Surging Dodgers, struggling Giants set up for classic finish to NL West race
- Ace Clayton Kershaw is out, but Los Angeles has come roaring back, erasing San Francisco's big division lead. Which team has the edge from here on out?
On the night that Clayton Kershaw last pitched, back on June 26, the Dodgers lost 4-3 to the Pirates and fell eight games behind the Giants in the National League West race. Five days later Los Angeles put its three-time Cy Young-winning ace on the disabled list with a herniated disc in his back. Yet despite his absence, the Dodgers have climbed all the way back, catching San Francisco atop the division standings on Tuesday before slipping one game behind Wednesday. With 48 games remaining, the two longtime foes appear to be headed toward the latest classic finish in a rivalry that stretches back more than 100 years.
L.A.'s comeback is especially impressive because it has set an NL record with 26 disabled list stints this season. Eight players are currently on the 60-day DL, including four-fifths of what the club once envisioned its 2016 rotation could look like: Kershaw, Brett Anderson, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Alex Wood. The Giants, meanwhile, are about as healthy as they've been all year, with none of their four players on the DL among those projected to be a regular in the rotation or lineup.
Despite that glaring difference, San Francisco has gone 8-16 since the All-Star break, the worst record in the majors, while the Dodgers have gone 13-10. Los Angeles's resurgence is not due to its starting rotation. In fact, since Kershaw went down, its staff has produced just 11 quality starts while combining for a 4.56 ERA, with Brandon McCarthy the only pitcher to make multiple starts while maintaining an ERA lower than 4.09—and he's averaging fewer than five innings per turn as he deals with command issues in his return from Tommy Jon surgery. Rich Hill, whom the team acquired from the A's on Aug. 1, has yet to make a start due to continued blister problems. Bud Norris, a reinforcement acquired from the Braves on June 30, is on the DL now too, having left his July 31 start after facing just two batters due to a lat strain. Kershaw's return date has yet to be determined, but it won't be before Aug. 27 due to the 60-day stint. After progressing to the point of throwing a simulated game on July 16, he was shut down because of further pain and only resumed playing catch this past Sunday.
Those rotation problems have placed a heavy load on the Dodgers' bullpen, which has hardly avoided the injury bug. Since Kershaw last pitched, six of the 13 relievers they've used have spent some amount of time on the disabled list. Even so, they've gotten exceptional work from the unit in Kershaw’s absence: a 3.09 ERA with 10.3 strikeouts and 0.7 homers per nine.
What's kept Los Angeles afloat lately is its offense, which has bashed out an even 5.0 runs per game since June 27. Yasmani Grandal has hit .320/.445/.732 with 12 of his season's 18 homers in that span. Justin Turner has hit .317/.361/621 with 10 of his 21 homers. Corey Seager (.322/.370/545) has solidified his place as the league's top rookie, Howie Kendrick (.303/.369/.469) and Adrian Gonzalez (.363/.430/.534) have both shaken free of slumps, and even Yasiel Puig (.292/.393/.417) provided improved production before being sent to Triple A Oklahoma City. Those players have helped offset Josh Reddick's 4-for-32 start since being acquired in the Hill trade, as well as the injuries of Joc Pederson, Kiké Hernandez and Trayce Thompson. Pederson and Hernandez have since returned and have been productive; Thompson, who had hit .143/.205/.247 in his last 83 plate appearances before going on the DL on July 16, was discovered earlier this week to have two fractures in his back, though he's still hoping to return in September.
The Giants have struggled on both sides of the ball while helping the Dodgers close the gap, starting with a rotation that has managed just 12 quality starts in the last 37 games with a 4.30 ERA. Five of those quality starts have come in Madison Bumgarner's eight turns, meaning that the rest of the unit is 7-for-29, with a 4.87 ERA. All-Star Game starter Johnny Cueto has just two quality starts out of seven with a 4.23 ERA and 1.6 homers per nine. Jeff Samardizja has been lit for a 5.51 ERA and Jake Peavy's been pounded for a 6.14 mark before losing his spot in the rotation with the acquisition of Matt Moore from the Rays at the trade deadline. Moore has given the team a pair of six-inning, two-run starts despite walking 11 batters in those 12 innings, and Matt Cain hasn't gone longer than five innings in any of his last four turns, though the last two of them have been scoreless. The bullpen has been solid but not exceptional in that span (3.60 ERA), though closer Santiago Casilla has converted nine of his last 10 save opportunities. As a whole, the team has allowed 4.46 runs per game in their last 37, compared to 3.77 prior.
The offense has cooled off to roughly the same extent, slipping from 4.62 runs per game prior to June 27 to 4.03 runs since. Brandon Belt (.229/.378/.389) and part-timer Gregory Blanco (.153/.275/.237) have slumped, but the bigger problem has been the difficulties of Joe Panik and Hunter Pence. Panik missed a month due to concussion-like symptoms in the wake of being hit in the head by a pitch on June 18; he's just 5-for-43 without an extra-base hit since returning. Pence, who missed all but three games in June and July due to a right hamstring strain that required surgery, is 8-for-44 with three hits and a double since returning on July 30.
Going forward, according to the baseball-reference.com Expanded Standings, the schedule strength is virtually even; the average record of L.A.'s remaining opponents is 55-57, compared to 56-56 for San Francisco. That said, the Dodgers have just 22 home games remaining compared to the Giants' 29. The two teams have nine games remaining against each other: a pair of three-game sets in Los Angeles (Aug. 23-25 and Sept. 19-21) and one in San Francisco to close the season (Sept. 30-Oct. 2). The Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds, which factor schedule and player projections into their estimates, give the Dodgers a 62% chance at winning the division, with the Giants at 38%. Those odds include an estimate of just 14 more innings from Kershaw. FanGraphs' version similarly gives the Dodgers a 61% to 39% edge with Kershaw throwing another 34 innings.
Kershaw's health will be a significant factor in this race, but far from the only one even in the Dodgers' rotation, as scrambling to find five healthy and available starters continues to be a challenge for manager Dave Roberts. Hill was scratched for Friday in favor of Ross Stripling, while McCarthy's Saturday start is in doubt unless his command improves during his next bullpen session. Anderson, who underwent surgery for a bulging disc in his back in March, could make his 2016 debut on Sunday. Norris could be back Tuesday. For the Giants, beyond getting Panik and Pence up to speed, they need Samardzija to shake a slump that goes back to the beginning of June; while he pitched to a 2.84 ERA through his first 11 turns, he's at 5.73 in 12 outings since, with 2.0 homers per nine.
While Los Angeles and San Francisco have finished 1-2 in the NL West in the past two seasons, neither race wound up particularly close, with the Dodgers winning by eight games last year and six the year before, though of course the Giants went on to win the wild-card game in 2014 and eventually the World Series. It’s been a long time since the two rivals have been in a race that went down to the wire. In fact, during the wild-card era there have been just three seasons in which the two teams finished within three games of each other: 1997, when San Francisco won 90 games and the division title while Los Angeles won 88 and missed the playoffs; 2002, when the Giants won 95 and the wild-card en route to the NL pennant with the Dodgers winning 92 and missing out again; and 2004, when L.A. took the division with 93 wins and San Francisco missed the playoffs with 91.
With the second wild-card, both teams are likely to make the playoffs this year, with the Dodgers given an 94.7% chance and the Giants 88.6%, via BP’s estimates. Still, the handicap of having to play the one-and-done wild-card game means that the incentive to win the division will ensure the rivalry remains as intense as ever down the stretch.