The Dodgers are still, if you count the games up right, one of the hottest teams in MLB history. The truth, though, is that The Streak (not consecutive games without a loss, but a sustained period of excellence) is over. Yasiel Puig did hit a huge home run to help them get back on the horse Tuesday night, but before that, they’d lost two games in a row, one of them to the lowly Marlins.
It’s time to scoop the stardust out of the corners of our eyes, now, and get a clearer look at which the Dodgers really are, what they should be expected to do over the final six weeks of the season.
It’s clear that the sub-.500 Dodgers from most of the first half are part aberration and part fossil. Zack Greinke pitched poorly early and got hurt in the fracas that, for a terrifying month or so for Dodgers fans, looked like it might epitomize their whole season. He’s back now. Calling up Puig gave the team punch at the plate that they had desperately needed. Shoving Brandon League into a lower-leverage role and handing over relief ace duties to Kenley Jansen took too long, but it’s happened now, and that’s the key.
There are still warts, here, though. The 42-8 screamer they went on reflects not so much a jump into warp speed by a transcendent team, as a mixture of individual hot streaks; getting healthy at positions of major need; a healthy dose of good fortune; and the competitive dynamics of the second half under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement.
They lack power. Adrian Gonzalez leads the team with 16 home runs. Puig and Hanley Ramirez have 23 in just a fistful more plate appearances than Gonzalez, combined, but Ramirez’s health issues (not to mention Matt Kemp’s) are a real concern, not an excuse for the absence of pop that plagues the team at times.
They do get on base more than many teams whose overall offenses rate better than theirs. They’ve shot from the bottom of the league to the middle of the pack in run scoring over the course of this long stretch of dominance. The collective shape of their offense, though, is a poor fit for the current run environment. Only the Red Sox, Tigers and Cardinals have higher batting averages and OBPs than the Dodgers, but 14 teams have scored more runs, and 15 have higher slugging averages. The Red Sox, Tigers, Angels, Pirates, Cardinals and Braves all have better offenses, based on park-adjusted linear weights, according to StatCorner.com. The Rays are the best team to whom to compare the Dodgers, and the Rays are better.
That might be a controversial statement. Let me defend it. Yes, the Dodgers beat the Rays handily in a three-game series in Los Angeles this month. That was during the Streak, though, and more importantly, it was during a rough patch for Tampa Bay. When you break down the teams to their component parts, I think Tampa is clearly superior.
The offenses are probably a wash. Each struggled early in the season; each has been fantastic since adding a 22-year-old right-handed slugger to their outfield mix. The starting rotations are close to a wash, too. Clayton Kershaw has a small but certain edge over David Price, and Greinke is probably the third-best starter on the two rosters, but the Rays have far superior depth. Even without Matt Moore, for now, they have four guys on par with Hyun-Jin Ryu, and all better than either Chris Capuano or Ricky Nolasco. I prefer flat, deep rotations to top-heavy ones, but it’s likely a horse apiece.
The differences between these teams are on defense, and in the bullpen. The Rays don’t have any unit as bad as the Dodgers’ outfield defense. Few contenders do. And although the Dodgers, again, have the best player between the two teams in the bullpen battle, depth swings the argument to the Rays’ favor.
Kenley Jansen is real, and he’s spectacular. But a bullpen of one is a red flag. The Dodgers also rely on Ronald Belisario and Brandon League, who have been pretty bad, and on J.P. Howell and Paco Rodriguez.
Howell and Rodriguez have really, really pretty numbers. They’ve thrown 95 1/3 innings between them, with a low-2.00s ERA, 96 strikeouts and 31 walks (as always, when I mention walks, I mean: unintentional walks, plus batters hit by pitches), all in the course of facing 373 batters. They haven’t actually been that good, though, and you should expect them to be worse going forward.
For one thing, those strikeout and walk numbers aren’t as impressive as they appear. The composite strikeout rate works out to right around 25 percent, which is above average, but hardly stirring given the sheltered roles Don Mattingly has given to each man. The walks are right in line with league norms, too, but these are the two best lefty relievers in a winning team’s bullpen. League-average walk rates aren’t inspiring.
More importantly, though, between them, Howell and Rodriguez have allowed only three home runs all year. Three. That’s not sustainable, and even moving halfway back to a normal home-run rate would put both of those guys firmly into the marginal lefty bin.
It may seem like picking nits, but the Dodgers are up against some very good teams in the National League, if and when they reach the postseason. The Braves don’t have a weakness like the lack of a competent glove man in center field or a shortage of usable relievers. Nor do the Cardinals. Los Angeles has awesome top-shelf talent, and that makes them hard to beat when the going is good. They’re not nearly the juggernaut they appeared to be over that stretch, though, and their lack of a strong second line is a liability. They need good health and good luck to get far come October.Next post: Paul Goldschmidt Wins, I Lose: Dude is Good
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