Image courtesy of Wally Skalij, The Los Angeles Times.
By: Michael Porter
After 2019 yielded yet another premature postseason exit, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and their seven consecutive division titles, once again found themselves in a “World Series or bust” predicament coming into the abbreviated 2020 Major League season. Despite playing in the Fall Classic in two of the prior three seasons, and wreaking havoc on the National League West for the better part of a decade, the coveted World Series trophy had yet to return to Los Angeles.
The team’s star-studded lineup was bolstered even more in February when they shocked the baseball world and swung a trade for 2018 American League MVP and World Series champion Mookie Betts. Los Angeles looked truly unbeatable, and the thought of 2019 National League MVP Cody Bellinger sharing an outfield with a player of Betts’ caliber quickly became a nightmare for opposing teams.
While the prolific Betts certainly helped his new team cruise to an eighth straight division title, his acquisition did not change the Dodgers’ expectations. Prior to the trade with Boston, Los Angeles was already among the favorites to win the World Series, and their offense was already one of the best in the game.
Bellinger’s MVP followup campaign was underwhelming to say the least. While the outfielder did manage to heat up down the stretch, his overall numbers leave much to be desired. The same could be said about fellow slugger Max Muncy, who limped through the worst overall season of his five year career. Muncy and Bellinger’s combined .216/.332/.422 triple slash pales in comparison to the .278/.390/.572 line that the duo produced in 2019, however several of their teammates were able to pick up the slack.
Outfielder AJ Pollock had a tremendous bounce-back season as he posted the highest OPS of his nine year career, and catcher Will Smith exploded for his best offensive showing at the big league level (albeit in an injury shortened span). The club additionally received admirable production from the left side of their infield as shortstop Corey Seager and ageless third baseman Justin Turner batted an identical .307. The depth of the Dodgers’ lineup carried this team, as utility men Enrique Hernandez and Chris Taylor added to their track records of above average play in part-time roles. While some of Los Angeles’ regular season dominance is owed to their bats, it was their pitching staff that has fueled their climb to the top.
Franchise icon Clayton Kershaw bounced back from an injury-marred 2019 campaign in a big way. While the left hander was hardly ineffective during the prior campaign, he returned to ace form in 2020, posting a 2.16 earned run average and fanning 62 batters in his ten starts. Behind Kershaw, youngsters Dustin May and Julio Urias were lights-out in their combined 111 innings of work and budding ace Walker Buehler righted the ship after a worrisome start to his season.
Second year hurler Tony Gonsolin became one of the true unsung heroes of this National League pennant-winning team. After Los Angeles shipped Ross Stripling to Toronto just before the trade deadline, Gonsolin was slotted into the rotation. The right hander went on to twirl 46.2 innings of 2.31 ERA ball and seemingly took the hill every time the club was down a man.
The Dodgers success clearly came at a price, as the organization ranks near the top in overall payroll on an annual basis. After cruising through the postseason, Los Angeles has just one more obstacle to tackle: The Tampa Bay Rays.
Unlike their Fall Classic opponent, the Rays are as frugal is it comes. Tampa currently resides on the opposite end of the Major League payroll chart and yet somehow finds a way to compete every year. In 2020, the club claimed their first American League East title in a decade and did so by dominating their divisional rivals all season long. The Rays do not rely on “out slugging” their opposition, in fact, their 80 regular season home runs ranked 14th in the sport and sit nearly 40 behind their World Series opponent. So what makes this club so special?
The Rays do everything that a good team is supposed to do. Their offense knows how to string together hits and move runners on the basepaths and their defense is downright impeccable. Unlike the Dodgers, it is difficult to look at Tampa’s starting lineup and pick a “team MVP” because this group plays together and creates opportunities for one another.
If there is individual offensive credit that is due, it 100% goes to emerging star Brandon Lowe. After finishing third in the American League Rookie of the Year voting just a season ago, Lowe became a mainstay in the middle of Tampa Bay’s lineup. He slashed .269/.362/.554 with a team-high 14 home runs and 37 runs batted in. Lowe’s defensive versatility also adds to his value as he can adequately slot in at first, second or in the outfield.
Infielder Yandy Diaz was able to build off of his breakout 2019 campaign as his .428 on base percentage and .307 batting average would have ranked first and seventh respectively if he had enough at-bats to qualify. Outside of this duo, and maybe utilityman Joey Wendle, there aren’t many eye opening slash lines in this lineup.
On the other side of the ball, the Rays boast a fearsome pitching staff that is led by 2018 American League CY Young Award recipient Blake Snell. The lefty returned to form after a down 2019 and pitched to the tune of a 3.24 ERA and 11.3 SO/9 over his 50 innings of work.
Number two starter Charlie Morton helped carry Tampa through their postseason battles with the Yankees and Astros as his three pre-World Series starts proved to be absolutely vital. The 2019 CY Young Award finalist delivered 15.2 brilliant innings during the ALDS and ALCS in which he allowed just one earned run.