NL West First Quarter Report
Los Angeles Dodgers
Original Projection: 74 – 88, Current Pace: 109 – 53
With 27 wins in the bank and 122 games left to play, at the quarter post of the season the Dodgers only need to play .500 ball the rest of the season to win 88 games. Given the holes apparent in each of its division foes, and given the presence of two wild card teams in each league, Los Angeles’ post-season hopes essentially hinge on this question: Do the Dodgers have enough deficiencies to play under .500 ball for the rest of the season?
To the chagrin of Giants and Diamondback fans, based on the performance during the first quarter of this year the answer is no. There are no signs of unsustainable performance on offense – not in the home runs per fly ball, not in the presence of cluster luck, and not in the distribution of contributions from the entire line up. (Believe it or not both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference assign roughly the same amount of WAR to Andre Ethier and A.J. Ellis as they do to Matt Kemp. As WAR is a “counting stat” some of that has to do with the playing time Kemp missed to injury, and some of it has to do, in Ellis’ case, with the relative scarcity of catchers, but it’s still notable that it hasn’t just been The Matt Kemp Show.)
As far as pitching goes, the Dodgers will most certainly give up more runs per quarter over the next 75% of the season – by a material amount – than they gave up in the first quarter as the staff isn’t good enough to sustain the sub-3.00 ERA they posted through 40 games, but, in terms of a post season berth, the question isn’t whether the Dodgers can win 100 games, it’s whether they can play .500 the rest of the way, and again, the answer appears to be yes.
San Francisco Giants
Original Projection: 79 – 83, Current Pace: 85 – 77
Like the Detroit Tigers in the American League, the Giants are seemingly tethered to the .500 mark due to their shortcomings not at the plate, not on the mound, but in the field. Through 40 games, the Giants allowed more runners to reach base on error (27) than any other team in baseball. The rate at which they turn batted balls into outs, looks about average on the surface, but on an adjusted basis, it’s significantly worse. That’s because my adjusted defensive efficiency calculations take into account double plays and only the Tigers and Reds have turned less double plays than the Giants.
The lack of defense is a problem because the 2-time Cy Young Award winner on the staff, Tim Lincecum, has continued a disturbing trend of wildness by walking batters at a higher year-over-year rate for the fifth season in a row. The staff as a whole is striking out less batters than last year as well, putting more pressure on the defense. Still, this is an immensely talented staff – at least starters 1 through 4 – and like the Tigers they deserve better support.
Original Projection: 81 – 81, Current Pace: 73 – 89
Last year’s division champs executed a worst-to-first turnaround but they sported all sorts of warning signs coming into this season. Thanks to bases-empty home runs making up an improbable portion of home runs allowed last year, the Diamondbacks pitching staff looked more effective in 2011 than it actually was. This year, that hasn’t been the case and only four teams in the NL have allowed more runs. Arizona’s staff didn’t suffer a decline in skills, they just ran out of our old friend, cluster luck.
The Diamondbacks have a roughly average pitching staff backed by average defense, and accompanied by an average line up. They’re pretty much the same team as last year even if they’re not residing on the happy side of luck in 2012. If the Dodgers don’t get too far ahead of them, they could ride a hot month late in the season from Justin Upton and/or Miguel Montero to a division title – just like the San Francisco Giants can. But if they don’t, fans shouldn’t view the season as a disappointment based on last year’s success. The Diamondbacks are still a couple of players away – the return of a healthy Stephen Drew would be a start – from fielding 90-win talent on a nightly basis.
Original Projection: 73 – 89, Current Pace: 61 – 101
Yesterday I wrote that the Pirates’ front office was to be commended because in overhauling Pittsburgh’s rotation they acquired two pitchers with strengths (well-above average strike out rates) that offset a notable team weakness (poor fielding.) The Pirates fielding isn’t any better this year, but with less balls hit into the field of play – due to more strikeouts – the defense has less chances to allow runs to score.
That type of roster construction logic – minimizing a team weakness – escapes the management of the Colorado Rockies.
During the off-season Colorado “bolstered” its rotation by signing Jamie Moyer and trading for Jeremy Guthrie. Both Moyer and Guthrie are low to extremely-low strikeout, pitch-to-contact hurlers, with pronounced fly ball tendencies. That is the worst possible combination of skills to possess for a pitcher who will makes half his starts in Coors Field. Predictably they both have ERA’s above 5.00 and have only added to the team’s weakness. (Moyer was just cut with a 5.70 ERA.) The Rockies starters as a whole induce grounders at the 3rd lowest rate in the league, walk batters at the 7th highest rate and are below-average at striking batters out. The Rockies’ record is entirely the fault of its front office and it’s too bad for All-Stars Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki that this isn’t the NBA; in the Association, superstars have the power to have GMs and coaches removed for incompetence.
San Diego Padres
Original Projection: 81 – 81, Current Pace: 57 – 105
Speaking of incompetence . . . I called for the San Diego Padres to win the NL West in the preseason. That prediction looked ridiculous ten games into the season. Even though the Padres didn’t have their best hitter, Carlos Quentin for the first quarter of the year, he wouldn’t have made much of a difference. The rest of the team doesn’t get on base enough to benefit fully from the presence of a slugger. The pitchers I expected to make the leap to the next level have regressed as well. I thought the Padres could emerge from a very mediocre division and take the crown but it’s clear that was very, very wrong.
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) March 7, 2013 release.
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