Friday, September 18, 2015

Next Up: The Los Angeles Dodgers

I wrapped up my last preview, of the Cubs series, with the line: 
This should be a fun four games.
Yeah, losing three straight, having the home-field wild card advantage slip from four games to two, and losing your best player...that was a freakin' blast.

Now the Pirates head west for three games against the NL West leading Los Angeles Dodgers. There's one word that foreshadows any Dodgers series this year: Kershawgreinke. Do you face the Dodgers's two aces, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, or not?  The Dodgers in games started by Kershawgreinke: 38-20 (.655 winning percentage). The Dodgers in games started by everybodye else: 46-41 (.541 winning percentage). That's the difference between a 106-56 team and an 88-74 team. Unfortunately, the Pirates go against Greinke tonight and Kershaw tomorrow night, meaning that over the course of four days, they'll see the three contenders for the National League Cy Young Award (they faced the Cubs' Jake Arrieta on Wednesday).

How Are They Doing Lately? The Dodgers are 17-9 over the past 30 days, second only to the 19-8 Mets in the National League. (Naturally, the Cubs, Cardinals, and Pirates, in that order, round out the top five.) They've scored just 3.85 runs per game, the third fewest in the league, but their pitchers have been by far the stingiest, allowing just 3.19 runs per game, nearly half a run per game less than the second-best Pirates. If you're thinking, "That's a pretty good won-lost record given that run differential," you're right. The Nationals, Mets, Pirates, and Cubs all have a better run differential over the past 30 days. So the Dodgers have been good, but maybe not as good as their record might suggest.

What's Going Right? The starting pitchers' ERA is 2.66 over the past 30 days, way ahead of the Pirates, in second with 3.29. They have the fourth best strikeout rate, the second lowest walk rate, the highest ground ball rate, and the second-lowest rate of fly balls becoming home runs. But none of that's surprising; we all knew that with Kershawgreinke, the starters' stats would be good. The surprise is that the relievers, the team's key weakness this year, have a 3.10 ERA over the past 30 days, the third lowest in the league. The Dodger bullpen had a 4.20 ERA in June (second worst in the league) and a 6.27 ERA in July (easily the worst), so they've turned things around dramatically of late. Over the past 30 days, the bullpen has struck out 27% of the batters they've faced and walked only 6%, best and second-best in the league, respectively.

What's Going Wrong? The offense. Over the past 30 days, Dodgers hitters have a .232 batting average (last in the league), .313 on base percentage (fifth lowest), and .373 slugging percentage (second lowest). They've hit the fifth fewest homers and struck out at the sixth highest rate. 

Who's Hot? The team's only reliable hitter of late has been rookie shortstop Corey Seager, called up September 3. He's batting .426 with a .526 on base percentage and .617 slugging percentage in 13 games, sending veteran shortstop Jimmy Rollins and his .194 batting average and .280 on base percentage over the past 30 days to the bench. The three best Dodgers starters over the past 30 days are Kershaw (1.15 ERA, 52 strikeouts and six walks in 39 innings), Greinke (1.78 ERA, 32 strikeouts and five walks in 35.1 innings), and Brett Anderson (2.76 ERA). The three starters the Pirates will face are, in order, Greinke, Kershaw, and Anderson. In the resurgent Dodger bullpen, closer Kenley Jansen has 8 saves and a 2.57 ERA, with 18 strikeouts in 14 innings, over the past 30 days, and setup man Chris Hatcher has a 1.35 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 13.1 innings.

Who's Not? Rollins, as discussed above, is cold and benched. Catcher Yasmani Grandal is 1-for-53--one single, so that's an .047 batting average and slugging percentage--over the past 30 days. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez has a .229/.312/.365 slash line. Third baseman Justin Turner's is .207/.333/.287. Second baseman Chase Utley's is .224/.305/.388. With right fielder/lightning rod Yasiel Puig hurt, the four main outfielders are Andre Ethier, who's been OK (.314/.345/.451) and three players--Scott Van Slyke, Joc Peterson, and Carl Crawford--who've combined for .224/.303/.355.

What's the Outlook? The Pirates swept three from the Dodgers when the teams met in Pittsburgh in early August. In the first game, Kershaw gave up four runs in six innings (his ERA in seven starts since is 1.00) as the Pirates won in ten. In the second game, the Pirates scored six runs in three innings off Mat Latos (no longer with the team) and held on to win 6-5. In the third game, the team exploded for nine runs in the seventh inning, erasing a 5-3 deficit and winning, 13-6. Reliever Jim Johnson, who took the loss in the first and third games (allowing eight runs in two-thirds on an inning in the latter), has four holds and a save in 14 games since. Jung Ho Kang was 4-for-11 with a home run and 4 RBI in the series. In other words, if the Pirates are going to enjoy similar success at Dodger Stadium, the script will have to change, because it's not going to repeat itself. In the meantime, the team will hope for mutual destruction this weekend when the Cardinals play three in Wrigley against the Cubs.

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