The Chemistry Of the Dodgers Catching The Giants

Just over two weeks ago, I wrote about “the right and wrong ways to criticize the 2014 Dodgers,” saying that while the Dodgers certainly had their faults, it was ridiculous to compare their record to that of the Giants — on pace, at the time, for 105 wins — and even sillier to insinuate that the reason that the Giants were doing so much better was because of “chemistry.” Remember, on June 7, an actual national columnist wrote the words, “But win the National League West? No chance. It’s over. The San Francisco Giants don’t have the talent the Dodgers have, but they have the kind of team the Dodgers crave. The Giants are the definition of a true team. The Dodgers are the true definition of a sabermetric nightmare.” And meant them! With a straight face!

As I said at the time:

Chemistry matters, sure. It’s not zero. It might be part of why Ramirez has seemed to regress so much on defense, if unhappiness over his contract has caused him not to work as hard at it. (Speculation.)  But anyone who’s putting it near the top of the list of “why baseball teams win (or don’t)” has completely gone off the deep end. Chemistry matters. Health and talent matter far, far more.

Since that June 11 post, the Giants have gone 4-12, and 4-15 in their last 19. The Dodgers have gone 11-6. With a nod to percentage points separating the two, they’re essentially tied for first place. Did the Dodgers hire some chemists?

Well, no. Of course not. That’s silly. But let’s examine what did happen.

The Dodgers started playing like a team with talent

Think about some of the reasons the Dodgers were stuck in neutral for so many weeks, and what happened to turn it around, won’t you?

  • Dee Gordon unslumped himself. I owe the man his own post, but after unsurprisingly being unable to keep up his stellar April (143 wRC+) into May (80), he was basically his April self again in June (145). This is a young player dealing with success for basically the first time, being adjusted to, and adjusting back. This is not chemistry.
  • Clayton Kershaw had an unbelievable month, and is not Paul Maholm. The Dodgers won all six of Kershaw’s June starts. He had a 61/4 K/BB. He threw what is arguably the greatest game any of us have ever seen. Maholm made seven starts in place of Kershaw and Hyun-jin Ryu. You may be surprised to learn there was some dropoff there. This is also not chemistry.
  • Matt Kemp sorted himself out. Kemp’s May was dominated by his move to left field, a benching, and a horrendous slump. In June, he hit .320/.380/.526, which is pretty damn close to “the old Matt Kemp.” This might be chemistry, somehow, in a minor way, but good luck proving it.
  • The bullpen got better. Probably not unrelated to a healthy rotation that goes deep into games rather than suffering short starts from Maholm and Red Patterson and Stephen Fife, the bullpen’s June was the best month of the season, seeing a FIP that was 3.41 in April and an ugly 4.23 in May drop to 2.87. The bullpen staffing has been largely unchanged for most of the year. This is also not chemistry.
  • A.J. Ellis got healthy. While Ellis was rehabbing knee surgery and then a sprained ankle, backups Drew Butera, Tim Federowicz, and Miguel Olivo were routinely terrible, combining to be an enormous drag on the lineup. Ellis, since returning on June 13: .300/.451/.325 This is less “chemistry” than it is “a healthy starter returning to action.”

It’s not like it’s all been perfect, of course. Hanley Ramirez barely plays anymore. Justin Turner got hurt twice. Clint Robinson, Carlos Triunfel, Jamie Romak, and Miguel Rojas have all seen the big leagues. Dan Haren has been awful for most of the last two months, and is my best guess for “guy maybe about to be replaced by Patterson.” Andre Ethier has been less good than he’s been bad. That’s why 11-6 over the last 17 is a pretty good record, and not something absurd like 15-2.

But, okay, fine. Let’s say you did believe the Dodger improvement was about chemistry. The Dodgers haven’t played the Giants at all this month, so how would any of that explain that:

The Giants stopped being the best team in baseball

Let’s not be unfair, here. The Giants are a very good team. They’re better than any of us thought they would be, and they’ve largely done it without the benefit of first baseman Brandon Belt, who has been on the disabled list for weeks. They should not be underestimated going forward.

Of course, they were never, ever going to win 105 games. They were going to come back to the pack. Obviously. How was this not obvious? Did you really think that…

  • Tim Hudson was going to be the best pitcher in baseball all year? That Hudson is even pitching at all this year after Eric Young destroyed his leg last season is close to a miracle. That he’s pitching well is even better. But let’s be realistic, shall we? Through his first 11 starts, he had a BABIP of .240 and an ERA of 1.75. Over his last four starts, it’s .410 and 5.67. The truth is somewhere in between. That’s still a good pitcher. It’s just not an elite one. This is not chemistry either. This is a return to reality.
  • The bullpen was going be the luckiest unit in baseball all year? In April, the Giants bullpen had a 3.36 FIP and a 2.07 ERA. It doesn’t exactly take a rocket science degree to see that wasn’t going to last. In May, they had the same 3.36 FIP and a 3.02 ERA. Uppance was coming… and in June, that 3.30 FIP turned into a 4.12 ERA. Now, Sergio Romo has lost his job as closer. Luck always evens itself out given enough time. This is not chemistry.
  • Michael Morse was going to hit like Freddie Freeman all year? Morse is 32, with a 122 wRC+, and had declined precipitously from 2011 to 2012, and again from 2012 to 2013. His wRC+ by month this year: 164, 160, 83. Again, the truth is somewhere in the middle. He was clearly never going to keep up those first two months. This isn’t chemistry. This is reality.
  • Brandon Hicks was actually going to be a major leaguer? Hicks was a minor league lifer with fewer than 100 MLB plate appearances before the season, but he was pressed into service at second when Marco Scutaro was hurt. In April, he somehow hit .213/.342/.508 with five homers. Since the end of April, he’s hitting .148/.261/.252 and is now riding the bench. This is not chemistry. This is a minor leaguer hitting like a minor leaguer.

It goes both ways, of course. Pablo Sandoval was awful early on, and he’s been much better lately. Over the last few weeks, Morse, Hudson, and the bullpen have been under career norms, and if we were able to say that they were going to regress backwards in April, we have to accept that they can bounce back again now. Belt will be back. Scutaro may be back, and Angel Pagan, who missed most of this downturn, will be back. So let’s not pretend that the Dodgers have this in hand, because they don’t — though the FanGraphs projections expect them to take the division, it’s by only two games, and I don’t believe the Dodgers are on the verge of, or even in the midst of, another 42-8 run like we saw last year. What I do think we’re seeing is a very talented Dodger team begin to play closer to the level they should, and we’re seeing a very good Giants team pay the price for the insanity of the early season.

Like I’ve always said, chemistry is not a thing that completely does not exist. It does, to some extent, and I’m aware that it’s an easy and fun narrative to note that the Dodgers started playing better right around the time Don Mattingly called them out. But let’s not also act as though a San Francisco team with some goofy guys but also nearly $150 million in payroll is some grand chemistry experiment of underdogs gone right. The Giants were a good team who could never sustain that pace. The Dodgers are a good team who were clearly underperforming. As absolutely should have been expected, if not this quickly, both of those things are correcting themselves. It doesn’t take a doctorate in chemistry to see that.

About Mike Petriello

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