Los Angeles Dodgers 2023 Season Preview
Over the past few seasons, my least favorite team preview to write has been the Los Angeles Dodgers. Nothing against them, but they effectively fielded an All-Star team and there wasn’t a whole lot of intrigue. The floor was high, the ceiling was high, the expectations were high and health was the only legitimate question.
You don’t have to be a baseball aficionado to know that this year’s Dodgers team doesn’t look nearly as dominant. The bottom half of the batting order has a lot of questions and the starting rotation has its share of uncertainties. After winning 111 games last season, the Dodgers were bounced by the Padres in the NLDS and their only World Series to show for 10 straight playoff appearances has an asterisk in the minds of many because it came in the COVID-shortened year.
Look, I don’t question the legitimacy of that World Series at all, but it is absolutely a black eye for this organization to have spent billions of dollars in the quest for multiple rings and to only have one in a season we’ll hopefully never see the likes of again. After being a thoroughly dominant team across a lot of metrics, including run differential, for a decade, this is the first year in which you really wonder if this team has the goods.
Explanations of the stats used in this preview can be found in my “MLB Stats to Know” article.
2023 Los Angeles Dodgers Odds
(odds from DraftKings as of Mar. 20, click for updates)
World Series: +850
NL Pennant: +425
NL West: -110
Win Total: 95.5 (-105/-115)
Make Playoffs: Yes -550 / No +450
Los Angeles Dodgers Offense
I’m not going to pretend like this is a team devoid of talent, but the loss of a player like Trea Turner is significant. The Dodgers also bid adieu to Justin Turner, Cody Bellinger, Joey Gallo, Edwin Rios, Kevin Pillar and Hanser Alberto. We’re not exactly talking about a slew of impact players, but Bellinger and Turner x2 have had some really productive seasons. Especially Trea, who had a monster World Baseball Classic and rides into the season on a real high.
What made the Dodgers so deadly was being a true 1 through 9 unit once the universal DH took hold. Now, the Dodgers don’t seem quite as daunting for opposing pitchers. Obviously, Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman and Will Smith are going to get on base a ton and generate a lot of offense. But, the loss of Gavin Lux to a torn ACL coupled with some of the free agent losses gave this lineup a different look. The Dodgers are counting on a couple of 35-year-olds in J.D. Martinez and David Peralta to be run producers in the middle of the order. They’re hoping that they can get enough from Max Muncy and Trayce Thompson to offset a pretty bad hitter in Miguel Rojas and an unproven stick in Miguel Vargas.
The Dodgers led MLB last season with a 119 wRC+. They were also among the best baserunning teams, which will go down without Trea Turner. They hit the fifth-most homers and had the third-highest BB%. Freeman paced the group with a 157 wRC+ and I don’t really see a reason to expect a decline. If anything, I could see more power production, as he only hit 21 homers in 708 plate appearances. That was his lowest total in a full season since 2015.
Betts owned a 144 wRC+ with 35 jacks and his best offensive output in a full season since 2018. His career wRC+ is 136, so he likely ends up in about the same area. He actually had a lower on-base percentage last season with his lowest BB% since 2016, so I could even see his numbers improve a bit. Smith also has a career wRC+ in that range at 132 and had a 127 mark last season, so he’ll be just fine as well.
Beyond that, though, things get interesting. Thompson had a 153 wRC+ in 239 PA when he joined the Dodgers and hit 13 homers in just 74 games. He may slot into a platoon role against lefties with Peralta, who owns a career 121 wRC+ against righties. On the other hand, Thompson may be forced into a full-time role. He was drafted in 2009 and only has 297 MLB games under his belt, but he’s been productive in two stints with the Dodgers. Truth be told, I have no idea what to expect from him.
A Thompson/Peralta platoon is probably going to be good. A Max Muncy bounceback would be good, as he posted a 106 wRC+ in 2022 after a 139 wRC+ in 2021. Martinez is still a solid hitter after posting a 119 wRC+ last season, but the aging curve may be creeping in. His Hard Hit% dropped from 49.3% in 2021 to 41.4% in 2022. His average exit velocity dropped three full mph. His last two seasons have been among his highest in swing and miss rate and, most notably, a lot of the extra swings and misses have come from pitches in the zone. His Z-Contact% marks of 81.7% and 81.2% the last two seasons are his third and fourth lowest in a career that spans 12 seasons.
Rojas is a glove-only player who takes over for Lux as shortstop, as the Dodgers just need somebody who won’t hurt them defensively at the position. They’ll find offense elsewhere or just rely on the copious amounts of it that they have at the top of the order. Vargas has hit at every minor league level and has a little bit of speed to go with some surprising pop. We’ll see how he translates to the MLB game. His 50 plate appearances last season at 22 tell us nothing.
This is still a good lineup. I may have exaggerated a tad for drama. I also think this lineup is less equipped to handle another major injury than past versions. It’ll be a top-10 group that flirts with the top five, but it won’t be the league’s best.
Los Angeles Dodgers Pitching
The Dodgers will start the season with a couple of notable names on the injured list. Tony Gonsolin sprained his ankle in camp and will likely rejoin the team sometime in April. Walker Buehler is recovering from Tommy John surgery and we may not see him at all in 2023. Gonsolin had a 2.14 ERA with a 3.28 FIP in 130.1 innings last season, so he’ll be a welcomed addition to the rotation, but I would monitor him closely. Not only did he run one of the lowest BABIPs in baseball last year, he also went from 68.1 innings in 2021 to 132.1 innings in 2022 and also missed some time. The ankle is a mild setback, but I’m worried about his health overall.
That seems like a reasonable segue into talking about Clayton Kershaw, who is one of the few Dodgers free agents to return. Kershaw was excellent last season with a 2.28 ERA and a 2.57 FIP in 126.1 innings of work, but it was his second straight season in the 120s. The 35-year-old has nearly 2,600 innings to his name and has had plenty of nagging ailments over the last two seasons.
On the plus side, Dustin May is back and healthy after throwing just 74 innings across multiple levels in 2021-22. I do like buying in on pitchers who went from being injured to returning late in the season because they get a full off-season with a fresh arm to prep for the upcoming year. That being said, May has pitched 130 innings over the last three seasons and he goes into his age-25 season with promise, but probably some restrictions or innings limits.
Julio Urias surprised me by staying healthy through his 2022 season after working 185.2 innings in 2021. The Dodgers were extremely careful with him from 2016-19, but have decided the last two seasons that he’s good to go without limitation. I will say that he had a 2.16 ERA with a 3.71 FIP last season and the projection systems are pretty low on him across the board. I’m not really buying a huge decrease in production and have no reason to, but I guess the possibility is out there.
The Dodgers added Noah Syndergaard in free agency after a pretty solid 2022 with a 3.94 ERA and a 3.83 FIP. He pitches to a lot of contact, but I guess the Dodgers could be a good place to regain some strikeout upside. Syndergaard and Ryan Pepiot likely fill out the rotation with Gonsolin hurt, but the Dodgers have top-60 prospects Bobby Miller and Gavin Stone waiting in the wings. Pitching depth is never really a worry with this organization.
Let’s talk about the bullpen for a minute before I get to the real crux of the issue with the Dodgers. This was the league’s top bullpen by fWAR with a group that was second in ERA and second in FIP. Evan Phillips led all relievers with a 1.14 ERA and a 1.94 FIP. This is a pen with only one addition (Shelby Miller), so most of last year’s guys are back. Craig Kimbrel and David Price are the only notable losses, but I’ll assume we get more from Brusdar Graterol and others.
Alright, so let’s talk about the Dodgers' defense. The Dodgers had the highest Shift% in baseball last season at 52.4%. The next closest was the Astros at 50.4%. The Dodgers were second to the Astros in Shift% against left-handed hitters and second to the Blue Jays in Shift% against right-handed batters. It worked very effectively. The Dodgers have good defenders overall, but they were the most aggressive team in terms of defensive positioning and it paid dividends.
Their ERA-FIP discrepancy of -0.65 runs was far and away the highest in baseball. They had a 2.80 ERA and a 3.45 FIP. That FIP was second to the Astros, so they were still an elite pitching staff, but they had a .207 batting average against (lowest in MLB) and a .255 BABIP against (lowest in MLB by 13 points). Their 78.3% LOB% was the highest in baseball by more than 1% (Astros).
The Dodgers were still third in Hard Hit% against and led all of baseball in opponents’ pop up rate, so they do a tremendous job of keeping teams off-balance. I do think the shift ban could hurt them more defensively than other teams, along with some natural regression. When you get a team like this, you have a certain degree of nitpicking to try and bring them back to the pack a bit.
It’s just one of those cases where you start looking at strengths and weaknesses and notice more potential weaknesses than you could find in previous seasons and you have to think about the impact that has in the aggregate.
The Dodgers had losing records against four teams last season - Guardians, Mets, Phillies and Pirates. They were 1-2 against the Guardians, 3-4 against the Mets and Phillies and 1-5 against the Pirates. Baseball is a weird game. In another oddity, they were 54-22 against the NL West and their worst record was against the Rockies (11-8). Colorado finished 43 games behind the Dodgers.
The Dodgers won 42 games by five or more runs and only lost eight games in that manner. They were 54-27 on the road and +190 in run differential. They were 57-24 at home and +144 in run differential. They only played 31 one-run games and went 16-15. They held teams to one or fewer runs in 50 of the 162 games.
Player to Watch
SP Dustin May: The projection systems are in lockstep on May, giving him an ERA somewhere around 3.60 and a FIP in that range or slightly higher. He has 143.2 innings to his name after debuting in 2019. We just assume coming back from Tommy John is no big deal in this day and age, but every pitcher is different. We’ll see how he takes to it, but I am having a tough time projecting my thoughts on him. He’s been an extreme ground ball guy, so that is a question mark in a post-shift world. He’s had good walk rates throughout his career and respectable strikeout numbers, but not really as many punchies as you’d expect throwing nearly triple digits.
He has a high floor with premium velo and good secondaries, but I wonder what his ceiling actually is.
Los Angeles Dodgers Win Total Pick
I have to admit, it was kind of challenging to get through this write-up. Normally I’m excited to dig into teams and try to find some cool nuggets of info or players of note, but the Dodgers are just boring. Winning at this kind of rate is boring to me. I like chaos. I like variance. I like teams on the rise or teams on the decline. The Dodgers don’t really have a wide range of outcomes. Even with some losses and some potential red flags, it would still be shocking to see them miss the playoffs.
The division is more up for grabs than it has been in a while thanks to all of the additions that the Padres have made in the last 18-24 months, so that will be a fun race to watch. The Dodgers won’t win the NL West by 22 games this season. I don’t think they’ll win five more games than any other team in baseball or 10 more games than any other NL team. But, their win total at 95.5 doesn’t really yield a valuable bet one way or the other.
The Dodgers have won at least 106 games in each of the last three full seasons. They only won 92 in 2018, but they had a Pythagorean Win-Loss record of 101-61, so they just fell on the wrong side of variance. They were 104-58 in 2017. I don’t think this team is as good as previous versions, but I sure as hell don’t think they’re 15 games worse than last season or that much worse than the last five versions. This is just a pick for the article. I’m not betting anything preseason with this team.
Lean: Over 95.5