The Coors Effect

June 14, 2010 11:53 PM

Off day thoughts: Is the division still winnable?

Maybe it's one of those things about high expectations that makes being three games over .500 and four games out of the division lead in the middle of June seem like such a disappointment.

Let's be clear: 2010 has not been a disappointment on the level that, say, 2008 was.  The Rockies in 2008 got off to an awful start in a year in which they were expected to contend, and instead were effectively out of the race by the end of May.  If they were even in the race for that long, that is -- you could argue that they were out of it at the end of April, when they were 9 games out of first place.  But that was a different level of disappointment.  In 2008, we were disappointed that the Rockies were supposed to be good, and instead were terrible.  This year, we're disappointed that the Rockies were supposed to be good, and as it turns out, they're pretty good, but don't seem to be playoff-level good.

But let's step back and take a look at just how this divisional race is shaping up.  The Padres are leading the division, which they've been doing pretty much all year.  And we all have to be surprised not only to wake up to the standings every morning and see San Diego in first place, but also that they're in first place in a way that isn't clearly a fluke.  The Padres have actually underperformed their Pythagorean record.  Now, the Padres' offense is pretty bad, as was expected.  Only three regular starters have an OPS+ over 100 -- Nick Hundley, Adrian Gonzalez, and Scott Hairston -- and the Padres rank near the bottom in the NL in most offensive categories.  At least, most offensive categories where you'd like to be near the top -- the Padres' offense does rank third in the NL in strikeouts.  Certainly their home park hurts them, but it's a completely underwhelming offense.  It's the Padres' pitching that has kept them atop the division.  Aside from Kevin Correia, the highest ERA in the starting rotation belongs to Mat Latos, who has a not-bad-at-all 3.24.  Yeah, PETCO helps here, but the Padres lead the NL in ERA.  And they lead the league in strikeouts.  The Padres have a pretty good starting rotation combined with an utterly excellent bullpen, allowing them to get by with an offense that's barely scraping out four runs a game on average.  The one hope is that two of the starting pitchers, Jon Garland and Wade LeBlanc, don't have terribly good peripherals.  LeBlanc has a 1.47 WHIP to go with his 3.05 ERA, while Garland has a not-so-sparkling 1.33 WHIP to go with his sparkling 2.81 ERA.  The Padres' problem is that, because the offense is so bad, they don't have a lot of margin for error.  If Garland and/or LeBlanc -- and, honestly, Clayton Richard -- experience some correction as their ERA's start to come more into alignment with their rather weak peripherals, the Padres are in trouble, because the offense simply isn't going to score enough runs to overcome any dropoff in the pitching staff.  The bullpen will continue to be excellent, but if the starters are allowing four runs a game, the Padres simply won't have enough firepower to be much more than a .500 team.

Really, you could take everything I just wrote about the Padres, change a few names, and you'd have an apt description of the Giants.  Well, I guess there are a couple of differences: the Giants do rank second in the NL in batting average, and eighth in team OPS, so the Giants' offensive problems have a little more to do with just not producing runs when they need to than they do with simply not having any firepower.  And the lineup is considerably better with Buster Posey in there, though the Giants aren't pushing Bengie Molina to the bench to get Posey in the lineup.  The pitching hasn't been quite as good as the Padres' pitching, but as far as the starting rotation goes, there are no obvious smoke-and-mirrors jobs here -- the Giants' rotation is much more likely to remain good.  The bullpen is a bit shaky, compared to the Padres' excellent bullpen.  I really think the Giants have to be the favorites from here on out, though this race really is wide open.  Except for the Diamondbacks.

The second-place Dodgers have quite the opposite problem: their offense is pretty darn good at full strength.  But their pitching, in a word, sucks.  Actually, the Dodgers' starting rotation isn't too bad: Clayton Kershaw still walks too many people, but he's also just about unhittable, while Chad Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda are okay.  John Ely has been surprisingly good.  The bullpen, outside of Jonathan Broxton, is, ahem, awful.  The Dodgers just don't seem all that well-equipped to keep up their current pace; they've been getting by with a lot of fill-ins.

So, yeah, there's hope for the Rockies.  Fourth place and four games back isn't so terrible when all three of the teams ahead of them have noticeable flaws.

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