Will the Dodgers Win the N.L. West Division?

Jul 2, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez (right) is greeted by right fielder Yasiel Puig (66) after hitting a home run during the third inning against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Coming on the heels of acquiring a broken-down Hanley Ramirez from Miami in late July, the Dodgers engaged the Red Sox in a massive trade that brought Carl Crawford,  Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, and Nick Punto to Hollywood. Since that point, the Los Angeles Dodgers had proven themselves to be every bit of an old, overpaid, underwhelming, and under-performing blob of talent. But are they really that bad?

The Dodgers were expected to be one of the top teams in baseball this year, and take part in an epic battle for the National League West with San Francisco and Arizona. That hasn’t exactly happened. The Dodgers started 2013 so poorly, in fact, that they remain by themselves in the division cellar (albeit just 3 1/2 games behind Arizona for first place) despite winning eight out of their past ten games. Which tells you that a) The Dodgers were horrible in April and May, and b) The N.L. West has not lived up to any of the hype whatsoever.

This begs a couple of questions. First, why were the Dodgers so bad early on this season? Secondly, what changed to spark this sudden about-face? And lastly: is it for real? Will they continue their surge and eventually overtake the rest of the mediocre pack that is the N.L. West?

For starters, the Dodger’s middle infield has been pretty terrible  in 2013. Of course, Ramirez’ resurgence after returning from injury in late June has helped tremendously, but the double-play combination of Justin Sellers (.188/.263/.246) and Mark Ellis (.259/.305/.346) was nothing short of brutal. And even with Ramirez (.387/.427/.707) returning to the lineup, Ellis is still the everyday second baseman. Not ideal, by any stretch of the imagination.

What’s the deal with Matt Kemp? After turning in a .315/.387/.567 line with 62 home runs over the past two seasons, he’s dragging along in 2013 with a very disappointing .254/.309/.335 triple-slash. However, his batting average on balls in play is .354, which is identical to last year’s mark and a noticeable although reasonable dip from his crazy .380 mark in 2011.

One big difference is his fly-ball-to-home-run ratio: in 2011, 21.4% of Kemp’s fly balls landed over the fence. In 2012, 21.7% were home runs. This year, just 4% of balls hit in the air by Kemp have gone into the seats. That trend will have to break at some point, and it looks to be a good sign for Kemp and the Dodgers.

The back-end of the Dodgers rotation struggled mightily at the start of the season, and it was relied on heavily due to Zach Greinke’s collarbone injury. Elderly soft-tossers like Chris Capuano and Ted Lilly were relied upon to keep the Dodgers afloat, but just couldn’t get the job done. If Josh Beckett can return to health and remain consistent moving forward, that would be a huge lift to the sagging lower reaches of the Dodgers’ staff.

So why have the Dodgers bounced back so quickly and successfully? The return of Hanley Ramirez was already touched on, and that is a huge reason. Of course, we’d be remiss to not mention the somehow still-surging Yasiel Puig, who just completed a June in which he had the second-most hits of any player in their first month of their career. The most? Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio.

After 26 games and 107 plate appearances, Puig is still scalding hot, sitting at a ridiculous .436/.467/.713. It’s impossible for Dodgers fans (and baseball fans, for that matter) to not hope against hope that he’s the real thing. But let’s be honest, nobody is that much of a “real thing”. A quick look at the numbers shows that Puig has walked only 4 times in his 107 trips to the plate, good for just a 3.7% walk rate. Great if you’re hitting .436, but a .500(!) batting average on balls in play has most certainly helped that batting average right along.

In other words, if Puig doesn’t learn how to lay off tough pitches, he’ll see a swift dive in his overall numbers. It’s somewhat of a small miracle that pitchers haven’t started pitching around Puig to an extent already, but as soon as they do, he needs to learn some patience at the plate. If pitchers figure out they can get him to chase and Puig obliges, his numbers’ downturn will be even sharper.

That said, Puig did walk at a slightly better rate in his very brief minor league career, putting up a .328/.405/.611 line in 262 plate appearances across three levels going back to last season. The power is somewhat for real, as he could easily be a 15+ home run per season player with a healthy 35+ doubles over a full season. That’s a nice player, but let’s all agree that he isn’t Mickey Mantle.

In other news, Zach Greinke has made his up-and-down return, but the added stability in the starting rotation will be vital as the Dodgers head into the dog days in the coming weeks. The top-three of the L.A. rotation in Clayton Kershaw (2.08 ERA, 0.96 WHIP), Hyun-jin Ryu (2.83 ERA, 1.24 WHIP), and Greinke (3.94 ERA, 1.36 WHIP) is very, very good and the best in the division if they stay healthy.

How will the N.L. West play out? Personally, I think the Dodgers will manage to win the division, as the inconsistencies of both the Diamondbacks and the Giants will eventually outweigh the good fortune that they’ve had thus far, and the Dodgers will put the months of April and May well behind them. Expect significant regression from Puig in the coming weeks and months, but he should still remain a positive contributor alongside Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez. Kemp should bounce back to an extent as well, and the lineup will remain formidable, even without Puig hitting .436.

The rotation’s health is key, and the bullpen simply needs to do a better job. Matt Guerrier and Brandon League have been nothing short of disappointing so far, but the front office can surely piece together a better set-up tandem to go alongside Paco Rodriguez in bridging the gap to the newly-named, lights-out closer Kenley Jansen.

All things considered, this is absolutely a contender for the N.L. West crown. Beyond that, who knows. But let’s give credit where credit is due: if this roster can stay relatively healthy down the stretch, they’ll win games in bunches. And it should absolutely be fun to watch.

 

Topics: Los Angeles Dodgers, MLB, NL West, Yasiel Puig

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