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Series Preview #1 : D-backs @ Dodgers

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What a lucky way to start the season!

Lucky Lady in Pageant of the Superstitions
Lucky Lady in Pageant of the Superstitions
Photo by Sasha/Getty Images

Often, baseball players know they will again be lucky if they wear the same thing or do the same habit.

In the second series of last season, the D-backs played the Dodgers. I wrote that series preview and the D-backs swept the Dodgers. As I write this series preview, luck flows like Hawaiian lava from my keyboard.

This season is different because the D-backs are considered underdogs. Don’t despair. The bar for series success is lower! In this 4-game series, one D-back win would be good, and two D-back wins would be awesome and lucky! A series win would be a major upset and it would feel like winning the lottery!

Let’s look at this season’s Dodgers.

Who Are Core Dodgers Players?

“I feel like we have a chance to be an elite team, and I think we have a very well-rounded roster. It’s also got a number of core players that have won a significant number of games together. I think oftentimes that gets overlooked.” — Andrew Friedman, Dodger President of Baseball Operations, February 2019

Returning from last season are five core players. Three of these five core players are bouncing back from injuries.

  • In late February, starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw experienced some shoulder soreness/inflamation. Although it seems an MRI was not done, he will start this season on the injured list after 8 consecutive seasons as opening day starter.
  • Shortstop Corey Seager had Tommy John surgery in May and hip surgery in August. On 20 March, he first appeared in a spring training game - likely he will not be at 100% on opening day.
  • In November, closer Kenley Jansen had another heart procedure to control his atrial fibrillation. This off-season he lost 25 pounds. Has his pitching effectiveness been impacted? “I want to take care of my heart. I don’t want to do another surgery...” — Kenley Jansen

Two outfielders were added to the core.

  • Former D-back and oft-injured AJ Pollock went to the Dodgers in free agency. In the last three seasons, he played in 49% of the games. This season, can he avoid injury?
  • Top-100 prospect Alex Verdugo, is projected to start the season in the Majors (for his first time), after two seasons totaling 111 plate appearances, mostly in September. Watching a success story unfold feels great!

2019 Core Dodgers

Player Position Age FA Year Awards Stats
Player Position Age FA Year Awards Stats
Cody Bellinger 1B>RF 22 2024 2017 ROY & All-Star 2017 NL ranked #2 with 39 HR, 2018 NL ranked #10 with power-speed of 17.9
Corey Seager SS 23 2022 2016 ROY & 2X All-Star & 2X SS 2016 NL ranked #7 with BA of .308 & 2017 ranked #2 in defense with 20 Total Zone Runs as SS
Justin Turner 3B 33 2021 All-Star & NCLS MVP 2016 NL ranked #5 in defense with 19 Total Zone Runs, 2017 NL ranked #2 with OBP of .415, 2018 NL ranked #1 in range factor for 3B
Clayton Kershaw SP 30 2021 MVP & 3X CY & 7X All-Star & more 2011/12/13/14/17 NL ranked #1 in ERA
Kenley Jansen Closer 30 2022 2X ALl-Star & 2X Hoffman Reliever of the Year 2017 NL ranked # 1 with 41 saves
AJ Pollock CF 31 2023/2024 2015 GG & All-Star 2018 NL ranked #9 with 7 sacrifice flies
Alex Verdugo OF 22 2025 Top-100 prospect in baseball by BP and MLB
Source: Baseball Reference

What have the Dodgers given up on?

Something old is a good luck charm at weddings. So why did the Dodgers give up on two of their three oldest position players?

  • Chase Utley. He is now 40 years old. My related thought is Bartolo Colon, who continues to pitch at age 45. Utley was a free agent and retired.
  • Matt Kemp. He is now 34 years old. In December, he was traded to the Reds. In last year’s off-season, the Dodgers re-acquired Kemp. He arrived at spring training in great shape. In a reversal, in this off-season the Dodgers re-lost Kemp.

Perhaps their ‘something old’ luck was restored when they re-acquired catcher Russell Martin, now 36 years old. He replaced the younger Yasmany Grandal, lost to free agency. In 2008 Gandal led the Majors in pitch framing (15.7 runs per Baseball Prospectus) and had an OPS+ of 120.

Prime Rib: Bryce Harper. The Dodgers flailed and failed to acquire him.

The Dodgers aggressively pursued signing Bryce Harper. Andrew Friedman, Dodgers President of Baseball Operations, said if a personnel move (like signing a free agent) makes sense, “...we’ll be aggressive…” Friedman, with Dave Roberts (manager) and Stan Kasten (CEO) traveled to Las Vegas to negotiate with Harper and agent Scott Boras. It seems that they discussed deals with a higher average annual value than the Phillies and the Giants (which was the team with the best fit).

To pursue Harper, the Dodgers risked strategic goals. The Dodgers made significant trades to keep under the luxury tax threshold – a strategic goal they put at-risk. Another strategic goal is having depth in every position – Harper is projected to play corner outfield where the Dodgers have great depth. And Bellinger who plays first base is expected to play right field. In a move with better strategic fit, the Dodgers acquired AJ Pollock, who plays Center Field.

Great GM Cooking. Is it true that too many cooks spoil the broth? GM Farhan Zaidi went to the Giants. The Dodgers did not replace him, instead splitting the role between Brandon Gomes (director of player development), Alex Slater (Director of Baseball Operations), and Josh Byrnes (senior VP of baseball operations). The results could leave the fans wanting a better cook.

Dairy. About half of the Dodgers gave up dairy. Corey Seager said his face has lost it’s puff and he purchased new clothes because he lost weight. Kenley Jansen started drinking milks from coconut and almond; he lost weight. For details see this article in the Athletic.

Looking Ahead

Interestingly, in each of the last two seasons, the D-backs had the same regular-season results against the Dodgers, winning 11 of their 19 games. The D-backs have remade their team. How well they play is a wild card. Luck will make a difference.

Who will pitch in this series?

Thursday. Hyun-Jin Ryu (198 ERA+, 9.7 SO/9, 1.6 BB/9) vs Zack Greinke (135 ERA+, 8.6 SO/9, 1.9 BB/9) (statistics from 2018 season)

In 2018, Hyun-JIn Ryu had the best ERA of all the starting Dodger pitchers. Although Kershaw is the traditional opening day starter, he has a sore shoulder. For those two reasons, Ryu is the opening day starter!

Zack Greinke is Mr. Consistency. As usual, he started spring training slow, but has now caught-up. Not much more needs to be said. In spring training, Brooks Baseball wrote that he threw one slow curve that was “a real yakker that’s separated from his other curveball due to its big drop and slow speed.”

Friday. Ross Stripling (128 ERA+, 10.0 SO/9, 1.6 BB/9) vs Robbie Ray (110 ERA+, 12.0 SO/9, 5.1 BB/9)

Ross Stripling pitched extraordinarily well in May 2018. His performance was the 11th best month by any pitcher from 2002 to 2018 wrote Jeff Sullivan, FanGraphs. He pitched 30 innings with an ERA of 1.20 and a FIP of 1.21. For the full season with runners in scoring position, “Stripling was able to have the second highest strand rate in baseball at 86.1% (min. 120 innings), trailing only the AL Cy Young award winner Blake Snell.” — Jack Dorfman

However, Stripling’s pitching was worse after 22 July (ERA 6.41), and the Dodgers did not place him on their post-season rosters. How will he do this season? Although spring training is not predictive, his ERA was less than 3.

Last Season, Robbie Ray strained his oblique muscle. His mechanics may have been off before and after his injury (based on his ERA of 4.88 before and 4.93 in the ten games after). Then he changed his mechanics; His ERA improved to 2.09 in his final 7 starts.

“This year, he’s a different guy. His stuff [Robbie Ray] is really standing out, it’s coming out hot and I know he worked hard to make that happen. So we’re looking for him to have a big year.” — Torey Lovullo

Saturday. Kenta Maeda (102 ERA+, 11.0 SO/9, 3.1 BB/9) vs Zack Godley (91 ERA+, 9.3 SO/9, 4.1 BB/9)

Maeda has two elite secondary pitches and has been a top-20 starter by SIERA since his debut (Source: Alex Chamberlain). In 2018, he started 20 games through 10 August. He changed to a relief pitcher, normally pitching about 1 inning. This season, he returns as a starter.

Zack Godley has a mighty curve. That AZ Snake Pit article talked about three success factors:

  • first pitch strike one
  • the right mix of pitches
  • confident throwing to the bases

Sunday. Walker Buehler (148 ERA+, 9.9 SO/9, 2.4 BB/9)vs Luke Weaver (78 ERA+, 8.0 SO/9, 3.6 BB/9)

Last season, at the age of 24, Walker Buehler was the starting pitcher in game three of the World Series! He pitched 7 shutout innings (2-hits, 7 SOs, 0 BB). In the playoffs, if I exclude the inning that he allowed a grand slam, his ERA would have been an impressive 1.99. He has a great fastball.

The D-backs acquired Luke Weaver in the Goldschmidt trade. He struggled in 2018, when his strike-out rate per 9 innings (SO/9) dropped from 10.7 to 8.0. In spring training his SO/9 returned to 10 (source MLB.com). Remarkably, he allowed only 2 earned runs in 11.1 innings.

To improve his curveball, Luke Weaver worked with pitching coach Mike Butcher (source Zach Buchanan of Athletic). “I caught a few and was like, ‘Oh my goodness. Luke, that’s legit.’”—catcher Carson Kelly. “I feel like it’s going to be a huge year for me because now I feel like I have four pitches that I can definitely throw.” — Luke Weaver