Just as it looked as though the Dodgers might run away with the National League West, they were hit with a bombshell on Thursday, namely Manny Ramirez‘s 50-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s drug policy. Leaving the specifics of his violation to the reporters except to note that he won’t be eligible to return until July 3, the question is whether his absence will put the division title back in play. The answer-sorry, Diamondbacks fans and Manny haters-is probably not.
Despite haggling with the Dodgers over his contract into early March and suffering a hamstring strain during his second week of spring training, Ramirez had picked up where he left off last year, hitting .348/.492/.641 and leading the NL in OBP and walks. His performance has helped power the Dodgers to the majors’ best record (21-8), run differential (+55), and Equivalent Average (.286), not to mention a modern major league record 13-0 start at home. The team currently leads the Giants by 6 ½ games and the Diamondbacks by 8 ½ games.
At the outset of the season, our PECOTA projections pegged the Dodgers at 93 wins, with a 47.8 percent chance of winning the division and a 9.4 percent chance of taking the Wild Card, with the Diamondbacks at 88 wins, 34.7 percent, and 10.3 percent, respectively. Updating today’s “reality check” piece to include Wednesday night’s results and their ramifications in our PECOTA-based Playoff Odds report, the Dodgers are projected to win 100 games (a .619 winning percentage), with an 84.1 percent chance of winning the division and a 4.7 percent chance of taking the Wild Card, while Arizona is projected with 84 wins (a .521 winning percentage), and 10.7 and 12.1 percent shots at the division and the Wild Card. In other words, the Dodgers have widened the gap considerably on their closest rivals. Meanwhile, the Giants are still projected for just 78 wins, with a 3.4 percent shot at the division and 4.6 percent chance at the Wild Card.
The Dodgers have three in-house options to fill their vacancy in left field. The most obvious one is Juan Pierre, who’s spent the half-season since Manny hit Tinseltown stuck in fourth-outfielder oblivion, accumulating just 118 plate appearances. Used mainly as a pinch-hitter this year, he has just 33 plate appearances, hitting the most empty .355 you might ever see: .355/.394/.387. His salary ($10 million, fourth highest on the team) and manager Joe Torre‘s taste for veteran herbs and spices makes him the most likely candidate to fill the job.
Also potentially in the mix is 24-year-old rookie Xavier Paul, a 2003 fourth-round pick who impressed the team during spring training this year. He’s been recalled from Triple-A Las Vegas, where he hit .316/.378/.463 in the hitter-friendly environment last year and was batting .344/.385/.542 this year. As noted in this year’s edition of the Baseball Prospectus annual, Paul’s a good athlete who makes solid contact with a line-drive swing that he has yet to translate into real power, as well as possessing decent speed and the system’s best arm. He’s a rookie but hardly a blue-chip talent, a combo likely to put him at a severe disadvantage in Torre’s eyes.
A third option, which would involve thinking slightly outside the box, would involve recalling Blake DeWitt from Las Vegas to play third base (where he spent the first half of 2008) while moving incumbent Casey Blake out to left field. While Blake has never played there in the majors, he has 238 games of experience in right field dating back to his days in Cleveland, so the transition wouldn’t be too difficult for him.
Here are the weighted PECOTA forecasts for the three potential additions to the lineup, as well as its latest subtraction:
Player AVG OBP SLG EqA MLVr Cost Ramirez .295 .390 .537 .315 .242 -- Pierre .288 .330 .340 .253 -.124 18.3 Paul .249 .314 .379 .248 -.126 18.4 DeWitt .264 .330 .401 .258 -.060 15.1
None of the options is projected to reach the major league average .260 EqA, though DeWitt comes the closest. That MLVr figure is for Marginal Lineup Value rate, a per-game expression of the additional number of runs per game that a player will contribute to a lineup otherwise consisting of average offensive performers. Figuring out cost of Manny’s absence in a back-of-the-envelope exercise is as simple as multiplying the difference in their MLVrs by the number of games while pretending that defense doesn’t matter; the dreadlocked one’s D is bad enough that playing anyone else out there would likely mitigate his loss somewhat. Via this method, using the standard sabermetric exchange rate of 10 runs equaling one win, Ramirez’ absence should cost the Dodgers somewhere between 1 ½ and two games over the course of his suspension-enough to dent their chances slightly, but hardly the end of their post-season hopes.
Ironically, the Dodgers actually had a better in-house alternative as recently as four weeks ago in Delwyn Young (projected to .256/.320/.429, .262 EqA, -0.46 MLVr); playing him in Manny’s place would have cost the Dodgers 14.4 runs. Alas, the 27-year-old was out of options, and the Dodgers designated him for assignment when they added futilityman Juan Castro to the 40-man roster, trading him to the Pirates a few days later in a horrific bit of roster mismanagement.
The above calculations assume Ramirez’s full-season performance would regress considerably following his torrid start, but given that he’s raking at a .382 EqA clip, it may be more justifiable to base the calculations on his 90th– percentile projection (.324/.417/.608, .345 EqA, .442 MLVr), in which case the cost becomes 25.1 runs for DeWitt, 28.3 for Pierre, and 28.4 for Paul, or between 2 ½ and three wins over the course of his suspension, a number that might hearten Diamondbacks fans anxiously awaiting Brandon Webb‘s return from the DL.
As an alternative way to gauge the impact of Ramirez’s absence, suppose we segment the Dodgers’ season into three unequal parts, namely the 29 games they’ve already played, the 50 games they’ll be without Ramirez, and the 83 games they’ll have left once he returns. For the first segment we pencil in the team’s actual scoring rates to date, and for the latter two segments, we use the team’s PECOTA-projected scoring rates, applying the worst-case “Manny Hit” (-0.568 runs per game) for the course of his suspension:
Segment RS RA First 29 5.55 3.66 Actual Next 50 4.49 4.39 PECOTA minus 0.568 r/g offense Final 83 5.06 4.39 PECOTA Overall 4.98 4.26
Using Pythagenpat, that’s a .573 winning percentage and a 93-win pace, or right where we pegged the Dodgers at the outset of the year. While this math is effectively saying that the cost of losing Ramirez may be enough to undo the extra advantage they’ve gained with their quick bolt from the gate, that still leaves the Diamondbacks having to find about 10 wins to overtake the Dodgers.
The bottom line is that Ramirez’s absence likely won’t cost the boys in blue the NL West flag. It could tighten the race, but the only real certainty is that it will be less colorful.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
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