2017 was a paradigm shift season for the National League West.
With both the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies under new front office and field management, and the San Diego Padres deep in the middle of a franchise rebuild, serious change was in the air.
And of course the Rocks and Snakes made the 2017 playoffs, taking both NL Wild Card slots, with the Los Angeles Dodgers finishing first in the NL West for the fifth consecutive year.
Arizona had the third most wins in the National League last season (93-69), and the Rockies won 87 games while scoring the most runs in the League (824).
Over the previous five seasons, from 2012 through 2016, the D-backs and Rockies had been doormat teams. Heads in the sand, blindly doing business as usual and wallowing in mediocrity.
From 2012-2016 Colorado won an average of 69 games a season, while the D-backs won an average of 75/season. Looking back, it’s stunning that both franchises drifted backwards for so long before finally getting their collective acts together.
From the start of the 2018 season to May 1st, the National League West is looking both a) a lot different, and b) kinda the same so far.
Arizona’s 20-8 record put them in 1st place in the West on May 1, 2018— but they were 16-11 at that point last season, in 2nd place one game behind Colorado (16-10).
Oddly enough, despite the Dodgers’ problems so far, their May 1st record isn’t that far behind their 2017 start—they were 14-12 in 2017 and were 12-16 on May 1, 2018.
The Giants had a miserable 9-17 start last season but have done remarkably well this season with a 15-14 March/April record.
Keep in mind, San Francisco’s first half schedule this year is stacked with +.500 teams, and April specifically looked to be very challenging. To end up starting May 1st one game above .500 is no small achievement considering the quality of teams they’ve faced.
The Colorado Rockies are also close in 2018 wins (15-15) to their 2017 start (16-10). And San Diego is still experimenting with their talented young players, looking for a winning 25-man roster.
The Padres’ top five ranked farm system is seriously stacked with even more talent, so it feels like the rebuild process may take another year to fully jell. When it does, San Diego could well be a dominant force in the National League.
In looking at 2018 so far, it’s interesting to see what’s working in the National League West and what’s not.
Which we’ll do by looking through the exponentially revealing run-differential and runs-per-game tools of superior baseball knowledge.
Two NL West teams had plus run differentials (DIFF) on May 1, 2018: the Diamondbacks with a +42 and the Dodgers with a +9.
The next best was the Giants at -18, then the Rockies at -25, with the Padres predictably bringing up the rear with a -37 DIFF.
Run differential is an important stat to track throughout the season because it provides a quick, insightful perspective of how a team’s offense and pitching are contributing to team wins and losses.
The Rockies -25 DIFF and the Giants -18 DIFF are not good signposts for the road ahead.
And the Dodgers +9 is a signal that, despite their sub-.500 12-16 May 1st record, the pieces will likely fall in line at some point in the first half.
Comparing the start of the 2018 and 2017 seasons in terms of average runs scored per game, three NL West teams have improved in RS/G so far this season:
- The Dodgers are up +.44 RS per game (133 to 112)
- San Francisco is up +.31 RS per game (106 to 87), and
- San Diego is up +.19 RS per game (119 to 102).
But all three teams are also giving up more runs per game this season compared to 2017:
- LA is giving up +.89 R/G (124 to 92)
- San Francisco is giving up +.34 R/G (124 to 120), and
- The Padres have given up +.24 R/G (155 to 133).
The Dodgers are an interesting case. They’ve had an historically bad start in 2018 but scoring runs has not been the problem.
For LA it’s all about issues with the starting staff and the bullpen.
Last season at this time LA was giving up 3.54 R/G; this season it’s up to allowing 4.29 R/G. That’s a hefty .75 increase in runs allowed per game which isn’t being matched their .44 R/G increase.
The Arizona Diamondbacks are in 1st place in the West thanks to a dramatic improvement in pitching.
The D-backs are actually scoring fewer R/G this season than they did at this point last year (5.22 R/G in 2017, 4.71 R/G in 2018). But their bullpen and starting pitching are going nuts.
- Arizona allowed 4.15 R/G at this point in 2017; so far in 2018 it’s 3.21 R/G.
- The D-backs bullpen is #1 in the Majors with a collective 2.16 ERA. Their overall pitching is second in MLB at 2.96 ERA (Houston is #1 at 2.73).
Colorado pitchers are giving up .14 R/G less over last season during the same period (4.67 R/G to 4.81 R/G).
But the Rockies’ hitting is seriously AWOL so far: they’re down a whopping .75 R/G compared to last season over the same period (4.58 R/G in 2017, 3.83 R/G this season).
So what the hell does it all mean?
- The Colorado Rockies will be fine if (or when) their offense finally kicks into gear. Add that to their improved pitching, and this team can definitely be in the hunt for another NL Wild Card slot.
- The LA Dodgers need to rediscover their normal default level of outstanding pitching and run prevention. It won’t take much. LA scored the most runs of any NL West team as of May 1st (133), and the return of 3B Justin Turner and SP Rich Hill in late May should provide the tipping point.
- Arizona looks to have another standout season with an extraordinary combination of superior hitting and pitching. Can they win 93 games for a second year in a row? Their May 1st winning % of .593 projects out to 96 wins.
- The Giants simply aren’t built to sustain challenging the Dodgers, D-backs, and Rockies. I think they can reach .500 at the end of September; given their 64-98 record last year, a .500 season this year would be an impressive comeback.
- We’ve seen early breakouts from two NL rebuilding teams in 2018– the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves. On May 1, 2019 the San Diego should be pretty much in the exact same place. We’ll see.
As usual, the great Yankee Yogi Berra put it best: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”