How the Dodgers powered their way back into contention

Justin Lane/EPA

LOS ANGELES -- After the midway point came and went this weekend, these were the three names atop the Los Angeles Dodgers' leaderboard for Wins Above Replacement: Max Muncy, an afterthought who spent all of last season in Triple-A, Ross Stripling, projected to be nothing more than a long reliever, and Matt Kemp, who wasn't even supposed to be here.

Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers' president of baseball operations, chuckled at the thought.

"Yeah," he said, "exactly how we drew it up in spring training."

The truth is these Dodgers have hardly resembled the group Friedman and his front-office staff envisioned. The star shortstop, Corey Seager, is lost for the season. The ace, Clayton Kershaw, has made only half of his starts. The leader, Justin Turner, has been playing for less than seven weeks. The reigning National League Rookie of the Year, Cody Bellinger, is only starting to get going.

But the Dodgers are basically right where they need to be, sitting at 45-39, 1.5 games out of first place and in the thick of a competitive NL wild-card race despite recently losing two of three to the Colorado Rockies.

"As is always the case, when you're winning games, everything is manageable. Everything is a lot better," Friedman said. "When you're not, everything's a lot worse. So right now, we're managing pretty well, just based on the fact that we're playing well. And we're getting contributions from basically the entirety of our roster as we are adding guys back from the [disabled list], which I feel like bodes well for us if we look ahead. But to get to this point has certainly been an interesting path."

The low point is easily definable now. It came May 16. The Dodgers lost their sixth consecutive game that night -- four to the Cincinnati Reds and two to the Miami Marlins, two of the NL's worst teams -- and fell 10 games below .500. Their offense was underperforming, their rotation wasn't pitching deep enough into games, and their bullpen was a mess.

After that night's game, a 6-5 loss in Miami, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts summoned the words of Winston Churchill.

"If you're going through [hell], keep going," Roberts said last week, reciting the line with noticeable enthusiasm. "That's how dire it got."

Friedman found comfort on social media, of all places. He stumbled upon a tweet stating that the last time the Dodgers fell 10 games below .500, in 2013, they wound up winning the division by 11 games.

"It made me feel much better," Friedman said. "And really, from that point forward, we've obviously played much better."

The Dodgers are 29-13 since that fateful May 16 game, with a .690 win percentage that trails only that of the Seattle Mariners for the best in baseball. The Dodgers are first in OPS, third in ERA and second in run differential in that stretch.

Since 2000, the best pre-All-Star break record for a team that dipped 10 games below .500 is 48-41, accomplished by the 2016 Houston Astros. The Dodgers, who lost Game 7 of the World Series to the Astros last fall, will get there with four wins this week. But the bad times have not yet vanished from their memory.

"It was terrible," Stripling said. "You turn on these TVs, and it's everywhere. But I don't think anyone panicked. You just kind of knew with this roster, how talented it was, getting guys back, that we were going to get back to playing good baseball. But it was tough. You could feel the pressure. It was just, like, things that were bouncing our way and going our way last year just weren't going our way this year, and maybe we were starting to press, trying too hard, instead of letting it come to us. And finally, I don't know, it just clicked, for whatever reason."

It clicked because the likes of Muncy, Kemp, Chris Taylor and Kike Hernandez began to carry the load for an offense that wasn't getting enough from its stars. It clicked because Stripling, Kenta Maeda and top prospect Walker Buehler stepped up for a rotation without Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu. It clicked because Kenley Jansen shook off some rust and locked down the ninth inning, allowing others to settle in behind him.

It clicked, more than anything, because the Dodgers began to hit baseballs over fences at an abnormal rate.

The Dodgers belted 55 home runs in the month of June, a number that was more than double the output of 12 teams. It was the most in Dodgers history -- topping the 53 home runs they hit last June -- and it tied an NL record.

The long ball became an elixir for an ailing ballclub, one whose sudden emergence arrived with little explanation outside of this, from Roberts: "We're built to slug. That's just the way it is."

"Hitting is contagious" is how Dodgers hitting coach Turner Ward explained the sudden surge in home runs, repeating a popular baseball cliché. "It was as contagiously bad early in the season as it is contagiously good now."

On Friday afternoon, four hours before first pitch, Turner positioned himself in the batter's box at Dodger Stadium, and Ward stood about 25 feet in front of him, underhand-tossing baseballs from behind an "L" screen. Every ball Turner hit was lifted into the air and pulled into left field, and almost all of them traveled beyond the fence.

Ward goes through this drill with at least one of his hitters each day. The point, he says, is to emphasize finishing high with the swing path, an enduring message in an era dominated by a love for launch angles.

"Launch angle isn't about hitting home runs. It just gives you the best chance to get hits," Turner, who bought into the concept early, explained. "You take a guy like myself who doesn't run well -- if I hit a ball on the ground, and the fielder catches it, I'm out. So why would I practice hitting ground balls?"

Most of Turner's teammates feel similarly. The Dodgers' collective launch angle of 13.7 degrees is fifth-highest in the major leagues. They're tied for fourth in home runs, with 116, but they have swung at only 25 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, a better rate than any other club.

In other words, Dodgers hitters are consistently getting their pitches and hitting them hard, a simple concept that can be excruciatingly difficult to implement.

Friedman credited the team's coaches but also stated that there is "a selection bias at play."

"We're trading for or signing guys that have a strong ability to look over a baseball and impact one in the strike zone," he said. "There's not as much fostering of it on a daily basis because so much of it is innately what our guys do."

Friedman came over from the small-market Tampa Bay Rays with an outside expectation of attracting stars with a near-unlimited budget. But his four years with the Dodgers have been marked mostly by prudence and depth-building, which have led to an array of surprising contributions.

In 2015, it was Hernandez and Mike Bolsinger.

In 2016, it was Andrew Toles.

In 2017, it was Taylor and Brandon Morrow.

In 2018 ... well, take your pick.

Now, with the All-Star break nearing, the Dodgers are starting to round into form. Their position players -- minus Seager -- are all healthy. They could have as many as six solid starters once Buehler works his way back from a minor league assignment, with Ryu expected to return at some point in the second half.

They still need bullpen help -- a lot of bullpen help, some might say -- and perhaps another option at second base. Who knows, maybe they even snag Manny Machado.

But the Dodgers look good again, dangerous again. The team with baseball's fifth-highest payroll hit "rock bottom," to borrow a description from Friedman, then gradually climbed its way back on the strength of contributions from forgotten players.

Turner summed it up best: "Baseball's weird."