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July 22, 2013

Overthinking It

The Not-So-Disappointing Dodgers

by Ben Lindbergh

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Almost six weeks ago, Sam Miller and I spent some time talking about the four most disappointing teams of 2013: the Blue Jays, the Angels, the Dodgers, and the Nationals. Were we to have that discussion again today, at least three of those teams would still be in the discussion. The Jays got hot, then went cold again; they’re in last place, seven games under .500 and 13.5 out, and their playoff hopes are in hospice care. “Maybe we were overrated,” Mark Buehrle admitted this weekend. “Maybe we’re not as good as we thought we were.”

The Angels have been a winning team since the start of June, but were bad enough in April that they’re still four games under, with a double-digit deficit in the AL West. And the Nationals were swept at home over the weekend, running their record to 48-50 and putting them half a game behind the Phillies. Publicly, at least, their self-esteem is still stronger than Toronto’s—“We’re a good team,” Jayson Werth said after the sweep—but they haven’t played much like overwhelming first-place favorites. The Nats’ Playoff Odds are down to 12.5 percent, which makes them look like a lock compared to both the Angels and the Blue Jays, whose chances have sunk to the low single digits.

And then there are the Dodgers, the team responsible for that Washington sweep. After beating the Nats by a combined total of 10 runs in games started by Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann, Los Angeles is now 50-47, just half a game behind the Diamondbacks in the NL West (and in the loss column, even). Over the past calendar month, the Dodgers have gone 20-5, tied with the red-hot Rays for the best record in baseball. Here’s where they rank over the same span in the various vital signs:

Stat

Past-month Performance

MLB Rank

NL Rank

Win Pct

.800

T-1

1

Run Diff

+43

2

1

TAv

.272

10

5

FRA

3.88

4

3

Def Eff

.717

7

4

BRR

4.0

2

2

That’s advanced stat for “firing on all cylinders.”

The narrative surrounding a team differs dramatically depending on the way its wins are bunched together. If a team that’s supposed to win starts slow, we write about what’s gone wrong, wonder when the manager will get fired—because it has to be his fault—and settle in for the fallout. Then a hot streak happens and we regret reading too much into a relatively small sample (which we’ll conveniently forget the next time a similar situation arises).

To be fair, rosters aren’t static throughout the season, so some slumps and hot streaks are significant. Every team will tell you that injuries aren’t an excuse for poor performance, usually just after telling you a sob story about all their walking wounded. But even if they aren’t an excuse—teams that gamble on injury-prone players or devote fewer resources to injury prevention and recovery deserve more aches and pains—injuries can be an explanation. Unlike the Rays, who’ve lost fewer days (112) to injury than any other team, the Dodgers (417) have had to deal with considerable hardship in health. Only the Yankees (646), Marlins (575), Orioles (421), and Pirates (419) have had injured players miss more games.

Two members of the Dodgers’ Opening Day rotation, Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley, made a combined 10 starts before injuries ended their season. In their absence—and with Zack Greinke out for a month after Carlos Quentin killed his clavicle—the Dodgers gave 11 starts to Matt Magill and Ted Lilly, losing nine of them. Hanley Ramirez missed almost all of April after spring surgery to repair a torn ligament in his thumb. In his stead, Justin Sellers started at shortstop, hitting .188/.263/.246. And no sooner had Hanley returned than he hurt his hamstring and went back on the DL for another month, opening the door for more flailing from Dee Gordon (.175/.278/.253).

Matt Kemp, of course, has done two separate stints on the DL and struggled to hit for power when active in the wake of October shoulder surgery to repair a detached labrum. Carl Crawford missed a month with a hamstring strain, and Stephen Fife has been out since early July with shoulder bursitis. And those are just the lowlights of the casualty list.

Granted, the Dodgers did themselves no favors by counting on journeyman infielder Luis Cruz to sustain last season’s fluky, empty average. (Predictably, Cruz wasn’t suited for a starting role.) And they’ve also had their fair share of unexpected successes. Juan Uribe remembering how to hit after two sub-replacement seasons. Hanley Ramirez comfortably outslugging Miguel Cabrera in the 150-plus plate appearances he has had. Yasiel Puig.

Still, today’s Dodgers are different from the team that worked its way into the “most disappointing” debate early on. Kemp returned on Sunday and looked good, going 3-for-4 with a homer—although true to fragile form, he left the game with an injury (an ankle sprain that isn’t believed to be serious). That game marked the first time all season that Kemp, Crawford, and Ramirez had been in the same lineup. Opposing pitchers have adjusted to Puig, and he hasn’t yet countered, but the Dodgers are better-equipped to survive an outfield slump

The rotation is strong top to bottom, boasting two true no. 1s in Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, a solid mid-rotation type in rookie Hyun-Jin Ryu, and two above-average back-end starters in Chris Capuano and Ricky Nolasco, whom the Dodgers used their financial muscle to acquire from Miami earlier this month. In the bullpen, Kenley Jansen has the closer duties covered, and J.P. Howell and fast-rising 2012 second-round pick Paco Rodriguez give Don Mattingly an enviable left-handed, late-inning combo. The Dodger could use some right-handed relief help, and to that end they’ve reportedly targeted Francisco Rodriguez. Ned Colletti says he won’t be as active on the trade market as he was last season, but it’s safe to assume that ownership won’t skimp if he finds a potential fit for the bullpen or an upgrade on Uribe or Mark Ellis in the infield. In for $223 million, in for a pound.

The Dodgers were BP’s (and PECOTA’s) preseason pick to win the NL West because we thought they were the division’s most talented team. Now, really for the first time this season, almost all of that talent is on the field. There’s no guarantee that their second half won’t be as injury-filled as the first, and for a team that’s spending as much as Los Angeles is, a .515 winning percentage and a half-game division deficit aren’t cause for confetti. The Dodgers weren’t nearly as bad as they looked before, and they also aren’t nearly as good as they’ve looked recently—only three games during their just-completed 20-5 run (as opposed to 13 of their upcoming 20) were against teams that are currently above .500. But the proof is in the playoff probabilities: despite having one fewer win than the Diamondbacks, the Dodgers’ odds of winning the West are more than twice as high.

The Dodgers make the trip to Toronto today for the first of three against the hope-abandoning Blue Jays. Toronto is still disappointing. But the Dodgers are on their way to being about as good as expected.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Los Angeles Dodgers,  Nl West

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