Dodgers Now the Sheriffs of the Wild West

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Last year, the entire National League West limped home in unimpressive fashion. The Padres set a standard for division-winning futility in a non-strike season, finishing just 82–80 — yet still won by five games. Outside the division, the West’s five teams combined for a .426 winning percentage, lowest in the majors. Injuries hampered every club; the Giants lacked Barry Bonds for most of the year, while the Dodgers resembled a M*A*S*H unit, leading the majors in payroll dollars lost to disabled players and tumbling from a division-winning 93 victories in 2004 to just 71.Truly, it was the Mild, Mild West.

No more. This year’s NL West isn’t a powerhouse; their interdivisional winning percentage is below .500 (.493), par for the course given the AL’s .611 showing in interleague play. But the West is simply the most competitive division in baseball; not only have all five teams held or shared the top spot for at least 20 days in 2006, they’ve held every spot, and through Monday, first and last place were separated by just 7.5 games, less than half the spread of any other division.

No team exemplifies this dizzying state of affairs more than the Dodgers. Beset by early injuries that had fans feeling a sense of déjà vû — oft-injured Nomar Garciaparra started the year on the DL; closer Eric Gagne, who missed most of last year with elbow woes, managed just two innings before being shelved again, and third baseman Bill Mueller’s knees simply ran out of cartilage — they stumbled to a 12–17 start. A passel of rookies such as Russell Martin and Andre Ethier injected some life in early May, helping the team win 15 of 18 and take control of the division for much of June. But by July 2, the Dodgers had sagged to just one game above .500, and lost 13 of 14 right after the All-Star break to drop to 47–55. Game over, right?

Wrong. General manager Ned Colletti, in his first year at the helm, was one of the most active around the trading deadline. Having signed free agent Rafael Furcal in the offseason, Colletti had a shortstop to spare in Cesar Izturis, who’d spent the first three months of the year rehabbing from elbow surgery. A wizard in the field but a complete liability with the bat, Izturis dragged the offense down when slotted into third base or second, but Colletti managed to trade him to the Cubs for future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux. With third base a continuing problem in Mueller’s absence, he shipped promising 23-year-old Willy Aybar and deposed closer Danny Baez to the Braves for Wilson Betemit, an even-more-promising 24-year-old slugger caught behind Chipper Jones on the depth chart. And with second baseman Jeff Kent felled by an oblique strain, Colletti plucked shortstop Julio Lugo from Tampa Bay for Joel Guzman, once the system’s top prospect but suffering through some growing pains, and slotted the versatile Lugo across the keystone.

Correlation doesn’t prove causation, but the Dodgers quickly caught fire. From July 28 to August 8, they won 11 straight, and through Monday ran that streak to 22–7, giving themselves a three game lead over the Padres.

The newcomers were a vital part of that streak. Maddux tossed six innings of no-hit ball in his Dodger debut, and between his third and fourth starts, retired 32 straight hitters, a “Hidden Perfect Game.” According to Baseball Prospectus’s Keith Woolner, that’s just the second one since 2004 (John Lackey had the other) and the longest string of consecutive batters retired since Randy Johnson mowed down 39 across three starts in May 2004. Betemit homered in four of his first 13 games as a Dodger, giving him more dingers (13) than any hitter on the team. Lugo has provided enviable depth, playing five positions in his first 24 games with Los Angeles.

We can track the Dodgers’ schizophrenic season using a BP creation called the Postseason Odds Report, which uses a team’s run-scoring and run-preventing proclivities — adjusted for park effects and quality of competition — in a Monte Carlo simulation which plays out the rest of the season one million times. When the Dodgers were 12–17 on May 5, the team’s chances of making the playoffs (either via winning the division or the hotly-contested Wild Card) stood at 7.5%. Following that 15–3 run, they shot up to 56.6%, and rose as high as 66% on June 12. At their 47–55 nadir, their odds had tumbled to 5.6%. They’ve since rocketed to 79.7% even after losing the first two of a threegame series with the Padres early this week.

Driving those odds is a well-balanced team with the NL’s second-best run differential (+50). Despite hitting a league-low 110 homers, the offense is fourth in scoring (4.98 runs a game) thanks to a league-leading .349 On-Base Percentage; of the regulars, only Betemit has a sub-.350 OBP. Ethier (.339 AVG) and Garciaparra (.321) are both in the hunt for the batting title.

The pitching has also been a plus, allowing a fourth-ranked 4.22 runs a game. As unstable as the rotation has been — only Brad Penny and Derek Lowe have more than 15 starts — it ranks third in the league in Support-Neutral Lineup-Adjusted Value Above Replacement, a metric which measures, after adjusting for bullpen support and quality of competition, how many wins better a starter is than a freely-available or minorleague pitcher.

As for the Dodgers’ competition, statistically the Padres pose the gravest threat. The defending division champs have held a share of first place for 56 days this year, most in the division. Their odds of reaching the postseason stand at 33.2%, and they’re the only team besides the Dodgers whose chances of winning the division are in double digits (17.4%, to L.A.’s 69.3%). The Diamondbacks, though their overall odds stack up at just 8.1%, may factor as well. In mid-July they promoted blue-chip shortstop prospect Stephen Drew (brother of the Dodgers’ J.D.), exiling injured and unproductive Craig Counsell. Last week they traded rightfielder Shawn Green to the Mets, clearing space for another top prospect, Carlos Quentin, and promoted yet another, centerfielder Chris Young. However, with a staff that’s allowing more runs than even the revamped offense can manage, they’re climbing uphill.

By this time next week, any of the division’s other four teams might have momentarily surged ahead. But with the best balance of any of those clubs, the Dodgers are the smart money to capture the Wild, Wild West flag.

Mr. Jaffe is a writer for Baseball Prospectus. For more state-of-the-art analysis, visit

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