NEW YORK — No, you’ve never seen this before, because I’m pretty sure nobody reading this attended a game at the Polo Grounds in the summer of 1912.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have won 43 of their past 50 games, something no team has done in 105 years, since John McGraw’s Giants, a team that featured guys named Tillie, Heinie, Rube and Hooks.
It is a remarkable stretch of dominance in a sport where few teams can win 60 percent of their games over nearly a third of the season, let alone 86 percent. The Dodgers are 6-0 against the Mets, 78-32 overall, on pace for 115 wins, and now have a big, fat bull’s-eye on their backs as the best team in baseball — and maybe one of the best ever.
“It is history in the making,” manager Dave Roberts said after Saturday’s 7-4 win over the Mets, a victory powered by five home runs. “But when you get back to the day-to-day, I don’t think anyone is really thinking about that.”
That theme was echoed this weekend by various players. They said this stretch has been made possible by their ability to focus each day, to keep the intensity going while understanding the ultimate goal is to play hard every game and win a World Series, not to pursue history. Closer Kenley Jansen said he’s never had this much fun playing baseball, and he’s one guy who has experienced a similar ride: The 2013 Dodgers went 42-8 from June 22 through Aug. 17.
“Some guys in the clubhouse probably think I was on that team,” 37-year-old Rich Hill quipped after Saturday’s game. “Yeah, I started back in ’26 with Murderers’ Row.”
Hill wasn’t on the 2013 Dodgers, but few players in the clubhouse were. This is a different team from that one, completely turned over except for Jansen, Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Adrian Gonzalez (who hasn’t played since June 11). There’s a new front office and a new manager. It’s also a team with much more power.
The Dodgers have slugged 96 home runs in this 50-game stretch, more than any team in baseball since this streak began on June 7. Compare the offensive numbers to that 2013 stretch:
2013: .286/.344/.427, 44 HR, 4.88 runs per game
2017: .269/.356/.508, 96 HR, 5.50 runs per game
Hill fell behind 3-0 in the first inning as the Mets hit three home runs off him — all off fastballs. He settled down after that, pitching five innings and finishing with eight strikeouts. “To turn it over to the best bullpen in baseball is really comforting,” he said. “Hanging in there shows the resiliency of this team and how everyone goes about their business.”
The comeback started in the sixth inning against Mets starter Seth Lugo, who had pitched 4.2 hitless innings. His third time through the order was not so successful. Chris Taylor led off the sixth with a long home run to left-center against a 2-1 slider, and after Justin Turner singled with one out, Cody Bellinger tied the game with his 31st home run, off another slider. Yasiel Puig would break the tie with a low liner in the seventh off Paul Sewald that just cleared the fence, Turner added another in the eighth and Corey Seager iced it with a two-run blast to right in the ninth. Good night, Irene.
If there’s been a surprise to the Dodgers season, it’s the production from Taylor and Bellinger — two guys who started the season in the minors. There’s a stat called Win Probability Added — basically it calculates how much a player improves his team’s chances of winning after each at-bat. A home run in a tie game is worth more than a home run in a 10-0 game. It’s a bit of a junk stat, but can be viewed as a substitute for “clutch,” while keeping in mind that it’s team-dependent to some extent (if you have more close games, you have more opportunities).
Anyway, entering Saturday, according to the WPA figures at FanGraphs, Taylor ranked ninth among position players with 3.01 wins and Bellinger ranked 10th with 3.0 wins. Seager was just behind them at 12th. Taylor was acquired last summer in a steal of a trade with Seattle, for minor league starter Zach Lee. Taylor had never played outfield before this season, but a series of injuries gave him a chance to play and he’s run with it, hitting .314/.389/.559 with 14 home runs.
Bellinger also has a flair for late-game dramatics, with 16 of his 31 home runs coming in the sixth or later, tied with Justin Smoak for most in the majors. Bellinger has also feasted off offspeed pitches, with 17 home runs coming against curves, sliders, changeups and splitters, tied with Mike Moustakas for most in the majors (no other player has more than 13).
As for their clutch stats, entering Saturday, Taylor was hitting .346/.401/.617 when the game was within one run. Bellinger was hitting .265/.388/.523, including a .707 slugging percentage with five home runs in 41 at-bats in “late and close” situations. Everyone keeps waiting for the league to catch up to them, but it hasn’t happened. Taylor, in particular, is due for some regression in the batting average department, as his .411 average on balls in play would be the highest since the 1920s.
Bellinger’s swing is made to golf out pitches like the slider he hammered on Saturday off his shoe tops. Everyone says you just have to throw him up in the zone. Easy to say, harder to execute. Plus, this is a smart kid. “You still have to hit off the fastball and he can handle the fastball,” Roberts said, “but he has good pitch recognition.”
What’s scary for Dodgers opponents is that Seager has also been crushing baseballs for about two months now as he’s pulling the ball more — and thus tapping into his power more often.
Corey Seager is pulling the ball more and that’s good. Through June 10: .275./.384/.455, 8 HR. Since June 11: .350/.417/.643, 11 HR. pic.twitter.com/1mryOm6L3Q
— David Schoenfield (@dschoenfield) August 5, 2017
What’s maybe remarkable about this 50-game stretch is the Dodgers have done it with a revolving door of players coming and going. By my count, the Dodgers have made 139 transactions since Opening Day, give or take. In this clubhouse, however, it’s no big deal and helps explain why the players were excited to add Yu Darvish to an already potent team. “We went through this last season, so we’re used to it by now,” Seager said.
So Seager is mashing. Taylor and Bellinger have been mashing. Darvish threw seven scoreless innings in his Dodgers debut. The bullpen has the second-best ERA in baseball. They’re fourth in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved. The players love the manager.
“The effort is a constant,” as Hill said.
It was an amazing 50-game stretch. They have 55 more games in the regular season — only 22 against teams with winning records. But none of the players cared about the idea of getting to a record 116 wins. That’s not the goal. Dodgers fans know what is the goal.