And They’re Off … in the NL West Derby

If a division race is like a horse race, then the five National League West foes haven’t done their most meaningful running yet, as that’ll take place down the stretch in August and September. The start, however, both in horse racing and in baseball can often set the tone for what’s to come.

My pick in the Kentucky Derby – Vicar’s in Trouble – lived up to his name right out of the starting gate on Saturday. He drew the dreaded rail post position and was bumped repeatedly in the early going, forcing jockey Rosie Napravnik to take back and attempt to drop in behind horses. Vicar’s in Trouble, a horse with early speed that likes to be on the lead and in the clear, was having none of it. After finally settling in he actually worked out a nice trip behind the leading wave of horses, but was empty when they turned for home. The bad start probably did him in.

California Chrome, on the other hand, had no issues out of the gate and was able to set up just outside of the leading pair, allowing the post-time favorite and eventual winner to spurt for the finish line and take a commanding late advantage. While the start didn’t necessarily decide the race for any of the 19 Derby runners, it did play an important role in setting the stage for the stretch running.

With that drawn out horse racing analogy behind us, it’s time to talk some baseball. We’re just over a month into the season and the Giants and Dodgers are predictably near the top of the division standings. The second place Rockies have been a surprise, while the Diamondbacks have battled the AL’s Houston Astros for league-wide cellar-dweller supremacy. The Padres have tested the limits of offensive futility while still remaining somewhat competitive, but already find themselves 6.5 games off the pace. Here are the standings through Sunday:

Team Record GB RS RA Pythag. Record
Giants 20-11 129 105 18-12
Rockies 19-14 2 186 155 19-13
Dodgers 18-14 2.5 137 128 17-14
Padres 14-18 6.5 84 112 11-20
Diamondbacks 11-23 10.5 126 186 11-22

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San Francisco Giants

The Giants have had an interesting offense this year. Despite playing half their games in a pitcher’s park, they’ve hit more home runs (41) than any NL team outside of Colorado. San Francisco’s batting average is just .238, but as a team they walk enough and hit for enough power to be dangerous.

Out of their eight everyday starters, everyone has hit near or above their projections except for Pablo Sandoval. Mike Morse, who signed in the offseason for one year and $6 million, is finding his 2010-2011 form, so far crushing eight home runs and slashing .302/.352/.615 in 105 plate appearances. Morse is never going to impress with his walk and strikeout numbers – he’s walked seven times and struck out 26, thus far – but he hits for a high enough average and possesses plenty of power to remain an asset.

Buster Posey is off to a hot start, too, hitting .275/.362/.500 with five home runs. He’s also one of the best defensive catchers in the game, and the combination of his offense and defense makes him a perennial Internet Baseball Awards MVP candidate. Though he won a real-life MVP award in 2012, he’s unlikely to seriously threaten for another unless the BBWAA starts to embrace pitch framing statistics.

The struggles for the Giants offensively have come from Sandoval and the bench. Sandoval was projected to be their second best offensive player behind Posey prior to the year, as PECOTA tabbed him for a .288/.345/.466 line and 53 extra base hits. So far, he’s hitting .170/.254/283 with just two home runs and seven extra base hits. He’s walking in 9.3 percent of his PAs, which would be a career high if he kept that pace all season, but his strikeout rate (22 percent) is nearly nine percentage points higher than his career norms. It’s interesting that Sandoval is actually swinging less but, when he does swing, missing significantly more:

Year O-Swing% Z-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact%
2012 43.0 77.0 77.9 83.1
2013 42.4 74.8 79.9 86.1
2014 42.6 64.8 73.2 78.1

O-Swing% – Percentage of pitches a batter swings at out of the zone
Z-Swing% – Percentage of pitches a batter swing at inside the zone
O, Z-Contact% -Percentage of pitches a batter makes contact  with when swinging at pitches outside/inside the zone

None of the Giants main five bench players have yet to crack the Mendoza Line, and only backup catcher Hector Santiago has shown any semblance of power*. (Though he’s walked just once while striking out 17 times.) San Francisco’s starters aren’t particularly old, but if they are plagued by injuries depth could become an issue.

*Remember, we are dealing we really small sample sizes here, especially for bench players. The sample size disclaimer applies for all early season stats.

On the pitching side, it’s hard to believe that Tim Hudson is still a legitimate frontline starter, but after suffering a season-ending ankle injury last year with Atlanta and signing on with the Giants on a two-year, $23 million deal, he’s still plugging along at a quasi-ace level. In 42 and 2/3s innings this year, he’s posted a 2.17 ERA and a ridiculous 31-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Hudson will get roughed up on occasion when too many ground balls find holes, but his ability to control the strike zone and keep the ball in the park helps to mitigate the damage. He’s 38 years old now and doesn’t look to be slowing down.

Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner join Hudson at the top of the rotation, though Cain, along with backend starters Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong, have struggled with the long ball. Cain should regress toward his career numbers, overall, but Lincecum continues to be a question mark and Vogelsong is, well, Vogelsong. The bullpen has been tremendous so far, posting a 1.86 ERA, but outside of closer Sergio Romo, there’s plenty of expected regression there.

Colorado Rockies

Like the Padres, everything the Rockies do is significantly colored by their home ballpark. And while the humidor has taken a bite out of Coors’ hitter-friendly ways, it remains the most extreme park in the league. FanGraphs park factors had Coors at 115 last year, which means that it promotes run scoring by 30 percent. The next most hitter-friendly park is the Ballpark in Arlington at 106.

With that said, the Rockies offense has been very good this year. They’ve scored 5.64 runs per game, which is over a run more than any other team in the NL outside of the upstart Miami Marlins. Colorado’s offense also leads the league in home runs (44), doubles (70), batting average (.298), on-base percentage (.346), and slugging percentage (.486). Even when you adjust for Coors, the Rockies have a clear lead in park-neutral stats like OPS+ (114) and wRC+ (114).

Centerfielder Charlie Blackmon’s hot start has garnered the most attention, as he’s hit .359/.398/.590 in 130 PAs. What’s most surprising about Blackmon’s start isn’t that he’s just making a ton of contact in a game that’s trending heavily towards strikeouts (his 7.7 strikeout percentage is seventh-best in MLB), it’s that he’s making a ton of contact while also hitting for power. His .231 ISO is 20th in MLB, ahead of sluggers like Matt Kemp, Buster Posey, and Ryan Howard. It might not last long, of course, as Blackmon was projected as a below-average hitter prior to the season.

Troy Tulowitzki leads the majors in batting average (.400), on-base percentage (.500), and slugging percentage (.730). He has more extra base hits (18) than strikeouts (14), and he’s walked 21 times. Did I mention he’s a plus defender at shortstop? Tulo is a sort of West Coast version of Derek Jeter, with actual defensive chops but without the signature playoff moments. If the Rockies stay competitive late into the summer a first MVP award could be well within reach.

There are still some legitimate concerns about this offense, long term. Tulowitzki and Blackmon obviously have to come back down to Earth, but there’s also no chance that Brandon Barnes is going to keep hitting .300-plus or that Justin Morneau is going to OPS .970. Carlos Gonzalez has been off to a slow start and that should counter some of the downside regression, but the offense as a whole should drift more towards league average as the season progresses.

The pitching staff may be as much of a surprise as the offense thus far, as they’ve posted nearly average context-neutral numbers (98 ERA+, 100 FIP-) and they’ve done so without their staff ace in Jhoulys Chacin.

After being thrown to the wolves as a 20-year-old in Houston in 2011, Jordan Lyles, once rated as the 42nd best prospect in the game by Baseball America, posted three straight 5-plus ERA seasons with the Astros. Last year he recorded a career-high 5.59 ERA with Houston, showing no progress over the previous two seasons with his strikeout-to-walk ratio falling to 1.90. In 36 and 2/3s innings with the Rockies this year, Lyles’ ERA is down to 2.70. The peripherals, outside of his home run rate, haven’t really improved, though, so it’s unlikely that much of this early season improvement will stick.

The rest of the rotation is a kind of odd mix of middling types like Boston import Franklin Morales, oft-injured Brett Anderson, and veteran Rockie Jorge De La Rosa. It’s not an overly impressive crew, but with Chacin back in the fold there might be enough depth to keep the Rockies in games, especially if the offense keeps up its end of the bargain. The bullpen is serviceable , though it won’t be surprising if 41-year-old Latroy Hawkins isn’t closing games come mid-summer. Behind him there are useful arms like Matt Belisle, Rex Brothers, Adam Ottavino, and lefty specialist Boone Logan.

Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers were not only NL West favorites prior to the season, they were also a trendy choice to win the World Series. In fact, 12 of 36 Baseball Prospectus staffers picked the Dodgers to win the World Series in 2014, and all but one picked them to win the NL West crown. An 18-14 start for a team with those kind of lofty expectations isn’t anything special, until you factor in that they’ve done it without the best (and richest) pitcher in the game in Clayton Kershaw, who has been out since Australia with back problems.

Kershaw will return tonight against the Washington Nationals, but the Dodgers rotation hasn’t skipped a beat without him. The Dodgers top three starters, Hyun-jin Ryu, Dan Haren, and Zach Greinke, have all pitched like aces in Kershaw’s absence, and they haven’t done it with smoke and mirrors either.

Pitcher ERA Strikeout % Walk % HR/9
Ryu 3.00 18.7 6.6 .23
Haren 2.39 21.5 4.4 .48
Greinke 2.04 32.4 4.2 1.53

Josh Beckett has added a fourth quality arm to the staff, returning from season-ending shoulder surgery in 2013, and he’s pitched to a 3.14 ERA and 3.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2014. If there’s a weak spot in the rotation it’s clearly Paul Maholm, who is better suited for a low leverage, long relief role, but Kershaw’s return takes care of that problem.

While the Dodgers bullpen has been effective this season, anchored by the at times unhittable Kenley Jansen, it’s full of guys with control issues. The following table lists some of the Dodgers key relievers, with their career and 2014 walk percentages.

Pitcher Career BB% 2014 BB%
Jansen 9.3 9.9
Wright 10.9 11.3
Perez 9.9 9.6
Withrow 13.2 21.8
Howell 10.6 13.6
Wilson 10.4 15.9

League average BB% for relievers is usually around 9-10 percent

The Dodgers have been above average with the bats, led by a resurgent Adrian Gonzalez. After being dealt to Boston from San Diego before the 2011 season, Gonzalez had one excellent year with the Red Sox before significantly declining in 2012 and 2013. Gonzalez’s walk percentage dropped all the way to 6.1 percent in 2012, and it only climbed up to 7.3 percent last year. His power, too, had largely evaporated as he hit just 40 home runs combined in ’12 and ’13. This year Gonzalez has the walk percentage back up to 11.5 percent and he’s already pounded nine home runs and nine doubles.

There really isn’t much to say about Yasiel Puig. (But don’t mention that to the mainstream media.) Outside of the occasional boneheaded play – he is just 23, after all – most of the narrative surrounding Puig seems almost entirely contrived to generate a constant stream of clickbait, though even his manager, Don Mattingly, seems to play into it much of the time. On the field, he’s an all-around offensive threat with a cannon for an arm in right field. Both the walk and strikeout rates are (gradually) trending in the right direction.

Second basemen Dee Gordon already has 19 stolen bases, which puts him atop the majors by seven thefts. Gordon has as many steals, by himself, as 10 NL teams. If anything, his early steals total shows the importance of getting on base, as he’s done so at nearly a 39 percent clip this season. Another speedster, Billy Hamilton, has only managed 11 steals this season, in part because he’s OBP-ing .280 (he’s also been caught a league-leading five times). The stolen base barrage won’t continue at this pace all season for Gordon, as he projects as more of a Hamilton-esque .300 OBP guy.

San Diego Padres

The Padres have perfected the art of the slow start:

Year Through May 4th Final Record
2014 14-18 ?
2013 12-18 76-86
2012 9-18 76-86
2011 12-19 71-91
2010 17-10 90-72
2009 11-15 75-87
2008 12-20 63-99

You may notice that in the one year out of the last seven that the Padres started well they won 90 games. On the bright side, this season marks their second best start since 2008.

The Padres problems are well established around these parts. Yesterday, Nate delivered some factual facts of relative relevance:

  • 2.6 runs per game
  • Three runs scored or more in just 10 games
  • Have not scored more than six runs in a single game
  • Yonder Alonso hasn’t homered since May 19th, 2013
  • Jedd Gyorko has a 31 wRC+

The offense has been really, really bad, and unlike past years, it can’t be explained away by the Petco factor. The Padres 68 wRC+ is dead last in MLB and it isn’t even particularly close (the Cubs, at 80, are second worst).

The positives?

It can’t get worse. Oh, in the short-term is can. The Padres are being shut out by Yordano Ventura as I write this, and they have another date scheduled with Jose Fernandez this week. But over the long haul, the bats are going to come to life a bit. Jedd Gyorko is going to improve, and so is Will Venable, and Yonder Alonso, and Everth Cabrera, and Chase Headley. Cameron Maybin is back from injury and, someday, Carlos Quentin may be as well.

The Padres pitching staff has kept them in games all year, though the rotation, outside of Andrew Cashner, hasn’t been overly impressive. Ian Kennedy and Tyson Ross have both posted near-average context-neutral ERAs, though Kennedy’s 4.89 strikeout-to-walk ratio might portend an even better future. Robbie Erlin’s peripherals have been solid, but the ERA hasn’t. Eric Stults has given up seven home runs in six starts, and he’s only struck out 13 batters.

The Padres bullpen has posted a 1.71 ERA, while Huston Street, Joaquin Benoit, Dale Thayer, and Nick Vincent have all put up 4.0 strikeout-to-walk ratios or better. The Padres have spent more money on this bullpen than the rock-solid Kevin Towers Era pens of the mid-2000s, but at least it was money well spent.

Arizona Diamondbacks

You wouldn’t know it by how they pitched against the Padres this past weekend, but the D’backs are a team short on starting pitching. After losing Patrick Corbin to Tommy John surgery in March, Arizona’s rotation was abruptly left without an ace.

While Bronson Arroyo has been as good a bet to make 30 starts as any pitcher in baseball over the last 10 years, he’s also a 37-year-old with 2,300-plus innings on his arm. He’s struggled with home run issues his entire career, and while Arizona is a less home run-friendly environment than Cincinnati, it’s still more of a hitter’s park in general.

Arroyo’s gaudy 6.03 ERA stands out, but none of the D’backs starters – Wade Miley, Brandon McCarthy, Mike Bolsinger, Josh Collmenter, and Trevor Cahill – have gotten off to good starts. The bullpen hasn’t fared well either, but with Addison Reed, Brad Ziegler, Joe Thatcher, and JJ Putz, there’s at least enough quality arms in the pen to get by. Overall, the D-backs have given up an NL-worst 5.47 runs per game. While the pen might not be a liability and there’s some regression due for some of the starters, the rotation is still way too thin without Corbin.

Acquired in the offseason as part of a three-team trade, Mark Trumbo blasted seven home runs in his first 21 games in Arizona before being sidelined for at least six weeks in late-April. While Trumbo’s overall production wasn’t anything special, as he was hitting only .210 and OBP-ing .264, his presence in the middle of the lineup has to be missed, as the Diamondbacks don’t have a lot of power outside of Paul Goldschmidt.

The rest of the offense has enough solid options — like Martin Prado, Aaron Hill, Miguel Montero, and Chris Owings — surrounding Goldschmidt that it should start to score more runs eventually, especially if Trumbo can come back and contribute. It might not matter much, however, as the D’backs were borderline contenders before they got off to an ugly start, one that includes a 3-15 home record.

***

It’s still too early in the season to write any team off, but the Padres, like they’ve consistently done in the recent past, have struggled at the start. Here’s hoping, unlike Vicar’s in Trouble in the Derby, they can put their early issues behind them and make a strong run at the division leaders down the season’s stretch drive.

All stats from Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus

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