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The 2003 Los Angeles Dodgers had one of the greatest pitching staffs the game of baseball has ever known. At the height of the steroids era, in a season when 104 players would test positive for performance enhancing drugs, the Dodgers hurlers posted a 3.16 ERA, good enough for an insane 128 team ERA+, and in total allowed a ridiculously low 556 runs.

nomoKevin Brown, in one of the only good seasons the Dodgers got out of him during the course of the bone-headed 7-year, $105 million contract given to him by Kevin Malone, somehow remained on the field for 32 starts and 211 innings, posting a 2.39 ERA, and Hideo Nomo, in his second go-round with the Dodgers and in the twilight of his career, somehow located the fountain of youth and briefly recaptured his old greatness for one last, shining season, posting 16 victories and a 3.09 ERA.

But the real heart and soul of this team was its bullpen, which was simply the best bullpen I have ever seen. At a time when most teams were already relying on a rotating group of at least 7 relievers out of the pen at any given time, with the Dodgers amazingly gave almost all of their relief innings to only 5 relievers, and the same 5 guys, all season long.  Moreover, the top three relievers, by innings pitched, all posted ERAs in the 1′s.

Eric Gagne, in his single greatest season, and perhaps the greatest season ever by a relief pitcher, racked up 55 saves and posted a 1.20 ERA, while striking out 137 batters in 82.1 innings and posting an incomprehensible 0.69 WHIP. His ERA+ was 335, and he won the NL Cy Young award going away, with a 91% share of the votes. Meanwhile, Guillermo Mota added a 1.97 ERA in 105 innings, and Paul Quantrill chipped in with a 1.75 ERA in 77.1 innings of work. Even the “worst” reliever of the five, Tom Martin, posted an ERA of “only” 3.53 while striking out 51 batters in 51 innings.

So how did this team not even make the playoffs?  Well, in the very same year that the Dodgers had one of the greatest pitching staffs ever, they also posted one of the worst offensive performances in history, scoring a mere 574 runs, and wound up with a record of 85-77. This good enough for second place in the NL West, but was a distant 15.5 games behind the San Francisco Giants, who won 100 games that season behind Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent, and 6 games behind the wild-card Florida Marlins, who would go on to win the World Series.

The stunning lack of offense was actually quite sudden and bizarre, because over the previous three seasons, the Dodgers had averaged 756 runs, and they would average a very similar 755 runs over the following three seasons. But somehow, in 2003, every single hitter on the team had a down year, all at once, and whenever somebody was hitting well they immediately got hurt.

fredmcgriff01Rightfielder Shawn Green, who had hit 42 and 49 homers the previous two seasons, mysteriously hit only 19 homers in 2003, despite not missing any time, and would never be a power hitter again. Third baseman Adrian Beltre, who the very next season would bat .334 and post a 1.017 OPS, somehow only mustered marks of .240 and and .714. And the Dodgers’ big free agent signee, first baseman Fred McGriff, who had racked up 30 homers and 103 RBI with a healthy .858 OPS just the season before with the Cubs, suddenly aged about 30 years overnight, playing poor defense, losing all of his foot speed, and limping his way to a .249 batting average before the Dodgers finally allowed him to save some face by disabling him.

Outfielders Brian Jordan and Dave Roberts performed well early on, but both got hurt and never recovered, and the Dodgers couldn’t get any production out of fill-ins. Finally, in desperation, they traded three prospects to the Mets for Jeromy Burnitz, and signed Ricky Henderson, both on the same day, July 14. But Burnitz’s OPS, which had been a robust .925 with the Mets, immediately plummeted to .643 for the rest of the season once he entered the becursed Dodgers lineup, and Henderson, at age 44, had almost nothing left, batting .208 and only stealing 3 bases the rest of the way, in what would be the final major league games in his long and storied career.

The final results were dismal. The 2003 Dodgers had a .243 team batting average and a .303 team OBP.  They hit a mere 124 homers, and compiled a .294 team wOBA. Their 574 runs were by far the fewest in all of baseball, 17 runs fewer than the execrable Detroit Tigers, who had lost 119 games.  If the Dodgers had somehow been able to muster even replacement-level offense, they would have been a surefire playoff team, given their inconceivably good pitching, but instead, they were consigned to the dustbin of what-could-have-been.

5 Responses to “Teams That Were Almost Great: 2003 Los Angeles Dodgers”

  1. Burnitz and Henderson? Sounds like some NL West team had a case of big-name-itis, even back then!

    I’m curious, who were the three prospects the Dodgers traded?

  2. Nobody good, at least. The prospects were Jose Diaz, Victor Diaz, and Kole Strayhorn. The Diazes briefly made the majors, but Kole never did.

    The three were considered good enough at the time, however, that the Mets even threw money into the deal to offset part of Burnitz’s salary.

  3. You note “at the height of the steroid era,” then list the Dodgers’ pitching dominance. Wasn’t Eric Gagne, a pitcher, listed in the Mitchell report? Of the 104 players that tested positive for PEDs isn’t it possible a number of them were pitchers? People tend to assume that steroids and PEDs only benefitted hitters when they may have benefitted pitchers that used as much or even more than hitters.

    Small ball parks and juiced balls may have helped hitters more than PEDs. The Dodgers pitchers benefitted from having a home park that’s pitcher friendly and at the very least a closer that was chemically enhanced.

  4. Melissa, I don’t think Nick was passing judgment. He was just pointing out that the Dodgers pitchers’ dominance was even more impressive since they were playing during an era when guys were hitting 50-60 homers a season like it was no big deal.

  5. Yeah, Coley’s right. I’m 100 percent certain that Gagne was juicing, and I was even before the Mitchell report, but it was still impressive the performance he and the rest of the team put up, given the hitting context of the times. That’s why I cited the ERA-plus stats, which are neutralized for league and park.

    In my view it’s the same as saying that Barry Bond’s 73 homers was impressive. Yes, we hate Barry and yes, we know he was juicing, but even in that context, 73 homers was still…impressive.

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