30 July 2007

Serpentine Knot

by Joshua Worley

The National League West is wide open. Three teams are nearly tied at the top, with a fourth team just 3.5 games off the pace. Which team is most likely to take the prize? Which teams are likely to fall off the pace?

Here are the current NL west standings, with the Giants and their losing record banished.


Div% are the odds of each team winning the NL West, according to the original report on Baseball Prospectus. According to them, the Dodgers have a shockingly better chance than the Snakes to take the division, even though the teams are nearly tied at the top. The reason, of course, is that the Snakes are a bad team. Really, they are, 8-game winning streaks notwithstanding. Bad teams have 8-game winning streaks occasionally. The 1986 Dodgers won 8 in a row in the middle of the season to bring their record up to 53-52, and went on to finish at 73-89.

I'm not saying the Snakes will finish with a losing record, though I think that's more likely than them winning the division. I'm also not saying that the Snakes can't win the division. Since they are tied for first with 55 games left, it certainly can't be discounted. Bad teams have won divisions before!

On the year, here are the on base and slugging percentages of the Snakes and their opponents:

0.317 -- 0.404 -- Snakes
0.335 -- 0.413 -- Opposition
(-0.018) -- (-0.009) -- Differential

That's a fundamentally bad team right there. Their opponents get on base more than them, and their opponents hit for more total bases than them. I don't see how anyone could reasonably conclude that the Snakes are a good team.

Well, maybe they were a bad team, but they've recently turned it around. How do they look in July? Here are the numbers:

0.305 -- 0.405 -- Snakes
0.335 -- 0.430 -- Opposition
(-0.030) -- (-0.025) -- Differential

Even with that eight game win streak, the Snakes are even worse in July. Worse! I really didn't expect that. What this means, is that as yet, there is no sign of a sustainable turn-around for the Snakes.

What about all the young players the Snakes have who might all get hot at the same time, might all start playing up to their supposed potential at the same time? Of course, anything is possible. But I suggest that maybe the expectations for Young, Drew, Jackson, and Snyder were too high to begin with, not to mention the demoted Quentin. Maybe in a year, or two years, they'll be really good. But they've established a level of performance at the big league level this year through four months, and it's not a very good one. I trust the first four months of this season to tell me how they will hit over the last two more than I trust minor league stats. I'm not suggesting their great minor league track records be ignored: some improvement will probably come. It just can't possibly be enough to turn the Snakes into a good team, especially when they have to make up for the loss of Randy Johnson at the same time.

Chris B Young has been improving his power all season, with a very good slugging percentage in July, but he still makes a lot of outs. Jackson has been solid but without much power for most of the season. Drew shows no sign of breaking through yet. Snyder has had a great July in fewer than 50 plate apperances. It's a mixed bag. Again, I agree they will improve a little, but not enough to matter.

Here are the percentages for the Padres and their opponents:

0.312 -- 0.391 -- Padres
0.308 -- 0.367 -- Opposition
(+0.004) -- (+0.024) -- Differential

And in July:

0.306 -- 0.377 -- Padres
0.338 -- 0.432 -- Opposition
(-0.032) -- (-0.055) -- Differential

The Padres are showing signs of a free-fall, based on what has happened so far in July. Even with Bradley added the offense is worse, and the pitching has just collapsed, with Young's injury, Peavy's mild struggles, and the return to earth of Germano and the two oldsters. I think the offense will come back around, but that the pitching may have found its new level.

The Rockies:

0.345 -- 0.418 -- Rockies
0.333 -- 0.431 -- Opposition
(+0.012) -- (-0.013) -- Differential

Rockies in July:

0.348 -- 0.442 -- Rockies
0.312 -- 0.415 -- Opposition
(+0.034) -- (+0.027) -- Differential

Maybe the Rockies are the team for the Dodgers to fear most, just based on their stellar play in July. I'm certainly more afraid of the Rockies than I am of the Snakes.

Finally, the Dodgers:

0.343 -- 0.405 -- Dodgers
0.318 -- 0.387 -- Opposition
(+0.025) -- (+0.018) -- Differential

In July:

0.368 -- 0.453 -- Dodgers
0.339 -- 0.438 -- Opposition
(+0.029) -- (+0.015) -- Differential

The Dodgers have the best underlying numbers in the NL West this year so far. Even in July, which has seemed a very uneven month for the Dodgers, they have played well. The pitching has been much worse, in large part because of injuries, while the offense has been much better, in large part because of young players. I expect that the July levels of pitching and offense more truly reflect how the Dodgers will do going forward, and if so there is reason for optimism. A lot, of course, will depend on how healthy Penny and Lowe really are.

But pending a disaster with Penny and Lowe, the Dodgers are the favorites in the NL West, even without a blockbuster deadline trade.

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