The Giants-Dodgers rivalry has always been the West Coast version of Red Sox-Yankees, two ancient foes with an abiding dislike for each other that have several great pennant race moments in their history. This year it’s even more so.
The Yankees are being more restrained with their money while the Dodgers freely flex their financial muscle. The Red Sox are a last-place team for the third time in four years while the Giants are the game’s gold standard when it comes to clutch performance.
Now the Giants and Dodgers come down the stretch in what looks to be baseball’s best division race in the final month-plus. Los Angeles holds a 1 ½ game lead. The wild-card is a longshot, with the Chicago Cubs seven games up on San Francisco. It looks like winner-take-all in the NL West.
To set the stage for the closing month, TheSportsNotebook is going to preview these teams with the same sort of comparison/contrast that this site uses for a postseason series preview. Let’s lay out how each team looks in the four areas that win or lose baseball games—hitting for power, getting men on base, starting pitching and the bullpen. Then close it out with a look at how Las Vegas views each team.
GETTING MEN ON BASE: Both teams have several players who excel at consistently keeping the basepaths full. For the Dodgers, it’s catcher Yasmani Grandal, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, leftfielder Andre Ethier and third baseman Justin Turner, all of whom have OBPs over .360.
Other contributors include second baseman Howie Kendrick—currently injured, but expected back in September. Rookie centerfielder Joc Pederson’s year-long numbers are good, but he’s slowed considerably since an electric first half of the season and has begun to lose playing time to Enrique Hernandez. Either way, manager Don Mattingly has someone who can get the job done.
The middle infield is what’s intriguing, as the Dodgers have re-united the veterans of the excellent Philadelphia Phillies teams from 2007-11, with Jimmy Rollins and the newly acquired Chase Utley, who will stand in for Kendrick at second base. Neither player is doing anything this year, but accomplished veterans in September fighting for perhaps one last October moment aren’t to be dismissed.
San Francisco’s lineup has a similar profile. Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Nori Aoki and Gregor Blanco all have OBPs ranging from .351 to .377. Second baseman Joe Panik sits at .374, one of the toughest outs in the game, although he’s injured right now.
The Giants, like the Dodgers, except their second baseman back in the first part of September. San Francisco is also missing Hunter Pence, whose .327 OBP isn’t great, but is above the league average.
Kelby Tomlinson has been plugged into Panik’s spot and in a very short sample size, has a .341 OBP. And third baseman Matt Duffy has been the precise opposite of the Dodgers’ Peterson—a rookie who has come on in the second half rather than the first half. Duffy sits with a .345 OBP.
San Francisco’s biggest strength, when compared to Los Angeles, is that there are no obvious weak points in this lineup. The only current starter with an OBP under .300 is newly acquired Marlon Byrd, and he’ll take a seat when Pence comes back, hopefully early September.
HITTING FOR POWER: Here again, there’s consistency up and down the lineup for both teams. The Dodgers have seven starters (if you assume Kendrick rather than Utley at second base) whose slugging percentage exceeds the league average and in every case except Kendrick, it’s substantially above that line. The Giants have six starters (assuming Pence and Panik in the lineup) who do, with Blanco right on the line. When you consider that both teams play in pitcher’s parks, it’s obvious that these are teams really built on power, in spite of their pitching reputations that we’ll get to in a moment.
The impact power hitters—defined by slugging percentage rather than home runs—for the Dodgers would Gonzalez, Grandal, Turner, Ethier and Pederson. But the post-All Star break struggles of the latter have been mentioned. Pederson hasn’t been the same player since he entertained the nation at the Home Run Derby, making the finals and nearly derailing hometown favorite Todd Frazier in Cincinnati.
You might be surprised to learn that San Francisco’s best slugging percentage is owned by shortstop Brandon Crawford, who’s quietly transformed from a pure defensive SS to perhaps the game’s best all-around player at the position. That grand slam he hit in last year’s wild-card game at Pittsburgh was apparently his coming out party as a power guy. Crawford is joined by Buster Posey, Duffy and Pence, whom this team really needs back in the lineup.
STARTING PITCHING: The biggest names in baseball are right here in this rivalry. Madison Bumgarner turned in what’s arguably the defining sports moment of an entire generation last October in the postseason. Zack Greinke is having one of the great all-time seasons this year. Clayton Kershaw enjoys a consensus as the game’s best pitcher (I don’t agree, but I’ll save that for another day).
What can’t be overlooked is Los Angeles enjoys a huge advantage here. San Francisco struggles to piece their rotation together after Bumgarner. They acquired Mike Leake at the trade deadline, and with a 9-6 record and 3.44 ERA, he’s their second-best pitcher. Tim Hudson and Tim Lincecum are both on the disabled list, though these are two more expected early September returnees.
Matt Cain has yet to regain his pre-elbow injury form, with a 2-3 record and 5.66 ERA. Jake Peavy is a veteran battler, but the results are mediocre, with a 4.35 ERA. Other than Bumgarner, all of the veterans—Lincecum, Hudson, Peavy and Cain—take turns on the disabled list.
Meanwhile, Greinke (13-3, 1.67) and Kershaw (10-6, 2.29) both sport ERAs better than Bumgarner to begin with. While depth in the rotation is a concern for the Dodgers, Brett Anderson (7-8, 3.52) and Alex Wood (8-8, 3.79) give the Dodgers a decided edge on the Giants.
RELIEF PITCHING: The script flips here, as San Francisco makes up for what it lacks in the rotation by a longer bullpen. While Dodger closer Kenley Jansen has a better ERA than Giant counterpart Santiago Casilla and by a lot (2.67 to 3.61) it hasn’t stopped Casilla from bagging 30 saves to Jansen’s 24, and the Giant edge becomes enormous in the run-up to the closer.
Bruce Bochy has no fewer than four quality arms to rely on, from lefty specialist Javier Lopez, to hard-throwing Hunter Strickland to George Kontos, all of whom are having fantastic years. Sergio Romo is solid and has experience closing in high-pressure situations, as the ninth-inning guy in the 2012 World Series title run.
By contrast, Don Mattingly can turn to J.P. Howell, who’s having a really good year and maybe Pedro Baez. That’s it. And as the season gets to its closing days, if San Francisco gets all of its veteran starters healthy at once, they can put one or two of them in the bullpen. Lincecum in particular, has positive experience working as a reliever.
VEGAS ODDS: If you think this race looks fairly even—two good offensive teams, with one starting-pitching heavy team against one staff that’s bullpen-dependent—than you’re seeing something different than Las Vegas. The Dodgers remain the odds-on favorite, at 2-5 to win the NL West, while the Giants are 7-5.
PREDICTION: The debate over whether you’d have Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner is essentially a microcosm of the debate over these two teams. Kershaw and the Dodgers are clearly better on paper. Bumgarner is clearly better in high-pressure situations. I picked Los Angeles at the start of the season and will stay with that, but the longer this race stays tight, the more edge shifts to San Francisco.
Normally that’s not a view I would hold. Normally I would say that the team with the long bullpen has the edge over six months, but in a short series—like the four-game set the rivals will play in San Francisco to kick off the regular season’s final week—the advantage shifts to the team with the marquee starting pitchers. But these Giants are anything but normal. And, in a negative way, so are these Dodgers.
Kershaw has been a train wreck in the postseason. Bumgarner is the new Curt Schilling, with his ability to take already excellent form and lift it even higher when the money’s on the table. If you need an under-the-radar game in the middle of July, go with Kershaw. If the game actually matters, Bumgarner is your guy.
The Dodgers still appear to be a great regular season team, and with over a month to go, I’ll stay with the favorite. They get the Giants for three games at home next Monday. Now is the time Los Angeles needs to make its move. If we get to that final week battle and San Francisco is still within a game, I’m going to be ready to jump ship. Because that will be a de facto playoff series and we’ve all learned what the Giants do then.