The gap between how the Dodgers performed last year and they’re dominating this year is a staggering one. The 2018 Dodgers, a historically bad offense in the clutch, matched the worst start in Los Angeles history. Even after acquiring Manny Machado, the offense remained sluggish and inconsistent. Sure, they hit a franchise record 235 homers, but that feast-or-famine approach also netted 1,436 strikeouts. It’s no surprise they were easily outmuscled by the far superior Boston Red Sox in the World Series.
This year, meanwhile, has the team off to one of the strongest starts in franchise history. As of this writing, they have the best record in MLB by a significant margin. The bullpen is the only weakness, and not only is that likely to be addressed soon, but it’s inadvertently a measure of their dominance. With even a decent bullpen, just imagine how many more wins they’d have.
When a team is that good, there are multiple reasons to cite. One factor is certainly the Yasiel Puig trade, which broke the outfield logjam, allowed Cody Bellinger to be an everyday player, and has made them more fundamentally sound. The health of the starting pitching is another, giving them the best rotation in the game bar none. Perhaps the thread that really ties it together is the motivation to avenge back-to-back World Series losses.
Yet I feel there is one thing above all that’s led to the Dodgers’ dominance in 2019.
Sources: The Dodgers plan to hire Robert Van Scoyoc as their new hitting coach. A 32-year-old LA native, Van Scoyoc is the Diamondbacks’ hitting strategist. He has worked as a consultant for the Dodgers and with the likes of J.D. Martinez and Chris Taylor. https://t.co/0lKqNVYTuO
— Pedro Moura (@pedromoura) November 26, 2018
That’s Robert Van Scoyoc succeeding Turner Ward as hitting coach after Ward departed for Cincinnati in the offseason. A new-age hitting guru who had never worked as an MLB hitting instructor before, Van Scoyoc nonetheless brought a vaunted reputation with him. Reigning World Series champion J.D. Martinez credits Van Scoyoc for teaching the mechanics that turned him from cast-off of a cellar-dwelling Astros team to an elite slugger in both leagues.
When Van Scoyoc was hired in December, I had a feeling it was going to be a difference-maker. This is not to dismiss the value of Ward, who coached back-to-back pennant winners. But it’s hard to overstate how atrocious the offense was in 2018. The reliance on home runs made them easy to neutralize, and their ineptitude with RISP remains ingrained in fans’ minds anytime the team leaves many on base in a game. Given the offense played so far below its ability, yet still managed to make it to the Fall Classic, it made sense to bring in a new coach to realize their potential.
So far, it’s a hiring that deserves widespread acclaim from Dodgers fans.
Van Scoyoc has given meticulous attention to every member of the lineup, analyzing which pitches were their weaknesses and working with them to fix their approach accordingly. Max Muncy has said he believes the offense is “a different animal than last year.”
The results can be seen on both an individual and collective basis. Most eminent is Cody Bellinger, on pace to become NL MVP. Team-wide, hitters are doing better on 2-strike counts, which Andrew Friedman has praised. They are working counts, advancing runners, and drawing lots of walks. All of this hasn’t compromised their home run capacity from last year, as they rank third behind the Minnesota Twins and Seattle Mariners for most HRs in all of baseball.
Best of all, Van Scoyoc is working his magic at a time when Dodger youth is ascendant. In addition to winning it all now, the team is manifesting its farm system to stay competitive for the long haul as well. While established players are tuning up their plate approach, young guns like Alex Verdugo and Will Smith are learning at the same time. Considering the Dodgers became the first team to have three straight walk-off HRs from rookies, it’s safe to say they’re learning right.