NL West: What Happened?

“Dodgers will run away with the West!” hollered the pundits (present company included.) “Not so fast, Lee Harvey,” said David Spade. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Colorado Rockies have to be giving thanks that they’re in the same division as the San Diego Padres and the San Francisco Giants. Because without those two clubs I doubt the Dodgers or the Rockies win 80 games. As it stands they both won 91 and ended up in the extremely rare 163rd game of the season, also known as the NL West Divisional tiebreak. Though the Dodgers won 5-2 and took a sixth-straight division title, the team’s struggles show just how hard it is to repeat as a World Series participant. The Rockies showed last season was no fluke (present pundit called this one, thank you) and are indeed a playoff team. So, how’d they do it? The Dodgers hit more home runs than any National League club ever, which is saying something considering Nolan Arrenado and Trevor Story both hit moon bombs on a regular basis (73 between them.) But the Dodgers did so without having any obvious 2000-era, steroid-laden freaks doing the mashing. Nine players had more than 20 home runs. But only Max Muncy had more than 24. And they had the second-best Earned Run Average in the NL, behind the Houston Astros. That’s significant They also had to overcome significant playing time lost to injuries for shortstop Corey Seager, third baseman Justin Turner, right fielder Yasiel Puig and starting pitchers Hyun Jin Ryu, Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill and closer Kenley Jansen. How’d they do it? Well, with Wallace Buehler of course. He only dropped a 2.62 ERA and a walks-plus-hits-per 9 innings of .96 in 23 starts. And when the starters came back, they produced. Though, Kershaw and Jansen’s loss of velocity and movement should be cause for concern going forward. For the Rockies they were able to overcome one of their greatest shortcomings throughout their history which is their inability to keep their ERA under a Baker’s dozen for any given week. In the last week of the season, seven pitchers had an ERA of… zero. You could certainly argue they had the best relief core in the final weeks of the season as they went on a tear to catch the Dodgers and force the division playoff. I mean, really, the fifth best ERA in baseball in September, given the altitude and ball park in Denver? It is really testament to just how truly talented this club is. As for the Giants, they have named Bobby Evans, sorry, former general manager Bobby Evans, as the one to blame for their 73-win campaign. I don’t see how, since his formula for success this year has followed their formula for the last decade which is: Talented retreads on the back ends of their careers, good starting pitching and a questionable bullpen. So what happened? The retreads performed like players on the back ends of their career, the bullpen largely did get the job done in middle relief, but blew 26 saves, Hunter Strickland broke his hand punching a wall, and the starting pitchers we knew were injury prone got injured. Buster Posey had surgery, the Brandons: Belt and Crawford regressed/were injured and the starters couldn’t stay healthy enough to make their starts. That did provide Dereck Rodriguez a chance to start and he put up a 2.86 ERA in 19 starts. As far as the Padres go they tried to take a page out of the Giants’ and Oakland Athletics’ play book by also bringing in some veteran talent like Eric Osmer and hoping that young starting pitching and an unproven bullpen would be able to catch fire and lead them to respectability. If respectability is finishing six games out of fourth behind the Giants, then mission accomplished! Look, they didn’t hit (last in on-base-percentage) they didn’t pitch (27th in the league) and they didn’t exactly field (10th in errors). And finally there is the case of the Arizona Diamondbacks who had a venerable offense but whose relief corps was seriously suspect and proved to be such. Of the six guys who made the most appearances in the second half, four had an ERA over 6.46. They had 28 save opportunities and converted 11. It was a terrible example of what happens when you get a bunch of relievers playing Screw Your Neighbor, also known as the guy who was on the mound before you. Still, they were in first place despite the horrible slump to start the year by first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and they were in first place for the vast majority of the season, though some of that success was due to the struggles of the rest of the division to stay above .500. But in the end, the loss of Clay Buckholtz to the disabled list and a pretty brutal September schedule in which they won 8 games and lost 19 seal their fate. Granted, 14 of those games were against the Dodgers, Rockies, and Cubs, but they also lost 3-of-5 to the Padres. Zack Greinke pitched pretty well. Robbie Ray was phenomenal (3-0 226 ERA in his final three starts. But it just wasn’t enough. Forecast: The West is about pitching. If the D-backs can shore up their starting pitching and their bullpen and if the Rockies can continue to improve they could very well end up ahead of the Dodgers next year unless the L.A is able to solve some of the problems it’s having. The Dodgers got better-than-expected production from Kike Hernandez and Joc Peterson. But there was a significant drop in production from last year‘s All-Star outfielder/infielder, Chris Taylor. He really was the straw that stirred the drink last year. They missed his ability to get on base consistently this year. Also of concern to the Dodgers has to be Matt Kemp, who started off the season on fire but then reminded everyone the way you get him out is  sliders low and away. Also second baseman Brian Dozier who was imported from the Minnesota Twins slumped horribly. And, given the playoff push, many of the players called up from the farm system didn’t get a lot of opportunity to play significant innings and didn’t really have a chance to show what they could do. I like the Rockies’ core. I expect them to contend again. Giants chief executive officer Larry Baer says the team will take its sweet time finding a new GM and has been quoted as saying the dimensions of the pitcher-friendly park might be tweaked a little. Aramis Garcia and Alen Hanson showed promise. Arizona’s kind of a mystery at this point. San Diego will continue to rebuild. Their starting pitching was abysmal, but Eric Lauer and Bryan Mitchell were really good in the last month of the season. It’s a start. So, early prediction for next year looks something like Colorado in first, Los Angeles second, Arizona third, Giants fourth and San Diego fifth.

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