Now, this lack of drama is no fun at all in September, and it's nigh-unacceptable in the playoffs. So rather than just let things play out like they will, which is to say "predictably," we're going to try to throw a wrench into the hopes and dreams of fans of each of the aforementioned playoff probables. Because none of them are the Braves. AND SO: onward with the hating. Up next: the Dodgers.
The Dodgers have been the runaway favorite in the NL West all year long. And with good reason: they had performed so well last year, especially after adding Manny Ramirez, and it didn't look like there was any team in the division that could hang with them. The team got off to a roaring start, and continued playing dominant ball even after Ramirez was suspended 50 games for steroid use. They've played fairly mediocre ball for most of the second half, but a recent surge shows that their enormous run differential was for real.
Biggest Strength: The outfield. It's an odd choice, since they're only allowing 3.74 runs/game, best in MLB. But looking at their pitching...beyond Clayton Kershaw and maybe Jonathan Broxton, none of it seems super studly. So let's look at the outfield, where they boast three superstar-level producers: Manny Ramirez, Andre Ethier, and Matt Kemp. Ethier's .885 OPS is the lowest of the trio, yet he leads the team in dongers with 31. Kemp could go 30-30 this season; he's already got 34 steals and is just four homers away from achieving the feat. And, of course, you've got MannyBManny in left. Stripping away all of the hyperbole about his being able to hit the ball where he wants to, when he wants to, you're still left with a damn good player. Of course, that sort of goes without saying, but still: a .298/.422/.551 line and a team-best .405 wOBA impresses even further. He lags his outfield counterparts in counting stats because of the 50 missed games, but he's every bit as dangerous as he was last season. Together, these three make up a dominant core of the lineup that can put up enough runs by themselves to win a game.
But wait a minute!
We know that we mentioned that the Dodgers have been the best in baseball at preventing runs. And we want to emphasize the brilliance of young Clayton Kershaw, who's struggled a bit with his command (~5 BB/9), but has been K'ing almost 10 per nine. He's the staff ace, and he heads a solid group of hurlers mainly composed of Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda, and Randy Wolf. And as for the bullpen, Jonathan Broxton has been an overpowering force this season, striking out 13.5 per nine, while boasting a a K:BB ratio of over 4.
You might ask, then, why is their pitching going to be their downfall? Well, it's similar to the Yankees' situation: you have a lot of quality guys, but not a lot in the way of people about whom you feel totally, indubitably confident in their ability to win a game for you every time out. So, like we did with the Bronx Bombers, let's go pitcher by pitcher here and see what's what.
LHP Clayton Kershaw: We love the 21 year old. We think he's got the ability to be a dominant pitcher, and he's shown that quality frequently this season. But on the other hand...he's 21. He's already thrown nearly 60 innings more than last season, and the club has demonstrated concern over his workload as the season winds down. His control has gotten worse - from 4.3 to 4.9 BB/9. He's succeeded by missing bats, and we have to wonder if he can keep doing that when he's not facing the NL West and his innings have been piling up.
RHP Chad Billingsley: Billingsley has been something of a disappointment this season. After fantastic turns in the last two seasons, he's seen his ERA rise over 4 and his strikeouts decrease by nearly 30 despite only 10 fewer innings to this point. He's also been dealing with the injury bug of late, having most recently been seen coming out of the bullpen to get some innings in. We're not saying that a return to the ace form he's demonstrated in the past is out of the question, but an ERA+ that's dropped from 135 to 103 is cause for concern.
LHP Randy Wolf: Wolf has been shockingly good this year. This has been the best year of his career, and it's not particularly close. He's been getting it done this year by limiting walks - he's a full walk/9 below his career average and his WHIP is a career-best 1.09. He's also posted a career best in ERA+ at 129, and is allowing only 7.5 hits/9, again a full hit below his average. Furthermore, he's tossed 200 innings for the first time since 2003. That right there is both a good sign and a red flag (Red sign? Good flag?). On one hand, he's shown that he can be durable for a full season, and be effective in so doing. On the other, you have the same issue as you do with Kershaw: having established this huge jump in innings from seasons past, can he keep pitching as effectively as he has with his arm wearing down? Looking at his health history, it's hard to say yes.
RHP Hiroki Kuroda: Kuroda's back from an ugly looking liner off the head, which is bittersweet for us. We're glad he's ok, but we're not glad that Charlie Haeger no longer has a rotation spot. Woe is him. In any event, when he's been healthy this year, he's been pretty excellent. He's a control master, with a K:BB near 5, and an FIP of 3.26. He's stranded just 66% of baserunners, well below the ~75% league average, so he'll likely see that number improve. Yet he's still a 114 OPS+, which is great for the back end of your rotation, but not the sort of number that suggests a capacity to dominate. In any event, as with Wolf, at this point in his career, we just don't know if you can count on him for major innings. He's not thrown many pitches this season, since he's been hurt, but even in the shortened format of the playoffs, we doubt his ability to go deep into games and provide the bullpen with any sort of rest. And given the overall fragile nature of this rotation, it looks like they're going to be leaning on that bullpen quite a bit.
So since that's the case, the bullpen bears a quick examination as well. Broxton, as mentioned, has been excellent. But, as closer, he sees limited opportunities. To wit, Ramon Troncoso and Jeff Weaver (!) have thrown more innings for the Dodgers this season. Troncoso's been very good though, with a WXRL over 3, and in the top 100, you'll also find James McDonald and, of course, Jeff Weaver (!!). So the bullpen should be a strength of this team, what with having four capable arms ready to handle the late innings. And yet...it's a bullpen. With the small number of innings that they'll throw in the postseason, anything could happen. And, yes, we're grasping at straws here. The truth of the matter is that this is a stacked team that could very easily play into November...you know, if their pitching doesn't implode, as it easily could. And, yes, that's a big 'if,' Dodgers fans. One that will invariably cause them to blow it in the playoffs.