The Dodgers Are Back in Contention Thanks to a Host of Unlikely Contributors

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After enduring a brutal start to the season, the Dodgers are slowly but surely crawling out of their grave. With a three-game sweep of the Rockies to begin June, Los Angeles has moved to within a game of .500 at 29–30 and two games of the first-place Diamondbacks—the closest the team’s been to either mark since the first week of the season. Since the start of May, the Dodgers are now 17–14, taking advantage of chaos across the NL West to keep their playoff dreams alive—and they’re doing it thanks to contributions not from their regular cast of stars, but from names you would’ve expected to find slumming it in Triple A.

Start with the lineup, where two players in particular are far outperforming even their most optimistic preseason predictions. One is Matt Kemp, back in Hollywood after three years in the baseball wilderness (otherwise known as San Diego and Atlanta). The former face of the franchise returned to the Dodgers in the offseason as part of a five-player salary dump and wasn’t expected to be a starter, if even hold down a roster spot, after a dismal 2017 in which he was worth -1.3 WAR for the Braves. Yet the 33-year-old Kemp has been raking as L.A.’s everyday leftfielder, with a scorching .344/.376/.572 line and a 158 OPS+ in 194 plate appearances. His resulting 1.7 WAR is second best on the team and 13th-highest among all NL outfielders.

What’s behind Kemp’s rebirth? Simply put, he’s hitting the ball with authority again. A ground-ball machine in Atlanta last year, he’s shaved that rate from 48.5% to 36.2 in 2018. Concordantly, he’s hitting more fly balls, upping that percentage from 28.2 last season to 37.6. His hard-hit percentage has taken a massive jump from 34.7% in 2017 to 48.2 this year; that latter figure is third best among all qualified hitters. And his launch angle, average exit velocity and percentage of barreled balls have all increased as well, via Statcast.

The most important number for Kemp, though, may be 1.4. That’s how many seconds he’s shaved off his average Sprint Speed, again per Statcast, going from 24.9 feet per second last year to 26.3 this season. That’s still a Usain Bolt-esque gap from league leaders like Byron Buxton (30.5) or Billy Hamilton (30.0), and his 26.3 is good only for 313th fastest among all hitters, tied with plodders like Ryan Zimmerman and Brandon Belt. But it’s a marked improvement from last year’s 510th-place finish, and a sign that Kemp’s offseason conditioning—he reportedly lost a ridiculous 40–50 pounds over the winter—is paying dividends.

It would’ve been a stretch to see this version of Kemp coming after his career looked finished thanks to injuries, but there was at least always the core of an MVP-caliber hitter in there. That’s not the case for the Dodgers’ other sudden star: Max Muncy. The 27-year-old corner infielder is as anonymous as it gets: A former fifth-round pick of the A’s in 2012 out of Baylor, he scuffled through two seasons as a part-time player in Oakland before getting cut at the end of spring training in ‘17. Picked up by the Dodgers, he spent all of that year in Triple A, mashing in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League (.309/.414/.491) but never getting a chance thanks to Los Angeles’ productive and crowded infield.

But with injuries to Justin Turner, Corey Seager and Logan Forsythe opening holes in that infield, Muncy was given his shot. And since getting called up on April 17, all he’s done is hit, slashing .243/.349/.551 with nine homers in 126 plate appearances and a 145 OPS+. Among all hitters with at least 120 trips to the plate, his 142 wRC+ is in the top 30 of the league and better than, among others, George Springer, Bryce Harper and Joey Votto. Most importantly, though, he’s been versatile, popping up at first, third and left and getting ready to add second base to that résumé as well. And while “Career minor leaguer shaped like a 1950s refrigerator hitting like Miguel Cabrera” doesn’t feel sustainable, he’s shown excellent patience at the plate—he rarely swings at pitches outside of the strike zone—and has a hard-hit rate that’s a smidge ahead of Mookie Betts and Mike Trout. Muncy, in other words, looks for strikes and then punishes them when he gets them.

Thanks to Kemp and Muncy, as well as resurgent campaigns from catcher Yasmani Grandal (a 124 OPS+ after a 101 mark last year) and centerfielder Joc Pederson (115, up from 96 in 2017) and continued production from last year’s breakout Chris Taylor (123 OPS+ and a team-high 2.1 WAR), the Dodgers’ offense has stayed afloat despite losing Seager for the year and Turner for most of it. That’s also helped paper over a sophomore slump from Cody Bellinger (down to a 95 OPS+ after hitting .180/.265/.390 in May), a slow showing from Yasiel Puig (.253/.318/.429 and a 105 OPS+), and virtually nothing from Forsythe and the superannuated Chase Utley at second base (OPS+ figures of 61 and 74, respectively).

But there’s been yeoman’s work done in the rotation, too, which has needed even more help than that piecemeal lineup. At the moment, four of the members of the team’s Opening Day rotation—Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, and Hyun-jin Ryu—are on the disabled list. Kershaw and Hill have combined for only 14 turns this season, with the former sidelined by biceps and back pain and the latter downed by pesky blisters. And the one starter left standing, lefty Alex Wood, has collapsed from last season’s spectacular 2.72 ERA and 152 ERA+ to 4.48 and 84, respectively.

The solutions there are as unexpected as Kemp and Muncy. Righty Walker Buehler was pressed into service after Ryu was lost to a torn groin muscle and has responded with a 2.74 ERA, 138 ERA+ and 50 strikeouts in 46 innings. Perhaps that’s no surprise, given that the 23-year-old former first-round pick opened the year as Los Angeles’ top prospect and No. 13 overall in Baseball America’s preseason rankings. But there’s no such explanation for his fellow rotation savior, Ross Stripling. A competent if unexciting long relief specialist last year, the 28-year-old righty was given a rotation spot in early May and has shined, with a 1.24 ERA over his last five starts and 29 innings. He’s struck out 40 in that span, too, and his overall strikeout rate of 30.1% is 12th best among all pitchers with 40 or more innings on the season, better than Steven Strasburg and Noah Syndergaard.

Stripling’s velocity is nothing special, at 91.9 mph on average, and his swinging-strike rate of 10.4% is good but not spectacular (and actually down from last season). Instead, he’s made his bones by pounding the strike zone: Only Cardinals righty Miles Mikolas has a higher rate of first-pitch strikes than Stripling. Once he gets ahead, that sets up his breaking pitches: a slider he drops on righties, and a curveball that works as a two-strike hammer. The latter in particular has been a nightmare for opposing hitters, with a .091 batting average against and a whiff rate of 46.8%.

With out-of-nowhere heroes like Stripling and Muncy leading the way, the Dodgers have been able to stay in the hunt for first in the NL West. That’s also thanks to the Diamondbacks and Rockies both limping through May. The former in particular wasted a golden chance to salt away the division early, going 8–19 and at one point losing 13 out of 14 thanks to an offense that scored just 2.8 runs per game on the month. Colorado, meanwhile, has been equally offensively inept, with a team OPS+ of 82, second worst in all of baseball.

So despite that awful April, the Dodgers are far from finished. Despite being below .500, Los Angeles carries the best odds to win the division (54.5%) and make the playoffs (62.9) by FanGraphs’ calculations. That latter number is a steep drop from the 94% the Dodgers were at before the season started, but the stats favor L.A., which has the best run differential in the West (+37; the D-Backs are the only other team above zero, at +21).

But the Dodgers still have plenty of work to do, and their margin for error remains thin. Seager is gone for the year, and Kershaw will be out likely until July after already missing a month. Bellinger has hit so poorly recently that there’ve been rumors of a demotion to Triple A in his future, and Turner has struggled since coming off the DL (.250/.307/.353 with just one home run). It may be up to the unlikely stars who’ve helped keep Los Angeles’ season alive to continue to keep up the pace, or else the Dodgers might well stumble back into that grave.

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