The last time the Dodgers won the World Series, in 1988, Kirk Gibson led the team with 25 home runs and won the National League Most Valuable Player award. The player with the next-highest home run total on the team was Mike Marshall, with 20. John Shelby was next on the club with 10.
It is safe to say that if the Dodgers return to the World Series this year, it won’t look the same.
More home runs were hit this year – 6,105 of them – than any season in baseball history. Giancarlo Stanton hit 59 by himself and might not be the National League’s MVP. The Dodgers contributed to the trend by hitting a franchise-record 221 home runs. Only one team in the National League playoff field, the Chicago Cubs, hit more.
The architect of those ’88 Dodgers, Fred Claire, has watched the rapid evolution of offense in awe.
“The change in the game has never been as dramatic as what it is right now, and more impacted by analytics and technology,” Claire said. “The understanding of launching balls is dramatic, as we’re seeing in those numbers.”
But how did baseball arrive at this point? And what does it mean for the Dodgers’ quest to return to the World Series?
Speaking before a September game at Dodger Stadium, Commissioner Rob Manfred pointed to three trends that contributed to baseball’s so-called “fly-ball revolution.”
“Like all professional sports, our athletes are bigger, stronger, faster,” Manfred said. “Number two, there’s been a huge change in the way young players are taught the game and in what’s tolerated and expected at the big league level. Two hundred strikeouts didn’t used to be tolerated. There wasn’t the emphasis on the home run. You see it in the way people swing now, the bigger uppercut swings. I think that explains some of it.
“The last thing I know for sure: the baseball. We have two independent labs that test it. We’ve been testing it on an ongoing basis. Rawlings tests it separately from us. Everybody’s test results are the same: The balls are within specifications. There is a flaw in the, ‘they’ve done something to the baseball’ theory. It’s a handmade product. … It’s not a complete explanation but it’s the best I can do for you.”
Setting aside the baseballs, and the possible consequences of how they’re made, a quick scan of the 2017 Dodgers bolsters Manfred’s theory.
Gibson weighed 215 pounds during his playing days. The Dodgers now list seven position players on their 40-man roster who are heavier, beginning with 240-pound outfielder Yasiel Puig. At 6-foot-3, Gibson looks up to 6-foot-4 first baseman Cody Bellinger and 6-4 shortstop Corey Seager.
Bellinger, who this year set a National League record with 39 home runs as a rookie, offers the perfect case study of how the modern hitter is developed.
Bellinger hit only one home run as a high school senior. The Dodgers tabbed him in the fourth round of the 2013 draft, and Bellinger proceeded to hit four home runs in 377 at-bats in Rookie ball.
Then in 2015, Bellinger hit 30 home runs with Class-A Rancho Cucamonga. Last year he hit 26 homers between Double-A and Triple-A.
The key was a change to his swing path. By adding lift, turning his chop into more of an uppercut, Bellinger’s swing underwent a transformation similar to those that worked for teammates Justin Turner and Chris Taylor.
“The aim of our player development hitting department was to get him to a launch position to enable him to consistently get to his most athletic swing,” Dodgers player development director Gabe Kapler said.
Cody’s father, Clay Bellinger, said his son added about 25 pounds since he graduated from high school. That helps too.
For his part, Clay Bellinger contributed six home runs toward the previous single-season record of 5,693, set in the year 2000. He believes that a good offense is a good offense, regardless of the era.
“But when you’re watching bad baseball and guys can’t get a bunt down – which used to be a part of the game – there’s situations where a bunt needs to be down,” Clay Bellinger said.
“Or a guy’s at second and (moving the runner up) is not even in his mind at all? That’s a little disheartening. Especially when you’re struggling to score runs, you need to go back to the basics. But if a guy’s never done it, it’s hard to do. It’s hard to tell a guy to bunt if he hasn’t done it in seven years.”
Therein lies a question for the Dodgers and every team still standing: Can the home-run-or-bust approach succeed in the postseason?
This felt like a bigger issue in 2015, when the Kansas City Royals won the World Series with an offense built around making contact. Measured by Isolated Power, which calculates the number of extra bases a player averages per at-bat, the Royals won a championship with baseball’s 20th-best offense. The year before, the eventual champion San Francisco Giants ranked 17th in Isolated Power.
Those Dodger teams boasted a relatively powerful middle of the lineup; they ranked in the top half of MLB in Isolated Power both years. But there was some question about whether their offense was too dependent on the home run when their percentage of runs driven in via homers jumped from 31.1 percent in 2014 (22nd in MLB) to 44.5 percent (fifth) in 2015.
That concern hasn’t been felt in 2017, mainly because the Dodgers are merely following a league-wide trend toward power. The Dodgers drove in 44.7 percent of their runs via the homer this season. Nine teams ranked ahead of them.
Echoing an adage, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts believes that pitching and run prevention still rule October – even as the Dodgers face potential NL Division Series games at Coors Field in Denver or Chase Field in Phoenix, both hitter-friendly parks.
“I think the home run, with the quality of pitching in the postseason, is curtailed,” he said. “Games are played a little closer.”
Minutes after Roberts spoke to reporters Tuesday, the New York Yankees hosted the Minnesota Twins in the American League wild card game. Both teams scored three runs within their first four batters. A total of three home runs were hit.
As Claire points out, it’s hard to forge any fast rules about kind of offense needed to win 11 games in October. It’s too small a sample size.
Besides, he said, in 1988 “it didn’t come down to one person being in the middle of that lineup. During the season, one night it’s Saxy (Steve Sax), one night it’s (Mike) Marshall. We didn’t rely on any one person to drive the offense.”
Yet each October moment is large enough that one home run can resonate for decades, time enough to bury the memory of every sacrifice bunt and bloop single. This year, that isn’t likely to change.
(Player pictures showing for 15+ HR) pic.twitter.com/FYJzEnts5z
— Daren Willman (@darenw) October 3, 2017