Sunday, September 21, 2014

Flyover: Los Angeles Dodgers

This continues a series of looks at each team over the past month. The National League West is the only divisional race I haven't discussed so far. Let's change that, starting with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

How Are They Doing Lately? Their 16-10 record over the past 30 days is the third best in the league and half a game ahead of their divisional rivals, the San Francisco Giants. They've scored the most runs in the National League, 5.7 runs per game, by a wide margin; the Giants are second with 5.0. However, they've given up 4.5 per game, the third most in the league. At 88-67 entering play today, the Dodgers have assured themselves a playoff berth, and any combination of five Dodgers wins and/or Giants losses will give them the NL West crown. They're two games behind Washington and a game ahead of St. Louis in the race for the best record in the league (and home field advantage throughout the playoffs). 

What's Going Right? The Dodgers are first in the league in batting average (.296) and on base percentage (.359) and third in slugging percentage (.454) over the past 30 days, while the league's averaging .253/.314/.386. The pitchers have been pretty middling, seventh in the league in ERA. They have the sixth-highest strikeout rate and fourth-lowest walk rate, but they're third to last in strand rate, as 31% of baserunners have come around to score. They've had good control, as LA's one of four pitching staffs in the National League with over half of pitches in the strike zone over the past 30 days.

What's Going Wrong? Those offensive stats are a little bit of an illusion. The Dodgers have benefited from a .356 batting average on balls in play, by far the best in the league, which is averaging .302 over the past 30 days, and they've gotten home runs on 15% of fly balls, while the league's averaging less than 10%. Neither of those sorts of deviations are usually sustainable; the Dodgers were at .309 and 9.5%, respectively, in the first half of the year. So while they've been hitting like crazy, they're not likely to keep it up. The pitchers are third-worst in the league at inducing swings outside the strike zone, at 30%, and as a result opposing hitters are making contact on 80% of swings, which is above average. 

The Dodgers have also had a pretty easy schedule. Over the past 30 days, entering play today, they've had five games against the worst team in the league (Arizona), three against the second-worst (Colorado), three against the third-worst (Chicago), and six against the sixth-worst (San Diego). They've had only six games against teams with winning records, San Francisco and Washington, and they split them. So there's plenty of reason to take that 16-10 record over the past 30 days with a grain of salt.

Who's Hot? Most Dodgers batters have been swinging the bat well of late. Over the past 30 days, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez is leading the league in home runs (eight) and RBI (28), and he's second in runs (21) and slugging percentage (.614). Juan Uribe and Justin Turner have been a formidable tag team at third, with a combined .395/.429/.463 slash line over the past 30 days. Left fielder Carl Crawford's batting .379, right fielder Matt Kemp is batting .310 with seven homers and a .610 slugging percentage, second baseman Dee Gordon's batting .327 while shortstop Hanley Ramirez is at .305. That's six of eight lineup positions where the Dodgers have a .300+ batting average over the last 30 days. 

Three starting pitchers--Clayton Kershaw, Dan Haren, and Zach Greinke--have been almost unbeatable, combining for an 11-1 won-lost record and a 2.40 ERA. Setup man Pedro Baez has a 1.46 ERA over the past 30 days, the only reliever with over eight innings pitched with an ERA below 3.00. 

Who's Not? Much has made of center fielder Yasiel Puig's slump, as he's gone from batting .309 with twelve homers prior to the All-Star break to .283 with three homers since. He was particularly bad in August, when he hit .216 with no homers. He's come alive some in September (.313 with two homers entering play today), and over the past 30 days his slash line is .250/.365/.375 compared to .253/.314/.386 for the league as a whole--not great, but not much different from the league average.

After Kershaw, Haren, and Greinke, the rotation's been a mess. The No. 4 starter, Hyun-Jin Ryu is hurt, and the other three starters the Dodgers have tried (Roberto Hernandez, Carlos Frias, Kevin Correia) have a combined ERA of 7.92. 

What's the Outlook? The Dodgers should win their division, but they're not as good a team, it seems to me, as their recent record would suggest. As things stand now, they'd play the Cardinals, another team that I've described as good but flawed, in a divisional series. The Dodgers' top three starters may give them the edge, but the Cardinals can pitch as well. It could make for an interesting series.

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