LOS ANGELES — One is the loneliest number, indeed.
The Dodgers head into the postseason this week for the 10th consecutive year. During this run, they have won nine National League West titles and 61.2 percent of their regular-season games, including 100 wins in four of the past five full seasons topped by this year’s historic 111-51 bulldozing of the schedule.
But they have only one World Series championship to show for it.
The disparity between the Dodgers’ regular-season success and their meager postseason haul is one that critics love to point out. The phrase “only one” raises Dave Roberts’ blood pressure.
“That’s fair,” the Dodgers’ manager says of the criticism before getting animated. “But if we would have won in ’17 (against the Houston Astros), would that have changed? So two in six years. I hate to sound like sour grapes. But we got ’17 stolen from us. They admitted it. That’s fact. Seventeen is the second year I was here. So we win in ’17 and it’s, ‘Everything they’re doing is right. This is the answer key.’
“You name me a manager that wouldn’t take one out of six. And the other one was stolen. Yeah – only one. We won one.”
Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman won’t “go down that rabbit hole” of re-litigating the outcome of the 2017 World Series. Nor will he admit to spending any mental energy on trying to define one World Series title in his eight years running the Dodgers as a failure or disappointment.
“I don’t look back very often,” he says. “Everything for me is about looking forward or learning from things in the past more than it is trying to contextualize it in some descriptive word. There’s been a ton of success and a lot of heartbreak as well. That is the life we’ve chosen. Obviously, every team wants the highs to be more plentiful than the lows.
“I feel like this group has accomplished a lot of very special things. Now – adding more World Series championships is absolutely our goal. If we had won three to this point, I don’t think it would be any different as we look forward in terms of what we would want to accomplish. So that is much more where our attention and focus is.”
The past eight World Series have been won by eight different franchises. But the Dodgers’ combination of consistent regular-season success and persistent postseason disappointment has left them uniquely open to second-guessing by those who do look back. The result is often a verdict that finds the Dodgers guilty of overthinking things in October and getting in their own way.
Would they have won more than one World Series over this 10-year run if they had, oh, let Rich Hill go more than twice through the Astros’ lineup in Game 2 of the 2017 World Series?
Or not chosen to keep their four leading home run hitters (Max Muncy, Cody Bellinger, Yasmani Grandal and Joc Pederson) out of the starting lineups for Games 1 and 2 of the 2018 World Series because the Boston Red Sox started left-handed pitchers?
Or not used Clayton Kershaw out of the bullpen in the 2019 NL Division Series loss to the Washington Nationals? Or not used Joe Kelly for a second inning in that same Game 5?
Or not used reliever Corey Knebel to start as many games last postseason (two) as 20-game winner Julio Urias? Or not used both Urias and Max Scherzer to pitch out of the bullpen last postseason, leaving Scherzer’s arm “overcooked” for the NLCS?
Roberts defends each decision as appropriate in real time and points to the praise the Dodgers received for “out-of-the-box thinking” in deploying Urias as their closer in the 2020 NL Championship Series and World Series.
Regardless of the hindsight nature of judging the results, Roberts says, each of those decisions was the product of a forward-thinking, exhaustive process that is an advantage for the Dodgers, not a hindrance.
“I think the overthinking perception is overblown,” he says. “Honestly, I believe it’s overblown because this perception started when Andrew took over the Dodgers. Andrew took over and you bring in, on the baseball ops side, analytics and trying to maximize on the margins and increase winning percentage. I believe we’ve done that better than any team in baseball.
“But I think the first scary look for people was, ‘They’re overthinking. They’re doing something different.’ Now you look into the postseason … every year there’s things that are unconventional that happen. But it’s always us that gets looked at for overthinking.”
Friedman accepts that criticism.
“I think the postseason is the ultimate outcome-based justice system. And I get it,” he says. “But there are things that we’ve done that have worked out. There are things that we’ve done that haven’t. My guess is that is going to continue to happen.”
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The Dodgers have already started treading the line between turning over every stone and turning over one too many. Roberts has hedged on publicly naming a Game 1 starter for the NLDS, saying the Dodgers are still discussing the advantages of starting their best pitcher, Urias, in Game 1 or 2.
As Friedman acknowledged, this decision, like every decision in the postseason, will either work out or not. Riding on all those decisions this fall is the possibility of burdening their historic regular season with another disappointing postseason – or validating it with a second World Series title in the past three years.
“I try to compartmentalize the regular season and the postseason,” Friedman says. “We have a regular-season goal which, if we’re successful, puts us in position to realize our ultimate goal. I can’t live life, I can’t do what I do on a daily basis with there being one success each year and 29 failures. I just can’t live that way.
“It doesn’t change the burning desire to win a World Series every year. But I think it’s important for those of us who pour ourselves into it to be able to compartmentalize, appreciate certain successes, learn from certain failures and figure out how to get back and put us in the best position to win a World Series the next year.”