It's not news that the Dodgers are in first place and playing well. They're the four-time defending National League West champs, and before the season, advanced projections expected them to be the best team in baseball or close to it. They're good, because they were supposed to be.
But no one expected this. The 79-32 Dodgers are on pace for 115 wins, within distance of the all-time record of 116 shared by the 1906 Cubs and the 2001 Mariners. The Dodgers have won 44 of the 51 games they have played in the past two months; three teams haven't won more than 44 games all season. Even before shutting out the Mets on Sunday night, their run of 43 wins in 50 games was the best 50-game stretch in 105 years.
They have stars both expected, like Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen and Justin Turner, and far less so, like Chris Taylor, Cody Bellinger and Brandon Morrow. Plus, the Dodgers just traded for Yu Darvish (as well as Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani), the luxury add to end all luxury adds, without surrendering any of their top three prospects.
How have the Dodgers made it to this point? In order to be great at the big things, you've got to be great at the little things, and they are great at so many things. To truly understand what the Dodgers are excelling at, let's share 15 stats that tell the story of what's shaping up to be a historic season. And remember: Just about all of this was done without Darvish, who only made his Dodgers debut on Friday. It was a win, obviously.
47 home wins, No. 1 in MLB
That the team with the most wins also has the most home wins is the opposite of surprising, but this is something else. At .783, the Dodgers' home winning percentage would be the seventh best since reliable records were first kept in 1913, and the teams ahead of them are some truly legendary clubs. We're talking the Ruth/Gehrig 1932 Yankees, the Mantle/Maris '61 Yankees, two Ted Williams Red Sox teams, and the famous '75 Big Red Machine.
ERA 25 percentage points better than MLB average, No. 4 since 1920
Unsurprisingly, the Dodgers' arms have the lowest ERA this year, at 3.07, well ahead of the 3.53 put up by the second-place D-backs. But the league average ERA isn't a constant thing; it can change considerably across time. For example, this year, the MLB average ERA is 4.34; in 2000 it was 4.77; in 1968, it was 2.98. So in order to compare a team's seasonal ERA across eras, you need to park-adjust and know "how many percentage points was it better than that year's league average," with 100 being set as league-average, just like OPS+.
So what does a 3.08 ERA mean in context of 2017's 4.34 average? It's 25 percentage points better, or a 75 ERA-. Since the advent of modern baseball in 1920, that's the fourth-best mark -- and the best since the 1944 Cardinals.
27.4 percent hard-hit rate allowed, No. 1 in MLB
How do you prevent runs so effectively? Strikeouts help; Los Angeles has the third-highest strikeout percentage (26) behind Houston and Cleveland. But so does simply avoiding hard contact, and the Dodgers do that too. Using our definition of a hard-hit ball being one hit at 95 mph or harder, Los Angeles has the lowest hard-hit rate allowed in the game, just 27.7 percent, considerably better than second-place Milwaukee's 31.5 percent. It's the lowest in Statcast™'s three seasons. Throw in strikeouts and walks, plus quality of contact, to get an overall pitching skill score -- what we call xwOBA -- and the Dodgers are best in that, too.
10.6 percent batting walk rate, highest in MLB, and
27.4 percent batting chase rate, second lowest in MLB
Let's group these together, because they're related. With 10.6 percent of the Dodgers' plate appearances turning into walks, they lead the Majors; no team has hit 11 percent since three clubs did so in 2000. Walks by themselves don't guarantee runs or wins, of course. However, if you're drawing walks, you likely have great plate discipline, and the Dodgers do -- their 27.4 percent outside-the-zone chase rate is the lowest in the game. Los Angeles hits .147 on pitches outside the zone, and .298 on pitches inside it. Solution: Don't swing at balls. So they don't.
34.2 percent pitching chase rate, No. 1 in MLB
Oh, and the pitchers do the opposite. No team in the game induces more swings at outside-the-zone pitches than the Dodgers. Actually, no team since reliable pitch tracking came online in 2008 has induced more swings at bad pitches than the '17 Dodgers. And when they do throw strikes? Their 83.3 percent contact rate inside the zone is tied for baseball's best. It's basically the perfect combination.
12.9 percent pitching popup rate, highest in MLB and
7.8 percent batting popup rate, second lowest in MLB
Popups (or infield flies) are basically strikeouts, as far as outcomes are concerned. The Majors hit .023 on popups this year, and even those "hits" are usually defensive bloopers. There's almost no good outcome when popping up, really. So of course, the Dodgers pitchers are inducing the most. The hitters are creating the second fewest. Of course.
34 disabled list trips, most in MLB
Some of this is by design; you don't put together a roster with Brandon McCarthy, Rich Hill, Scott Kazmir, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Franklin Gutierrez without expecting some injuries. But not every injury was expected, either. Be it back injuries to Kershaw, Andre Ethier and Adrian Gonzalez, or Alvin Toles's knee, or Turner's hamstring, or Joc Pederson's concussion, or John Forsythe's toe, the Dodgers have dealt with the DL more than any other team. It's why depth matters more than ever.
13.4 percent of batters faced third time through order, third-fewest in MLB
Pitching strategy is changing, as teams become more wary of allowing starters to go deep into games. The numbers make it a clear choice, as pitchers very clearly fare worse the more times they turn a lineup over; for the Dodgers, their starters produce a .625 OPS the first time through, then .675 the second time and .670 the third. Meanwhile, their relievers are at .626, making a reliever a much better bet than a tiring starter. Only two teams force starters to face a lineup a third time through less often than Los Angeles does.
+44 Defensive Runs Above Average, No. 3 in MLB
You're familiar, most likely, with metrics like DRS or UZR, which describe defensive aptitude in "runs saved." What DRAA does is simply to adjust it for positional difficulty. That is, a shortstop saves far more runs than a first baseman would, so this allows for positions to be put on the same scale, so when you add all that up, the Dodgers are second only to the Reds and Marlins. Like everywhere else, this is about depth; Yasiel Puig is probably their best defender, but with the exception of center fielder Pederson, every player rates as average or better.
116 wRC+ against lefties, No. 3 in MLB
A running theme from last year was that the Dodgers struggled against lefty pitching, because they did. In 2016, the Dodgers, with a 72 wRC+ (where 100 is league average), were quite literally baseball's weakest team against lefties. Teams noticed; only two other clubs have faced more lefties this season. But not only have they fixed a weakness, they've created a strength, hitting 56 homers against lefties, the most in baseball, and going from 28 points below average to baseball's third-best lefty-mashing team. It's actually better than that; the 2017 Dodgers are the third-best Los Angeles team against lefties since the franchise moved west in 1958.
It's been a team effort, but most notably it's been a turnaround from Turner, who went from .209/.303/.337 to .398/.489/.759 against southpaws.
+25 framing runs, No. 1 in MLB
At the time, the 2014 trade that sent Matt Kemp to the Padres for Yasmani Grandal was controversial; now, it seems like a tremendous steal. Grandal has been baseball's second-best hitting catcher only to Buster Posey over the past three seasons, but that's not why they got him. Instead, where Grandal really stands out is in pitch framing -- as Zack Greinkecould attest -- where he was ranked as No. 1 in '15, No. 2 in '16, and No. 2 this year. Plus, since backup Austin Barnes ranks as a top-10 framer himself, the Dodgers as a group have baseball's best framers, by nearly eight runs over the second-place Angels.
.556 Minor League win percentage, No. 3 in baseball
It's not just the big league club that is winning. The Dodgers have the third-best organizational winning percentage in the Minors and every Minor League team they have is at .500 or better. It was that reinvigorated farm system that produced Seager, Pederson and Bellinger, among others; it allowed them to deal for Darvish, Hill and Alex Wood. When present ownership took over in 2012, they committed to investing in the prospect base; they've done that, and then some.
29 seasons without a title
There's so much more we couldn't get to. The Dodgers have baseball's third-highest four-seam fastball spin rate. They throw the second-most curveballs. Los Angeles' seven grand slams are the most, and 41 percent of its hits go for extra bases, tied for the most. The Dodgers have the second-most pinch-hits, and the third-highest slugging percentage, but no team has reached base on errors fewer times. Their pitchers allow just 0.99 homers per nine, and that's the lowest in the game. Los Angeles is even the only club to steal home more than once this year. This is baseball's best team for so many reasons.
But most importantly, the final number is 29, the number of seasons the Dodgers have played (including 2017) without a title. They haven't won a World Series since 1988. They haven't been to the World Series since 1988. It's why the Dodgers went all-in for Darvish. No matter how many wins they get, no matter how many records they set, it's ring or bust.