Op-Ed

How great are the 2017 Dodgers?

When Rich Hill lost his no-hitter, and the game, in the 10th inning last week against the Pittsburgh Pirates, it was a rare setback for the 2017 Dodgers, who are having what could be a historic year. After 131 games, the team’s record stands at 91-40, for a winning percentage of .695. That projects to 113 wins over the course of a full 162-game campaign.

If the Dodgers can maintain such a pace, they will finish as one of the best regular season teams of all time. The major league record for victories in a season is 116, shared by the 2001 Seattle Mariners and the 1906 Chicago Cubs, and only four other teams (the 1909 Pirates, the 1927 and 1998 New York Yankees, and the 1954 Cleveland Indians) have ever won 110 or more games in a year.

The catch is that phrase “regular season,” which suggests one of the challenges the Dodgers are up against. According to ESPN, since 1995 only 3 of 11 teams with the best regular-season record have gone on to win the World Series. Among the also-rans? Those 2001 Mariners, who didn’t even make it to the fall classic, losing the American League Championship Series to the New York Yankees in five games.

The Mariners offer a cautionary lesson; the quest for a record-making season captivated their fans, but it left the players exhausted and stretched thin. ESPN quotes third baseman Bret Boone: “The grind and the scrutiny kind of beat us down.” The team is now something of a footnote, its achievement diminished by the failure to win a championship.

The Dodgers’ situation is somewhat different because the team is chasing a trio of legacies, not just one. Besides the major league mark, they are on track to surpass the 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers (105-49) for most wins in team history, and the 1974 squad (102-60) for the best record since moving to Los Angeles. That both of those teams went on to lose the World Series is one more indication of how elusive the standard of baseball greatness is.

Then there is the long — and distinct — history of California baseball, which extends back to the 19th century. The Dodgers are part of this also, playing not just to be among the best ever teams in the majors, but among the best ever in California as well.

Big league ball came to the West Coast, famously, when the Dodgers and the New York Giants deserted Brooklyn and Manhattan after the 1957 season. But they didn’t step into a baseball void. Between 1903 and 1956, the original Los Angeles Angels won the Pacific Coast League pennant 14 times. The 1934 team went 137-50 — a winning percentage of .733 — and is widely regarded as the greatest minor league team of all time.

How would the 2017 Dodgers stack up against the 1934 Angels? This is, of course, the sort of question baseball fans love, although it represents a false equivalency.

In the first place, baseball has changed a lot since the Angels (also known as the Seraphs — how I wish the current team would bring back that nickname) played at Wrigley Field, the 22,000-seat ballpark that opened in 1925 near 41st and Avalon. There are no videos, no film clips; nothing except statistics to fuel a comparison. The stars of that Angel team — including future Cubs all-star Frank Demaree, who hit 45 home runs and batted .383 — don’t linger in our memories.

And of course there’s the matter of major league versus minor league. The two can’t really be compared, even when the minor league in question is the PCL, which counted among its players Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. Before baseball’s westward expansion, the PCL sought to position itself as a third major league, and in 1952, it was given its own classification, between the majors and the highest minor league. Even at its peak, though, it was still a group of farm teams, which sent its best players on to the major leagues.

All the same, I think, we gain something from considering the Dodgers in that context, as not only part of their own history but also the state’s heritage

The Dodgers have played in California for a long time; this season marks the 60th since they left New York. Dodger Stadium has been their home for 11 years longer than they occupied legendary Ebbets Field. It’s irrelevant that the team took its name from the kids who ran in front of Brooklyn trolleys — “trolley dodgers,” they were called — just as it no longer matters that the Lakers’ name was inspired by the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota; these teams belong to Southern California now.

As for the 2017 Dodgers and the question of their achievement, let’s look again at Rich Hill. A journeyman, playing for his eighth team in 13 seasons, he became, in that game in Pittsburgh, only the 12th pitcher in major league history to throw a no-hitter through nine innings and still lose. What this suggests is that baseball greatness is fleeting and altogether unpredictable — and that will be true even for a team playing at the very top of its game.

Here’s another way to think about it. Those 1934 Angels lost close to 27% of the time; the 2017 Dodgers, so far, have lost a little more often than that. Failure, in other words, touches the most successful teams.

Meanwhile, there is always another game, another season, another layer added to the history of the sport. How great are these Dodgers? Only time — and perhaps not even that — will tell.

David L. Ulin is a contributing writer to Opinion.

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UPDATES:

Sept. 15: A previous version of this article had an incorrect list of teams with the best regular season records.

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