No team has repeated as World Series champion since the Yankees won three straight from 1998-2000. The Dodgers appeared set up to end that streak.
They played only 78 games last season including the playoffs, 98 fewer than the Red Sox did in 2018. Being worn out could not be an excuse.
The pandemic also kept players largely at home following the season as opposed to taking the advantage of the usual events, banquets, and commercial opportunities that emerge after a title.
The Dodgers then signed Trevor Bauer to improve what was already a dominant pitching staff.
But the dreaded World Series hangover hit Los Angeles anyway. As the season hit the quarter mark this weekend, the Dodgers were in third place in the National League West, having lost 15 of 20 at one point.
It’s the usual factors: injuries and underperformance.
Dustin May was lost for the season (and most of next) because of Tommy John surgery. Valuable reliever Corey Knebel won’t be back until deep into the summer because of a shoulder strain. Cody Bellinger has played only four games because of a fracture in his left leg.
Gavin Lux, David Price, Joe Kelly, and Brusdar Graterol also have been on the injured list.
The lineup has bounced back, but the bullpen is a glaring weakness. Dodgers relievers are averaging a modest 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings and have given up 11 homers, third most in the majors.
The Dodgers were 4-10 in one-run games going into the weekend as a result.
Manager Dave Roberts has acknowledged his team needs more urgency but still has plenty of time to return to form. Even with their issues, the Dodgers have never been more than three games out.
Clayton Kershaw was more direct.
“It doesn’t do anyone any good to think, ‘Oh, it’s a long season, it’s 162 games, and we’ll figure it out — we’re too good not to,’ ” he told reporters. “In my opinion, you figure it out right now.”
The 2019 Red Sox can attest to the futility of believing it will eventually happen.
Some other thoughts with the season a quarter over:
▪ Surprise teams — The Indians traded Francisco Lindor and have been no-hit twice. They also have the second-best record in the American League thanks to a player development system that churns out quality arms and the underappreciated talents of Jose Ramirez.
The Blue Jays have 15 at-bats from George Springer and started 20-16. The Red Sox count here, although we’ll see where they emerge as the schedule gets tougher.
The Athletics are never a surprise. But coming out of an 0-6 start to move into first place by April 21 was a feat even for them.
The Giants are playing smart and confident under Gabe Kapler. “One of the best-prepared teams I’ve watched,” an AL executive said. “They find advantages.”
Having Buster Posey’s leadership back in the clubhouse makes a big difference.
▪ Disappointing teams — The Twins preached process all spring. Now they badly need results after a 12-23 start. Byron Buxton was keeping them afloat before a strained hip put him on the injured list. He’s out for at least another month.
The Braves are fighting to stay out of last after winning the division three years in a row. Marcell Ozuna has given them little.
The Royals made some win-now moves in the offseason but have dropped back after a promising start. The Rays have been largely a .500 team coming off the World Series. Three building blocks from last season — Mike Brosseau, Willy Adames, and Manuel Margot — have struggled.
The top-heavy Angels are under .500 again despite offseason roster additions.
▪ Still the most intriguing team — Tony La Russa has had a few stumbles, but the White Sox have the best run differential in the game even without Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert.
Their lineup runs deep and Carlos Rodon, the definition of league average for six years, has suddenly become an ace.
▪ Some players on the rise — Rangers shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa plays every day, plays hard, and is fun to watch. He puts pressure on teams like a basketball player pressing the dribbler.
The Diamondbacks have raved about catcher Carson Kelly, who is having a breakout season. Cedric Mullins of the Orioles has learned how to hit lefthanders and is piling up extra-base hits.
Reds left fielder Jesse Winker looks like an All-Star as his power continues to emerge.
▪ Struggling stars — Joey Votto, who will one day make for a great Hall of Fame debate, has a .305 OBP and isn’t playing well defensively. Ozuna is struggling to stay over .200 after signing for $64 million. Braves teammate Charlie Morton has a 5.08 ERA. Luis Castillo started 1-5 with a 7.71 ERA for the Reds.
Miguel Cabrera was 0 for 9 when the Tigers were at Fenway, striking out three times and grounding into two double plays. His Albert Pujols moment isn’t here yet, but it’s going to come at some point as he struggles to get over .200.
Meanwhile, he’s on the books for $64 million from 2022-23.
Bogaerts and Devers covering ground
As almost all teams do, the Red Sox over-shift to the right side against lefthanded hitters. That leaves third baseman Rafael Devers playing where the shortstop would usually be, and shortstop Xander Bogaerts playing at what amounts to second base.
Maybe it’s because he has more time to react, but Devers looks at ease at shortstop. And Bogaerts has made a series of slick plays while on the other side of second base.
The Sox have even turned two double plays out of that alignment.
“Raffy likes shortstop. He likes it,” manager Alex Cora said. “He moves his feet. He works hard on it. I think he’s able to read swings and the hop. It’s a comfort level.”
During his playing career, Cora said he felt “handcuffed” at third base because the ball got on him so fast. That changes when an infielder moves over.
The Sox considered having Devers go to the right side of second base and leaving Bogaerts at shortstop. But their versatility didn’t make that necessary.
Devers being able to handle shortstop allows Bogaerts to play on the right side of second base. His range makes the shift more effective.
“Both of them are doing a good job. Raffy makes the routine play when he’s at shortstop,” Cora said.
A few other observations about the Red Sox:
▪ Second baseman Christian Arroyo, who was off to a good start, landed on the injured list because he was twice hit on the left hand by pitches.
Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr. missed time for the same reason. Kris Bryant and Michael Brantley also were drilled in the wrist.
As pitchers focus more on velocity than command, an increasing number of batters are being hit on the hands or wrists. It’s like they need hockey gloves at the plate.
“They have batting gloves that are safer. They have batting gloves that are padded,” J.D. Martinez said. “You see Arroyo, he’s got that whole hand guard. You can wear that; there’s guys that do it. But it’s uncomfortable. You’re putting something on that feels very stiff and jagged.”
For managers, it’s a constant worry.
“It’s where we’re at in the game,” Cora said. “It’s not about command, it’s about stuff. There are certain guys who can control their plus stuff. But there are others who throw as hard as possible for a short period of time and it doesn’t matter.
“It’s concerning. People like hard throwers and they’re rushing them to the major leagues.”
▪ With Tanner Houck recovering from what the Red Sox say is a minor flexor muscle issue, Matt Andriese and Garrett Whitlock are being built up for the possibility of starting.
Whitlock has worked five innings in his last two relief outings. Ideally, one will emerge as the “sixth” starter. But for now both are getting stretched out.
Nothing is more vital to a team than its rotation depth. But Andriese has faced 32 hitters in high-leverage situations this season and Whitlock 15. That’ll have to be replaced if they’re in long relief over time unless Cora uses them to go three innings to get to Matt Barnes.
Hirokazu Sawamura is a good candidate to pick up some of that burden, particularly if he can command his offspeed pitches and keep his fastball above launch-angled swings.
In terms of getting to know his new teammates, Sawamura has that handled. The Japanese candy Hi-Chew has opened doors.
“Hi-Chew is extremely popular in the clubhouse and bullpen and dugout,” Sawamura said. “Hi-Chew is the key for good communication.”
Hi-Chew was big with the Sox when Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara were around. It’s like a Starburst/chewing gum mash-up with a lot of interesting flavors.
▪ Mitch Moreland said he was in contract talks with the Sox right up until he signed with the Athletics for one year and $2.25 million.
“Stayed in touch with the Red Sox all the way through,” Moreland said. “Right there to the end. We definitely talked about it.”
Moreland hit .233 with a .704 OPS, 4 homers, and 15 RBIs through his first 29 games. The Red Sox had had a .604 OPS at first base through 39 games.
But while Moreland may have been an upgrade, the Sox were at a stage where they needed to see if Bobby Dalbec and now Michael Chavis were viable players.
▪ The Sox have 61 players in their player pool, nine short of the limit set by MLB to be eligible for this season. That encompasses the players in Boston and Worcester but doesn’t count Ryan Brasier and Chris Sale, who are in Florida.
The empty spots give the Sox options for midseason additions or players moving up to Triple A.
Stolen bases vanishing fast
Jacoby Ellsbury stole 70 bases for the Red Sox in 2009. Nobody has hit the mark in the majors since. Don’t expect that to change any time soon.
Mallex Smith led the majors with 46 in 2019. The leader this season, Whit Merrifield of the Royals, is on pace for 45.
There were 3,279 steals in 2011 and 2,474 in 2019. As teams incorporate analytics into game plans, stolen base attempts come only when the odds heavily favor the runner.
With pitchers learning to be quicker to the plate, that’s increasingly less often. Players also don’t want to risk injuries.
The “green light” is yellow at best and usually red.
“Good base running now is taking an extra base,” a scout said. “You don’t see many steals unless it’s an obvious situation. Players don’t run on their own.”
Through nearly a quarter of the season, the Astros, Mets, Reds, and Yankees had nine or fewer steals. The Padres, with 41 steals, are the team most aggressively running. Only eight teams had 20 or more.
MLB is trying rules changes in the minor leagues to encourage base stealing. Pitchers in High A are required to step off the rubber before attempting a pickoff. Low A pitchers are limited to two pickoff attempts. Triple A is trying larger, less slippery bases, which gives the runner a slight advantage.
It will take a while for the rules to get to the majors, if they get there at all.
Oswald Peraza, a 21-year-old Yankees shortstop prospect, stole eight bases in his first eight games for High A Hudson Valley. So maybe there’s hope.
The Rays, who can’t afford to make too many roster mistakes, made what for them was a whopper with utility player Yoshi Tsutsugo. He was designated for assignment Tuesday with $5.4 million remaining on his contract. Tsutsugo had a .628 OPS over 77 games after signing a two-year, $12 million deal before the 2020 season. The Rays also paid a $2.4 million posting fee to sign Tsutsugo away from the Yokohama Bay Stars. Tsutsugo hit for power (205 homers) and average (.281) in Japan but was overmatched by velocity in the United States . . . Gerrit Cole has five starts with 10 or more strikeouts and no walks this season. That’s already more than any pitcher for a season in Yankees history. He has struck out 78 with three walks in 52⅔ innings. Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes struck out 58 batters before walking his first batter. That’s a record within a season since the mound was moved back to 60 feet, 6 inches in 1893. When you hear players such as Bobby Dalbec talk about how difficult it has become to hit, this is what they mean . . . Weirdness: The Twins went into the weekend 12-12 in games that lasted nine innings and 0-11 in games that lasted seven innings or went to extra innings . . . Arnie Beyeler, a favorite of Nick Cafardo, notched his 1,000th victory managing in the minors. The milestone came Wednesday with the Double A Erie SeaWolves, a Tigers affiliate. Of those 1,000 wins, 585 came managing in the Red Sox organization from 2000-02 and 2007-12 . . . Remember the final series of the 2019 season when Mike Minor had a teammate drop a foul pop up so he could continue facing Chris Owings and get his 200th strikeout? The Red Sox took exception to Minor embarrassing their teammate and a few comments went back and forth. Minor is 3-8 with a 5.63 ERA since. As Warren Zevon once wrote, “Bad karma, comin’ after me.” . . . Hard to believe, yet true: John Means was the first Orioles pitcher to be named American League Player of the Week since August 1994, when Arthur Rhodes claimed the award . . . Northeastern went into the weekend with a 28-6 record and 18-game win streak. The Huskies start the CAA tournament on Wednesday bidding for their second NCAA Tournament appearance under Mike Glavine. Baseball America projects them as the third seed in a regional. Northeastern has good pitching and could be a tough out. UConn and Fairfield were the only other New England programs seen as having a good shot of advancing to the tournament . . . The next Hot Stove Cool Music event will be Tuesday at 7 p.m. Eddie Vedder headlines the virtual show with appearances from Yo-Yo Ma, Juliana Hatfield, Bill Janovitz, friend of the column Kay Hanley, Bronson Arroyo, and Bernie Williams. Go to ftbnl.org to purchase tickets. All proceeds benefit Theo and Paul Epstein’s Foundation To Be Named Later, which includes the Peter Gammons Scholars program . . . Happy birthday to Carlos Pena, who will be 43 on Monday. The former Haverhill High and Northeastern star played 14 seasons in the majors with eight teams, including the Red Sox for 18 games in 2006. Pena hit 286 homers, tied for 173rd all time. He is now an analyst for MLB Network and the Cubs’ Marquee Sports Network.