May 29, 2012
Attending to Center Field
Whether an injury to a key player is considered devastating or galvanizing depends on what happens to the team next. Results dictate narrative.
The Diamondbacks and Dodgers both started strong, at least in part due to the play of their respective center fielders. Chris Young was hitting .410/.500/.897 with five home runs when he separated his right shoulder while crashing into a padded wall while making a catch in the fourth inning of an April 17 game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Arizona lost that contest, 5-4, bringing their record on the young season to 7-4.
Young missed the next month, during which the Diamondbacks went 10-18. Was Young's absence the reason for their demise? Well, the team hit .253/.326/.370 and averaged 3.8 runs per game. Those aren't great numbers, but neither are they horrible—the National League as a whole is hitting .250/.317/.392 and averaging 4.1 runs per game in 2012. However, it is a drop from those first 11 games, when the Diamondbacks were at .237/.321/.414 and averaging 4.7 runs per contest. But these are small samples, and Young was producing at an unsustainable level. It's possible that Arizona would have slumped even in Young’s continued presence.
The pitching was less stellar (4.38 ERA)—worse than when Young got hurt (3.65) —but still not horrendous (3.81 for NL this year). And although the absence of Young's glove in center field may have been a contributing factor, ultimately the guys on the mound are responsible for preventing runs.
The other problem is that Young hasn't been the player he was pre-injury since returning from the DL on May 18. He is 3-for-28 with a double, no walks, and 8 strikeouts. Then again, the team is 5-4 since Young returned, although the usual small-sample caveats apply.
Overall, the difference between the Diamondbacks with and without Young is striking:
Whether Young is directly responsible, and if so to what degree, Arizona has been a completely different team with him on the roster. If the Diamondbacks had sustained anything resembling the success they've enjoyed when Young is healthy, they'd be right in the thick of the NL West race now. For that matter, there would be an NL West race now, as opposed to the Dodgers trouncing everyone.
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Speaking of which, the Dodgers owned a 23-11 record when Kemp landed on the shelf. Kemp strained his left hamstring and was placed on the DL on May 14. Since then, the Dodgers are 9-4. In fact, they've matched their longest winning streak of the year (6) and mounted their largest comeback (from down 5 runs) with last year's NL MVP runner-up out of the lineup.
Kemp, of course, had gotten off to a ridiculous start. Even after going hitless in his final 14 at-bats, Kemp was batting .359/.446/.726 on the season when he tweaked his hammy.
Losing a weapon like that should have hurt the team, but in graphical form, here's how the Dodgers have fared with and without Kemp:
Remove one of baseball's premier offensive performers from your lineup, score more runs. This is hardly an intuitive result. It's hardly causal either, but you knew that. Still, it is surprising and it raises a disturbing question to competitors in the division and throughout the league: If this is what the Dodgers do with Kemp out of the lineup, how are we supposed to beat them when he returns?
And given the mess that the franchise appeared to be in just a few short months ago—ownership issues, a seeming overdependence on a few key players, etc.—the Dodgers have catapulted themselves back to respectability and beyond with surprising ease and speed.
So about that overdependence on a few key players. Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, and Hiroki Kuroda were the team's Big Three last year. In 2012, with Kuroda gone, a healthy Andre Ethier becomes the third key player for the Dodgers. There still isn't a lot of diversification of assets, but this hasn't been a problem so far, as they have been one of the best (if not the best) teams in baseball for the first two months of 2012.
It helps that the Dodgers have gotten production from unexpected sources. Journeyman catcher A.J. Ellis is channeling Paul Lo Duca and playing like an All-Star. Mark Ellis, Bobby Abreu, and Jerry Hairston Jr. all have found the Fountain of Youth and are contributing beyond anyone's expectations.
On the pitching side, Kershaw is being his usual dominant self. Chris Capuano is pitching like... someone other than Chris Capuano. And Kenley Jansen has been terrific since assuming the closer role at the end of April (and before then, for that matter).
The net result is that the Dodgers have opened up the largest lead—7 ½ games over San Francisco after Sunday's games—in any division. This is due in part to the fact that they have played well with or without Kemp, and in part to the fact that the other teams have done nothing from April 18 (when Arizona lost Young) until now:
The Diamondbacks, Padres, and Rockies rank among the worst teams in baseball during that stretch.
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Another curiosity has been home/road splits and attendance. The Diamondbacks are 10 ½ games behind the Dodgers as of this writing. That difference is entirely due to their respective play at home. These two teams are essentially equal on the road in terms of results, although Arizona is superior in terms of run differential:
Compare with their home records:
This is after Arizona won two in a row against the Brewers at Chase Field over the weekend. Amusingly, one of these teams is receiving much better fan support so far this year than last:
*There may be rounding errors.
In fact, through May 27, only five MLB teams have seen their attendance increase from 2011 to 2012 by a larger amount than the Diamondbacks:
The Diamondbacks? Not that there is necessarily a causal relationship, but until recently, they had the worst home record in NL (thanks to their two straight home wins, four straight home losses by the Rockies, and five straight by the Cubs, this is no longer true). Yes, the Snakes may be enjoying some residual effects from last year's unexpected playoff run, but this is a franchise that has been stuck in neutral for the past several years in terms of drawing fans to the ballpark.
Is this rise in attendance sustainable? Maybe not if the Diamondbacks continue playing poorly at home. But if they can get back to where they were headed when Young hurt his shoulder, then who knows. And as we noted at the top, results dictate the narrative. Call this the unwritten part of the story, which we will watch unfold over the next several months.
The Dodgers, for their part, may have to settle for dominating on the field. If the fans don't return in full force right away, between the new ownership group assuming control and the team playing better than it has in many moons, it is only a matter of time before empty seats at Chavez Ravine become a distant memory.