of baseball. To be sure, the Braves are still likely to hang on to that substantial honor, but the Dodgers' upcoming four-game home set against Atlanta to open September could make matters even more interesting.
So what's behind an August run of dominance that's seen the Dodgers go 15-1 for the month thus far? In large measure, it's just the surges that very good or great teams are capable of across a 162-game haul. However, other factors – factors that could matter in October – are also at work. Let's have a quick look at those.
1. Their two biggest stars are (still) playing like like their two biggest stars
This is hardly a recent development, but let's note just the same that the Dodgers' leading lights have been in peak form. The greatest of these is Mookie Betts. Betts this season boasts an OPS+ of 159, and he's mashed 64 extra-base hits in 114 games. He's also been his usual excellent self in the field, except this year he's done so while also spending 286 defensive innings at second base and another 98 innings at shortstop. Suffice it to say, not many corner outfielders in their thirties can thrive in the middle infield, but Betts is and has been for a long time a truly special baseball player. While Ronald Acuna Jr. is still the NL MVP frontrunner, Betts merits serious consideration.
Then there's Freddie Freeman. He's got a 166 OPS+ at the plate, and there's a chance he gets to 300 total bases before the calendar flips to September. That OPS+, by the way, would be Freeman's second-best of his career and a full 26 points north of his pre-2023 career mark. As well, Freeman's strong quality-of-contact indicators suggest he's very much earned those lofty numbers. That bodes well moving forward.
Not surprisingly, both Betts and Freeman have been raking during the team's August hot streak. Betts for the month has an OPS of 1.176, and Freeman isn't far behind with a figure of 1.071.
2. Kershaw's back
Earlier this year, the Dodger rotation was hit hard by injuries and a bit of "failure to launch" on the part of their top pitching prospects. As well, Julio Urías has disappointed so far in 2023. Helping matters, however, is the return from injury of future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw. Shoulder troubles put Kershaw on ice for roughly six weeks, but he's looked strong since returning for a pair of August starts. In those two starts, he's allowed just two runs in 10 innings of work, and for the season as a whole he has a sparkling ERA+ of 176 in 18 starts.
Kershaw's now 35, but his "decline" phase has mostly consisted of health woes, not a decline in performance. Since turning 30, he's pitched to a 2.78 ERA and 5.39 K/BB ratio, and his season-to-season rated-based numbers have been similarly excellent over that span. The problem has been that injuries have limited him to an average of 125 innings per season in his thirties. Yes, that figure is dragged down by the shortened 2020 campaign when he was generally healthy, but he's still struggled to stay off the IL over the last five years or so. He's back now, though, pitching at his customary high level. That's huge for a Dodger rotation that's needed a stabilizer.
3. They made sound additions leading up to the trade deadline
The big add prior to Aug. 1 was Lance Lynn, who had suffered from bad luck with the White Sox this season but whose strong underlying fundamentals suggested an imminent turnaround. So far, he's indeed turned it around. Through four August turns with L.A., he boasts a 1.44 ERA with 25 strikeouts versus five walks in 25 innings. Lynn's emphasized his fastball and slider more since the trade, and that appears to be working for him. He's a huge addition to a rotation that, as noted, has been at times lacking.
Elsewhere, Ryan Yarbrough is a sound rotation stop-gap/long man, and Joe Kelly when healthy provides some needed bullpen depth. The Dodgers also added old friend Enrique Hernandez and Amed Rosario, which aided their infield-depth situation and gave them much-needed help against left-handed pitching. Hernandez and Rosario have both been quite useful in August.
Without question, the Braves continue to look like the best team in the National League, but the Dodgers thanks in part to their recent surge have the potential to make that a conversation before the end of the regular season. In related matters, August is making the Dodgers look like real threats once October rolls around.