On the surface, things look pretty grim for the Dodgers right now. Despite winning ten of their last thirteen games, the Dodgers remain mired in third place in a bad division, saddled with a handful of bloated contracts and a beleaguered farm system. And of course, their ownership situation remains up in the air, so no one involved with the team even knows if they will have money to spend on free agents that will better their situation.
However, this argument fails to take into account one very important factor: it's the Los Angeles Dodgers. Thanks to their strategic location in the second-largest market in baseball, the only thing keeping this franchise from consistently dwarfing every other team in the division in payroll is cheap ownership that is almost certainly on the outs after this season. Whoever ends up owning the Dodgers will inherit a large local and national fanbase, the market revenue that comes with that fanbase, and two of the very best players in baseball in Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw. That's a pretty good start.
So enjoy these Dodger jokes, everyone. This might be the last season for a while that we can use them.
When we last checked in with the Dodgers, they were fighting to stay out of the NL West cellar. But that's no longer an issue as the team has gone 20-12 since that period, even reaching .500 before losing on Sunday to the Giants. The Dodgers may not be a playoff team, but at least they're finishing the season with a modicum of dignity given how horribly it began.
What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs):
That pitching advantage is almost entirely due to Clayton Kershaw, who has pitched over 213 innings with an FIP- of 63. But he's the only starting pitcher with an FIP- below 100, so the rest of the rotation is average at best. The bullpen is better than it first appears, with an above-average 3.56 FIP to go with its middling 3.8 ERA.
The team as a whole has hit better in the second half of the season, with a .704 OPS since the All Star Break rather than the .685 OPS they posted before it. It's still obviously not a team strength, but it's less of a liability than it was a couple of months ago. Progress!
1. Ryan Roberts, 3B
2. Gerardo Parra, LF
3. Justin Upton, RF
4. Miguel Montero, C
5. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
6. Chris Young, CF
7. Aaron Hill, 2B
8. John McDonald, SS
Los Angeles Dodgers
1. Dee Gordon, SS
2. Justin Sellers, 3B
3. Matt Kemp, CF
4. Juan Rivera, RF
5. James Loney, 1B
6. Jerry Sands, LF
7. Rod Barajas, C
8. Jamey Carroll, 2B
The lineup has a slightly different makeup from earlier in the season, when it consisted of Kemp, Andre Ethier, and the IT staff from the Laguna Hills Best Buy. This is mostly because Either is out of the lineup after being shut down for the season, but also because other players have stepped up. I've made fun of James Loney in this space before, but it's difficult to ignore how well he has played since the All Star Break. In the second half of the season, Loney has produced an OPS of .867, more than 200 points better than his first half mark. Hell, if his OPS of 101 is to be believed, he's been downright league-average this year. Not bad for a starting first baseman.
Note: that's pretty bad for a starting first baseman.
Juan Rivera has been a nice surprise for the Dodgers, as the former Los Angeles Angel (of Anaheim) returned to LA mid-season and has produced an OPS+ of 127 in 182 PAs since then. Jamey Carroll has been a good soldier for the Dodgers, sporting a .356 OBP while playing almost every day. But both of these players are in their 30s and are unlikely to duplicate their success, which in the long run makes them about as useful to the Dodgers as a check signed by Frank McCourt.
With it being September and all, the Dodgers are trying out a number of rookies in the lineup. Dee Gordon has been around for a good chunk of the season, and while he is solid in the field, he has walked all of two times in 155 PAs this year, leaving him with a somewhat sub-optimal .292 OBP. Jerry Sands was in the majors earlier in the year, but was sent down after struggling to adjust. The team has high hopes for him, but his .601 OPS suggests that he has been a bit overmatched this year. Justin Sellers is a 25-year-old utility infielder, which doesn't really scream "top prospect," and he's going to have to hit better than .213/.297/.315 to stick in the majors.
Matt Kemp continues to be Matt Kemp. I trust this requires no additional explanation.
Monday: Joe Saunders (10-12, 3.88) vs. Ted Lilly (9-13, 4.37)
Insightful Commentary: Oh god, could you imagine how boring and depressing this pitching matchup would look if we weren't in contention for a playoff spot? It features a mediocre soft-tosser in the twilight of his career (Lilly) against a middling starter who may not be back next year (Saunders). But with the Diamondbacks contending well into September, it's fascinating. Is Joe Saunders pitching worse in the last month or so, or just regressing to the mean? Is Ted Lilly done, or will he survive on guile and off-speed pitches for another few years? Will this happen again? Everything's better and more interesting when you're watching a playoff team.
As for Dodger fans, I have no idea why they would watch this game.
Tuesday: Ian Kennedy (19-4, 2.90) vs. Chad Billingsley (10-10, 4.30)
Insightful Commentary: In the short but pitching-rich history of the Arizona Diamondbacks, only Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling have ever won twenty games with an ERA under 3 (Randy did it twice). Yet Ian Kennedy has a shot at adding his name to that list. Though I've been known to disparage Wins and ERA as statistics, it is almost impossible in this day and age to "luck" your way to that combination. Ian has put up one of the best seasons ever among Diamondback pitchers, and he deserves to be recognized for it.
Chad Billingsley is on pace to finish with his highest ERA ever. He's gotten a bit unlucky, as evidenced by his 3.78 FIP, but he also hasn't pitched as well this year as he has in years past. He's always walked a fair number of batters, but his strikeout rate has dropped in 2011, giving him less margin for error. He's only 27, so this is hardly the end, but it is still discouraging to see a promising young starter head in the wrong direction.
Wednesday: Daniel Hudson (16-9, 3.41) vs. Clayton Kershaw (18-5, 2.36)
Insightful Commentary: In his last start, Hudson pitched a complete game, allowing two runs on five hits to the Padres. He also had a 7:2 K:BB ratio, which actually lowered his overall ratio on the season. One of Huddy's great strengths this season has been his ability to keep from walking guys, with a K/9 of under 2. Daniel Hudson had higher expectations surrounding him than anyone else in the rotation, and has lived in the shadow of Kennedy and Collmenter, who burst onto the scene. But Hudson has quietly improved his BB rate from his stellar debut in 2010, and this team would not be where it is without his development.
Is it just me, or do we always face Kershaw when we play the Dodgers? Anyway, by now I'm sure you all know what his deal is: he strikes out a lot of guys, has cut his walk rate significantly this year, and now has a chance of winning a Cy Young award. For purely selfish reasons, I'd like to see the Diamondbacks hurt his Cy Young chances by scoring ten runs in the first inning, but I suppose I'm not holding my breath.
Final Verdict: The Diamondbacks are going to have to stop winning at some point, and I'd rather it happen now than in the playoffs. The Dodgers have been on a roll of their own, they're at home, and I'm sure they'd love to finish ahead of the Giants in the Division. So, with that in mind, I'll say Dodgers two games to one.
Head over to True Blue LA to chat with a bunch of Dodger fans who must be truly blue at this point.
All batting data courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise mentioned, all pitching data courtesy of Fangraphs.