Are the 2017 Los Angeles Dodgers better than the 2001 Seattle Mariners? Well, they’d better hope so.
The 2001 Mariners are one of the biggest stories of missed opportunity in modern sports. Unlike, say, the early ’90s Buffalo Bills in football, no one seriously suggests the team was cursed or fundamentally flawed in some mental way. The early-2000s Mariners were simply a very good team that had the misfortune to be playing at the same time as the most recent Yankees dynasty. But the 2001 team was different and more special than the 90-some win Seattle teams that bookended it, and 2001 was supposed to be their year — how could it not be, when the Mariners won 116 games in the regular season?
The answer, of course, is that after the Cleveland Indians took them to five games in the divisional round, the Mariners were nearly swept out of the American League Championship Series by the aforementioned New York Yankees, 4-1, with one blowout win against Orlando Hernandez being the extent of the fight they put up. Seattle scored eight runs total in the four games they lost, at the height of the steroid era in baseball.
This is not held up as some tragic flaw on the part of the team, but as the concentrated essence of playoff baseball — any playoff team can win any individual playoff series, and the Yankees were both a 95-win team in 2001 and the defending World Series champions. So while the Mariners went into the postseason as favorites — some writers and fans were definitely crowing afterward about how the Yankees should have been the favorites in the series all along due to their playoff experience, mystique and moxie — when people invoke the ghost of the 2001 Mariners, they’re saying anything can happen in the postseason, not that winning 116 games in the regular season is bad.
Since the Dodgers are on pace to win 115 or so games in the regular season, however, it’s worth comparing the two. How similar are they? Do the Dodgers have the pieces to win in the postseason when the Mariners did not? Is it important that the 2001 Mariners overperformed their pythagorian win-loss record by seven games, while the 2017 Dodgers are overperforming it by only two games?
First, assuming a healthy Clayton Kershaw, this year’s Dodgers would appear to be much better positioned for the playoffs than the Mariners were. The best starting pitcher on the Mariners’ staff in 2001 was a very good Freddy Garcia, who isn’t one of the best four or five starting pitchers to ever play Major League Baseball. But Kershaw being healthy is a big caveat, if only for the reason that currently he’s not. Without Kershaw, the staff ace for Los Angeles is the still-excellent Yu Darvish, recently acquired from Texas, but he’s much closer to the 2001 Garcia in this conversation than he is to Kershaw.
The 2017 Dodgers have a better bullpen than the 2001 Mariners did as well. Not only do they have the best starter in baseball in Kershaw, they have the best closer in baseball in Kenley Janson. But what tripped up the 2001 Mariners in the end wasn’t their pitching. Their pitching served them well in the 2001 postseason until the elimination game against the Yankees. The Mariners lost that series because their bats went silent.
And the 2001 Mariners had some excellent bats: Bret Boone had the best single season of his career, and Edgar Martinez was his usual elite self. Both Mike Cameron and Ichiro Suzuki were less obvious at the plate, but they were so good defensively that both were 6-plus WAR players. John Olerud had an excellent, steady season at first base, and Mark McLemore had a super-utility season for the ages, the best single season of his career, putting up a 115 OPS+ in almost 500 PA across every single position on the diamond except first base, pitcher and catcher.
Boone was the only one of those guys who hit in the series against the Yankees. Martinez was a complete non-factor; after Boone, the next most important contributors were Jay Buhner and Al Martin. No one else on the Mariners managed an OPS of even .700. That’s what happens sometimes when you run into elite pitching.
Can the Dodgers stop that from happening to them? They’ve got better bats all around, certainly. Justin Turner is roughly matching Martinez’s output while playing the field, and Cody Bellinger, Chris Taylor and Corey Seager are right behind him, all with a 140 OPS+ or greater. The only below-average starting bat on the team is Chase Utley’s, and he’s real close to league average with a 96 OPS+. The Mariners might have the more impressive accomplishment — the 2001 American League had far fewer teams openly collapse than the 2017 National League, and some of these stats the 2017 Dodgers have are from beating up on absolutely inferior competition to a degree the 2001 Mariners were not permitted — but the Dodgers are the better team on paper.
But the lesson of the 2001 Mariners wasn’t that they needed a few more good hitters, or needed Garcia to be a better ace. The lesson of those Mariners is that anything can happen in a playoff series. So while the Dodgers will go into the playoffs as the odds-on favorite, they’ll want to watch their backs — and, if history is interested in repeating itself, maybe watch out for the Chicago Cubs.
By Jonathan Bernhardt