Editor’s Note: This is the Friday October 22nd issue of Inside the Dodgers newsletter from reporter JP Hoornstra. To receive the newsletter to your mailbox, register here.
The rules for making a postseason squad are as follows: teams receive 26 players per round, with the ability to change players between rounds without penalty. A wildcard game is considered a separate “round”. Since each streak can last no more than seven games, each squad is “fixed” for a short period of time. In this regard, the playoffs are very different from the regular season. After all, seven games are much less than 162.
The 2021 postseason served as a useful reminder of an old maxim: Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know. Justin Bruhl warmed up several times for the fifth game of the National League series on Thursday night, but then we didn’t know why he never left the bullpen. After that, Dave Roberts said that Brüel felt some soreness in his warm hand. Now Brul is hesitant to apply for games 6 and 7. The Dodgers are considering replacing the left-hander in the squad, which would end his season. (Substitution of players in the middle of an LCS round incurs such a penalty.)
Bruhl will be the third player to be replaced by the Dodgers at the NLCS center. Joe Kelly’s season ended with the first inning of the fifth game as he recorded two outs and then retired with bicep pain. Justin Turner’s season ended in Game 4 when he tensed his left hamstring. This is unusual in one respect: no team has had to replace more than one player in the middle of any playoff round.
But then, if you’ve been following the Dodgers for a while, it might not sound so strange. In the 2021 regular season, they used a franchise-record-breaking 61 players. Under baseball president Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ front office made the art of using a 40-man squad, whether by necessity (legal injuries) or by choice (promoting and releasing players, usually support staff pitchers, to keep the active squad fresh). For fans, especially casual fans, it can be difficult to keep track of such frequent line-up changes. I compared this earlier to the thought experiment “Ship of Theseus”: how many players on the opening day can be replaced while they are not the same team? Only the uniform binds the original group of Dodgers to the latter. At least that is sometimes the case.
The postseason is usually different. The Dodgers changed so rarely in October that a fan can look at the NL Division Series roster and expect it to resemble the World Series roster with one or two exceptions. This year? Forget it.
I guess this is due to the big leap forward from 78 games in 2020 (regular season and playoffs combined) to 173 games in 2021. This is, of course, an unverifiable hypothesis. There is no real experiment in which the Dodgers (and every team) play 162 matches in 2020. We can only assume that the current injury rate, “load management” maneuvers and substitutions in the postseason squad are not accidental. unusual circumstances of the past two years.
Regardless of the cause, the effect is the same. The names that made us ask “who?” when called up in the regular season, they now appear in the playoffs. I never thought Andy Burns would fight bats in Dodger uniform on October 21st, but he was in game five, the next player when Turner fell. David Price will be officially added to the NLCS on Saturday, replacing Kelly. Bruhl’s fate is unknown. Unless he is replaced by Mitch White, a nominally familiar name to fans over the past two seasons, his replacement is not obvious. Garrett Clevinger has not played in the Major Leagues since August 6, Darien Nunez since August 15, Victor Gonzalez since August 22. To be honest, I don’t know if any of them are healthy. They just weren’t there.
How badly did these injuries hurt the Dodgers? Again, the difficulty in answering this question is that we don’t know what we don’t know. Imagine that invisible “streaks of power” hang over each player, like in a video game, reflecting how close to full health each player is. Would you prefer Price or Kelly right now? Your answer will depend on what their invisible power bars show. Too bad they are invisible.
Every player on every team has an invisible power bar. It’s not often worth talking about – it’s true every year – but 2021 is an unusual season. The only safe assumption is that each player has some degree of injury. We just don’t know what the injury is, its severity, or how it might affect what we see on the pitch.
For the Dodgers, the injuries of Clayton Kershaw, Max Muncie, and now Turner, Kelly and Bruhl are tantamount to a wave of injuries washing over their strength bars at a particularly tough time. This bad luck, and the continuation of recent history, is an integral part of the history of the 2021 season for the Dodgers, no matter how it ends.
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