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July 17, 2012
First Win the Division, Then Puppet Show
Do you realize how bad the National League West has been since May 27? This is an arbitrary date reflecting my desire to cast the division in its worst possible light, so probably not. But consider what the standings looked like at the start of that day:
This marks the Dodgers' largest lead of the year to date (July 15). It took them longer to build that lead than it did for them to lose it, but we're getting ahead of the story.
I've included runs scored per game for a reason, which will become evident in a bit. For now, just note that the Dodgers were awesome, the Rockies and Padres stunk, and the Giants and Diamondbacks were treading water with varying degrees of success.
The Dodgers, in fact, had the best record in MLB at this point. People were genuinely and legitimately—at least as legitimately as anyone can be after 47 games—excited about the team. But here's the thing about May 27. Four months of baseball remain on the schedule.
First, a not-so-brief aside about assumptions and process: The next paragraph originally began “Sometimes, this makes a difference; sometimes it doesn't.” I hypothesized that owning the best record in baseball less than a third of the way through the season wouldn't matter much at its end. This led me to the line of inquiry that generated the following table, which invalidates my original hypothesis in convincing fashion but which makes an important point nonetheless, albeit not the point I'd expected it to make.
This seems like a long time (and it is), but historically, those remaining four months have told us little about such teams that we didn't already know. Let’s take a closer look at the teams with MLB's best record through May 27 over the past decade:
Teams that have dominated through May 27 of a given year over the past decade have continued to play well throughout the season and—except for the 2002 Red Sox—into the postseason. Five have reached the World Series, and three of those have won it.
The last team with the best record in baseball through May 27 to finish with a losing record was the 1995 Phillies. But thanks to a work stoppage, they had played just 28 games at the time, so we didn't have as strong a sense of how good or bad they were. (The Indians, who had the second-best record at the time—and the best Pythagorean record—went on to lead MLB with a ridiculous .694 WPct.)
The 1982 White Sox went 59-61 after starting 28-14, but that still makes for an overall winning record. They're the last team in a non-strike year to play below .500 after owning the best record in MLB through May 27. The Dodgers did the same in 1981, another strike-plagued season, but went on to win the World Series.
The last team with the best record in baseball through May 27 to finish with a losing record in a non-strike year was the 1973 White Sox. They jumped out to a 25-14 start before going 52-71 the rest of the way.
A briefer aside that is irrelevant but somewhat amusing: The 1973 White Sox featured a 21-year-old rookie who played left field and first base, and who went on to enjoy a fine big-league career. His name was Jerry Hairston Sr., and his son, Jerry Jr., plays for the 2012 Dodgers.
Here's a more detailed look at how the teams with the best record in baseball through May 27 from 1973 to 2011 did:
Note that strike-shortened seasons (1981, 1994, 1995) are included in winning percentages, but 1994 is excluded from postseason because there was none that year (let me take this opportunity to thank MLB on behalf of Expos fans everywhere).
The Dodgers, incidentally, once owned the first two months of the season. Between 1974 and 1983, they had MLB's best record through May 27 five times. They've done it twice since: once in 2009 and again this year.
So my alternate point—in light of, shall we say, reality—is that if the Dodgers fail to make the playoffs this year after their hot start, they will have accomplished something remarkable. Yes, they have been without the services of Matt Kemp and, to a lesser degree, Andre Ethier, but such are the dangers when one builds one's team around two star players and then supplements that with marginal talent:
Backup plan? What backup plan?
Now you know why I included runs per game in the very first table. Here's how the NL West has fared since May 27:
The Diamondbacks were my preseason pick to win the division. With the Dodgers' help, they have turned this into a three-team race (well, they had when I started this article; the Snakes were a half game back before being swept by the Cubs coming out of the All-Star break). Does Arizona have enough firepower to sustain this? If Justin Upton and Chris Young remember how to hit baseballs, sure, but that's a story for another day.
Young is batting just .149/.245/.277 in 159 plate appearances since returning from the disabled list on May 18. Upton? I'm not sure what his deal is, but he should be hitting better than the aforementioned Jerry Hairston Jr.:
Perhaps it's my limited imagination, but there isn't a universe in which this makes any sense to me. What's scary is that Upton, as we learned last year, is capable of great things. He could stop slumming it at any moment and carry a team on his back for weeks or months at a time.
Of course, Kemp is capable of even greater things as long as he stays healthy. And the Dodgers need him to do just that, as they easily have the worst offense in baseball since May 27 (Baltimore is second, having scored 11 more runs in three fewer games since then). Their scoring is down by a run and a half per game since their hot start, and they are averaging more than a full run less per game than the punchless Padres during that same period.
Kemp and Ethier are now healthy, which should help. Still, dropping two out of three at home (including once courtesy of an epic brain cramp by closer Kenley Jansen) against said Padres coming out of the All-Star break isn't the sort of thing the Dodgers can afford to do.
The Giants, meanwhile, have hung around long enough to overcome a once-daunting lead. They aren't playing great baseball, but in the NL West this year, greatness may not be required. Tres Compañeros have regressed but are still doing better than anyone could have envisioned. Pablo Sandoval is being Pablo Sandoval, when healthy. Brandon Belt has overcome Bruce Bochy's extreme aversion to young position players and is enjoying the breakout campaign that I predicted/guessed at back in February.
San Francisco has gained nine games in the standings in less than two months despite the fact that two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum owns the fourth-worst ERA in MLB among qualifiers and closer Brian Wilson hasn't pitched since April 12. The Giants are, to use a hackneyed but honest phrase, just winning.
Here is one final table to illustrate the difference between the NL West through May 27 and since:
Regression, as they say, is a harsh mistress. In the NL West, it ain't so easy on the eyes, either.
The Dodgers and their two-man offense jumped out to a huge lead in a relatively short time. Thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness, they let it slip away in even less time. The Giants and Diamondbacks have taken advantage of this despite not playing as well as they can. The division is weak, although not weak enough for the Padres and Rockies to do much other than play spoiler.
Welcome to the second half. Get pumped.