In his first four seasons as manager, Dave Roberts has watched his Dodgers win the National League West title every year, advance to the NL Championship Series three times, and go to the World Series twice. They fell one win short of a championship in 2017 and won a franchise-record 106 games in 2019.
But he thinks the 2020 team, the one that dominated a truncated 60-game regular season and plowed through two playoffs opponents to another NL Championship Series, is the best equipped to be the last one standing.
“We’ve obviously had a lot of talent here over the years that I’ve been here,” Roberts said after the Dodgers completed a three-game sweep of the San Diego Padres in the NL Division Series on Thursday. “But I just think that in the first two series you saw what we’re capable of.”
Roberts has repeated that he believes this is the Dodgers’ deepest bullpen during his tenure even with Kenley Jansen’s noted struggles and the late-game uncertainty they’ve produced. But the offense, he said, is what makes this team better than the others.
The Dodgers scored the most runs in the majors during the regular season by clubbing the most home runs. Their 118 homers — 15 more than the Atlanta Braves, their NLCS opponent — generated 179 of their 349 runs. They slugged their way to a 43-17 record, the best in the sport.
But slugging doesn’t always transfer to October when the pitching is better. Putting the ball in play — and avoiding strikeouts — becomes vital. Championships are won stringing together hits and pressuring the opposing defense. Last postseason, the Dodgers offense failed.
The Dodgers struck out 64 times in their five-game NLDS loss to the Washington Nationals a year ago. They failed to make adjustments and the Nationals’ stable of elite starting pitchers dominated them. Making sure the offense didn’t falter again in October was a top priority this season.
“We have to understand what we can do that night,” Dodgers co-hitting coach Brant Brown said near the end of the regular season. “And if it’s a night that we can slug, that’s great. We do that well. But, also, if it’s a night where we have to manufacture runs and really check down our swings a little bit, and single them to death, I think that this year we’ve done a better job of doing that.”
So far, they’ve done a better job in the playoffs, too.
The Dodgers are 5-0 this postseason despite hitting just two home runs. Globe Life Field and its huge dimensions could’ve choked the offense, but the Dodgers adjusted and scored 23 runs with 20 walks, 20 singles, seven double, one triple, and just one home run during their three-game sweep of the Padres. They faced 14 different pitchers in three nights and struck out 22 times.
“Everyone wants to be the hero and get the hits,” Roberts said. “But taking what the pitcher gives you and taking your walks and creating stress — when we’re at our best, we do that. And that’s what we’ve done all throughout the lineup.”
The most obvious difference is Mookie Betts is in the lineup now. The star right fielder was acquired for October. He impacts the game in multiple ways — one being his ability to make contact and put pressure on the other team. Betts’ 13% career strikeout rate is the 12th-lowest among hitters with at least 3,000 plate appearances since he broke into the majors in 2014.
The addition is paying dividends when it matters most. Betts is 7 for 19 with five doubles and three walks in the playoffs. He broke up the Padres’ no-hitter in Game 1 with a double in the sixth inning. The next night, he recorded two hits and was the mastermind behind the Dodgers’ crucial double steal in the seventh inning. The decision ultimately netted the Dodgers two runs in a one-run win.
“Mookie is certainly a part of it, but it still takes, right now, this year, 27 other guys still to do their part,” Roberts said. “He’s really impacted on the hitting side, understanding the value of winning 90 feet, controlling the strike zone. We talk about it, but when a player of his magnitude talks about it as well, echoes it and does it in every at-bat, every game, it certainly goes a long way.”
His team’s improvement in controlling the strike zone — to run up pitch counts, to force pitchers to make quality pitches, to create stress — is the reason Roberts thinks this is the best team he’s managed. The starting rotation is deep. The bullpen boasts options. But the offense is the difference. And if the Dodgers score enough for eight more wins, there will be no doubt this is their best team in recent memory.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.