How are the Dodgers doing this?
I was skeptical of this team with Kemp and Ethier in the middle of the lineup. Well, neither of them are there at the moment. At the moment, the best offensive player on this team is probably A.J Ellis, their 31-year-old catcher who had never had more than 161 PAs in a season. Their 3-hole hitter over the last week has been Bobby Abreu. You thought Bobby Abreu retired in 2009, didn't you? Their second-best pitcher is Chris Capuano, who might have actually retired in 2009 for all of the impact he's had on baseball since then.
In the face of it all, they still hold a half-game lead over the Giants in the division. The Giants! Look at all the all-stars they have! Look, I rooted for the 2007 Diamondbacks, which should disqualify from calling another team a fluke for about the next eternity or so. I'm not saying they're going away this year, because it's July and they're still around. I just wish I understood how it was happening.
What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs):
The Dodgers don't really fit the profile of a first-place team, but that's where they find themselves, at least for the time being. Kemp and Ethier helped the offense pretend to be tolerable, but without them it's been a struggle. The Dodgers are last in baseball on the season in ISO% and home runs, suggesting a lack of power that isn't solely due to Dodger Stadium. The team has pitched better than their FIP would indicate so far, with the second-lowest ERA in baseball. Is it luck, awesome defense, or some sort of weird space magic? Find out in the second half of the season!
1. Stephen Drew, SS
2. Aaron Hill, 2B
3. Justin Upton, RF
4. Jason Kubel, LF
5. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
6. Miguel Montero, C
7. Chris Young, CF
8. Ryan Roberts, 3B
1. Dee Gordon, SS
2. A.J. Ellis, C
3. Bobby Abreu, LF
4. Juan Rivera, RF
5. Adam Kennedy, 2B
6. James Loney, 1B
7. Juan Uribe, 3B
8. Tony Gwynn Jr., CF
I don't think I'm being presumptive or overly dickish by saying that the Diamondbacks' lineup looks noticeably better than the Dodgers' on paper. Or on my computer screen, for that matter. I mean, Bobby Abreu is hitting third, and Bobby Abreu has quite literally been in Major League Baseball longer than the Diamondbacks have.
Ethier strained an oblique about a week ago, and has been listed as day-to-day ever since. But he hasn't played since, and it seems unlikely that the team will rush him back before the All-Star break. And Gordon dislocated his thumb on Wednesday, but he wants to play. Personally, I want him to play as well, since he's slugging .279 on the season.
Of course, behind Abreu is Juan Rivera, who is currently OPSing .644 on the season. Somewhere, there's a die-hard 9-year-old Angels fan who just hates that Abreu and Rivera are starting for the awful cross-town Dodgers.
The only starter on the team (assuming Ethier sits, of course) with an OPS over .800 is catcher A.J. Ellis. I spent the last two previews being glib about the possibility of someone who has finally become a full-time starter in the majors at the age of 31 being able to maintain his production. Well, it's July, and he still has an OBP of .400. I'm done being glib. He doesn't have a ton of power, but it's probably just enough to deter pitchers from throwing balls right down the middle to avoid walking him. And if he keeps this up, he's one of the best stories in baseball.
Thursday: Wade Miley (9-4, 2.87) vs. Nathan Eovaldi (0-5, 4.61)
Insightful Commentary: So, for one game, Wade Miley did absolutely everything I was worried about. He didn't strike anyone out, he didn't get ground balls, and he finally gave up all those home runs that his xFIP said he was supposed to. But it was just one game, and against a pretty good offense in Milwaukee as well. If he gives up a few homers against a team with the fewest in baseball, then I'll start getting worried.
There are 171 pitchers in Major League Baseball with at least 40 innings pitched in 2012. Nathan Eovaldi has fewer strikeouts per nine innings than all but ten of them. He's smushed right in between Jeremy Guthrie and Luis Mendoza, if that helps. I don't really know why, either. His average fastball is 94.6 mph, which is rather faster than Trevor Bauer's, plus a hard slider. But he just happens to be one of the most hittable pitchers in baseball, based on his contact rate.
Friday: Josh Collmenter (0-2, 4.61) vs. Clayton Kershaw (6-4, 2.65)
Insightful Commentary: Collmenter pitched well his last time out, allowing only one run on three hits as his inexplicable mastery over the Brewers continued. With Joe Saunders likely to come back after the ASG, this could be the last start Collmenter makes for a while. But then again, depending out what they do with Bauer, he might stick around for a little while. He can make the decision just a little harder by pitching well here.
Kershaw isn't have quite as dominant of a season as he did last year, when he won the Cy Young Award with a 2.28 ERA to go with a 2.47 FIP. His strikeouts are down a bit this year, and his walks and homers are both slightly up. All of this means that he's only been elite so far this year, rather than super-ultra-elite like he was last year. Bummer.
Saturday: Trevor Cahill (6-7, 3.63) vs. Chad Billingsley (4-8, 4.20)
Insightful Commentary: So Cahill has given up five home runs in his last three starts, which would be a lot for pretty much any non-Yusmeiro Petit starter, but it's especially noticeable for Cahill. Cahill, as you presumably know, is a sinkerballer who had all of three home runs on the season before this stretch. I'm not totally sure what the problem is, but it's quickly getting to the point where it stops being a statistical blip and becomes more serious. Just something to keep an eye on.
Sort of a weird season for Billingsley. After struggling last year with his K-rate and walk rate, he's gotten back to his career norms in both categories. Except that his ERA is almost identical to last year. His BABIP is .339, and his strand rate is lower than it should be, so look for him to perform more like his 3.51 FIP and less like his 4.20 ERA in the second half.
Sunday: Trevor Bauer (0-1, 9.82) vs. Chris Capuano (9-3, 2.83)
Insightful Commentary: Chances are, by now you've already formed your own opinion of what's wrong with Bauer and how he should fix the problem, and this little blurb isn't going to change your mind. My takeaway is that he hasn't been commanding his off-speed pitches very well, which puts him in a hole early on in at-bats and turns him into a one-pitch pitcher. Anyone who has seen Bauer's starts or numbers from the minors knows that his command is usually better than this on his off-speed stuff, and because of that, it would behoove the team to give him at least a couple more shots before banishing him back to Reno.
At the lean age of 31, Capuano has put together a season with an ERA that's a run and a half below his career mark. He's cut down on his home runs this year, which is probably due to moving to Dodger Stadium as much as anything else. Fangraphs says he added a sinker this year, that he's thrown in lieu of a traditional fastball. I haven't watched him enough to know if that's truly the case, or it's just a pitch labeling mishap, but it's interesting to see.
Final Verdict: This series could be a death knell to the Diamondbacks' fading playoff hopes. A four-game sweep would put them ten games behind the division leaders, and before you say that's unlikely, remember that we just got swept by the Padres at home. The Dodgers are holding everything together with duct tape and pictures of Matt Kemp at the moment, but the Diamondbacks can't afford to overlook anyone right now. Nothing in their previous week of performances has given me any indication that they can do this, but I think the Diamondbacks rally and split the series at two games apiece. Impossibly, I got through this entire preview without making a Steve Nash reference.
Head over to True Blue LA for the Dodger fan perspective.
(Stats via Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference)