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June 14, 2011
Divide and Conquer, NL West
Sometimes the Tangent Wins
In a season marred by ownership bickering, fan unruliness, and poor play, there has been one bright spot for the Dodgers in 2011. At age 26, and despite some people's obsession with his personal life, Matt Kemp has transformed from a good young player into an MVP candidate.
Part of Kemp's success, as we've noted, is due to improved plate discipline. Although the relevant ratios aren't as strong as they were a few weeks into the season, they're still much better than they have been in recent years. And as Kemp's strike zone contracts, his ability to hurt baseballs expands:
This is fun to watch if you are a Dodgers fan, and terrifying if you are not. At the same time, Kemp alone is not enough to make his team a winner. He has hit more home runs and stolen more bases than the next three guys on his team combined.
Fans have stopped attending games at Dodger Stadium (down 7,161 per game as of this writing, worst in MLB). Some—perhaps even much—of this is a reaction to ballpark violence and ownership's seeming indifference to said violence.
Even beyond that, though, the on-field product—with the exception of Kemp and occasional spurts of Andre Ethier—has not been worth watching. With about 40 percent of the season complete, the Dodgers find themselves struggling to stay out of last place in the division. They may not have been expected to contend this year, but they weren’t expected to “slum it” quite so much.
That being said, nobody is taking control of the division. The Giants lead at the moment despite a negative run differential. And while Ryan Vogelsong continues to shock and amaze with his emergence from the ashes of a seemingly dead career, Tim Lincecum—for as yet undiagnosed reasons (he thinks it is mental)—has seen his effectiveness plummet.
Since spinning a complete game shutout against Oakland on May 21, Lincecum has made four starts, posting a 7.66 ERA and allowing opponents to hit .318/.375/.511 against him. Sometimes he runs into the wrong hitter at the wrong time—there isn't much you can do when Rickie Weeks finds his groove. But getting beat by Ryan Theriot, Skip Schumaker, and Daniel Descalso is just plain freakish.
Four starts is a ridiculously small sample from which to draw meaningful conclusions. Call it a fluke for now and hope the situation improves, as it typically has throughout Lincecum’s career. Either that, or he has been abducted by aliens and replaced by a Brazilian cabbie, in which case everyone is hosed.
In other news, the Giants have signed Bill Hall, whom the Astros released on June 4. It is hoped that Hall and Emmanuel Burriss can fill in at second base while Freddy Sanchez recovers from a dislocated right shoulder incurred on June 10. Hall was hitting .224/.272/.340 for a Houston club that owned the National League's worst record (23-35) at the time of his release, so good luck with that.
The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, remain within striking distance of first place. They own the division's best run differential (+20) and are getting contributions from all comers.
Catcher Miguel Montero is playing like an All-Star, Ryan Roberts has been the NL's best third baseman, Justin Upton is a young stud... and on it goes. As Kelly Johnson notes, “Our lineup is really deep from one through eight.” Well, at least when they're playing at home.
Life hasn't been quite so rosy on the road, where only Stephen Drew (.348/.417/.522), Roberts (.247/.354/.515), and Montero (.283/.355/.495) are doing appreciable damage. Still, the Snakes are treading water away from Chase Field, which is better than sinking:
Although the Diamondbacks have scored fewer runs on the road, they've also allowed fewer. That wasn't the case last year, when both their offense and pitching suffered away from Chase. So while hovering near .500 might not seem all that special, it beats losing 69 percent of your games and being outscored by 1.21 runs per game, which is what they did in 2010.
Breaking even on the road could be considered a pleasant surprise for a team picked to finish last in the NL West. In fact, you might say that the theme of this year's club is pleasant surprises. If Roberts is the representative player on offense, then rookie Josh Collmenter is his counterpart among pitchers.
Collmenter barely cracked Kevin Goldstein's top 20 Diamondbacks prospects. The kid out of Central Michigan University (which produced former big-league pitchers Kevin Tapani, Curt Young, and Chris Knapp, as well as actor Jeff Daniels and current Padres broadcaster Dick Enberg) gets props for his command, control, and deception. Unfortunately, he works with a high-80s fastball, which isn't a recipe for sustained success. Still, Collmenter's 1.12 ERA is fun to enjoy while it lasts. If nothing else, it reminds us of Bob Gibson's 1968 campaign.
Speaking of which, the final home run Gibson allowed in the big leagues was to Pete LaCock, whose father, Peter Marshall, hosted a game show called “All-Star Blitz” in the '80s. A decade earlier, CMU’s Enberg hosted the similarly-titled “All-Star Baffle.”
How does this all relate to Collmenter and the Diamondbacks? It doesn't. Hey, I tried. Sometimes the tangent wins.
The story in San Diego is first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who has become a folk hero by virtue of the fact that he isn't Brad Hawpe or Jorge Cantu. A smoldering start by the 21-year-old Rizzo at hitter-friendly Tucson forced the Padres' hand and sent the local media into what passes for a frenzy in this corner of the country.
I have discussed Rizzo's recall and debut in great detail at my blog. The short version is that he is a talented young hitter whose torrid 2
Is Rizzo really that much better than he was before the season? Or is this a small-sample anomaly aided by favorable hitting environments? At his age, the answer is probably a little of each, although the degree to which this is the case remains unknown, as does the degree to which Petco Park will curtail his production. (The highest career slugging percentage by a left-handed hitter with at least 300 PA us Adrian Gonzalez’s .442 mark.)
Rizzo tripled off the center-field fence in his first game. The ball was crushed and would have been a home run pretty much anywhere else. Two nights later, he picked a better spot, yanking one out over the auxiliary scoreboard in right (off a left-hander, Washington's John Lannan, no less).
Rizzo also has shown patience at the plate, again in limited opportunities. Pitchers have been trying to get him to expand the strike zone, and except for an at-bat against Jason Marquis, who threw a gutsy full-count slider down and in with the bases loaded on Friday that would have tied the game if taken, Rizzo has resisted.
If hopes and expectations are high, it is only because there had been precious little of either before Rizzo's recall. (The Padres must hope that he can handle the burden better than Sean Burroughs apparently did). With Rizzo in the lineup, there is more of a buzz, although this has yet to translate into fannies in the seats.
The Padres also find themselves in the awkward position of playing in a division with no clearly dominant team, which means that although they may appear to be obvious sellers, it is difficult to commit in that direction just yet. If and when the time comes, likely trade candidates would include Heath Bell, Ryan Ludwick, and the aforementioned Hawpe.
The trouble with Hawpe (now back in right field thanks to Rizzo) is that, despite improving numbers, he still looks overmatched by big-league fastballs. The larger statistical picture (31.1 K% in 212 PA) aligns well with anecdotal evidence, such as an at-bat against Nationals right-hander Tyler Clippard during Friday's game.
Clippard started with a changeup down and away that Hawpe fouled off to the left side. Two 93-mph fastballs on the inner half followed, and Hawpe swung through both of them. If the Padres do decide to sell at some point, they had better hope that potential trade targets pay more attention to Hawpe's strong May showing than to his diminished bat speed. Soon would be good, before performance has a chance to catch up with physics.
Hawpe's former club is having troubles of its own. After cruising through April with a 17-8 record, the Rockies have since gone 14-26. That's as bad as the Padres are at home.
The Rockies continue to get nothing from third base, although with Ty Wigginton now at the hot corner, at least they have horrendous defense to go with no offense. Rockies third basemen are hitting .207/.261/.328 this year, and Wigginton twice turned routine plays into adventures against the Dodgers this past week. Colorado surrendered 12 unearned runs in the four-game series at Coors Field, where teams don't need that kind of help to score.
At second base, Jonathan Herrera has gone from early-season surprise (.303/.415/.404 in 108 PA through May 7) to rally killer extraordinaire (.188/.207/.235 in 92 PA since). When your chief offensive weapon is the ability to reach base, sporting a 7:1 K/BB ratio—as Herrera has done during this slump—doesn't help anyone.
Meanwhile, the pitching staff took a huge hit when Jorge De La Rosa fell victim to a torn UCL toward the end of May that will sideline him for the remainder of 2011 and then some. The return of Aaron Cook helps alleviate that somewhat, and Clayton Mortensen is bringing the funk, but when Jason Hammel left his last start against the Dodgers (stiff back, not considered serious), there had to be more than a few gasps in Rockies Nation.
Like everyone else in the division, the Rockies are in a tricky position. They may or may not have the firepower to climb back into the race. At the same time, nobody else is doing much, so punting the season isn't a viable option. If Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, and Ubaldo Jimenez start producing like they can, the Rockies could go on another April-like run. Granted, that's a lot of ifs. But it's also a lot of talent.