Two men are relaxing by a campfire in the woods. Suddenly, they’re confronted by an enormous, hungry grizzly bear. It stands on its hind legs, throws back its massive head, and bellows. The terrified men bolt from the campsite. As they run, Man #1, the slightly slower of the two, asks, “Do you think we can outrun the bear?” Man #2, no speedster himself, responds, “I don’t have to be faster than the bear, I just have to be faster than you.”
And so it is with divisional baseball.
You don’t have to be the best in the entire league, just slightly better than the other teams in your division. As of the second day of summer, the Dodgers have shown they’re just good enough to be better than the Giants. And that’s good enough for first place.
I was at the O.Co Coliseum (that’s what they’re calling it these days) to see the Dodgers play the red hot Oakland Athletics on Thursday. A brilliant pitching performance from Clayton Kershaw was wasted by a ninth inning train wreck engineered by Dodger reliever Josh Lindblom. I’ve seen the Dodgers play a number of times on the tube this season, most often without Matt Kemp. Honestly, having seen them in action, I have to ask myself, “What makes this team better than the Giants?”
Their star/franchise player, Matt Kemp, has missed 34 games. Their outfield consists of the following: one bona fide big-time presence in Andre Ethier in right; Tony Gwynn, Jr., Kemp’s usual replacement, in center; and an assortment of players in left that includes rookie infielder Elian Herrera and Los Angeles Angels castoff Bobby Abreu. Their starting second baseman, Mark Ellis, who was hitting .292 at the time, went down with a horrendous knee injury on May 18th. Ellis will likely be out at least another two weeks, although he is progressing more rapidly than initially anticipated. The Dodgers’ first baseman, James Loney, has all of 2 home runs and 21 RBI. And their starting third baseman, Juan Uribe, has played in only 33 games with 1 home run to show for it.
In spite of all of that, the team’s batting average is good enough for a solid 6th in the National League. In fact, the team’s average in games in which Kemp has not appeared is .257. Solid, but not phenomenal, and it’s not as good as the Giants team average. This year San Francisco added Melky Cabrera who’s leading the league in hitting at .363. They also acquired Angel Pagan, who is batting an even .300. Both are everyday players and terrific additions to the Giants’ roster. And Buster Posey is healthy, playing nearly every day, and hitting .293. As a team the Giants are 4th in the league with a .262 average.
As to the Dodgers’ pitching, there are some question marks. Last year’s Cy Young Award winner, Clayton Kershaw, has only five wins in 15 starts. Their bullpen has 10 blown saves, and coughed up a wretched loss to the A’s on Thursday. And their pitching staff has walked 239 batters, which is 13th in the league.
So how do they win? Unless the sweep by the A’s is a trend, they are indeed winning. With Kemp in the lineup, their record is 23 – 13 for a won/loss percentage of .638, easily good enough for first place in any division in MLB. But wait, they only have to be better than the other quality team in their division (see grizzly bear joke above). Without Kemp in the lineup, they’re 19 – 15, for a .558 won/loss percentage. That mark is still slightly better than the Giants’ overall mark of 38 – 32 which represents a .543 won/loss percentage.
I ask again, how do they do it? It’s simple. In spite of the parade of negatives outlined above, the Dodgers are good at keeping their opposition from scoring as many runs as the Dodgers score. Their team ERA of 3.17 is second best in the NL, and well ahead of the Giants’ respectable 3.48 team ERA. None of the Dodger starters has an ERA above 3.76. The Giants have Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito. Their fielding is also better than the Giants. San Francisco is dead last in the National League with a fielding percentage of .978. They’ve committed 59 errors so far this year.
By contrast, the Dodgers are 10th in the NL in fielding with a fielding percentage of .982, having committed 46 errors. While the Giants have given up 34 unearned runs, the Dodgers have given up 28 unearned runs. The Dodgers’ opponents have scored 247 runs in 70 games; the Giants’ opponents have scored 275 runs in the same number of games. That’s nearly half a run per game more. And in spite of outhitting the Dodgers, the Giants are actually scoring fewer runs. They’ve scored 277 runs to the Dodgers’ 291 runs. The math is pretty simple: the Giants have scored only two more runs than their opponents and are six games above .500. The Dodgers have outscored their opponents by 44 runs and are 14 games over .500.
The Dodgers are better than the Giants because their pitching and defense are better. By surrendering fewer runs through better pitching and defense, they allow themselves more chances to win, even with a lineup currently on the thin side at the plate. This is not to say the Dodgers don’t sorely miss the performances of Matt Kemp and Mark Ellis. Nor is it to say they don’t need more production out of James Loney. But it does say that second-year Manager Don Mattingly has the talent at his disposal to fall back on some traditional winning fundamentals in spite of the absence or underperformance of some key players. And as long as the Dodgers continue to pound away at those fundamentals, the bear will feast on the slightly less adept Giants.
Jonathan Dyer has been a baseball fanatic since playing Little League in the 1960s, and he’s been following the Oakland A’s since moving to the Bay Area in the late 1970s when he watched Rickey Henderson play for Billy Martin. Dyer, the author of three novels, now brings his long-term perspective to writing about baseball, connecting the modern game to its historic context. You may email Jonathan directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @dyer_jp. You can follow his progress on two new novels he’s writing at www.booksbyjonathandyer.webs.com