LOS ANGELES — There are moments in the postseason – and as Dodger fans will attest, plenty of them in Games 1 and 2 of the current National League Division Series – when the words of Billy Beane from two decades or so absolutely resonate.
“My (stuff) doesn’t work in the playoffs,” the longtime Oakland A’s team-builder said then, as Michael Lewis related in his 2003 bestseller, Moneyball, only Beane didn’t exactly say “stuff.”
“My job is to get us to the playoffs,” he added. “What happens after that is (freaking) luck.”
That’s relatively accurate, totally honest and undoubtedly infuriating to the true believers of so many franchises – particularly the one that plays here – who consider a World Series championship the goal and anything less a failure.
By those standards, high ones but not unreasonable for a team that has won 10 division titles in 11 seasons, the Dodgers are 27 outs from failure after Monday night’s 4-2 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks put them in an 0-2 hole going to Phoenix for Games 3 and 4.
To reiterate: Beane was a brilliant baseball mind in an organization forced (or choosing) to pinch pennies. His searches for market inefficiencies that could be exploited helped the A’s reach the postseason 11 times in 21 years, but they only won two playoff series in that span.
The philosophy he spawned, piggybacking on the likes of Bill James and others willing to challenge baseball’s entrenched thinking, is now a staple of the game. One of its noted practitioners, Dodgers general manager Andrew Friedman, made his bones in Tampa Bay, another impoverished franchise, with the philosophy that no potential edge is too small to be at least considered.
So when the Dodgers are accused of overthinking – as they customarily are in the postseason – and those plans don’t work, you know where it comes from. And now, after starting pitchers Clayton Kershaw and Bobby Miller have given up nine runs in a combined two innings in the first two games, the brainstorming at the upper levels of the organization will go into overdrive between now and Wednesday’s 6:07 first pitch.
We probably shouldn’t take for granted the Dodgers’ 11 consecutive postseason appearances, or those 10 division titles, even though only one of those seasons to this point has ended in the ultimate triumph.
After all, you could be a Seattle Mariners fan. That team ended a 20-season playoff drought in 2022, but missed the playoffs again this year, after which their president of baseball operations, Jerry DiPoto, told his fans this:
“We’re actually doing the fan base a favor in asking for their patience to win the World Series while we continue to build a sustainably good roster.”
Logical, I suppose. But I can’t imagine that went over well.
Consider, in contrast, the Diamondbacks. They are the third team ever to go from 110 losses to the postseason in three years, joining this year’s Baltimore Orioles and the 2015 Houston Astros. Arizona’s young, aggressive roster overcame a midseason slump to get to the postseason, swept Milwaukee in the wild card round and got the jump on the Dodgers in this series, overwhelming Kershaw in Game 1 and taking advantage of Miller’s playoff inexperience in Game 2, while Arizona starters Merrill Kelly and Zac Gallen did what they usually do.
Given the uncertain state of the Dodgers’ rotation over the last half of the season, we can’t say we’re totally surprised, though the pummeling the D-Backs gave Kershaw on Saturday night was stunning.
But maybe we shouldn’t be focusing totally on starting pitching. The top of the Dodgers’ lineup has been disastrous in the first two games of this series: Mookie Betts is 1 for 7 and Freddie Freeman is 1 for 6. And the Dodgers are 2 for 12 with runners in scoring position.
“I didn’t love the pitch selection,” Manager Dave Roberts said. “There were some balls out of the zone, and there were some borderline balls or pitches that we offered at that we didn’t give ourselves a chance to get into counts. I saw some expansion, some pitches that were pitcher’s pitches that we offered at.”
They saw two quality starters in Kelly and Gallen, who will be available for Games 4 and 5 if the series goes that far. And the D-Backs’ bullpen, bolstered by a deadline trade for closer Paul Sewald, was effective in shutting down opportunities in the late innings, leaving the bases loaded in the sixth and serving up double play balls in the seventh and eighth.
“We had opportunities,” Roberts said. “But when you get opportunities you’ve got to cash in.”
The underdogs are reveling in their role, meanwhile, and to be honest, it’s a good time in baseball to be a postseason underdog.
“We hear the talk,” Arizona manager Torey Lovullo said Monday afternoon. “We hear that we’re maybe like the little brother that everybody can beat up on. We take that personally. We embrace it. We understand that we haven’t done a lot compared to the Dodgers or the Astros or some of the teams that are getting some of the notoriety. But we’re here and we’re ready to compete and we like it that way.”
They’ve thrived by taking advantage of the system, as was the case last year in the first test of the 12-team postseason format with its three-game wild card series and five-day byes for the top two division champs. Arizona’s victory Monday night meant road teams (i.e., lower seeds) are 6-2 in the four division series. And after three of the four higher-seeded teams lost in last year’s division series, there are reasons to question the fairness of those five-day breaks.
Roberts, who was on the business end of San Diego’s upset last year, was asked before Monday’s game if he would rather have been playing during those days off, he started, “Yeah, I think that I would rather …” and then bit his tongue.
“It’s nice to get into the division series, certainly,” he continued. “I don’t think that five days is ideal, but that’s the playoff structure. So the world’s not perfect. A couple-day break would have been nice. Five’s a little …”
Then his voice trailed off again before he added: “But there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Maybe winning 100 or so games is a bad idea from now on, or at least until the format changes to again reward excellence. In the era of the wild-card game, the winner might have had momentum going into the division series but also had to burn some of its pitching and usually had to face its opponent’s ace in Game 1. That at least provided a legitimate motivation to win your division.
But it’s the system we have, and it’s important to keep the following in mind, too.
“In my mind, once you’re in the postseason, every team is as good as any other team,” Dodgers third baseman Max Muncy said Monday afternoon. “You see it every year. It’s not necessarily always the best team that wins; it’s the team that plays the best, that goes out there and performs, the team that gets the hottest. Really that’s all that matters.”
Luck’s not always involved, either.
In the meantime, this is a new experience for guys like Miller, or James Outman, who is 0 for 5 with three strikeouts and a walk in this series. And how does Outman plan on handling it?
“I’ll show up tomorrow at the field and get some work done,” he said. “And then next day I’ll show up again and get the work done, get the routine done. And, you know, just trust that.”
At this point, what else is there?