National League West: runaway Dodger blue

When we last checked in on the National League West division in early July, it was performing as baseball’s worst. The good news for the division is that such is no longer the case. Since the first of July, these five teams in aggregate have played just about exactly league-average, .500 ball.

The bad news for all but one of these teams is that it’s been a solo act. For the Los Angeles Dodgers, the summer of 2013 has been a non-stop, all-out, get-down, get-funky, oh-yes-we-can-can party. For this division’s four other ballclubs, the season has continued to deliver only degrees of tedium and frustration.

Champs to chumps

The San Francisco Giants remain the defending world champions, but the resemblance between the outfit that breezily swept away the Detroit Tigers last fall and the one that’s ineffectually bumbling its way through this year grows more scant by the week.

The dominant starting pitching that characterized the Giants of the past several campaigns has been glaringly and persistently absent in the city by the bay. To be sure, young Madison Bumgarner bears no blame for the mound collapse, as he’s been smoothly excellent all year. But he stands in lonely isolation.

Tim Lincecum, grappling at age 29 with the challenge of transitioning from hard thrower to crafty pitcher, has intermittently flashed brilliance (including a 13-strikeout no-hitter on July 13), but for the second straight year he’s been dogged with command inconsistency and with particular vulnerability to the home run.

And 28-year-old Matt Cain has encountered a similar career crisis, also coughing up too many gopher balls. Even with a second-half improvement, in mid-August Cain is still dragging around an ERA+ of 77, pitifully distant from his familiar rock-solid 125 neighborhood.

In 2012, the Giants rounded out their five-man rotation with splendid contributions from veterans Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito. That never materialized this year. Vogelsong has spent most of the year sidelined with a broken finger and been hit very hard when active, and Zito was so persistently ineffective that he finally was demoted to mop-up relief.

The Giants’ offense went through a woeful slump of its own in mid-summer. But on balance, it hasn’t been bad and recently has been energized by a scorching hot streak from 25-year-old first baseman Brandon Belt, who might be turning the corner into stardom. But the bats the Giants have can’t begin to carry the load demanded by their miserable pitching.

This ball club has spent most of the past several weeks mired in last place. If they do wind up in the basement, they would join the notorious 1997-98 Florida Marlins as the only teams in history to go directly from World Series winners to dead last, and those Marlins actually were intending to dismantle themselves.

Feeble Friars

If the Giants don’t “succeed” at finishing last, it likely will be only because the San Diego Padres insist upon doing so instead. On June 17, the Padres were at 36-34, in third place. Since then, no team in the National League has played worse.

The San Diego pitching staff has spent pretty much the whole season challenging the Giants’ as the league’s least effective. But earlier in the year, the Padres offense was reasonably productive. In May and June, they scored 4.2 runs per game. Since the first of July, however, they’ve managed fewer than 3.5 while hitting below .240 as a team. This is not a formulation designed to win baseball games.

In 2012, no ballclub showed more second-half improvement than the Padres, who pulled themselves out of the cellar and went 42-33 following the All-Star break. The catalyst leading the San Diego charge was third baseman Chase Headley, who suddenly broke loose and blasted 23 second-half homers while driving in a staggering 73 second-half runs.

That version of Headley has been nowhere to be found in 2013, as he slogs into late August carrying a batting average in the .230s, with just eight big flies and fewer than 40 RBIs.

And earlier this month, the only real bright spot for San Diego in 2013 was snuffed out. Twenty-six-year-old shortstop Everth Cabrera made the All-Star team for the first time and was emerging as a dynamic table-setter, sporting a .355 on-base percentage and leading the league in steals. Alas, he was caught up in the Biogenesis scandal and smacked with a 50-game suspension.

Thus, it isn’t apparent what, if anything, can reverse the tailspin that’s overwhelmed the Padres through the summer weeks. The San Diego rebuilding project that had seemed to be gaining traction late last year has encountered a season in which signs of progress have been drearily hard to find.

Correcting the Colorado course?

For the Colorado Rockies, the 2013 season has presented a crazy quilt of baffling inconsistency, with encouraging spurts interrupted by deep slumps.

Remember that it was the Rockies, coming off a dreadful 64-98, last place finish in 2012, who bolted out of the gate this year at 13-4. Then they lost 16 of their next 24. Then they won six out of seven, and then they lost six out of seven, and then … well, you get the idea.

Late July and early August saw the mile-highers displaying their downward mode. On July 21, they’d managed to lift themselves to within three games of .500, but they then proceeded to drop 13 of 17 games. That backslide culminated in an agonizing 1-9 road trip through Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and New York in which the Rockies were outscored 62-23.

At that point, Aug. 9, the Pirates eagerly rolled into Denver for a three-game weekend series. The Bucs were flashing the best record in baseball, sprinting along with nine victories in their past eleven outings, including an impressive four-out-of-five “statement” showdown series win in St. Louis in which they wrestled first place away from the Cardinals.

So then, out of nowhere, the lowly Rockies pulled out a series sweep of their own. They bombed out Francisco Liriano with 12 hits and 10 runs in two-and-a-third innings on Friday night on the way to a laugher, and then fashioned come-from-behind wins on both Saturday and Sunday.

So just how good (or not) are these Rockies, anyway? There’s reason to believe their hot flashes are a truer indicator of their innate talent than their cold snaps, as they’ve underperformed against their Pythagorean projection by three wins.

One of their issues has been getting everyone healthy and in the lineup at the same time, but in particular when shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and left fielder Carlos Gonzalez are both active (most recently the latter has been on the disabled list), this team can score runs. Moreover, they’ve straightened out the mess of last year’s starting rotation.

Venomless snakes

The performance of the Arizona Diamondbacks so far this year hasn’t been a bad one. But neither has it been especially good, and mostly it’s been blandly middle-of-the-road. The D-backs haven’t been prone to extended slumps, but neither have they demonstrated the capacity to put together a sustained hot streak.

A division winner back in 2011, Arizona slid to a disappointing 81-81 finish in 2012. That prompted an offseason of bold action from GM Kevin Towers, who executed three major trades.

Sent away were right fielder Justin Upton, center fielder Chris Young, third baseman Chris Johnson, relievers Bryan Shaw and Matt Albers, and prize pitching prospect Trevor Bauer. In their place came infielder-outfielder Martin Prado, shortstop Didi Gregorius, infielder Cliff Pennington, veteran closer Heath Bell, and four prospects, most prominently starting pitcher Randall Delgado.

It will, of course, require the passage of several years before we see how the various younger players pan out and we’re able to conclusively assess the outcome of the entire parlay. But we have reached the point where we can see how it’s worked out for this season, and that is, not well. Gregorius has shown flashes and might develop into something special, but he is certainly not yet, and Prado, Bell, and Pennington have performed as nothing more than workaday mediocrities.

Meanwhile, Upton and Johnson both have delivered star turns in Atlanta and are major reasons why the Braves are running away with the National League East.

For sure, there have been two delightful Sonoran desert developments, with 25-year-old first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and 23-year-old starting pitcher Patrick Corbin both blossoming as high-luminousity stars. But they’ve lacked for company on an otherwise unexciting Arizona roster.

The Diamondbacks held first place in this weak division from mid-May through mid-July, but they showed no capacity to defend it as the Dodgers stormed past them. They’ve since shown no ability to regroup and make it any kind of a race, instead listlessly floating in an ever-more-distant second.

At the trading deadline, Towers meekly played the role of “seller,” dumping off struggling starting pitcher Ian Kennedy for a prospect and a garden-variety LOOGY. It’s playing out as an unmemorable year in the Valley of the Sun.

Dynamic Dodgers

Since late June, the Los Angeles Dodgers have bolted upright from a dead-last langor to perform as the best team in the National League West. But that isn’t all: they’ve played over that stretch as the best team in all of major league baseball. But even that isn’t all, as their streak over that nearly two-month span has been one of the very hottest ever presented by any team in all of major league history.

To be fair, most of us perceived the early-season Dodgers to be not as bad as they looked. Yours truly wrote back on May 28, when Los Angeles manager Don Mattingly was rumored to be fired any minute now:

… despite all the many things that have gone dead wrong for the Dodgers in 2013, they aren’t buried yet. It isn’t all that difficult to imagine a scenario in which a couple of guys come back from injuries, and maybe a couple of guys — like [Andre] Ethier or, say, center fielder Matt Kemp — hit something more like their normal stride, and L.A. claws its way back into it.

But none of us saw anything like this coming. The 2013 Dodgers are presenting one of the most stunningly explosive midseason turnarounds ever seen, and the only question now is how furiously they might be able to keep this wildfire blazing into autumn.

The crucially magic element that sparked the combustion was, of course, the arrival of magnificent rookie right fielder Yasiel Puig, who through Saturday had racked up 3.0 WAR in his first 65 big league games. But the list of Los Angeles heroes following closely in Puig’s scorched-earth wake has been long:
{exp:list_maker}Ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw delivering career-best rates of ERA, ERA+, WHIP, and HR/9
Starters Hyun-Jin Ryu and Zack Greinke performing wonderfully behind Kershaw
Shortstop Hanley Ramirez delivering career-best rates of batting, on-base percentage, and slugging
Veteran first baseman Adrian Gonzalez delivering a solid, consistently productive season
Veteran left fielder Carl Crawford bouncing back from injury, combining with Gonzalez to vindicate the Dodgers’ huge, risky late-2012 trade
Twenty-five-year-old Kenley Jansen wrestling the closer job away from struggling veteran Brandon League and blowing everyone away
Veteran catcher A.J. Ellis proving his 2012 breakout was no fluke
Thirty-six-year-old veteran second baseman Mark Ellis quietly delivering one of the better years of his long career {/exp:list_maker}And on it goes, as the Dodgers have excelled at every phase of the game. This team has been winning the close ones, as the last one-run decision they lost was on June 10. (Think about that.) But mostly they’ve just been steamrolling everyone. From July 1 through Aug. 17. the Dodgers scored 205 runs and allowed 106, for a gobsmacking Pythagorean record of 32-9, which they even surpassed at 34-7. (Think about that.)

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Comments

  1. Brosdale said...

    Great article, although I have one quick correction.  You stated the Dodgers had not lost a one-run decision since June 10 but yesterday they lost 3-2 to the Phils.

  2. Steve Treder said...

    No, they weren’t bad in 2011, just so-so.  And because they significantly outperformed their Pythag, they were seriously in the race in late August.

    This year’s the first time they’ve been downright bad since 2008.  (Remember Jose Castillo at third base?)

  3. cooldrive said...

    Maybe the Giants are establishing a pattern:  Bad year, great year, bad year, great year, bad year, ??????.

  4. Dan said...

    Wow, I had no idea about the Dodgers.  (I’m flat broke and can’t even afford TV service, much less the Extra Innings I used to follow my Mets from 1998-2010.  With the Mets mired in mediocrity, I had no reason to follow MLB as a whole online [have the Pirates choked again, yet?] and I lost the enthusiasm to listen to the Dodgers lose on a regular basis somewhere about Memorial Day…I don’t like the team, and a diet of non-visual schadenfreude gets boring after a while.)  So, since the 30-42 start, they’ve gone 46-11??  Ay-yi-yi!  Who would have guessed?

    Yasiel Puig + the 2012 Red Sox suddenly performing the way they were supposed to, huh?  Color me stunned.

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