Can they keep it up?

At this writing, the Dodgers, at 12-6, are tied with the Red Sox for the second-best record in baseball. To be sure, it’s terribly early, but it does make me wonder how likely the Dodgers are to continue playing well. They were already contenders in the relatively lusterless NL West, but most observers had L.A. tabbed for third place or worse.

On a team level, the Dodgers rank fourth in the NL in runs allowed with 78 and 10th in the NL in runs scored with 87 (incidentally, despite being in the lower tier of offenses, the Dodgers are on pace to score almost 800 runs). That comes to a run differential is +9, which translates to a Pythagorean record of 10-8–two games off their actual pace and only percentage points ahead of the 11-9 Pythagorean record of the Padres, who have a +11 run differential. (Despite Derek Zumsteg’s interesting piece on the sometimes overstated value of Pythagorean analysis, I’ve nonetheless indulged, for a little more perspective.) Adjust for the quality of competition and employ equivalent runs (which are generated from the opponents’ batting line rather than their actual runs scored), and the Dodgers’ differential drops to only +2. The disconnect between runs and record, in L.A.’s case, can be explained by the Dodgers’ sparkling 6-0 record in one-run games. Even with their ruthlessly efficient bullpen, that’s of course not going to hold up.

The pitching we know is strong (and eventually they’ll get around to making Wilson Alvarez the fifth starter), so I’m going to focus on how the offense might fare from here on out.

Let’s see how the Dodger lineup has fared thus far–as demonstrated by each hitter’s current EqA–compared to their EqA projections according to the PECOTA weighted mean:

Hitter                 Current EqA          Projected EqA
Adrian Beltre           .347                   .265
Milton Bradley          .288                   .284
Alex Cora               .217                   .242
Juan Encarnacion        .238                   .269
Shawn Green             .310                   .309
Cesar Izturis           .258                   .219
Paul Lo Duca            .369                   .262
Dave Roberts            .318                   .248

As you can see, everyone who’s regularly in the lineup except for Alex Cora and Juan Encarnacion is out-performing his PECOTA weighted-mean projection. In fact, half the lineup–Adrian Beltre, Cesar Izturis, Paul Lo Duca and Dave Roberts–is besting his 90th-percentile PECOTA forecast. Of those four, it’s Lo Duca who’s the best bet to come tumbling from the firmament. He’s known to wear down in the deeper reaches of summer (hoisted by his own petard of “gamer-ness”) and he’s smushing his 90th-percentile mark by no less than 83 points.

Beltre certainly won’t maintain a .347 EqA for the year, but I think bettering his 90th-percentile EqA of .291 is tenable. We know about Beltre’s long-simmering potential and his stunning record of minor league performance given his age (.321/.411/.581 at Double-A-San Antonio as a 19-year-old), so maybe promise and circumstance have finally converged. That must be the case if the Dodgers are to remain among the NL’s elite.

Roberts appears poised for a drop-off, but his weighted mean feels a tad low to me. What’s interesting is his bizarre batting line thus far: .281/.419/.298. For those counting, that’s an Isolated SLG of .018–an appallingly low figure. On the other hand, Roberts has logged 14 unintentional walks, mostly from the leadoff position, in 74 plate appearances. Perhaps it’s been imparted to Roberts that his job is, for the most part, to get on base by hook or crook, and that he’s displaying a new level of ability in terms of plate discipline.

Izturis is no one’s idea of a productive hitter, but even his 90th-percentile EqA of .244 is a fairly modest target. He doesn’t need to do much to exceed projections: for him to reach the 90th percentile would require a batting line of only .282/.314/.362. An EqA in the .250s is probably too much to ask, but it’s not a stretch to think he’ll best his weighted-mean forecast.

Encarnacion is falling well short of his projected EqA of .269, which would be a career best. I think that’s somewhat optimistic. Based on his career track and age, something in the 40th-percentile territory is a better bet. Even so, that would constitute notable improvement over his current mark.

So Encarnacion and Cora should be significantly better (which, mind you, is not synonymous with being “good”), Bradley and Green will likely hold serve, and the rest–especially Lo Duca–should decline markedly.

As things stand now, the Dodgers are on pace to score 783 runs this season. PECOTA, meanwhile, predicted 679 runs for L.A. in ’04. Based on what I’ve seen so far this season and the regressions (and progressions) that can be expected, I think the Dodgers will score in the vicinity of 710 runs. I mostly say that because I expect a handful of players (i.e., Beltre, Roberts and Bradley) to best their weighted-mean projections, and I don’t see those gains being eroded elsewhere in the lineup. But the upshot is that barring a scorched-earth acquisition, this looks like an 80- to 85-win team to me.

And speaking of scorched-earth acquisitions, there’s a Carlos Delgado rumor making its rounds. I’ve no clue as to the level of veracity involved, and Delgado would have to waive his no-trade clause before anything could happen. But, stop the presses, it would certainly help the Dodgers in the here and now. Green would return to right, and Roberts and Encarnacion could platoon in left. The problem is with the latter arrangement, Roberts and Encarnacion both, oddly enough, show reverse platoon splits for their careers. I suppose a bass-ackwards platoon could be considered, but that’s a bit nettlesome.

On the upside, Delgado is off to a disappointing start thus far (.243/.365/.443). If, as I do, you abide by his projections for this season, he’ll have to be productive beyond his forecasts for the balance of 2004 just to meet said forecasts. That means the Dodgers, if they trade for him before he begins to make up statistical ground, may be getting Delgado plus progression to the mean. The Delgado acquisition, if such a rumor has any legs at all, would be enough to tilt the NL West scales in L.A.’s favor. And GM Paul DePodesta is plenty smart enough to avoid letting his club’s hot–but perhaps anomalous–start fool him into a state of self-satisfied inertia.