The Los Angeles Dodgers ended the 2013 season with 92 wins, enough to win the National League West Division. But in fact, 82 wins would have done it as well. Second place Arizona had only 81, and finished the season at .500, with the remaining three teams well below. Their dominant ace, Clayton Kershaw, also won the Cy Young award with an incredible 1.89 ERA, and their upstart rookie outfielder, Yasiel Puig, placed second in the rookie of the year voting, behind Florida’s Jose Fernandez. With a stacked roster including Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, Matt Kemp, and Zack Greinke, it was no surprise they landed on top.
Giants and Rockies challenge Dodgers; highlight deeper NL West in 2014
And without any extreme upgrades from their four main opponents, Los Angeles should be well ahead of the west a quarter into this season, right? Well so far, San Francisco and the rebel Rockies have other plans. They are both ahead of Los Angeles, and they doing it in different styles.
San Francisco has ten more wins than losses, and holds a two game lead over Colorado, and it’s hard imagining why comparing stats between the two teams. Their pitching staffs actually look pretty similar in terms of 2014 production (Colorado actually has a higher WAR), and Colorado has an offensive prowess that compares to a year 1999 steroid studded all-star team. However, San Francisco is winning games in the same fashion they won their two most recent World Series Titles: winning a high percentage of close games.
Obviously that is the definition of what winning is, but it seems so simple for the Giants. With a +26 run differential, they only average .7 runs per game more than their opponent, a small number in comparison with other division leaders. They are also holding steady on the road, with a 14-9 record: the 14 wins being the most in the MLB. They are bringing the phrase “putting for dough” relevant in baseball.
Colorado on the other hand, is driving for show. Even with having six more wins than losses, they have outscored their opponents on the year by 55 runs. And a lot of that comes from their blitzkrieg offense, which sports a .306 average as a team, and leads the NL in almost every major offensive category.
But perhaps a bigger story for them is the emergence of 5th spot pitcher, Jordan Lyles, whom they obtained via trade from the Houston Astros during the offseason. He is starting the season 5-0, with a 2.66 ERA, and has even handles the bat pretty well, slugging 3 RBI and a home run. In a rotation of mediocre pitchers, Colorado needs someone to step out of their bounds, and overachieve, and Lyles has been that guy. And he definitely has been overachieving, posting a 3.53 xFIP on the year, almost a run higher than his ERA.
If you concede to the notion that scoring more runs than your opponents, compared to other teams, eventually evens out the standing, then Colorado theoretically should blow the division away in the final 75% of the season. In fact, according to espn.com, they have the highest odds to make the playoffs out of any other team in the entire fifteen team national league. However, the game of baseball has dimensions of variables to consider, thus the evolution of sabermetrics, and therefore it might be safer to take the course of history, and project a relative collapse to the late season success their California counterparts might have.
Los Angeles’s starting rotation is excellent, especially with a good showing from Dan Haren, and will get better with the addition of Clayton Kershaw, who has been injured (SIA profile). They will most likely challenge for the division at least by the all-star break if not sooner. San Francisco also should be expected to maintain above .500 play, but could falter due to their inability to outscore opponents well, and the fact that four of their starts have a substantial negative difference between ERA and xFIP.
San Diego can’t be ruled out, as they have the benefit of prime pitching from the bullpen. However, if they want to make a statement in the west, their starting pitching and hitting needs to improve. And Arizona, thought eleven games below .500, has a decent roster, and a rotation whose ERA far succeeds the xFIP, hinting at an eventual regression of positive outcomes.
As usual, the finish to the west will be hard to predict. In a division of clashing playing styles are parks, usually the superior pitching team eventually wins. However, this doesn’t mean Colorado can’t win its first franchise division title. In an era where strikeouts are twice as common as runs, Colorado aims to show that it has the talent and, gulp, health to compete.
All the ingredients for an exciting finish are here, and I expect the finish of the NL west race to be just as interesting as the start.
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