Why the dominant Dodgers are actually World Series underdogs

When researchers at Bowling Green State University asked students to root for one of two teams in a hypothetical best-of-seven series, 81 percent of the subjects chose the underdog. "Underdogs," the authors wrote, "receive support from the social value of equity."

My guess, then, is that there are a lot of pop-up Astros fans this week. It isn't that the Houston Astros are super long shots against the Los Angeles Dodgers, though oddsmakers do favor the Dodgers, who won more games in the regular season and have home-field advantage in this series. It's that the Dodgers might well trigger your equity instincts.

Sure, they're in the World Series because they're smart and they tried real hard, but they're also in the World Series because they're rich and spent more. They have the highest payroll in the league (by more than $40 million!), just as they have in each of the past four seasons. By one accounting of team payrolls, the Dodgers since 2013 have spent $150 million more on players than the Astros and Cubs combined. There's nothing remotely wrong with spending what you've got, but we crave equity. Now that the Dodgers outspend the Yankees, it's natural to slot them into the old "like rooting for U.S. Steel" bit.

But there's another way to think about the Dodgers: not as a brand or a trademark or a corporation but as a collection of Dodgers. Each Dodger is a person, and if they collectively form the whole -- the designer-brand laundry -- they also never stop being, principally, the individuals. And there is nothing inevitable about the individuals. There was at least one day in each one of these 25 lives when it probably seemed impossible that this would happen.

May 10, 2016

In late 2014, the Padres signed Brandon Morrow for one year and $2.5 million. Just a few weeks later, they signed Josh Johnson for one year and $1 million. At the time, the two moves were seen as almost a package: Both pitchers had once been very good then became defined mostly for being very hurt, and by signing the pair, the Padres were diluting the risk while betting on some unlikely upside.

These Good Or Hurt pitchers are fake-GM favorites, but they usually shed the Good label before they shed the Hurt. Josh Johnson faced exactly one batter in the Padres organization -- at High-A -- before undergoing his third Tommy John surgery. This is the outcome we expect, or what we should expect, after a half-dozen or more DL stints. Morrow, who hit the DL in each of his final four seasons as a Toronto Blue Jay -- with progressively serious ailments -- paid out only a little bit better for San Diego that season. He made five starts, all before May Day. He missed 155 days.

Morrow signed a minor league contract with San Diego that winter. He started the season in High-A Lake Elsinore. In six minor league starts, he had a 7.31 ERA, as batters across three levels hit .360/.416/.544 against him. Then, on May 10, he went on the disabled list for an undisclosed injury. He missed more than two months.

The Dodgers signed him to a minor league deal, and he started the season in Triple-A at 32 years old. He's now 33, and he's also now the second-best reliever in the World Series. By his 2017 FIP, he was one of the 25 most dominant relievers of the past century. There will come a moment in this World Series when a Dodger starter is teetering in the sixth inning. There will be runners on second and third with one out, and Morrow will come out of the bullpen to strike out the next two batters. And he'll probably do it.

Rooting for Brandon Morrow is not like rooting for Standard Oil.

June 20, 2003

It was the College World Series, and Justin Turner was a freshman shortstop. He was trying to lay down a bunt, but the shadows on the field made it hard to see the ball. As he told Andy McCullough years later, he "never saw the high fastball." The pitch hit him in the face. While he fell to the ground, his cleat caught, and he broke his ankle. "Blood smeared his batting gloves." When he reached the hospital, reports at the time said, his left cheek "grew to the size of a baseball."

The play was so gruesome that, for the rest of the summer, strangers who saw it recognized him and asked him about it. So Turner did what now seems unthinkable: He dyed his hair. Black.

"I tried to camouflage myself," he said. "It probably didn't look too good. My dad told me he was going to kick me out of the house if I didn't change it back."

There are any number of days after that when it would have been unimaginable that Turner would someday be the NLCS MVP and the best right-handed hitter on the best team in the National League. The Orioles waived him when he was 25; the Mets didn't offer him arbitration when he was 28. After that, he was unemployed deep into the winter, when, if the stories are to be believed, "then-coach Tim Wallach saw Turner at a Fullerton alumni game." Come on.

Even the next year, when Turner hit .340 in part-time play and the Dodgers made the postseason, he was sitting on the bench. He batted only twice.

Rooting for Justin Turner is not like rooting for ExxonMobil.

July 1, 2014

Most of the focus on Rich Hill's career path focuses -- fairly -- on Aug. 2, 2015, when Hill made his first start for the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League. He made $500 a week and, uhhh, peed in a bucket?

But for a variety of reasons, I think the furthest Rich Hill ever got from this Dodgers starting rotation actually came a year earlier, when Hill made his debut as an Angel.

Hill had just been acquired from the Red Sox for cash considerations, and the Angels had been cycling through unsuccessful relief acquisitions. Hill was called up in the ninth inning with a four-run lead against the Chicago White Sox that day. He faced three batters: The first singled, and the next two walked. Ten of his 14 pitches were balls. He was yanked without getting an out.

But that isn't where it gets bleakest. That was the first game of a doubleheader. Hill got called upon again in the second game, this time in the sixth inning with a one-run deficit. He faced one batter. He walked him! The final pitch was a wild pitch. Steve Stone, the White Sox color man, said, with far more significance in retrospect than it might have seemed in the moment: "And that's gonna be it for Hill." As Mike Scioscia walked to the mound, Hill stared at the ground.

He never threw another pitch for the Angels. That's where his career was at that point: A team with an absolutely awful bullpen would acquire him, watch him pitch for one day and then give up. The Angels went out and traded for Joe Thatcher, who is now retired. Hill is the only pitcher in history to pitch for the Angels without getting an out. He is historically significant to that franchise.

Then the Yankees briefly signed Hill, and then the Nationals briefly signed him, and then the Long Island Ducks briefly signed him, and then he became one of the 20 best starters in baseball. Normal baseball things. He's still going strong, so maybe someday he'll go back to the Angels and get some outs and remove himself from historic significance to that franchise.

In the meantime, though: Rooting for Rich Hill, even as a Dodger, is not like rooting for Microsoft.

Jan. 8, 1994

Joc Pederson has a brother named Tyger and a dad named Stu. A couple years ago, I saw Tyger play 51 games in the independent Pacific Association in Northern California. It's much, much, much farther down the baseball ladder than Rich Hill's Atlantic League. The Pacific Association has never produced a major leaguer; it got one guy as high as Double-A -- for two games.

Tyger Pederson was, honestly, one of the worst hitters in that league. The best team in that league traded him midseason to the worst team in the league, with the worst postgame spreads. He went. And the next year, he went back, until the worst team apparently released him. I don't know what he was getting paid, but the average in that league was about $600 a month. I always imagined it must have been extra hard to be T. Pederson, Pederson with a D, in that league. Everybody knew he was Joc's brother -- Joc's older brother. He was the one .200 hitter in the Pacific Association for whom everybody looked up to see him bat. He was a very, very visible .200 hitter.

But he hustled. He played hard. He kept going.

This makes some sense if you know about Stu Pederson. Stu was a minor leaguer -- in the affiliated minors -- for most of the 1980s and well into the 1990s. He batted almost 5,000 times as a minor leaguer; he celebrated his 32nd birthday as a minor leaguer. For this, he got five major league plate appearances as a Dodger, which were followed by seven more years of minor league buses. He made a nice little career out of it. In Syracuse, where he spent the final four-and-a-half seasons, he ran hard, and he became a sort of a cult figure. Fans would go "Stuuuuuu" when he batted. The club had megaphones so kids could go "Stuuuuuu," and there were T-shirts that said "Stuuuuuu." "Stu could be 0-for-4 and get a swinging bunt hit, and the crowd would go crazy for him," a Blue Jays exec told a reporter. There were editorials in the local paper when he was finally let go in spring 1993.

That was just a year after Joc was born and a few years after Tyger and their other brother, Champ, were born. Even with three young sons, Stu kept trying to play. He told reporters that he just loved playing baseball, but he also told them he still dreamed of getting a chance as a part-timer in the majors. "Butch Davis, a teammate from Syracuse last season, is older and won a spot with the Texas Rangers this season," one writer dutifully acknowledged. "He wonders, without bitterness, if at times he was in the wrong place at the wrong time during his career."

He kept working out, kept hoping for a call. Another year later, a writer caught up with him for a story about the hardships of minor league life. Even then, Stu Pederson, a month shy of 34 years old, "is hoping to return somewhere as a player." He never really did; the closest he came was as a replacement player for the A's in the 1995 spring training.

Has baseball ever been hard for Joc? I don't know. Great prep player, healthy signing bonus, minor league star, immediate success in the majors. But what we can deduce from his family is that, if it were hard, he wouldn't quit. Does a person need to be tested, does he need to demonstrate the positive quality, before the positive quality is in him, or can we give him credit for it whether or not it is ever required of him? I don't know! That sounds like a philosophy question! But here's what I think I know: I bet the only person in the world who wants a World Series ring for Joc more than Joc is Stu. And Stu always was the underdog. Stuuuuuu!

Rooting for Stuuuuuu is not like rooting for the inevitable.

Some particularly painful afternoon circa 1999

You could do this for just about every player on the team.

Austin Barnes isn't a catcher because that's what he always wanted to do; he's a catcher because, as a college infielder, he was stuck on the bench and "heard the clock ticking." Kenley Jansen isn't the world's best closer for any reason other than he came to America to be a catcher and failed. Yu Darvish came to America with the hype of inevitability, then gave up four runs, walked three and labored through 42 pitches in his very first inning. Lots of inevitables have failed, and for 20 minutes, Yu Darvish might have been one.

It's incredible how rarely we talk about Yasiel Puig's terrifying journey from Cuba -- it involves the Mexican cartel Los Zetas, being held captive, a daring nighttime escape and the clause, "If the four didn't want to die at the hands of Tomasito ..." Yasmani Grandal, we're told, got out of Cuba "the easy way": by winning a national lottery. Before that, he often went to bed hungry. "Leaving was about giving Yasmani opportunities," his mom said.

Chris Taylor started the season in the minors, and now he spends a good part of every day answering the same patronizing question from reporters: "How'd you get good?" Corey Seager was so nervous when he came up to the majors that he was scared somebody would hit the ball to him.

Curtis Granderson, a universally admired veteran in the productive decline of a great career, got traded to one of the best teams in history; he fell into the worst slump of his career and watched the team almost immediately collapse. He has never been farther from World Series glory than he is right now, this moment, when he's in the World Series. There's nothing inevitable about Curtis Granderson.

Then there's Clayton Kershaw, the high school kid who struck out every batter in a perfect game, the top draft pick who tore through the minors, who has been better than every batter he has faced (save, perhaps, one) for at least five years. I tried to find the moment when he was least likely to be a World Series star. It was, perhaps, when he was 10, and his parents divorced: "I was just so worried. I was so worried all the time. I had so much anxiety about my own life. I didn't know what to do on my own."

We root for sports narratives such as Hill's, such as Taylor's, such as Granderson's, that are bound up in the player's identity as a player -- which is odd, given that most of us quit playing when we were 15 and have almost no way of really, truly relating to those narratives.

Does that anxious, struggling, 10-year-old Kershaw still have a stake in this Kershaw's happiness? I don't know. There are questions about the permanence of self-identity that I can't answer. But I'd have a hard time telling that 10-year-old in Texas that a couple decades later, he'll be trying to do his job, and I'll be rooting against him.

The other important thing is that this is all true of the Astros, too. So root with abandon. They're all underdogs.

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