NL West Stories Rage Under the Media’s Nose

I get it, I really do. When the season started, the Milwaukee Brewers were the consensus pick to finish the 2014 MLB season in fourth place in the National League Central Division.

NL West teamsNow it turns out the Brewers’ have 22 wins, tied with Colorado for the most in baseball, and they are four games ahead of the otherwise outstanding St. Louis Cardinals. Yes, it’s a great story and even better because Milwaukee is doing it with pitching.

Milwaukee starters Kyle Lohse (4-1/2.72/1.10 WHIP) and Wily Peralta (4-2/2.174/1.14 WHIP) are backed up by a bullpen with the most saves in baseball, 15. Last March just about everyone picked Brewers pitching to be somewhere south of Tierra del Fuego with their leggings around their ankles (or worse).

But if the national media would jump off the Brewer happy train just for a second we could get a better look at baseball’s best story so far: the National League West.

Just as the Brewers were expected to define mediocrity, so the San Francisco Giants were likened to the stuff that gets caught in the expensive designer cleats of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The master plan had the Dodgers gliding to the NL West title, with the Arizona Diamondbacks and maybe the Giants fighting it out for second place.

Many astute observers saw the San Diego Padres as a wild card (in the traditional sense): superior starting pitching, great bullpen, and some very good young hitters. So anything might happen.

It’s what has happened that makes the National League West so fascinating.

sflogo copyWith 20% of the season completed, the San Francisco Giants were not supposed to be in first place, third in the Majors with 42 home runs (Colorado has 50), and second in the Majors with 21 wins.

But they are.

This is a team with wildly contrasting performances so far in 2014, but they are making the positives pay off big.

Although San Francisco’s starters have had a rough ride, Manager Bruce Bochy’s typically excellent use of his bullpen has picked up the slack. Giant starters have only 11 wins, the bullpen has 10.

The Giants are finally hitting the long ball and they are 10th in the Majors with 144 runs scored (Colorado leads baseball with a whopping 215). On the other side, Giant pinch hitters are batting .196 and the defense continues to look average, with 22 errors (17th in MLB) and a distinct lack of infield range.

But again here’s that contrast: San Francisco also has a team slugging percentage of .404 (10th in the Majors) and they are first in the Majors (.285 AVG) in hitting with two out and runners in scoring position. That combination of power and situational hitting will win baseball games, but the Giants still have too many holes.

A strong Dodgers team is working through the kind of player injuries that would shut down a one dimensional team. Staff ace Clayton Kershaw comes off the DL this week and one his first start just as #3 starter Hyun-Jin Ryu goes on the 15 day DL.

Starting catcher A. J. Ellis went down and the Dodgers picked up Miguel Olivio, who went 3 for 9 with a triple and three runs scored in his first two games. Matt Kemp seems healthy and Yasiel Puig looks to fully recover from his death-defying crash into the outfield wall in Miami earlier this week.

Throughout everything the Dodgers continue to win.

The two other juicy NL West stories involve the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Rockies.

The Arizona Diamondbacks and their out-of-touch management may soon decided to jettison Manager Kirk Gibson and his machismo attempt to create a “gritty” team in his own image.

Turns out “gritty” isn’t as good as “smart”.

Arizona is 11-24, barely ahead of the Houston Astros (10-24) and Cubs (11-21), and their 3-15 home record is the worst in baseball. The team’s run differential is -62 and they are 9.5 games out of first place.

What happened? Sorry, you can’t blame all this on injuries. The loss of starter Patrick Corbin and left fielder Mark Trumbo didn’t help, but that doesn’t explain why this talented team tanked so deeply.

It’s the Dusty Baker story all over again: hey, forget all those confusing advanced metrics stats, measuring actual player performance, and using cutting edge defensive positioning. Gritty old-style managers like Gibson and Baker don’t need all that moneyball stuff, they prefer to use hunches and gut feelings to run their half billion dollar organizations.

And how’s that worked out for their teams?

The Colorado Rockies are the dominant offensive team in the Majors. Once again the run production is there: #1 in MLB runs scored (215), #1 in MLB extra base hits (145), and they lead the Majors with a .324 BA with runners in scoring position. Oh, and their pinch hitters are batting .353.

The Rockies are about to nudge the Giants out of first place in the NL West and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is the early favorite for MVP. If this team can get the starting rotation rolling and just improve the bullpen’s performance to League average, watch out.

The 2014 National League West. Take it out for a spin, I think you’ll like its exciting styling and performance.

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