September 8, 2008
Dodgers fans, does this feel at all familiar?
Back in 2006, the Dodgers pulled out of the All-Star break on a 1-12 run, then immediately followed that up by winning 11 straight games and 17 of 18. They would go on to tie for the NL West championship that season, and be knocked out of the playoffs in the Division Series by the New York Mets. On the whole, they wound up an 88-74 team that outscored its opponents by 69 runs. They were never as bad nor as good as they looked during either streak. At the time, there was even a convenient explanation for them: the Dodger schedule was very tough for a couple of weeks, than eased up, which helped explain the disparity in performance.
This year’s version is taking its fan base on an even wilder ride. Just 10 days ago, the Dodgers were dead in the water, 4½ games back of the Diamondbacks, having lost eight straight games by a combined score of 54-15. They weren’t getting unlucky, they were getting hammered, and by the likes of the Washington Nationals no less. Five of the eight losses were blowouts, and the starting pitcher took the loss in seven of the eight games, including the last five. With a loss to the division rival Diamondbacks on August 29, the Dodgers seemed more likely to be passed by the Rockies than to move into first place.
Just as they did in 2006, the Dodgers began playing better for no apparent reason. On consecutive days they beat Dan Haren and Brandon Webb, kicking off an eight-game winning streak that featured five victories over the D’backs. They outscored their opponents 52-18 in those eight games, just two of them by two runs and none by one run, and starters have seven of the eight wins in the streak. These last eight games are almost an exact mirror image of the eight games that preceded them.
What happened overnight between August 29 and August 30? Well, if you really want a reason, you could point to Jeff Kent shutting it down for the year. Kent batted .156/.206/.156 during the losing streak, and his defense has slipped to well below average. On the other hand, the Dodgers were 53-51 when he started up until that point, no one player is going to be responsible for that kind of turnaround, and replacing him with converted third baseman Blake DeWitt certainly didn’t do that much for the defense. (However, DeWitt has hit well, .286/.364/.536 in the eight games.)
It’s not a change at second base that has meant an eight-game winning streak. No, trying to divine why the August 22-29 Dodgers were 0-8 while basically the same exact collection of players was 8-0 from August 30-September 7—against tougher competition on the whole—is folly. This is what the baseball season is: essentially unpredictable in the short and medium term. Clayton Kershaw started twice in the losing streak: 6
This is what baseball players and baseball teams do: perform within a range that’s centered on their true talent level. If the extremes aren’t usually quite this obvious, the one truth we can pull from this is that looking at a larger picture will give us a better idea of what the Dodgers are. They’re 8-8 in the their last 16 games. They’re 27-21 since the All-Star break. They’re 73-70 for the season. This is a team that’s a little better than .500—with Manny Ramirez, anyway. That they’ve piled up wins and losses in a newsworthy pattern is interesting and makes for good copy, but it doesn’t tell us anything more about the team than 8-8 does.
There is no such thing as momentum in baseball, and we’ve had any number of examples of this principle in just the last few weeks. The Dodgers are the most obvious one, but take a look at the Mets, who took a devastating loss in Philadelphia on August 26, and were trailing the next night late in the game with their ace having been knocked out. They won that game, and five of the six that followed, all on the road against above-.500 teams. The Phillies, meanwhile, dropped three straight off of that great win. The Dodgers’ performance turned on a dime on the afternoon of August 30. The Yankees had a number of points where it seemed like they would climb into contention, but could never play well over a long enough stretch to contend. The Astros are 29-11 over their last 40 games with essentially the same team that was 47-56 before that. No, wait: they’re doing that while being down their second-best hitter and highest-paid player, Carlos Lee.
You can’t predict the future short-term performance of baseball teams. Moreover, you can’t learn much from the recent short-term performance of baseball teams. There’s no analytic deficiency there; it’s just the nature of baseball, which lends itself to the kinds of things we’ve seen over the past three weeks. Sure, you can figure out, looking back, why the Dodgers have swung from 0-8 to 8-0, but learning that doesn’t help you to divine the next eight outcomes. Blake DeWitt might keep hitting 200 points of OPS over his skill level. Manny Ramirez might keep hitting like Babe Ruth’s big brother. If you have any idea what version of Clayton Kershaw will show up in his next two starts, give Joe Torre—or your bookie—a call. What impact will Takashi Saito have when he comes off of the DL this week?
I’m not even sure that scheduling, which is what I pointed to two years ago to help explain the Dodgers’ roller-coaster month, is useful. After all, four of the Dodgers’ eight losses were to the Nationals, who had the worst record in baseball when LA came to town. Five of the eight wins have come over the Diamondbacks, who were a first-place team when this dance began. If we can’t predict the short-term performance of a contender, why would we think we can predict the short-term performance of a poor team? You have a better idea of the long-term expectation, but the short-term results are subject to the same variance. I can look at a remaining Dodgers schedule in which the best team is currently 67-77 and predict a cakewalk for them, but that would be a mistake. Baseball isn’t predictable enough to make that kind of call with any confidence. Even the Pirates, Rockies, Giants, and Padres—even the September versions of those teams, featuring new and anonymous lineups—are dangerous to a first-place team with .500 talent.
The NFL makes a lot of money off of the "Any Given Sunday" notion, the idea that any team can beat any other on a particular day. MLB is built that way as well, and if an MLB season were 16 games long, the debate over parity would be null and void: MLB would win it going away. MLB’s regular season has the credibilty it does because over 10 times that amount of games, performance gets around to beating variance. The Dodgers’ last eight games are variance, the eight before that were variance. When you string enough eight-game blocks together, you get to 73-70, which is their performance, one that is good enough for first place in a weak division of a weak league with three weeks to play.