Making Sense of the Mess in the NL West
by Trevor Whenham - 07/23/2008
If I was part of the management team for either the Dodgers or the Diamondbacks I'd be looking for a way to forget that this season ever happened. The two teams are locked in an epic struggle for the lead in the National League West, with the Diamondbacks currently a game ahead. There's just one problem - Arizona is only at .500. That would be good for no better than fourth in any of the other five divisions, but the pathetic group of National League teams on the West Coast are so bad that .500 might be overachieving by the end of the year. Not only are the top two teams mired in intense mediocrity, but they are secure in their position - Colorado is in third place, but they are seven games back.
As pathetic as it may be, the fact is that one of the teams in the National League, and probably the Dodgers or the D-Backs, are going to be in the playoffs. They don't deserve it at this point, but then deserving to be there has never been a criteria for making the post-season. The job for handicappers is to try to figure out which one of the two teams is likely to come out on top, and if that will provide an opportunity.
Though the Dodgers are behind at this point, the oddsmakers seem to think that they will be the team to emerge victorious in the end. Bodog has the Diamondbacks at 10/1 to win the NL pennant, while the Dodgers are at 15/2. The difference is almost as pronounced when it comes to winning the World Series. The Diamondbacks are 25/1, while the Dodgers are, more optimistically, at 20/1. My first reaction to both prices is that they are ridiculously devoid of value, but that's getting ahead of myself.
Let's start with the Diamondbacks. It's not an exaggeration to say that this team is a mess. They are currently at 50-50, but they started the season at 19-7. That puts them at 31-43 since April 28, a pathetic .419 record. That's not the kind of 2 ½-month stretch that a playoff team typically goes through. In the month before the all-star break they were even worse - their 10-17 mark converts to a .370 winning clip. Ouch. They haven't been kind to bettors, either. There are 13 teams that have been profitable over the course of the season, and nine more that have lost bettors less than the Diamondbacks.
Brandon Webb has been very good at 13-4, and Danny Haren has been a nice addition at 9-5, but the rest of the rotation just isn't doing their job - they are at 16-19. Randy Johnson has strung together a nice three-game winning streak, and has looked like the Big Unit of old in two of them, but his team had lost his previous eight appearances. Micah Owings looked like he was going to build on the potential he showed in his rookie year when he won his first four games, but the team is 5-11 in his 16 appearances since. Even Webb isn't the pitcher he was at the start of the year. The team is 3-5 in his last eight games. The pitching just isn't getting it done. The bats aren't picking up the slack, either. The team isn't built to be a bunch of sluggers like the Tigers or the Yankees, but when Conor Jackson is leading your team at the plate in several statistical categories you just aren't doing as well as you should.
The Dodgers aren't much better. The kindest thing you can say about this team compared to Arizona is that they got off to a pretty uninspiring start. While the Diamondbacks were playing out of their minds over the first 26 games, the Dodgers were as mediocre as they are now - 13-13. The Dodgers might not be very good, but at least they have been consistent. Frighteningly so, really - they are 22-22 over their last 44 games. This team can't manage to build any momentum so far in the new Joe Torre era, but they aren't digging themselves a hole, either.
This team doesn't scare anyone. They don't have a hitter batting over .300, and their power leaders have an underwhelming 11 home runs. Pitching hasn't been any better. They have struggled to find a rotation to settle on - eight different pitchers have started three or more games. Only one of them, Chan-Ho Park at 1-0, has a winning record in their starts. When a washed up 35-year-old reliever is leading your team in winning percentage you have problems.
Though I don't like either team, and I think that the whole division should just forfeit the rest of the season and start over next year, I would have to agree with the bookmakers and take the Dodgers to be on top when the season ends. They have a couple of factors on their side. First of all, both teams are underachieving at the plate and on the mound, but the Dodgers have more proven, experienced players who are playing below their best. That means that they have a better chance of rebounding when the pressure intensifies. I also trust Joe Torre a lot more than I do Bob Melvin when it comes to crunch time. Finally, the Dodgers have been underwhelming but they have been consistently so. Arizona has been progressively less impressive as the season has aged.
Unless something changes, one of these teams is going to make the playoffs with a record at or around .500. Back in 2005 the Padres made it out of the NL West with a .506 mark. Their playoff run lasted three games. A team that struggles into the playoffs has to play the team with the best record, and they have to open on the road. Neither of these teams are winners on the road, and the Diamondbacks aren't even close. Remind me again why those 20/1 and 25/1 prices are even remotely attractive?