Around the NL West in Less Than 3,500 Words

We last checked in on the National League West as a whole just after the Kentucky Derby in early May, where we found the San Francisco Giants out to a quick division lead thanks to a sparkling 20-11 start and the (surprising) Colorado Rockies and Los Angeles Dodgers set up in good stalking position just a couple of games off San Francisco’s hot pace. The San Diego Padres were hanging around at 14-18, but showed glaring signs of an atrocious offense that would solidify its futility as the season progressed. The Arizona Diamondbacks, at 11-23, had all but checked out early.

In the comments of that post, Lonnie Brownell wondered if I would again review the NL West at the half-way and three-quarter points of the season. It made perfect sense, but somewhere along the way, I sort of forgot. Plus, it probably would have been overkill. We’re almost three-fourths of the way through the season anyway, so I figured now would be a good time to take another glance at the Padres four NL West foes – along with the Padres – as the regular season nears its finish line. The current standings:

Team Record GB RS RA Pythag. Record
Dodgers 67-52 488 436 66-53
Giants 62-56 4.5 456 433 62-56
Padres 54-62 11.5 374 390 56-60
Diamondbacks 51-67 15.5 476 559 50-68
Rockies 46-71 20 545 617 52-65

*Above records through Sunday, August 10th. Stats are through the 10th or 11th.

 

Los Angeles Dodgers

It’s easy to cry payroll with the Dodgers because, well, it’s just so enormous. There was a time, as recently as 2012, when the Dodgers payroll sat in the low-$100 million range; big, but not jaw-dropping big. With new ownership at the helm LA’s payroll has skyrocketed over the last two seasons, all the way up to $229 million this year.

Contrary to their free spending ways, however, the Dodgers two most important player acquisitions, Clayton Kershaw and Yasiel Puig, were success stories in scouting and development more so than simply financial muscle flexing. Kershaw was drafted seventh overall in 2006 and took only $2.3 million to sign; Puig was inked as an international free agent in 2012 on a cool seven-year, $42 million deal.

After missing all of April with a back injury, Kershaw has reeled off brilliant start after brilliant start, capped off by his 15 strikeout perfect game masterpiece on June 18th against the Rockies. That perfect game was in the middle of a sublime run by Kershaw, which saw him post a .51 ERA along with 71 strikeouts and just six walks in a 53 inning stretch from June 8th through July 10th. Kershaw, who looks poised for a third Cy Young award in four years (despite missing a month of action), is somehow still improving after leading the NL in ERA for the last three years. This season he’s jumped his strikeout rate above 30 percent for the first time (31.8 percent) and he’s lowered his walk rate to a career-best 3.7 percent, leading to career-best fielding independent ERAs. He’s really good. (And apparently getting better.)

After Yasiel Puig got off to a torrid start last year, many believed that the free-swinging Cuban would struggle once major league pitching adjusted to him. Check out his walk and strikeout numbers in each month of his young career:

Month PAs Walks Strikeouts
June, 2013 107 4 20
July, 2013 105 8 31
August, 2013 121 14 24
September/Oct, 2013 99 10 22
April, 2014 101 9 19
May, 2014 128 17 24
June, 2014 115 13 24
July, 2014 87 9 14
August, 2014 34 2 6

He isn’t exactly Joey Votto yet, but Puig’s walk rate this season (10.8 percent) ranks him 33rd in all of baseball. For someone who came into the league looking vulnerable in his approach, Puig’s come a long way in a short amount of time. Combine the improved plate discipline with the power, and the contact ability, and the speed, and the arm, and you’ve got a perennial MVP candidate, despite the occasional Wild Horse Miscue.

What makes the Dodgers dangerous, of course, is that aren’t a two-trick pony. Outside of Kershaw, the starting rotation has a pair of would-be staff aces if it weren’t for the presence of the dominant left hander. Both Zack Greinke (10th) and Hyun-Jin Ryu (14th) rank in the top 15 in MLB in strikeout-to-walk ratio. Even the Dodgers four and five slots, filled by Dan Haren and the currently injured Josh Beckett, are more than adequate, despite their respective propensity to surrender the long ball. The bullpen isn’t as strong, especially after you get past closer Kenley Jansen. In fact, outside of Jansen, no other Dodgers reliever has a strikeout-to-walk ratio better than two, though Jamey Wright, Brandon League, and JP Howell have combined to give up only two home runs in 140 innings.

The offense, too, has plenty of non-Puig weapons. Adrian Gonzalez isn’t the slugger he was back in San Diego, but he’s still a solid offensive threat and a reliable glove-man at first. Hanley Ramirez, currently DL’ed with a strained oblique, is one of the best shortstops in the game when he’s healthy. And Matt Kemp has rebounded this year to post a .283/.347/.468 line. Even the Dodgers bench is solid, with Justin Turner (129 OPS+) and Scott Van Slyke (144 OPS+) having monster years. (FanGraphs rated the Dodgers bench No. 1 in MLB recently.) On the down side, Carl Crawford, who’s still owed $60-plus million over the next three years, hasn’t given the Dodgers any production this year, hitting .248/.283/.343 in 244 plate appearances. And catcher for the Dodgers is an offensive black hole, as mostly a mixture of AJ Ellis and Drew Butera have combined to hit .183/.280/.264 on the season. They haven’t made up for it behind the plate either, as the Dodgers rank near the bottom of the league in pitch framing.

Overall, the combination of Kershaw-Greinke-Ryu, Jansen in the back of the pen, and an offense full of weapons more than makes up for the occasional deficiency, leaving the Dodgers clear favorites to hold onto the NL West crown and (slightly less clear favorites) to reach the World Series.

San Francisco Giants

The Giants are kind of a scaled down, slightly more efficient model of the Dodgers; not quite as willing to wield the mighty payroll trident, but still with a tab (just shy of a $150 million) that towers over the non-Dodgers portion of the division. If you look through the Giants payroll, however, it’s hard to find many gross overpayments.

Sure, Tim Lincecum is making $17 million this year and is due $18 million next year, but then he’s off the books. The only other contract that looks like a potential albatross is the one handed out to Matt Cain; he’s owed over $60 million from 2015 through 2017 (plus a 2018 option/buyout), and even that doesn’t look that bad if Cain can rebound next year. The other two long-term deals – Buster Posey’s six-year $127 million pact and Hunter Pence’s five-year, $90 million deal – appear more-than-manageable, and the rest of the Giants roster is filled with bargain-basement short-term deals like Tim Hudson (two years, $23 million) and Mike Morse (one-year, $6 million), both of whom were deftly signed as free agents last offseason.

It’s no surprise that the ageless Tim Hudson has rebounded from last year’s season-ending July ankle surgery, but he’s done so in even more style than anticipated. Hudson has posted the lowest walk rate of his career so far in 2014 at 3.9 percent, and he’s accomplished that without sacrificing anything off strikeout rates or home run susceptibility. In fact, Hudson’s strikeout percentage minus walk percentage of 11.1 percent, tracked at FanGraphs, is tied for the fourth highest mark of his career.

Hudson is joined at the top of the Giants rotation by 24-year-old lefty Madison Bumgarner, whose shiny 4.27 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 2.99 FIP suggest that his 3.21 ERA has room to improve. The rest of the rotation, however, is shaky. Though his peripherals are decent and his mid-season no-hitter against the Padres hinted at a return to greatness, Tim Lincecum’s working on his third consecutive sub-80 ERA+ season. Ryan Vogelsong is a serviceable fourth or fifth starter, specializing in eating innings, but he’s miscast as a mid-rotation starter on a contender, and that’s sort of where he finds himself in San Fran. The Giants traded for Jake Peavy from the Boston Red Sox prior to the deadline to bolster the rotation, but it’s hard to imagine him having much positive impact down the stretch. Peavy still has that same bulldog mentality that, along with his ridiculous ability, made him a fan favorite with the Padres. He doesn’t possess the same velocity — his fastball now registers in the low-90s – or put-away stuff that made him a perennial Cy Young contender in the mid-2000s, however.

Offensively, the Giants lineup may be more balanced than the Dodgers, as every starting position outside of second base has an OPS+ north of 100, including one of the best outfields in the league with Mike Morse (125 OPS+), Angel Pagan (120), and Hunter Pence (130). Buster Posey might not reach the heights of his BABiP-aided 2012 MVP anytime soon, but he’s settled in as an elite offensive catcher with plus defensive chops.

If there’s a weak point on the Giants offense, it starts at second base. Brandon Hicks is back in the minor leagues as he hit a paltry .162/.280/.319 in a 242 PA cameo. The current options of Joaquin Arias, Joe Panik, and Matt Duffy haven’t fared much better, and the Giants were so desperate for second base help that they signed Dan Uggla (who has hit .171/.291/326 since the start of 2013) in July only to release him after 11 hitless at-bats. The Giants bench is also thin, with light-hitting outfielder Gregor Blanco as its biggest offensive threat.

Despite the hot start, the Giants appear relegated to battle with Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Atlanta for a Wild Card berth.

San Diego Padres

In our earlier tour of the NL West, we discussed how the Padres have perfected the art of the slow start, posting ugly records through early May in six of the last seven years. They’ve also been working on another art form: the late-season, semi-meaningless surge.

In 2012, after going 7-17 through April and 34-53 in the first half, the Padres played inspired baseball in the second half. They put up a 42-33 record and a positive run differential throughout the summer, highlighted by an 18-10 August run. In 2013 the Padres started off 10-16 in April, stabilized themselves in the following two months, and then fell off the earth in July and August. In September, however, they posted their best monthly record of the season with a 16-11 tally, simultaneously sparing some dignity while also spiraling them downward on the 2014 amateur draft and international spending bonus pools.

This year, more of the same. The Padres stumbled through the first three months of the season, but they’ve won 13 of their last 20 and are off to a 7-2 start in August. Since the start of July, the Padres have outscored their opponents 135-92, which indicates that it’s not just luck and one-run nail biters propelling the turnaround. The Padres have hit double-digits in runs scored in three games since July 24th, a feat that seemed impossible at earlier points of the season. In fact, since NY Times writer Benjamin Harris wrote a piece entitled, ‘Padres’ Offense May Go Down as Worst Ever,’ the Padres have averaged 4.5 runs per game, a figure that’s well above the 3.96 league average before you even factor in that they’ve played nine of those games in pitcher-friendly Petco.

The regression that our own Left Coast Bias discussed in that NY Times article has finally started to kick in. Even with the regression, the Padres offense still ranks dead-last in MLB by FanGraphs’ wRC+ (80), but they’ve crept to within shouting distance of other offensively-challenged teams like Phillies (85), Reds (86), Cubs (87), Red Sox (88), and Rangers (89). Seth Smith is somehow still plugging along with a 155 wRC+, sandwiched in between Jose Bautista and Victor Martinez as the 11th-best hitter in the league, ahead of the likes of Robinson Cano (144), Miguel Cabrera (139), and Nelson Cruz (133).

Yasmani Grandal and Yonder Alonso have snuck up on league average batting lines, though Grandal’s a catcher with plus framing ability and Alonso’s a slow-footed first basemen. The Padres have also received surprising offensive outbursts from Rene Rivera, Tommy Medica, and the newly acquired Yangervis Solarte to help spur the turnaround.

The pitching staff has been steady all year, keeping the Padres competitive when the offense was nonexistent and making them dangerous when the bats are firing. The Padres have allowed only 3.36 runs per game this season, bested only by the Seattle Mariners 3.23 mark. Even when you factor in Petco, the Padres 113 ERA+ is fifth in baseball.

With Andrew Cashner on the disabled list more than the mound, Tyson Ross has emerged as a staff ace. His peripherals have essentially matched up to the ones he put up last year, but he’s proven himself over 160 innings so far, currently ranking first in MLB in starts (25, tied) and tied for 10th in innings. Ian Kennedy, despite a 3.51 ERA that’s nearly a full run higher than Ross’, has actually posted slightly better peripherals than Ross. Kennedy’s 3.10 strikeout-to-walk ratio is first among Padres starters and his 3.10 FIP trails only Andrew Cashner. Speaking off Cashner, he’s been brilliant when healthy, but he’ll go into next year with even more doubt that he can be a reliable starter over a full season, as he’s hit the DL twice this season for an elbow strain and shoulder inflammation. On the bright side, both Jesse Hahn and Odrisamer Despaigne have been surprisingly good, though Hahn’s success looks more sustainable long-term.

The Padres bullpen, as usual, has been terrific. Even with Huston Street departing at the deadline in the midst of his finest season, the Padres are left with plenty of depth in the pen. Joaquin Benoit, who inherited the closer role after Street headed to the Los Angeles Angels, has been filthy all season, posting a 4.14 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 1.68 ERA. Of the remaining six relievers on the roster, five have recorded strikeout-to-walk ratios above two.

The pattern of slow starts and fast finishes is frustrating, especially when you consider the one season in the past seven that the Padres started fast (2010), they finished with a 14-17 September/October stretch that knocked them out of the playoffs. Further, as Vocal Minority Nate discussed a few weeks ago, if the Padres keep winning, they’re going to eliminate any chance to gain a coveted protected draft pick in the 2015 draft. As it stands now, the Padres have the ninth-worst record in the majors, putting them squarely on the edge of a top-10 protected pick.

If there’s a silver lining to late-season success in a lost season, hey, it’s fun! And maybe more importantly, unless you believe that the Padres need to undergo a full Astros-style rebuild under new general manager AJ Preller, there are plenty of players on this roster that are going to be important pieces of the next winning Padres club. Down the stretch, it’d be great to see players like Grandal, Jedd Gyorko, and Everth Cabrera rebuild some of their value. And it’s as good a time as any to find out if Hahn and Despaigne can be key cogs of a winning rotation, or if Solarte and Rymer Liriano can be everyday starters on next year’s club. In that sense, the recent winning is a welcome change of pace, because it means that important players are living up to – or exceeding – expectations. Now if the Padres could just find out a way to start the season like they’ve grown used to finishing it.

Arizona Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks went into the year short on starting pitching, with Patrick Corbin’s spring training Tommy John surgery leaving an already thin rotation without a de facto ace. Bronson Arroyo, acquired as a free agent in the offseason, had pitched at least 175 innings in every season since becoming a full-time starter in 2004 (he reached 200 innings in eight of those seasons). According to Baseball Prospectus’ injury history, not only had Arroyo never landed on the DL in his career prior to 2014, he hadn’t experienced any type of elbow or shoulder related day-to-day health scare; Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, a foot infection, back/knee/hand contusions, an infectious disease, etc, but nothing serious with the arm. When Arroyo, after 86 Arroyo-like-near-league-average innings, went down with season-ending TJ surgery in early July, you knew it wasn’t meant to be the Diamondbacks year.

With Corbin and Arroyo out, the Diamondbacks were left with the likes of Wade Miley, Josh Collmenter, Brandon McCarthy (who was traded to the New York Yankees in July), and Trevor Cahill to lead the staff. Those guys are solid back-end options behind an ace or two, but they aren’t the type of pitchers you want to rely on in the No. 1 and No. 2 starter slots. Chase Anderson, a 26-year-old righty, has filled in well in the rotation, leading the staff with a 3.06 ERA and a 123 ERA+ (although his 4.42 FIP suggest regression might soon hit). Overall, the results have been ugly. For instance, FanGraphs’ ERA- pegs the Diamondbacks rotation (119) 28th in MLB, ahead of only the Minnesota Twins (128) and Texas Rangers (122).

Maybe the D’backs thought they could outslug the competition this year. In the offseason, they traded a starting pitcher (gasp!) in Tyler Skaggs along with promising outfielder Adam Eaton for Angels slugger Mark Trumbo. Trumbo’s a sort of one-dimensional masher, lacking on-base skills and defensive utility but the owner of 94 home runs from 2011 through 2013, and his power stroke profiled nicely in hitter-friendly Chase Field. Trumbo’s responded so far in 2014 with his worst offensive season (.224/.266/406, 184 PAs) and a stress fracture in his foot that’s caused him to miss 71 games. (Like Arroyo, Trumbo had been DL-less in his professional career prior to 2014.)

The story for the D’backs offense, if not their entire team, in general has been injuries. Paul Goldshmidt, in the middle of another down-ballot MVP-type season, went on the 15-day DL on August 2nd after getting hit in the hand by a pitch. Shortstop Chris Owings hit the DL in June with shoulder issues, and outfielders Cody Ross and AJ Pollock are both currently injured. (Pollock, who was also hit by a pitch in late-May, was hitting .316/.366/.554 while providing plus defense in centerfield when he hit the DL.)

If there’s a silver lining for the Diamondbacks, it’s that they’re only three games under .500 since a rough April, and they’ve done that despite a barrage of injuries to key players. With better health — and a bolstered rotation — they could at least return to the periphery of playoff contention as soon as 2015.

Colorado Rockies

The Rockies started hot, but tailspinned as the season progressed. Check out their month-by-month record, courtesy of Baseball Reference:

Month W-L RS-RA
March/April 16-13 157-133
May 12-14 122-116
June 8-20 139-187
July 8-17 90-126
August 2-8 42-61

The Rockies have gone 18-45 since the start of June, the month when their pitching fell apart. (The offense crumbled in July.) Like the Diamondbacks, they’ve been hampered by a rash of injuries. Troy Tulowitzki’s been out since July 20th with a hip strain, Michael Cuddyer’s missed most of the season with two lengthy DL stints, and Carlos Gonzalez recently hit the shelf with knee tendinitis. On the pitching side, former staff ace Jhoulys Chacin has been on the mend since late June with a rotator cuff strain, and starters Brett Anderson and Tyler Chatwood have missed significant time on the DL.

It’s not as though injuries are entirely to blame for the Rockies failures. Even when Chacin was healthy, he was struggling with a 1.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 5.40 ERA in 63 and 1/3 innings, leaving a rotation that consists of Jorge De La Rosa, Franklin Morales, Jordan Lyles, Juan Nicasio, Tyler Matzek, and Yohan Flande. Out of those six pitchers, only one has a K/BB ratio over two (De La Rosa, and he’s just narrowly eclipsed that plateau) while Morales and Nicasio have FIPs approaching the gravitational pull of six. That’s an ugly rotation, even if you forgive the injuries, and the bullpen isn’t much better. 41-year-old LaTroy Hawkins is the closer, and he’s flanked by Tommy Kahnle, Adam Ottavino, Matt Belisle, Nick Masset, Rex Brothers, and Boone Logan, none of whom have established themselves as lockdown late-inning relievers (though Ottavino’s peripherals are solid). In fact, Masset, Logan, and Brothers all have FIPs of five or better.

Offensively, like they usually are in Coors Field, things are better for the Rockies. Tulowitzki, despite the recent DL trip, leads the NL in batting average (.340), on-base percentage (.442), and slugging percentage (.603), and would probably be the MVP favorite if not for the Rockies struggles and the missed time. Corey Dickerson (148 OPS+) is establishing himself as a legit power bat, a resurgent Justin Morneau (127 OPS+) is providing plenty of value at first base, and Nolan Arenado (113 OPS+) is a glove-first third basemen with some pop and contact ability. Right fielder Charlie Blackmon, who was hitting .359/.398/.590 when we last checked in on the division, has not surprising morphed back into a league average-ish bat since then.

The Rockies have enough position players to fill out a contending team, but before they can vacate the NL West cellar they’ll have to address a pitching staff that doesn’t appear equipped to handle Coors Field.

***

All stats from Baseball ReferenceFanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus.

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  • Lonnie Brownell

    As before, a great review. Thanks for taking requests!

    • Dustin

      Thank you, Lonnie!