Thursday, May 10, 2012

Through Act One, Dodgers set up nicely

Right at about one-fifth into the 2012 season, the Dodgers are right where they want to be, leading the NL West. Whether they stay there will depend quite a lot on the next three weeks, which will be played almost entirely at Dodger Stadium.

Matt Kemp, who hit this game-winning homer against the Washington Nationals, is the main reason the Dodgers are set up well through one-third of the season (photo courtesy of Jon SooHoo/Los Angeles Dodgers).

Big Leagues in Los Angeles

By this old baseball reporter's reckoning, the pennant race begins when every club across the major leagues has reached double figures in wins and losses. That's when the baseball standings really look, for the first time, like baseball standings. It generally happens about 20 percent into the season, which is very near the point to which we have arrived in 2012.

Up to that point, the season is like the time trials at the Indy 500, in which teams fight for starting position. We might also think of the season up to this point as the first act of a three-act drama. In the first act, we are introduced to the characters. In the long second act, which begins about now, we see the conflicts and tensions of the plot thickening. In the third act, the September playoff races, the tensions resolve into the outcome.

We haven't quite reached that second act, yet, because there's still one club straggling to reach double figures in victories. The Minnesota Twins have only eight wins. Largely, that's because the Angels have been fattening up on the Twins, beating them in five of six meetings since April 29.

To be perfectly official and precise about all this, we probably should wait until the Twins have reached 10 wins before declaring the first act (or the time trials) complete. However, the American League standings show that its teams are so spaced apart right now that they wouldn't look any different if the Twins had two more wins. Nor do we expect that the standings will look any different when the Twins reach ten wins. When that happens, they still will be in last place.

On top of all that, the Angels and Dodgers both are off until Friday evening, which makes the next couple days as good as any for saying that we comfortably know who these teams are. So, we might say, as they will say on Memorial Day in Indianapolis, "Gentlemen, start your engines."

We’ll take the better news first, which means we're talking about the Dodgers right now. We'll get to the Angels on Friday or Saturday. By then, the Twins might be up to nine victories. As of the moment, the National League standings are in order.

All of the leading indicators for the Dodgers right now are good. Not great. Good. They are tied with St. Louis for the National League's best record at 20-11 and they hold a five-game lead over San Francisco in the NL West, which is the largest lead for any division leader.

The Dodgers have been in every game this year except for a 12-0 blowout loss at Houston on April 22. Though half of the Dodgers games are one-run games, they have not been especially reliant on winning them. They are 9-6 in one-run games, meaning they are 11-5 in games decided by more than one run. Good sign. They are putting up a nice share of solid victories. A team that lives too much off winning one-run games is in permanent danger of losing them. It is, of course, dangerous merely to be in so many one-run games. However, it's better to be in a lot of 3-2 games, like the Dodgers, than to be in a lot of 6-5 games because it's easier to improve a batting lineup than to improve a pitching staff. The Dodgers have a lot of players on hand already who can, and should, hit better than they are.

One might think the Dodgers should have beefed up their offensive numbers in their last nine games, during which they played in home run parks Coors Field and Wrigley Field, then played the error prone San Francisco Giants. But the Dodgers are going to have games when they don't swing the bat well no matter whom or where they play. So, in those nine games, they scored 42 runs, which isn't all that great, everything considered. They scored three runs or fewer in three of them, all of which they lost.

All together this year, the Dodgers are scoring 4.23 runs per game, fifth in the NL. They are an outstanding 15-4 when they score four or more runs and a very impressive 5-7 when they score three runs or fewer. This club always gives itself a chance to win.

The pitching staff did take some beatings at Coors and Wrigley. During one four-game stretch at those parks, the Dodgers allowed 25 runs. However, in their last five games, one trip through the rotation, the Dodgers allowed only ten runs. They still lost two of those five games.

That's the Dodgers. They are so reliant on two hitters -- Matt Kemp (12/27/.385/.469/.780) and Andre Ethier (6/30/.284/.534/.888) -- that when those two guys don't hit, they will usually struggle to win no matter how good their pitching is. At the same time, their pitching and defense are so solid that they still have a chance in those games.

Kemp and Ethier are third and first, respectively, in the National League RBI race, even though the three hitters coming up before them include the pitcher and a leadoff hitter (Dee Gordon) with a .268 on-base percentage. But the No. 2 hitter, Mark Ellis, pitches in with a .377 on-base percentage, 16th in the NL. With Kemp and Ethier immediately following, Ellis is as likely as not to score when he reaches base. He has done so 21 out of 43 times.

Here's an indication of how weak the Dodgers have been in the bottom half of their order. Their No. 8 hitter, catcher A.J. Ellis, has 25 starts with a .303 batting average and a .927 OPS. He's batting .348 with runners in scoring position. And he still has only 11 RBI. Philadelphia second baseman Freddy Galvis has a .577 OPS and he has 11 RBI batting eighth in that lineup.

We shouldn't be too surprised to see Ellis move up in the order, placing him closer to the mix with more productive bats. The only problem is that it's great to have a No. 8 hitter who knows how to reach base with two outs and get the pitcher out of the way so the next inning can start with the top of the order. With two out and the bases empty this year, according to, Ellis has a .467 on-base percentage in 15 plate appearances. About as often as not, he keeps a dead inning alive for long to spare the next one.

As far as starting pitching goes, the Dodgers are strong, but Washington, St. Louis, Miami, Philadelphia and San Francisco are as good or better. The Dodgers are third in starting pitcher ERA across the NL at 2.95, behind the Nationals (2.26) and the Cardinals (2.82). The Dodgers' overall staff ERA is 3.27, tied with Cincinnati for fourth in the NL.

The three Dodger left-handed starters -- Clayton Kershaw, Ted Lilly and Chris Capuano -- have been just about everything you would want. However, the home run ball is hurting Kershaw. During his Cy Young 2011 season, Kershaw allowed 15 homers in 233.1 innings. At his present 2012 rate, he would allow 25 homers in those same innings.

Right hander Chad Billingsley has been good more often than not, and righty Aaron Harang eeks out an acceptable start about half the time (We use "acceptable" rather than "quality" start.).

Wednesday night, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly pinch hit for Billingsley in the fourth inning, and it wasn't just because the bases were loaded and the Dodgers trailed, 2-1. Billingsley couldn't find the plate and threw 85 pitches through four innings. As Mattingly told reporters, Billingsley had only one inning left, anyway, so, "It was a no-brainer." Pinch hitter Tony Gwynn made it an act of genius, tripling to right field and clearing the bases to charge a 6-2 win against the Giants at Dodger Stadium.

We talked about the bullpen a bit a couple days ago. It remains to be seen if Kenley Jansen will make it as a closer. One concern is that the Dodgers don't have a left-handed reliever who can be counted upon to enter in the seventh or eighth inning and retire a tough left-handed hitter. The only lefty in their pen, Scott Elbert, isn't doing the job. Left-handed batters are seven-for-16 (.438) with a homer and a 1.214 OPS against him this year.

Defensively, this is a pretty nice ball club. Gordon is a bit of a circus at shortstop, for good and ill, and that's about the worst that can be said about the whole operation. It seems as though James Loney will never again hit like when he came up in 2006 and 2007, but his glove work at first base is so strong that you love seeing him out there. And wherever you put Jerry Hairston, he makes a really sharp play. He might be the team's best defender.

Behind the plate, A.J. Ellis is death to opposing runners, throwing out 10 of 22 attempting base stealers (45.5 percent), fourth in the league. Ellis has allowed more passed balls (four) than any other catcher in the NL. But adding together offense and defense, Ellis is right with Philadelphia's Carlos Ruiz as the NL's best catcher at this moment.

The Dodgers have made 17 errors, tied for second fewest in the NL with Philadelphia and Cincinnati and trailing only St. Louis, which has 14. The Dodgers have the fourth best unearned run average across the NL at 0.21 per game, behind St. Louis (0.12), Milwaukee (0.18) and Atlanta (0.19). The league average is 0.36. So, when the Dodger fielders do kick the ball, the pitchers are picking them up. In defensive efficiency, the Dodgers are third in the NL at .713, behind only Washington (.724) and Chicago (.722). The league average is .693. The Dodgers are doing a lot right defensively.

It's a little harder to say that about their base running. The derring-do that made so many thrills during the first ten games of the season turned into outs when the Dodgers started playing against better clubs. Once those dashes for the extra base became outs, the Dodgers dialed it back a bit, Now it seems sometimes like they don't run enough, and sometimes it seems like too much. A lot of that's in the results.

The Dodgers have been caught stealing 14 times, the most in the league, and they have only 20 steals, which is one less than the league average. The percentages say you need a 75-percent success rate to make base stealing worthwhile. The Dodgers lag well behind at 58.8 percent. Gordon has taken half of the club's base stealing attempts, succeeding 12 of 17 times.

The bench is not bad, but it could be better. Juan Rivera began the year as the regular left fielder, but Mattingly has since taken to platooning him a bit at first base, which puts his bat in the lineup against lefties while removing Loney’s bat against them. Now, left field is something of a catch-all for rotating various reserves into the lineup once or twice per week to keep them sharp. Not a bad idea.

Gwynn has taken a lot of starts there lately, but Bobby Abreu, acquired recently from the Angels, seems to have a new lease on life at Dodger Stadium, where he has made a couple starts in left field this week. The Dodgers have two 36-year-old benchers, catcher Matt Treanor and infielder Adam Kennedy, who struggle offensively.

Hairston also is 36 and he has not struggled offensively (.315/.403/.463). Plus, you can put a glove on him and send him anywhere. You probably don’t want to see him more than about 80 times per year because, the record shows, his best offensive seasons are about that long. But managers across baseball have been running him out there about 125 times per year for the last three seasons, likely because he brings so much presence of mind to the game that they just want to squeeze a little more out of him. Very nice player.

The Dodgers aren’t going to finish this season at their present .633 winning percentage, which would come to 102 or 103 wins. They just don’t have the depth going through their lineup or pitching staff. If all goes very well, they can approach 95 wins, and the guess here is that they would end around 92 or 93 wins. Obviously, they need to maintain their strong performance against the NL West. The Dodgers are 9-4 within the division, having played all those teams except the defending champions, the Arizona Diamondbacks. They play 59 of their remaining 131 games against division foes.

But they also need to remain good right now, while the getting is good. With their three games earlier this week against the Giants, the Dodgers began the most favorable stretch of their schedule. Through the end of May, they make only two road trips, and they are the shortest trips – two games at San Diego and three at Arizona. The rest of their games through May are at Dodger Stadium, where they are the best home team in the NL right now at 12-3. They are on all but a three-week home stand. Going through these next 20 games, it would behoove the Dodgers to win at least 14 of them and build a little bit of a cushion for a rainy day, because the schedule will become tougher.

Along with what we’ve seen already, though, there is other good news. First, no one else in the NL West is ten feet tall. The pitching that served Arizona so well last year has faltered. The Giants have to fight through injuries to Pablo Sandoval, Freddy Sanchez and Brian Wilson. The Rockies are flawed, and so are the Padres. The division is out there to be won. Also, the new owners make fans confident that the Dodgers can add a piece at the trade deadline, if they must.

Probably, they will have to. The players on hand are doing what they must, so far, to make that bold move a compelling possibility. And the possibilities don't end there. They might even include a pennant.

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