Two bitter rivals playing in the same division are clawing for every win down the stretch, both expecting to play in October, but fighting nonetheless to show up the other. And the Red Sox and Yankees are both bad this year.
The Orioles, Angels, Nationals, and probably Cardinals have locked up their respective divisions. The Royals are in a thrilling race with the Tigers, but they’re getting by on defense, relief pitching, and a healthy dose of magic. The one division race that’s worth a good look down the stretch is in the NL West, where the Dodgers’ lead over the Giants is down to two games as of this writing.
I’ve alluded in these pages to the Dodgers’ perceived superiority over the Giants. They have baseball’s biggest payroll, the best pitcher on the planet, and players worthy of making this year’s All-Star Game at almost every position. Meanwhile, the Giants have Hunter Pence. I’ll try to put that bias aside in comparing the teams, position by position.
We’re off to an easy start. Buster Posey batted .305 and contended for Rookie of the Year in 2010. The Giants won the World Series. Posey got hurt and missed most of the season in 2011. The Giants missed the playoffs. Posey came back strong in 2012 and won MVP honors, batting .336 and clubbing 24 homers. The Giants won the World Series. When Buster came back to Earth in 2013, the Giants missed the playoffs. Posey’s raking again in 2014, hitting .306/.358/.486 and perhaps making a bid at another MVP award. The Giants are headed back to the playoffs. Meanwhile, AJ Ellis is a capable backstop who takes a lot of walks. He’s also batting .188 and playing below replacement level, per fangraphs.
Huge edge: Giants
First base has been a team effort for San Francisco, with Michael Morse leading the way. Morse and Brandon Belt have hit 16 and 11 homers, respectively, though Morse’s on-base skills (.338) are modest for a corner guy and Belt’s (.296) were downright embarrassing before he succumbed to injury in early August. Los Angeles plays Adrian Gonzalez at first, and while he’s not the hitter he was in his youth, Gonzalez has an offensive line similar to Morse’s and plays slick defense.
San Francisco has been host to a parade of miserable second basemen this season: Brandon Hicks, Ehire Adrianza, Matt Duffy- even Marco Scutaro and Dan Uggla gave it a shot. Not until rookie Joe Panik showed up did they get anything resembling a bat at the keystone. Panik’s hitting .322 in 57 games, albeit with little patience or power. He hit for average in the minors, and there are early signs that he can hold his own in the field, although defensive numbers don’t mean much in 57-game samples. The Dodgers’ Dee Gordon has been a revelation since being freed from the pressures of shortstop. He’s batting .288 with a league-leading 59 stolen bases, good for 3.1 fWAR so far, and was an All-Star for the first time in 2014.
Take your pick: offense or defense. Brandon Crawford has the glove, but his 94 wRC+ (6% worse than league average) is a career high. Hanley Ramirez is more of a third baseman playing out of position at this point in his career, but history gives us plenty of reasons to believe he’s even better than the impressive 126 wRC+ he’s put up so far.
WAR says this one’s close, but the eye test likes San Francisco’s Kung Fu Panda. Pablo Sandoval is hitting .286/.333/.486 with 16 homers and defensive range that belies his panda-esque frame. Juan Uribe has a similar line (.302/.326/.429), with even better defense. If we believe in Uribe’s late-career renaissance (he compiled a career-high 5 fWAR last year at age 34), this one’s a push. If we prefer the guy in his prime, the edge goes to the Giants.
Slight edge: Giants
Quick: who plays left field for the Giants? If you answered that Gregor Blanco has been there since Morse moved to first, you’re probably a Giants fan. Blanco has speed (15 steals) and makes the occasional highlight reel catch, but he’s never been worth as many as three wins in a season. Meanwhile, the Dodgers can throw out two past MVP candidates in Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp in left, but Scott Van Slyke has been their best left fielder this year, slugging .505 and playing above-average defense. $230 million can buy you that kind of depth.
Like Blanco, Angel Pagan is fast (14 steals) and gets on base enough (.344), but the defensive metrics don’t love him. We’ve seen Van Slyke and Kemp in center at Chavez Ravine as well, but the Dodgers’ primary center fielder now is Yasiel Puig. Puig has more than his share of mental lapses, but a 142 wRC+ and an arm like Bo Jackson’s help atone for his foibles.
What can I say about the enigma that is Hunter Pence that Grant Brisbee didn’t already say better? Somehow, Pence is a brilliant baseball player, perhaps even an MVP candidate. He’s hitting .294/.348/.474, with 19 home runs and 13 stolen bases. Against Puig, I’m not sure I’d go with Pence, but with old man Kemp getting most of the innings in right now, Pence is an easy call.
Madison Bumgarner is awesome. Tim Hudson still succeeds (3.12 ERA) without striking anyone out (5.64/9 IP). Yusmeiro Petit is striking out more than a batter an inning and just threw an 84-pitch complete game. Jake Peavy has somehow revived himself after looking thoroughly cooked in Boston, to the tune of a 2.36 ERA in 8 NL games. Ryan Vogelsong is… still a major league pitcher.
Those five guys have totaled 8.2 fWAR so far, a passable total for a rotation, particularly one in which two guys have thrown fewer than 100 innings for the team. Clayton Kershaw has 6.3 fWAR by himself, and he missed almost a month with his own injury earlier this year. Kershaw’s historic season aside, the Dodgers can throw another two ace-like pitchers at you in a short series. Hyun-jin Ryu’s 2.60 FIP is second in the NL this year, albeit not in the same stratosphere as Kershaw’s 1.89. Zack Greinke has a 2.73 ERA in a team-leading 178 1/3 innings. After that, things go downhill, as Dan Haren is basically another Vogelsong at this point in his career, and Roberto Hernandez, nee Fausto Carmona, was a desperate wish to fill the solid innings Josh Beckett turned in when healthy earlier in the year.
If all five pitchers are needed, the Giants may have the edge in the last two spots, but in a short series, it’s all…
While deposed closer Sergio Romo has struggled this year, Santiago Casilla has filled in capably. The Giants have some bullpen depth, with Jeremy Affeldt, George Kontos, and Jean Machi all with ERAs and FIPs of 3.25 or better, and Tim Lincecum stepping into the long-man role that’s often crucial in October.
In LA, Kenley Jansen remains one of the game’s premier closers, striking out more than a batter and a half per inning. JP Howell and Pedro Baez have FIPs under 2, and former closers Brandon League and Brian Wilson lurk, though neither has been spectacular this season.
Overall, the Giants bullpen ranks fourth in MLB in ERA; the Dodgers 17th. The Giants are seventh in FIP, the Dodgers 13th. Both play in extreme pitchers’ parks, so any adjustments affect them both. In October, with days off between many games, there’s extra value in having an elite closer. Still, San Francisco’s depth is an important edge.
Slight edge: Giants
In summary, the Dodgers have the edge at five of eight positions, though the biggest edge goes to Posey at catcher. The Dodgers have the best pitcher, enviable #s 2 and 3, and the better closer, but the Giants have depth in both the rotation and the bullpen. The Dodgers are clearly the better team, but with just over two weeks of games to be played, anything can happen. If the two meet in October, expect a bitter battle between two teams with a lot of shared history and a lot of recent and distant past animosity toward one another.
My money’s on the Dodgers, but I’ve probably overstated their superiority in past articles. Besides, the Giants have proven me wrong before.