Coming into the 2021 season, expectations were understandably high for the Los Angeles Dodgers. In addition to winning the World Series in the abbreviated 2020 campaign, the Dodgers also won at a .717 clip during the regular season. That scales to a 116-win pace across the usual 162, and at 13-5 they were even better during the 2020 postseason.
In 2019, they went 106-56. Obviously, the talent baseline is highly impressive, and they returned almost all their key pieces for this season. In addition, they added the reigning NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer to a rotation that was already uncommonly deep. Pair him with Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler, and it's no exaggeration to say the Dodger have three aces -- in addition to a powerhouse offense.
As such, takes like this were as easy to find as they were to justify:
We're just a bit more than one-fifth of the way through the regular season, so there's time for plenty to change, for teams like the Dodgers to find their level. However, here's the current reality in the context of recent history:
2020 Dodgers were 43-17. Right now the 2021 Dodgers are 18-17! I guess they’re about to rattle off 25 straight.... right? I think that’s how it works.— Will Middlebrooks (@middlebrooks) May 10, 2021
High-level mathematics tells us that the 2021 Dodgers needed just 35 games to rack up as many losses as the 2020 Dodgers registered in 60 games. That brings us back to Bauer and the current state of the Dodgers. With a 2.50 ERA, a 4.79 K/BB ratio, and an MLB-leading 50 1/3 innings to his name this season, Bauer has delivered and then some. However, the larger reality is that the Dodgers, after a scorching 13-2 start to 2021, have lost 15 of their last 20, dropped five straight series, and slipped to third place in the NL West. That's left Bauer and presumably many others in the L.A. clubhouse pretty frustrated.
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"I'm pissed, personally. I freaking hate losing. I want to win. That's why I came here. We are not playing up to our capability right now so I'm mad. I'm not going to speak on behalf of anybody else.
"It's early and you can say it's early and you can say there's no need to panic and you can say all these things, and they're all true, but at the end of the day, we're not just going to roll the bats and balls out there and win baseball games."
"We're not just going to sleepwalk our way to winning another division title and going to the World Series again. That's not how it works. You've got to go out there and beat someone every day and we haven't been good at it, we need to be better."
Maybe you could argue that Bauer doesn't have the Dodger tenure to be calling out the team in such a manner, but the guess is that most veterans in the clubhouse would agree with what he's saying. Given the talent on hand and the lofty predictions for dominance this season, this kind of criticism is in order regardless of how you feel about the messenger. Maybe such a message is best conveyed by Kershaw or Justin Turner or even Mookie Betts, but the message itself isn't off base.
David Samson broke down the Dodgers' struggles on the latest Nothing Personal with David Samson. Listen below:
If there's any consolation for Bauer and other frustrated Dodgers, it's that the team has played better than its current record. If you look at run differential, then the Dodgers should have a record of 21-14 right now instead of 18-17. According to the BaseRuns system at FanGraphs, which evaluates how many runs a team should have scored and allowed based on their underlying fundamental indicators, the Dodgers ought to have a record of 22-13. Their actual record is what it is, but at this relatively early point in the season things like run differential and BaseRuns probably inform future outcomes better than that actual record does. In other words, the Dodgers will likely find a higher, more true level in the weeks to come.
For now, though, that's probably little consolation to Bauer and other Dodgers, who understandably have trouble looking past three weeks and counting of uncharacteristic struggles.