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It was just a bit over a year ago that the entire NL East was separated by a
game-and-a-half, with all five teams over .500. This year the NL West, which
had just one team finish above .500 in 2005, is aping that feat. Slumps by the
Diamondbacks and Dodgers have brought those two teams back to the pack,
leaving the entire division deparated by that same 1 ½-game margin. “Last
place” is actually a three-way tie for third among the D’backs, Rockies and
Giants at 36-35, thanks to both of the latter teams taking the first two games
of their interleague series this week.

Last June, there was a clear hierarchy in that NL East. The Braves had the
best run differential, and would eventually go on to win the division. The
Nationals, who had been outscored on the season but were in second place at
the time, would finish last. You can usually look past the records-potentially
deceptive even 11 weeks into a season-and discern which teams’ status is real
and which is just the product of some good fortune. In the West, for example,
the Dodgers have by far the best run differential at +48. The other four teams
combined are at +29. The Dodgers lead the NL in runs scored-a tremendous feat
in their home park-and have done so while dealing with a significant spate of
injuries.

You can go deeper than run differential by using the Adjusted
Standings Report
, developed by Clay Davenport. The ASR goes past win-loss
to look at the elements that went into the record, specifically the underlying
run elements, the context in which those were produced, and the opposition the
team has faced. A team’s adjusted record is generally a better indicator of
how the team has played to date than its actual record is, and as such is a
better predictor of what they’ll do in the future, assuming the same
personnel.

Here, side-by-side, are the NL West standings in your newspaper and the ASR
version (records rounded to nearest whole number):

Padres         37-33  .529   --    Dodgers        38-32  .543   --
Dodgers        36-34  .514    1    Padres         36-34  .514    2
Diamondbacks   36-35  .507  1.5    Rockies        36-35  .507  2.5
Rockies        36-35  .507  1.5    Giants         35-36  .493  3.5
Giants         36-35  .507  1.5    Diamondbacks   34-37  .479  4.5

The high level of agreement between the actual and ASR standings is unusual.
Four of the other five divisions have at least one team with a four-game
change in their record, and three have a different first-place team. What the
similarity does tell us that there are few secrets in the NL West; the five
teams have played comparably to date, and no team has a record that is notably
deceptive.

Taking it team by team:

  • The Dodgers are slightly better than their record, the main difference
    being that they’ve underperformed their actual runs scored and allowed by four
    games. They’ve played a relatively easy schedule to date, however, the easiest
    in the division, which tilts their records back toward each other. The Dodgers
    looked like the best team in the division three months ago, and given how
    impressive their depth has been, there’s no reason to change that assessment.

  • The Padres have scored six fewer runs than what would be predicted by
    their run elements, accounting for most of the one-game difference you see
    above. Overall, their 37-33 mark is an accurate reflection of how they’ve
    played to date and their overall expectations of being a slightly-above-.500
    team.

  • The Rockies share the distinction, along with the Red Sox, of being the
    team whose record matches its adjusted record most closely. The two teams are
    each off by one-tenth of a game. The Rockies are the one NL West team that has
    been outscored by its opponents. Their adjusted record shows that their true
    run differential based on the run elements is positive, however, pushing their
    adjusted record back over .500.

    I would be wary of reading too much into any advanced analysis of the Rockies,
    either as a team or as individuals. Coors Field is playing so differently in
    2006 than it has previously that any introduction of a park adjustment into
    the work is potentially confounding, whether you use a one-year factor (small
    sample, possibly skewed) or a multi-year factor (may not reflect the current
    run environment). It’s clear that using a humidor to store the baseballs used
    in Denver has had a greater effect in 2006 than it had previously,

    Slipping off my analyst’s cap for a second, can I ask whether this is such a
    good idea? If it’s possible to make the park at 5200 feet a neutral one, isn’t
    that going too far? And if so, should we be doing the same thing at the other
    end of the spectrum, adjusting the balls used at Safeco Field and Petco Park
    and Comerica Park to create league-average offensive environments? The
    prevailing idea that low-scoring games have some moral superiority to
    high-scoring ones makes that notion a non-starter, but have we ever considered
    that part of that viewpoint is due to the preferences of the opinion makers,
    rather than the fans? High-scoring games tend to run longer and make life
    harder for writers at the game, people who are working on deadlines and already
    travel-weary. Not that I don’t enjoy a snappy 2-1 game myself, but I also
    enjoy a slugfest, and I’ve never heard of a fan who’s just enjoyed a 12-10
    barnburner complaining about its length. We know that attendance correlates
    fairly well with run-scoring (higher is better), so why is Coors Field a
    better place to watch a game now that the baseballs are being kept wet?

    I wonder how much of the idea that low-scoring pitchers’ duels are a better
    brand of baseball than their counterparts is solely a print-media creation,
    the end result of a vocal segment of the baseball world’s desire to get copy
    into the appropriate edition without stress and get the work day over. I don’t
    think that’s the only reason, but I think it’s a significant contributing
    factor.

    I think homogenization is bad, and I believe that unique environments are good
    for the game. That Coors Field is no longer playing like one is a loss for us
    as fans.

  • The Giants see little change in their record, having slightly
    underperformed their actual runs scored and allowed while scoring 15 more runs
    than predicted by their run elements. Like the Dodgers, they’ve played a
    favorable schedule, though not to the same extreme.

  • The Diamondbacks lose the most ground in this exercise. Their actual run
    differential of +2 looks like -19 when you consider the elements that have
    gone into it, a change split evenly between the offense and the defense.

Usually, looking at the Adjusted Standings will provide an answer as to who
the real achievers are. In the NL West, though, the picture comes only into
slightly-better focus. The Dodgers look better and the D’backs look worse, and
everyone else is about the same. This could well be a five-team race to the
finish, as only the Dodgers seem to have the talent base to win 90 games. It’s
the kind of division where a gain of a win or two could put a team atop the
pack, and because of that, a situation where making a move between now and
July 31 could make the difference between playoffs and fantasy football come
October. If the trade deadline is usually an overrated point in the season
because we tend to overstate the impact one player can have in two months, the
NL West is an example of a division where a trade-deadline pickup could push a
team into October.

With three veteran GMs, as well as two new ones who cut their teeth under GMs
prone to big midseason pickups (Ned Coletti under Brian Sabean in San
Francisco; Josh Byrnes under Theo Epstein in Boston), this could be one of the
more entertaining subplots of July.

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