A Tale of Two Teams: NL West Supremacy Boils Down to an Old-School Rivalry

 

The Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants were once the toast of the Big Apple, but their rivalry was dimmed when they were shipped to the longtime media dead zone of the West Coast. However, strong playoff pushes from both teams has rekindled the flame and reignited their relevancy. With a half-game split between San Francisco (59-50) and Los Angeles (59-51) at the top of the NL West, the stretch run should be the most compelling in years, especially considering that both teams as dark horses for the two wild card slots. After making major acquisitions at the trade deadline, we analyze the Dodgers and Giants position-by-position as they enter the dog days of August.

 

English: Buster Posey at Dodger Stadium.

English: Buster Posey at Dodger Stadium. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Catcher: Buster Posey vs. A.J. Ellis

 

Posey wins this duel of backstops by a wide margin. After his sophomore campaign was cut short by the infamous home-plate collision, Posey has, to quote the great Jay-Z, “risen from the ash like a phoenix,” hitting .329 with 17 HR and 70 RBIs at the heart of the Giants’ order. Fueled by a .354 batting average since June 1, he catalyzes their offense, continuing his progression from highly-touted prospect to big-league powerhouse. If you’re still not convinced, compare their OPS numbers: .932 for Posey versus .840 for Ellis. Case closed. Edge: Giants

 

First Base: Brandon Belt vs. James Loney

 

The answer is not as obvious as the Posey-Ellis matchup, but the Giants pull out on top here. Belt is hitting a measly .244 with only 4 HR and 33 RBI, but his 100-point split between AVG and OBP (.344) is pretty impressive. Meanwhile, Loney flounders with a case of BABIP-itis. He was a respectable table-setter for the Dodgers in 2011 with a .288 AVG and above-average .309 BABIP. However, his .288 2012 BABIP has killed his 2012 average, which now sits at .257. A run scorer like Loney only has opportunities to score if he’s hitting for a high average; a .257 mark doesn’t cut it, even with a powerful core behind him.

In the end, Belt is a rookie in the rough, but isn’t that much worse than Loney in his “prime.” I’d take Belt for 2012 and the future. Edge: Giants

 

Second Base: Ryan Theriot vs. Mark Ellis

 

“Who are these guys?” you’re asking. To be honest, my research produced a single fact: both Theriot and Ellis are scrubs with sub-.700 OPS (.635 and .693, respectively). Honestly, neither should have much impact on the overall prognosis, so no point in wasting your time. Edge: Push

 

Shortstop: Brandon Crawford vs. Hanley Ramirez

 

All I see is Dodger blue here. The Dodgers reeled in HanRam for basically nothing from a floundering Marlins organization trying to simultaneously fire-sale and rebrand (never a recipe for success). Hanley’s subpar .244 average has limited his counting numbers this season (15 HR, 59 RBI, 56 R, 16 SB) but the Dodgers swiped a five-star superstar on the cheap. While his .238 AVG in Los Angeles is worse than his .246 figure in Miami, he’s added a nifty 11 RBIs through 11 games in his new digs.

Let’s be real; the guy is a lifetime .300 hitter sitting at a .244 mark in 2012, and Dodger ownership is banking on the fact that the California air will scoops him out of his two-year malaise. Regardless, he blows Crawford (only 3 HR, 32 RBI, and a .229/.285/.328 line in 98 contests). Edge: Dodgers

 

Third Base: Pablo Sandoval vs. Luis Cruz

 

Again, a corner infield position leaves us with a lackluster battle. Sandoval clearly outclasses Cruz, but injuries have cut the Kung Fu Panda’s season to only 62 games. However, Sandoval has posted a .843 OPS in those 62 contests, while Cruz has only managed a .690 OPS in 28. ESPN’s depth chart lists Cruz as the Dodgers’ top third baseman, but the hot corner has been an enigma all season for Dodgers, especially with shortstop Dee Gordon set to return from a thumb injury. Morale of the story, the Dodgers are one man short on the left side of their infield, even with Hanley in the mix. Edge: Giants

 

Outfield: Shane Victorino, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier versus Melkey Cabrera, Angel Pagan, Hunter Pence

 

Victorino and Pence serve as excellent improvements to each roster, both for their offensive production and defensive merits. Clearly, they struggled through subpar seasons in the toxic environment that is the Phillies’ Citizen Bank Park, and a change of scenery should inflate both of their stat lines. Pence should slug more home runs and drive in more runners, but Victorino will swipe more bags while hitting a decent number of long balls. They are both all-around players, so let’s avoid the whole “speed versus power” debate and call it basically even.

Moving past big-name acquisitions, it’s pretty obvious that the rest of the Giants’ outfield is flawed. Pagan is the weakest link here; while his .283 average matches up well to Ethier’s .287 mark, the Dodgers’ right fielder hits for much more power (11 HR, 63 RBI versus Pagan’s 7 HR and 40 RBI). Again, the OPS tiebreaker goes in Either’s favor, .823 to .746.

The second problem with the Giants’ outfield is Melky Cabrera’s average, even if the Giants’ offense rides on that surprising .352 figure. Maybe it’s the next stage of the Melk Man’s development following last year’s breakout season with the Royals, but how much longer does this last? His .387 BABIP in 2012 is off the charts, putting his .310 career average to shame. Maybe it could be one of those seasons where everything right for Melky, but his BABIP is a major red flag for the Giants’ lineup.

Meanwhile, Matt Kemp has returned from his hamstring problems and picked up where he left off: 21 games, 4 HR, 13 RBI, 16 R, and a .344/.385/556 line. Beast Mode is back with two above-average stars in the outfield, while the Giants’ trio has Hunter Pence and two question marks. Edge: Dodgers

 

Tim Lincecum

Tim Lincecum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Starting Pitching: Clayton Kershaw, Chris Capuano, Chad Billingsley, Aaron Harang, Joe Blanton vs. Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Barry Zito, Ryan Vogelsong

 

There are some big names with big-time resumes there, so this basically boils down to a numbers’ game; out of these ten pitchers, which team has the most difference makers? By my count, it’s 3-1 in San Francisco’s favor; Cain, Lincecum, and Bumgarner trump Kershaw, who doesn’t have much backup. Kershaw has some nice backup, but Billingsley, Harang, and Blanton are historically average pitchers; the Dodgers’ rotation is a one-man show, while the Giants’ top three hurlers can beat you on any given night. Yes, Lincecum has struggled mightily, but he has won 4 of his last 5 appearances, dropping his ERA from 6.42 to 5.43. The track record speaks for itself; four seasons with 200+ IP and 220+ strikeouts is better than anything an Aaron Harang-type player will accomplish.

The Giants have even more rotation depth when you consider Vogelsong’s post-Japan renaissance. He may be a sabermetrician’s nightmare (2.38 ERA, 3.68 FIP, 4.39 xFIP), but he’s somehow getting the job done for a straight year. On the other hand, Chris Capuano outperformed a one-run split in ERA and FIP/xFIP during the first half, but he has fallen back to earth with a nasty 1-5 record, 5.25 ERA, and .318 BAA in 6 post All-Star Game starts.

Even with the sub-3 ERA version of Capuano (an unrealistic scenario), the Giants’ rotation has much more depth than that of the Dodgers’. For argument’s sake, let’s forget their inconsistent and injury-marred bullpens; the rotation pitches the majority of the innings anyway, so the better set of starters should win. Edge: Giants

 

Prognosis

 

The battle for NL West supremacy rides on whether the Dodgers’ lineup can defeat the Giants’ rotation. I’d give the Giants the edge because good pitching will beat good hitting, but can good pitching outperform subpar hitting? Even with Posey and Melky firing on all cylinders, the Giants’ only rank 18th in the league with 449 runs (4.1 runs per game), and their offense has always been a concern. Ironically, their lineup is performing better than the Dodgers’ “deep” order, which sits at 26th in the majors with 426 runs, good for only 3.9 runs per game.

However, Matt Kemp was hurt for 52 of the Dodgers’ first 110 contests, so you can expect thing to pick up offensively in Los Angeles. Adding his dynamic talent to the lineup will help against the Giants’ aces, and if the Melk Man’s bubble bursts (which the statistics say should happen), then the Dodgers have a much better shot at NL West glory. Remaining strength of schedule shouldn’t play a significant factor because of weak division rivals.

Bottom line, the division title hinges on Melky Cabrera’s performance for the next 50+ games. If he sustains his production, the Giants’ offense will be good enough to ride its rotation into the postseason. If he slumps, the offense will be deadweight, and the Dodgers’ lineup will carry their club to a division crown.

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