Wednesday, May 23, 2012

How Bout Dem Dodgers

If your winning percentage is .600 or better, you're having a terrific season. When it's near .700 you're on fire.  John and I have both written about the surprising Orioles, but the Dodgers, at .698, are the best team in baseball. Winning 19 of your 23 home games helps of course. And they're doing it in spite of a rash of injuries, Matt Kemp's being potentially the most damaging. Isotopes have really contributed. No, that's not some bizarre scientific theory of mine, Albuquerque Isotope call ups have ably filled in for missing starters, the latest hero being Ivan de Jesus Jr., who knocked in three late runs last night.

Kemp is/was the second best hitter in either league with a .359 average, 12 home runs, and 28 RBI in just 34 games. He's second in slugging with a .726 average, just behind Josh Hamilton's .758, and second in OPS at a whopping 1.173, just behind Hamilton's 1.186. (Okay, I guess I should mention that David Wright is batting .403 - but he doesn't hit for power like Kemp and Hamilton.) 

Kemp's been out for a week and it hasn't mattered. LA keeps on winning. They've won their last six straight without him, including last night's come from behind win over Arizona.. "I'm overwhelmed with joy," says Kemp. "I'm really proud of the way they're playing. Five guys disabled, four starters. I don't know what other teams could do with that. Everybody has stepped up. It's just amazing how everybody is doing something to help us win. It's exciting to watch." Kemp is expected back next week.

Joining Kemp on the DL have been third baseman Juan Uribe, infielder Jerry Hairston, who was hitting .315, and second baseman Mark Ellis, who was hitting .327. Think second base is a safe position to play? Well Ellis nearly had his leg amputated a day after the Cardinals' Tyler Greene upended him trying to break up a double play. Ellis was rushed to hospital after showing up the next day with severe swelling in his left leg. He was having a fine year (.273).  Healthy so far is catcher A.J. Ellis, who hit over .300 in three of his last four years in Triple-A. He's finally starting and is ninth in the NL with a .327 average.

Kemp's not the only Dodger outfielder having a great year. Tony Gwynn, whose dad could hit a bit, is having his best year yet, batting .292. Andre Ethier, who has had a rather mercurial career including arguments with management, has 9 home runs and a league-leading 40 runs batted in. He's hitting .321 and has a .965 OPS. Ethier is proving that last year (just 11 home runs) is history. His wOBA had fallen from .382 in 2008, good for tenth place among major league outfielders, to just .343 last year, which just got him into the top 30.

What is wOBA you ask. Weighted On Base Percentage is designed to evaluate a player's overall offensive performance. It is based on the concept that not all plate events are created equal. It seeks to be an even more accurate indicator of the value of a plate appearance than on base percentage or OPS. After all, a single is better than a walk - since it has a greater potential for moving runners along - and a home run, well it can clear the bases.

An average wOBA is .320. A .370 wOBA is great. Its formula changes slightly from year to year. The 2011 formula was
                        wOBA = (0.69  X BB) + 0.72 X HBP + 0.89 X 1B + 1.26 X 2B + 1.60 X 3B + 2.08 X HR + 0.25 X SB - 0.25 X CS) / PA

The Dodgers can only hope that Ethier doesn't go down like he did last year. He was .379/.442/.744 after 33 games when he injured his pinky finger and then hit .260 the rest of the way. Bobby Abreu, their fourth outfielder, is rebounding after very sub-par seasons (.255, .253 with only 8 home runs) his last two years in Lala Land. He's hitting .292.

But Kemp and Ethier aside, as you may have guessed it's pitching that's doing it for the Dodgers - a trio of lefty starters - Clayton Kershaw, Ted Lilly, and Chris Capuano. Only Atlanta's Brandon Beachy has a better record than Kershaw and Lilly. Kershaw's success is not a big surprise. In 2008 he was the youngest player in the majors. In 2009 he was 8-8, 2.79. In 2010 he was the 13-10, 2.91 and last year he was 21-5 with 248 strikeouts and a 2.28 ERA, winning the pitching Triple Crown and the Cy Young.

A surprise, though he had a couple of pretty good years with the Cubs, is Lilly, who was 12-14 last year but  is 5-0, 1.70 so far this year. I know Rick and other Blue Jay fans will remember his days in Toronto. What is different this year? Well, he's decided he needs to get ahead of right-handed hitters. He's fifth in the majors throwing a first pitch strike 68% of the time - and he's managing to do it with a variety of pitches. Righties are hitting just .163 when Lilly is on the mound. Over the past 9 years they have averaged 22 home runs off him. So far this year just one.

In spite of going 18-12 for Milwaukee in 2005, Chris Capuano was below .500 lifetime entering 2012. He was 11-12, 4.55 last year but he's 6-1, 2.25 this year. If the Dodgers, who are already seven games ahead of second place San Francisco in the West, start winning on the road too look out. And if Kershaw, Lilly, and Capuano keep this up they're going to send me scrambling through the history books to see if any other team has had three league-leading lefty starters.

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