As we begin to ramp up spring training throughout Florida (Grapefruit League) and Arizona (Cactus League), another rite of spring is making the rounds — namely, the win/loss projections of all 30 teams.
Obviously, the topic is one that can generate deep debates, but the fact is that those totals are backed up by the smart money prognosticators out in Las Vegas, and the analytical revolution that has taken over the game in the past decade echoes the smart guys in the gaming world. Truth be told, those picks have become more and more similar as the analytical revolution has taken root, which means both parties have really come to many of the same conclusions because they probably have pretty similar mathematical data that they feed into computers.
So, I am not really here to rain on the projections parade, but one number really looks pretty astounding. PECOTA and the Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill have the Los Angeles Dodgers as the solo pick to win more than 100 games in 2021. PECOTA has the Dodgers at 104-58, while the William Hill over/under win total for the Dodgers stands tall at 104.5.
While the Dodgers are my No. 1 pick as well, this total was a real eye-opener for me and forced me to dig into why these experts see Dodgers winning seven more games than division-rival San Diego, which is projected to win 95 games by PECOTA. The William Hill numbers are even more shocking to me. The Dodgers’ over/under number of 104.5 is 12.5 more than the Padres, who come in at an over/under number of 92.
One thing — for a long 162-game season, this newly-minted rivalry will see these two teams play seven of their 19 head-to-head games in April.
It’s funny. I get the favored status of the team that has proven themselves with a much longer track record of success than the challenger. And the reality is that the two past seasons, PECOTA has had egg on its face. In 2019, PECOTA projected the Dodgers to go 95-67, only to see them win 11 more than that and tally 106 wins. Then PECOTA went with 38 wins last season in the 60-game season, only to see the Dodgers win five more in going 43-17.
But while the Dodgers’ pickup of Trevor Bauer is a major move and should give the Dodgers a lot of credibility in the numbers game, the Dodgers’ starting rotation also gets back another former Cy Young Award winner in David Price.
Now let’s talk about the very soon to be 33-year-old Clayton Kershaw, who is clearly a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer once he is out of the game for five seasons. At one time, he was almost lock to start 33 games and pitch well more than 220 innings, but he averaged 166 innings from 2016-2019 and threw just 58.1 innings last season, which works against him jumping back to 150-plus innings this season. His 58.1 innings in 10 starts last season speak to his diminishing finishing kick. He doesn’t get past the sixth inning very often these days.
And, of course, there’s Walker Buehler. The 26-year-old right-hander allowed just five runs in 25 postseason innings last fall and is expected to help anchor the Dodgers’ rotation.
After that starting four, the Dodgers possess several dynamic arms that bridge the Dodgers to the eighth or ninth. While Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin and Julio Urias are not fixtures in the rotation at Chavez Ravine, each one would be the No. 2 starter for a lot of teams. They may just be used to shorten the starts of both Price and Kershaw.
The one fly in the Dodgers’ 100-plus win ointment is the aging Kenley Jansen as closer. At one time, the big guy was a lockdown late inning arm. From the time he took over the role as the Dodgers’ late-inning guy in 2012, he has saved 303 games.
But for a guy who at one time routinely had ERAs in the 1.80-2.50 range each season, his past three seasons have seen him go from 3.01 to 3.71 to 3.33. The culprit in 2018 and 2019 was the home-run ball. From 2012-2017, Jansen threw 396.1 innings and gave up just 32 homers — which figures out to one homer every 12.1 innings. However, between 2018 and 2019, Jansen threw 134.2 innings and gave up 22 homers, which figures out to one every 6.0 innings. Accordingly, his strikeouts have been in decline during the past three seasons. The good news is that in 2020, he did give up just two homers in 24.1 innings.
While young Brusdar Graterol and Blake Treinen are insurance policies if Jansen’s slippage is still a thing in 2021, it seems surprising that the Dodgers didn’t have more interest in shoring up the last inning of their games.
I am not sure the Dodgers will win 104 games, and I doubt very seriously they’ll be 12.5 wins better than the Padres, but if they win the season series against the Padres, they should have enough breathing room to win the division by four or five games.