Shades of Blue: Comparing the Dodgers with the Best of the National League

In the West, Los Angeles leads San Francisco by 4.5 games; in the East, Washington has opened up a six-game lead on Atlanta; in the Central, Milwaukee sits three games above its closest competitor. It is likely that all three of the current division leaders will make the playoffs, most of all the Nationals, who have the weakest competition in their division. (The Brewers, on the other hand, are in a four-team race for the Central, so a bad stretch could send them tumbling all the way out of even the wild card spots. Even so, ESPN gives the Brewers an 89% chance to advance.) Given the likelihood of October baseball for these clubs, I wanted to give myself a quick primer on their relative strengths and weaknesses. The Nationals have the best record, the Dodgers the most star power and the Brewers the most balanced lineup. Only one can represent the National League in the World Series, but which is best prepared?

I like to start by comparing team statistics before looking at individual players. Let’s start with hitting. All stats hereafter are through Friday.

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I’ve tried to pare it down the essentials: runs, the triple-slash stuff, home runs, stolen bases and weighted Runs Created Plus, which neutralizes for park and league factors before spitting out a normalized rate statistic where 100 is average and every point above or below is one percentage point removed from average. So we see here that wRC+ rates only the Dodgers as an above-average offensive ballclub–the Brewers have scored more runs, but Miller Park has been conducive to more home runs than the average NL park over the years (18% more, by one calculation). The Brewers’ big advantage here is their slugging, and while Miller Park shouldn’t be credited for all the difference, its effect must be noted.

Los Angeles has a huge lead in stolen bases over Washington and Milwaukee, a lead for which Dee Gordon could be held entirely accountable. Gordon has 56 steals and with just 10 more the rest of the way he will match his career total. He has more steals than seven teams. No one else on the Dodgers has swiped more than 20 bags. The Nats and Brewers each have one player with more than 20 steals: respectively, Denard Span (25) and Carlos Gomez (27). Gordon is on pace for the most steals since Juan Pierre’s 68 in 2010. The last person to get to 70 was Jacoby Ellsbury in 2009. Gordon’s rare season has been a great boon to the Dodgers, settling the matter of who will be the everyday second baseman (which might have been Cuban rookie Alex Guerrero if he had fielded better in spring training) in such a way as to turn a weakness into a strength.

The Dodgers just plop Gordon atop the lineup and let him do his thing; he leads the team in plate appearances. He does not compare favorably to the PA leaders in Washington or Milwaukee. Below I’ve arranged a listing of the nine players with the most plate appearances on these three teams. They are listed from most PAs down to ninth-most, though to keep it simple I’ve omitted the actual number of PAs each player has. Instead, I’ve provided that player’s Wins Above Replacement figure with the intent of showing each team’s depth. Below the ninth player is a cumulative bench WAR. For that I added the WARs of each remaining player who had at least 50 plate appearances.

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The Nationals don’t have any bums in their top nine, but beyond that they are faced with a precarious lack of talent. Danny Espinosa stopped being a good hitter two years ago, but his fielding is slick enough to make him a passable option. Every team has a weak link, many worse than Espinosa. Even so, Washington recently addressed the issue by trading for Asdrubal Cabrera, who in ~50 plate appearances has an OBP higher than Espinosa’s slugging percentage.

Only the criminally insane think Bryce Harper is really as bad as this chart suggests. He will snap out of this funk soon, whatever the cause might have been.

Perhaps it is cosmic justice that the three Dodgers outfielders who get paid the most have been the three worst outfielders on the team. Yasiel Puig (7 years, $42 million) is a star and the only everyday player of the bunch. Scott Van Slyke (league minimum) is a big reason that bench WAR is so impressive. Dude straight crushes left-handed pitching (.627 slugging percentage against, and seven of his nine home runs this year). That’s good for LA because neither Andre Ethier (5 y, $85 mil) nor Carl Crawford (7 y, $142 mil) are any good versus southpaws. So Van Slyke has forced his way into the lineup whenever the Dodgers face a lefty, and in those games the outfield poses a formidable threat; right-handed Matt Kemp (8 y, $160 mil) is once again hitting like a champ, but his defense–never something to write home about–is now such a liability that the team has flirted with Puig in center. Neither has the range to cover the hardest outfield position, and Van Slyke is probably the best option defensively. But you saw the salaries, so you know why that can’t be the case every day.

Two years ago A.J. Ellis hit 13 home runs with an OBP of .373. Quietly he was one of the most productive catchers in the game, a right-handed John Jaso with a little more power. His OBP is still above-average (.322), but his batting average this season is below the Mendoza Line, causing him to lose more and more time to Drew Butera, who can’t really hit either. Ellis has seen his batting average on balls in play dip from .329 in 2012 to .269 last year, cratering this year at .230. It won’t last!, you say, but those BABIPs have fallen in tandem with his line-drive rate (22.9 to 18.7 to 16.3%), so don’t write it off as a fluke.

As noted earlier, the Brewers have demonstrated the most balance throughout the lineup. Jean Segura has a pathetic OBP and slugging, but he’s the only regular to be hitting poorly. By this point Lyle Overbay has lost all chance at an equitable platoon with Mark Reynolds at first. If you aren’t yet acquainted with Scooter Gennett, get on the bandwagon now before it ceases to be cool. This second-year second baseman has vaulted himself near the top of the league in offensive productivity at his position. He has only 600 plate appearances in his career, but his peripherals remained consistent from last year into this year, and he’s only 24 years old. Along with Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy, Gennett is a key part of the Brewers’ future. With three such talents up the middle of the diamond, Milwaukee fans are rather spoiled.

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Here we have the fielding portion of the article. It will be brief because without extensive scouting it’s hard to distinguish these teams. You can see errors and unearned runs (UER) are nearly identical. No clues there. Defensive Runs Saved, same story. The Dodgers have turns a shitload more double plays, but the huge discrepancy doesn’t seem to help them by any metric. Ultimate Zone Rating (normalized to 150 games) pegs the Nats and Brewers as above-average and the Dodgers below. Fielding data miners InsideEdge classify all balls in play by their likelihood of being converted into an out. One such classification is 40-60%–i.e., balls that are basically a coin flip. The row I’ve titled Borderline% signifies the percentage of those coin-flip balls each team turned into outs. For some reason the average for National League teams is above 50% by several points, but whatever, we’ll only use these figures in comparison with each other. In such a comparison, the Dodgers flounder. No other metric is as harsh on them.

I’ve gone over the problems in the outfield: Los Angeles has no true center fielder. You move Puig to center and you lose a killer arm in right. Crawford in left is unspectacular, his arm a floppy fish. Dee Gordon is out of position at second base and Hanley Ramirez at short was never known for his range. Juan Uribe has a cannon at third but how well can he move around out there when he’s 35 years old and has an ass like an overstuffed piƱata? At least Adrian Gonzalez knows how to pick it at first base, with an all-around smoothness that allows the right fielder to play off the line a bit.

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We come to pitching, what many consider the key to postseason success. I’ve split up runs allowed between each teams’ starters and relievers. Washington is blessed with both; the Dodgers have at least a rotation to match; the Brewers are seriously lagging. Washington’s figures for walks and home runs allowed are truly outstanding, the latter even more so considering they don’t keep the ball on the ground as much as the average team does. (Milwaukee’s groundball percentage is right in line with league average.) Let’s check their starters individually.

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All three teams have outsourced 10 or so starts to pitchers outside their typical rotation. For the Nats, that means five good starts frmo Blake Treinen and some not so good starts from Taylor Jordan. They are irrelevant to the playoffs, however, so let’s talk about the top guys.

Once October rolls around I imagine Doug Fister will be the one sent to the bullpen. Generally managers prefer veterans to youngsters, but Fister’s rival for the fourth spot, Tanner Roark, has simply pitched too well. After shutting their best pitcher down two years ago, expect the Nats to compensate this year by selecting for talent over experience. That means Gio Gonzalez probably gets the start over Fister, despite his bloated ERA. Gonzalez is a strikeout-per-inning guy and starters like that are hard to come by.

Stephen Strasburg, the aforementioned best pitcher, is underperforming his talent a little but could match up with anyone else in the league. Jordan Zimmermann has been one of the steadiest starters of the last few years. Top-to-bottom they are as well-equipped as any team in the NL.

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Well, except maybe these guys. Having Clayton Kershaw compared to any other top pitcher is like having an ace of the highest suit: nominally similar to other aces, but it trumps them anyway. Look at his stats again before you read the next sentence. The Kershaw Bump is not enough to combat all of Washington’s depth, however. For that, the Dodgers have Zack Greinke, pitching again like the Greinke of ol’ Kansas City (his strikeout-to-walk ratio is actually better than it was when he won the AL Cy Young in 2009). And not only Greinke, but two-time World Series champion Josh Beckett–who before the season inked a contract with the Devil–and Korean stud Hyun-Jin Ryu, the most under-appreciated starter in the game. Here‘s Ryu sandwiched between Cliff Lee and Jordan Zimmermann on the ERA leaderboard covering the last two seasons (Ryu’s only seasons in the majors). Ryu is overshadowed by his teammates, and the language barrier certainly doesn’t help him gain national recognition, so here’s a quick primer. His cheeks are among the chunkiest in the modern era, and his ass cheeks just landed him on the DL for a few weeks. He’ll be back for the playoffs.

Poor Paul Maholm got stuck right beneath Kershaw, making his bad stats look so so much worse. He might prove useful in long relief, but he’ll have to earn it, because the Dodgers just got what’s-his-name from the Phillies.

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Milwaukee clearly lacks the talent of the other two teams, though they’ve filled out their rotation quite nicely with free agents Lohse and Garza. No one is a strikeout-per-inning guy, no one has an ERA under 3.00. Wily Peralta combines elite velocity with a great groundball rate, but he walks a lot of dudes. They all walk a lot of dudes, and they all (except Garza) give up home runs more than you’d like, even accounting for the disadvantage of Miller Park. Three of the 10 pitchers who have given up the most home runs in the NL play for Milwaukee, and Yovani Gallardo is 20th on that list. Marco Estrada leads the league, but at least he would be cut from the playoff rotation.

It would take far too long to talk about all the bullpen pitchers, so let me cram that into one paragraph here before giving you all the stats below. I still believe LA’s Kenley Jansen is up there with Chapman and Kimbrel as one of the best relievers today, but Tyler Clippard on the Nationals isn’t far behind. The problem for Kenley and the Dodgers is that the guys before him can’t be trusted. Their bullpen has five guys with at least 20 walks, whereas Washington’s have zero, all with a comparable number of innings pitched. Washington is moreover stacked with flamethrowers–or, at least, no one pussyfoots around at 89 mph. However, the Nats seem to be bucking the trend toward groundball guys, which is interesting if nothing else. Milwaukee’s bullpen has three guys on whom you can rely, and they are the guys with the most appearances on the season, which makes them better than the Dodgers. Enjoy the stats, everyone. I think after all this I remain convinced the Nationals are the best team in the National League. Their biggest advantage over the Dodgers is in the bullpen.

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