For the fifth year in a row, PECOTA is projecting the Dodgers to be the best team in baseball even though they haven’t changed that much. The most obvious thing in their favour will be the likelihood that they will suffer a much less injury-ravaged season than last year. This graphic is from a 2016 Hardball Times article by Jeff Zimmerman.
With so much batting depth, a quality pitch-framing catcher and strength throughout the rotation and bullpen, even if they perform at a similar level they will improve if they stay slightly healthier this year. I think they will improve a lot, however, for a few key reasons.
Firstly, Clayton Kershaw is going to improve. In 2016 the Dodgers were robbed of 83 innings of Kershaw compared to 2015 when he pitched 232. In 108 innings pitched in the 16 games before he started feeling back pain against the Pirates on 26 June his ERA was just 1.57. The scary thing is it looks like Kershaw is getting better. Only once since 2012 has his ERA not dropped year on year (2015 – it was a not-too-shabby 2.13 and he compensated with a career high 301 strikeouts that year) and his WHIP is down to elite closer level. Even he doesn’t get much better in 2017 the Dodgers would happily take more of the same over 230 innings as opposed to barely half that. In addition, he silenced any remaining doubters last season, repeating his 2013 heroics by starting on three days rest in the NLDS with the Dodgers facing elimination and leaving the game with the Nats level in the seventh inning after throwing 110 pitches. They’ll likely come up against the Cubs again in the NLCS Kershaw’s ability to influence postseason games will be key to the Dodgers success.
Secondly, the rest of the rotation is going to improve. Kenta Maeda started 2016 very strong with a sub-3 ERA before the All-Star break but struggled a bit afterwards. I think he tired a bit in the second half as he adjusted to pitching every 5th game instead of once a week as per his career in Japan, and he needs to improve his control over hitters who have got used to seeing his stuff – he gave up an OPS of .886 the third time through the order. The Dodgers will also benefit from at least twice as much Urias and Hill in 2017 after they pitched just 111 innings combined last year – that’s bad news for opposing bats.
Thirdly, Joc Pederson is going to improve. Power has never been a problem for Pederson but he has always struck out a lot too. In 2016 managed to increase his ISO 43 points to .249 (putting him in the same power class as Anthony Rizzo, Miguel Cabrera and last season’s Giancarlo Stanton) whilst reducing his strikeout percentage too. He’s not yet 25, and marginal improvement on the same curve in 2017, combined with increased playing time and 500+ plate appearances will put him firmly in the 30-35 HR bracket.
Fourthly, Corey Seager is going to improve. After hitting 17 home runs and with an OPS rising to 1.085 before the All-Star break, there was a slight tailing off in the last two months of the season, perhaps due to facing pitchers who had a better idea of how to deal with his stuff. He will be the Dodgers most productive hitter this year regardless but with even a minor improvement and by performing close to the heights he reached in June on a consistent level throughout the season he will accumulate more than the 7.5 WAR from 2016 and consolidate his position as an elite level talent.
Throw in a potential come back season for Yasiel Puig, who finished 2016 very strong after a woeful start, and Justin Turner getting close to 6 WAR again and you have a number of reasons why the Dodgers will win 100 games this year.