May 22, 2003
Look Ma, No Bats
The Dodgers won yet another close game last night, holding the Rockies to a pair of runs in a 3-2 win. That's an offensive explosion by the recent standards of Dodger opponents: The Blue Crew had given up just one run in five consecutive games dating to May 14. Thanks to Keith Woolner's latest creation, "Team Records and Streaks," we know that they lead or are tied for the lead in the number of games won when scoring two runs or four runs, and trail only the Braves in winning games in which they score three runs.
Overall, the Dodgers have allowed a freakishly low 137 runs, 36 runs fewer than the Expos and 18 fewer than the A's. According to Michael Wolverton's analysis, which factors in the very good pitcher's park in which they play half their games, the Dodgers have the fourth-best rotation and the fourth-best bullpen in the game.
Don't get too crazy about this idea, but the Dodgers are on pace to allow just 482 runs this season. That just isn't done. In fact, just three teams in the last 10 years have allowed fewer than 600 runs in a full season: the Braves of 1997, 1998 and 2002. The last team to break 500? The Orioles (430) and A's (457) did it in the strike-shortened season of 1972. (The A's missed seven games and may have turned the trick anyway; the Orioles missed eight, and would certainly have stayed under 500 in a full season.) Four teams--the Cardinals, Mets, Orioles and Tigers--did it in the last year of the modern dead-ball era, 1968. Even if the Dodgers can't maintain their pace, they're well on their way to being one of the top run-prevention teams of my lifetime.
If pitching was 153% of baseball or whatever the cliché says, that would be enough. The problem is, the Dodgers score runs just slightly more frequently than they allow them, so they're just 26-20, three games behind the Giants in the NL West. Only the pitiful Tigers have scored fewer runs than the Dodgers' 166. As with their run prevention, their scoring is in part due to Dodger Stadium, but it's mostly due to the lousy hitters who populate their lineup. They have the second-worst offense in the NL by Equivalent Average, which includes two of the worst hitters in the game this season in Cesar Izturis (.209 EqA) and Adrian Beltre (.201 EqA) and no one having a real good year. Six starters hover between EqAs of .265 and .281.
In figuring out where the Dodgers go from here, you have to answer two questions:
Last first. Here are the Dodgers' performances so far, along with their PECOTA-projected EqAs:
Actual EqA Projected EqA Paul Lo Duca .281 .267 Fred McGriff .269 .285 Alex Cora .265 .247 Cesar Izturis .209 .208 Adrian Beltre .201 .273 Brian Jordan .272 .254 Dave Roberts .278 .249 Shawn Green .270 .319 Daryle Ward .117 .258 Mike Kinkade .317 .277 Jolbert Cabrera .308 .224 Todd Hundley .274 .262 Ron Coomer .242 .210
If you're a Dodger fan, those numbers are a little bit scary. While Shawn Green has had a slow start, and the flaming wreckage of Adrian Beltre's career can be seen for miles, the team actually is getting better-than-expected numbers from four starters and most of the bench. On the whole, this offense is not underperforming by much, and any improvement is going to have to come via a resurgent Beltre or a trade, and there aren't many third basemen or shortstops on the market for the Dodgers to acquire.
Whether the pitchers can keep up is a different story. To a man, their peripherals are good, they haven't been overworked, and none is wildly outperforming reasonable expectations. While Hideo Nomo may be a little over his head, the presence of healthy and effective versions of Kevin Brown and Darren Dreifort makes the Dodger rotation the class of the league. The staff is being supported by a defense second in the league in Defensive Efficiency, including a double-play combination--Izturis and Alex Cora--that is drawing raves.
The bullpen, led by the game's latest best closer in Eric Gagne (43 strikeouts in 24 innings? Are you kidding me?), gets ground balls and strikeouts by the bushel. Dan Evans deserves a lot of credit for acquiring low-profile guys like Paul Shuey, Guillermo Mota and Paul Quantrill in the trade market, and Jim Tracy runs his pen efficiently, if not creatively. There's nothing fluky about this staff; they could very well allow fewer than 550 runs this year.
As good as they pitch, though, the Dodgers will struggle to stay in the hunt as long as their offense is among the worst in the league. They're short at least two hitters, and they lack the top-tier bashers who can make up for that. Balance is nice, but a balanced offense that breaks down in two slots is a recipe for disaster. Unless Adrian Beltre rebounds to at least a league-average level, I can't see the Dodgers beating out the Giants in the NL West.