People on this website and elsewhere have been snarky about the Dodgers. Truthfully, I've been snarky about the Dodgers in this very space. It makes sense, they're a team that was not supposed to be great but that has gotten off to a hot start on the basis of some unsustainable performances. That's what it looks like from the outside at least. We've all seen this before and it's easy to react with skepticism.
But the obvious dismissals of an overachieving team are starting to spring some leaks. They've played an easy/favorable schedule? They have a 7-2 record against the Braves, Nationals, and Cardinals, possibly the three best teams in the NL right now, and that record includes a three-game sweep of the Cardinals over the weekend. They've gotten lucky with injuries? They're currently without four of their starters, along with reliever Matt Guerrier, and it hasn't slowed them down in the slightest so far. They've outplayed their pythag? Well, that one's true, but only by two games and their run differential is still by far the best in the division.
It's early, but it's not that early, and the Dodgers still have the best record in baseball. I'm skeptical of them, because we've all seen this early-season song and dance before, but they're slowly starting to convince me.
What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs):
Bird's eye view stats like these can be misleading, but it's probably not a coincidence that the team that's 9.5 games in the lead has been noticeably better in all three facets of the game. Frankly, the Dodgers' offense has been a surprise, especially considering that the Dodgers and D-Backs have almost identical team BABIPs.
- I think I mentioned before the last series just how unimpressive this lineup looks without Kemp. Since that time, they've lost two starters to injury (Juan Uribe and Mark Ellis) and seen another (Dee Gordon) get benched for poor play. So...yeah.
- So is this a bad time to mention that this lineup has been significantly better than the Diamondbacks' so far this season? Yup, bad time. Just forget I said anything.
- I was chastised for not mentioning Andre Ethier enough in my last series preview, so I'll do my best to make up for that. You probably already know that Ethier is pretty good, given that he has been a starter who has produced an OPS of more than .800 in six of his first seven seasons. However, he has outdone himself so far in 2012, posting a batting line of .304/.364/.561.
- Adam Kennedy is a 36-year-old middle infielder who hasn't been worth more than 2 fWAR since 2005. He has an OPS+ of 79 in 2012, which is only interesting because he finished with an OPS+ of 79 in both of his last two seasons. If you were to look up "gritty mediocre middle infielder" in the dictionary, you wouldn't find a picture of Adam Kennedy because most dictionaries don't actually have pictures, and anyway why are you looking up a four-word phrase in a dictionary?
- Sh*t Miguel Montero isn't going to say to his pitchers: "Sure Ethier's okay, but with Adam Kennedy and James Loney coming up, we can't afford to take chances here, so you just go right after Ethier."
- It is almost impossible to take the Dodgers seriously when they have a 31-year-old career backup catcher with an OPS+ of 171 and a BABIP of .403. All of my well thought out points at the top of the page can be dismissed by saying "Yeah...but A.J Ellis." Of course he's going to regress, the question is how much and how will the Dodgers offense function after he does.
Insightful Commentary: With Miley transforming into the D-Backs' best pitcher so far, Corbin looks like the most obvious candidate to send back to the minors. And, with the pitching depth that the team has, this pretty much means that Corbin is pitching for his job right now. To be blunt, that means he's going to have to pitch better than he has through four starts. He's shown good control, which is nice to see, but his inability to get swinging strikes suggests that he'll need to maintain that pinpoint control to continue fooling hitters at all.
I was going to write something snarky here about how Capuano isn't this good and is due for regression. And he is, certainly, but he's also better than I realized he was. He had a K/9 over 8 last year, making him above-average on that front. And with a BB/9 that has been under 3 since 2010, that's plenty solid. He has an FIP of 3.61, which would represent regression, but he's also fundamentally not the same pitcher who spent 2009 and 2010 struggling to break out of the minors.
Insightful Commentary: Perhaps the most noticeable thing about Cahill's start is all the ground balls. I mean, he's always been a sinkerballer, but he's taken it to another level so far this year. After hovering around a GB% of 56%, he has shot up to 62.7% this year which, for perspective's sake, is almost exactly the same as Derek Lowe's career average. In the abstract, it's good to see, but if this improvement has come at the expense of control on pitches down in the strike-zone, then maybe it's something that he and Charles Nagy should revisit, because he's still giving up more walks than usual this year.
When Harang was with the Reds, he gave up a bunch of home runs. It was just sort of his thing. Just like the Padres did last year, the Dodgers picked him up in the hope that moving from homer-friendly Great American Ballpark to a pitcher's park would help this to a degree. This strategy backfired on the Padres, as he just pitched worse in other facets of his game to compensate for the lack of homers last year, but it seems to be paying dividends for the Dodgers so far.
Insightful Commentary: Hey, look at that, Joe Saunders is back to being right about where he was last year! Regression's a harsh mistress, but he does still have the best K/BB of his career, which is encouraging. With his BABIP and HR/FB in line with his career averages, it might not be too much of a stretch to assume that he'll stay between a 3.5 and 4 ERA for the rest of the year. And if you had offered that to me at the beginning of the season, I absolutely would have taken it.
Ted Lilly has been pitching for a long time, and he has never come close to having an ERA under 2 for an entire season. This is not a knock on Lilly, just the humble suggestion that he might not be Pedro Martinez. His BABIP of .189 suggest that he is due for some regression, and his HR/9 rate of .4 suggests that Chase Field is as good a place as any for it to happen.
Final Verdict: There aren't any "must-win games" in May. But the Dodgers are 9.5 games ahead of the D-Backs, which is a deficit that Arizona should probably start cutting into fairly soon. The Dodgers are dealing with a lot of injuries, while the D-Backs are starting to get players healthy, and are returning home after a winning road-trip. So, no it's not a "must-win series," but it's a "sure-would-be-nice-to-win-if-they-don't-want-to-be-playing-actual-must-win-games-in-about-two-months" series, which is somewhat less easy to put on a bulletin board. Still, I think the team gets it done. Diamondbacks two games to one.
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(Stats from Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference.)