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August 23, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL West

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way Back from the All-Star Break

by Geoff Young

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The landscape is different out west, vast and ever-changing. It is all I have ever known, so my perspective is blunted, but this is what I am told by folks who haven't spent their entire lives here. Striated red rock walls tower above, evergreen forests surround, dusty brown deserts pervade. At Zion, German tourists ride Harley-Davidsons, talk to chipmunks, and eat ice cream.

In Phoenix, the Diamondbacks have skidded into a five-game losing streak after riding the heroics of a succession of first basemen (Brandon Allen, Paul Goldschmidt, Lyle Overbay... perhaps it is time to put in a call for Travis Lee?). In San Francisco, the Giants struggle to stay healthy, a problem that dogs all old people, not just those who play baseball for Brian Sabean's geriatric club.

While the two teams atop the NL West stumble toward the finish line, two others have discovered the joys of scoring actual runs. Since the All-Star break, the Padres and Rockies rank first and second in the National League in runs scored. The Rockies play half their games at Coors Field, but the Padres? As in, the first team in major-league history to get shut out seven times in April?

The landscape is ever-changing. The Padres' last road trip through Pittsburgh, New York, and Cincinnati helped. They scored 70 runs in 10 games during that swing (compare with 19 runs in the 10 games leading up to the All-Star break). They have scored more than twice as many runs in August as the Giants, in the same number of games, which probably makes Sabean wish he'd hung onto Jesus Guzman a bit longer.

Guzman, the 27-year-old rookie who was blocked by, uh, whatever in San Francisco, is hitting .338/.378/.545 on the season and helping to lead San Diego's second-half surge. Beyond Guzman and his teammates' sudden ability to score runs, the entire division has been wonky since the break.

Consider the standings at the close of the season's first half:

Team

W

L

Pct

RS

RA

Pythag

SF

52

40

.565

332

322

.514

Ari

49

43

.533

416

407

.510

Col

43

48

.473

395

407

.486

LA

41

51

.446

340

373

.458

SD

40

52

.435

304

338

.452

Due to their insane record in one-run games, the Giants were winning more often than expected. They still are, but their lack of offense means that “more often than expected” doesn't come out to a lot. Here's that same table for the second half (through games of August 21, as are all stats in this article):

Team

W

L

Pct

RS

RA

Pythag

Ari

20

15

.571

149

150

.497

SD

19

18

.514

192

154

.600

LA

16

18

.471

125

118

.526

Col

17

20

.459

186

181

.512

SF

16

20

.444

107

132

.405

Pythagorean record doesn't tell the whole story, but it provides some indication of how well a team is playing. And although anything is possible in a 34- to 37-game stretch, it may come as a surprise to learn that the Padres own the division's best Pythagorean record since the All-Star break (or that they and the Diamondbacks are the only NL West teams to boast a positive run differential on the season):

Padres,   .600
Dodgers, .526

Rockies, .512

D'backs, .497

Giants,   .405

The Padres haven't hit that well in the second half (.266/.330/.400), but it looks fantastic compared to their pitiful first half (.231/.300/.333). The team leads the majors in stolen bases on the season by a wide margin (the gap between the Padres and second place is larger than the gap between second and 11th place), and Cameron Maybin's 20 steals since the All-Star break is tops in the big leagues. Guzman is hitting. So is Will Venable, who was exiled to the minors earlier in the season due to his offensive struggles. Kyle Blanks and Nick Hundley are healthy and producing. Not everyone has improved, but enough guys have to make an impact:

Player

Pre-ASB

Post-ASB

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

Nick Hundley

172

.222

.302

.327

33

.516

.545

1.097

Jesus Guzman

42

.268

.286

.488

122

.363

.410

.566

Will Venable

220

.242

.315

.325

103

.308

.379

.549

Kyle Blanks

104

.272

.346

.511

Orlando Hudson

214

.231

.329

.291

130

.304

.377

.452

Even Blanks, who missed the season's first half, has been a different hitter of late. After batting .094/.216/.094 in his first 12 big-league games following last summer's elbow surgery, he has hit .367/.418/.733 in 17 games since.

The Padres did this before, in 2009. That year, they buried themselves into a deep hole (36-52 at the All-Star break) and then, when nobody was paying attention, pulled themselves toward respectability (39-35 afterward). The following season, they won 90 games. Although the Padres' 2009 rebound didn't rely so heavily on offense, and although “anecdote” is not the singular of “data,” there is something to be said for finishing strong. Fans may give up on a team, but players, coaches, and front-office personnel (you know, folks that have to sell tickets for next year) cannot afford such a luxury.

Youngsters and veterans alike are fighting for future jobs, either with their current organization or elsewhere. (As former Padres GM Jack McKeon observed after San Diego swept his current Marlins team over the weekend, “This is the time of the year where you'd better be a salesman and show your wares and how good you are.”) What role might Guzman play in 2012? Or Blanks? Or Josh Spence? Or Logan Forsythe?

Players change. Teams change. Landscapes change. The Rockies dominated April before yielding to the Giants, who yielded to the Diamondbacks, who don't seem to want whatever it is they have been given. And if the twists and turns of a baseball season don't always make complete logical sense, this is only a reflection of life itself. How else do you explain Germans talking to chipmunks at Zion?

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