Last week while watching ESPN, I heard one of the game's top broadcasters say, "The Dodgers are scoring a lot of runs this year ..."
Well, they're not. A year ago the Dodgers scored 4.7 runs per game, eighth best in the National League. This year the Dodgers have scored 4.5 runs per game ... ninth best in the National League.
Shawn Green has been fantastic and Dave Roberts has been solid in the leadoff slot, but the Dodgers are getting almost nothing from three everyday players: shortstop Cesar Izturis (577 OPS), second baseman Mark Grudzielanek (630) and third baseman Adrian Beltre (653). Actually, looking at the numbers, I'm surprised that the Dodgers have scored as many runs as they have. Granted, Dodger Stadium is a pitcher's park, but the Dodgers are not an outstanding offensive club. They're approximately OK, and if Green returns to earth they won't even be that good.
No, the Dodgers' place atop the West standings has almost nothing to do with an improvement in their hitting (which, as we've seen, hasn't improved), and almost everything to do with an improvement in their pitching (which, as we'll see, has).
A year ago the Dodgers allowed 744 runs, which tied them with the Marlins for seventh best in the league. Seventh isn't nearly good enough when you play half your games at Dodger Stadium. This year the Dodgers have allowed 335 runs, second fewest in the league (the Braves are tops, naturally).
And for that, let's all stand up and give Dodgers GM Dan Evans a big round of applause. Because of the five pitchers currently in the Dodger rotation, four were the property of other organizations last season.
Omar Daal has been the weak link in the rotation, but when your weak link is 7-4 with a 4.15 ERA, you've got a strong rotation. Evans plucked Daal from the Phillies in exchange for minor-league pitchers Eric Junge and Jesus Cordero.
Kazuhisa Ishii is 11-5 with a 3.58 ERA. Granted, he's not pitched brilliantly over the last month, but without him the Dodgers wouldn't be in first place.
Hideo Nomo's return to Los Angeles has gone better than anyone could have reasonably expected. Nomo hasn't won more than 14 games or posted a sub-4.00 ERA since 1996, his second season with the Dodgers. This season, he's got a 3.16 ERA and he's already won nine games. You watch Nomo and you wonder how he's doing it, but he does it.
Odalis Perez is ... well, let's just say that if the Braves weren't once again leading the league in ERA, they might have some serious regrets about letting Perez get away. Brian Jordan's been Brian Jordan, but when you include Perez and Gary Sheffield's injury problems in the equation, it looks like Evans made out like a bandit in his deal with John Schuerholz.
And then there's the fifth member of the rotation, the guy who was a Dodger last year. Of course I'm talking about Andy Ashby, who was a Dodger in name only. He did win his first two starts as a Dodger before coming down with a serious elbow injury that cost him the rest of the season.
Evans and manager Jim Tracy also get big points for making a closer out of Eric Gagne, who's only been the best closer in the majors this year.
Before the season, most observers -- with "most" including a certain ESPN.com columnist who's never worked for a newspaper -- figured the Dodgers did have a chance, but only if Kevin Brown were healthy and productive for at least most of the season.
Kevin Brown has been neither healthy nor productive. Brown has started nine games, and sports a decent 4.06 ERA but only two victories. Still, the Dodgers are going to need him because it's not likely that all five current starters will remain healthy and productive for another three months.
So who's going to win the West? At this moment, the first-place Dodgers own a two-and-a-half game lead over the Diamondbacks and a four-and-a-half game lead over the Giants. Do the standings indicate the true quality of those three clubs? One way to look at that question is to check each team's run differential, and the records that typically result from those differentials.
Scored-Allowed Exp Rec
Giants 430-343 53-34
Dodgers 391-335 51-37 2.5
D-Backs 425-375 49-38 4.0
These new "standings" don't really tell us anything we don't already know. Over the course of half a baseball season, four games one way or the other don't say much that's particularly meaningful about the quality of the teams involved. All we really know about the Giants, Dodgers and Diamondbacks is that they've all got a legitimate shot at winning.
My money's on the Giants because 1) they've got the best run differential, and 2) they were my preseason pick.
But it's more likely that the Giants will finish second or third than first. Who wins the West will depend on some things that we can't predict, things like injuries, trades ... and, yes, plain old luck. That's the thing about baseball that players understand but few others do; who wins the West could hinge on nothing more than a couple of groundballs that sneak (or don't) through the infield, a few bloopers that parachute (or don't) to the grass, just beyond a pair of desperate defenders. We like to think that the best teams always win, but it's a basic fact of life that they don't.