The Dodgers Don’t Need to Play the Percentages

There is a phrase in modern sports lingo that make no sense to Freddie Freeman: load management. The idea of sitting out now to stay strong later simply does not add up.

“You can be a five-tool player,” Freeman said on Tuesday, in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ dugout before a game at Citi Field. “But if you don’t have the sixth tool of playing every day, what’s the point of the first five tools?”

In the last five seasons, no major leaguer has played in as many games or collected as many hits as Freeman. The Dodgers were 50 games over .500, at 90-40, before a series at home against San Diego this weekend, and Freeman has a perfect attendance record in his first season for the team.

“Just sitting there and making money and doing nothing — I don’t understand that, and I will never wrap my mind around that,” Freeman said. “I’m about to be 33 in two weeks. My career is getting toward the end. Soon I’m not going to ever be able to play again. Why would I just take a day off now? I don’t comprehend that.”

Freeman’s presence and philosophy highlight an evolution in a franchise trying to win its fourth National League pennant in the last six seasons. The Dodgers have a steady lineup headed by superstar imports: Mookie Betts, Trea Turner and Freeman. It was not always this way.

Freeman has started at first base in every Dodgers game this season. The only change has come in the lineup, where he has batted second 80 times and third 51 times.Credit…Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

The Dodgers once chased matchup advantages with the fervor of Homer Simpson’s softball manager, Mr. Burns, who sat Darryl Strawberry against a lefty — It’s called playing the percentages — in a famous episode of “The Simpsons.” This is a team that gave every position player on the roster at least one start in the 2018 World Series, and batted Kiké Hernández third in the final game, even though he had not hit there since April.

Now the Dodgers have eight players with at least 400 plate appearances; no other division-leading team has as many. Freeman leads the N.L. in plate appearances for the second year in a row and brings quality to his quantity: a .322 average with a .901 on-base plus slugging percentage through Friday.

“In the past we’ve had more platoons and matching up, and I think at times it’s a good thing,” Manager Dave Roberts said. “Other times, you have guys that know their roles but they’re not playing consistently, so sometimes I’ve seen that as a cost.

“But when you can run out guys every day that are consistent — they have routines, they know they’re playing — there’s some benefit to that. And I guess we won’t know which one’s better ’til after this postseason.”

Betts, Turner and Freeman have all played for teams that beat the Dodgers in the postseason. Betts did it with Boston in 2018, Turner with Washington in 2019 and Freeman with Atlanta last fall. The Dodgers won the World Series in 2020, the year they acquired Betts in a trade with the Red Sox.

Turner is a throwback as a player who hits for a high average (.306 this year, .328 last year) and steals a lot of bases (223 over the last seven seasons).Credit…Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

Until then, the Dodgers had been prudent — for a powerhouse, anyway. Andrew Friedman, the team’s president of baseball operations, inherited the majors’ highest payroll after the 2014 season. But he needed several long-term deals to expire before making a seismic move of his own.

That came in July 2020, just before his first game with the Dodgers, when Betts signed a 12-year, $365 million contract. It dwarfed the combined value of the three most lucrative deals the Dodgers had previously given under Friedman (about $237 million in contract extensions for Clayton Kershaw, Justin Turner and Kenley Jansen), but the timing was right.

The talent was undeniable, too — as it was with Turner, who arrived in the 2021 trade that brought Max Scherzer for the stretch run, and Freeman, who signed a six-year, $162 million deal after his contract talks fizzled with the Braves.

“We have talked a lot about how strongly we believe against trying to build a team in free agency — but supplementing a really good core, I think, is a very effective strategy,” Friedman said. “There are things we tried in ’15, ’16 and ’17 that didn’t line up, but our payroll was still in a very transitory spot. We had a lot of guys coming off and young guys coming up, and we got to the point where we had a core in place and the ability to be a little bit more aggressive.

“So it was after ’19 where it was a very concerted effort, and that’s when we ended up trading for Mookie. Trea kind of came out of us looking for pitching. And then with Freddie, we talk about being by the backboard whenever a star player is available. Just be around the backboard — you never know what’s going to happen, you don’t know which way it’s going to kick. As opposed to turning around and running back up the court, we’ll stay around the backboard.”

The deals, you might say, have been slam dunks. Freeman, Turner and Betts all rank among the top 10 in the majors this season in total bases, with Freeman leading the majors in hits (165) and doubles (43) entering the weekend. Betts has matched his career high in homers (32), while Turner, who is eligible for free agency after the season, leads all N.L. shortstops in O.P.S., at .830.

Betts signed the largest contract in Dodgers history before the 2020 season and has delivered on expectations thanks to his all-out play.Credit…Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

The cost of all this is staggering. The Dodgers have the majors’ highest payroll, at $265.6 million, according to Spotrac, and their players understand the mandate that comes with the spending.

“It shows the dedication to wanting to win a world championship,” said Will Smith, who has quietly become one of baseball’s most productive catchers. “That’s what we’re all here to do, and you can motivate yourself in the off-season knowing that the front office is putting together a team that’s going to be World Series-caliber.”

The Dodgers have clearly gotten what they paid for: the best record in the sport, the most runs scored, the fewest runs allowed (despite a rash of pitching injuries), and the most paying fans. The team will cross the 3 million mark in attendance this weekend, and averages more than 48,000 fans per game.

Of course, everything will reset before long, and the Dodgers will soon have to prove themselves all over again. They cannot admire their spellbinding season for long. As their everyday first baseman can tell you, another game is coming right up.

“When the regular season is done, you can probably say we can be one of the best regular season teams there is,” Freeman said. “But that’s the key: it’s the regular season. We try to win every game, every single night, that’s just who we are — but once October hits, no one cares what your record is.”

Back to top button