Spring-Training Divisional Outlook: National League West

Previous editions: AL East / AL Central / AL West / NL East / NL Central.

Opening Day is less than a week away, so it’s time that we wrap up our preseason divisional previews, which utilize batted-ball data to hone in on each club’s 2016 true-talent level, and then identify areas of relative strength and vulnerability on each club, as well as key roster turnover. Last up, the National League West.

We’ll start it off with a table that will serve as the backbone of our analysis:

NL West – Key Team BIP Metrics
2016 BIP B AVG BIP B SLG BIP P AVG BIP P SLG BAT K% BAT BB% PIT K% PIT BB% DEF MULT
LAD 0.330 0.540 0.315 0.507 21.4% 8.5% 25.1% 7.7% 103.9
SF 0.319 0.503 0.320 0.524 17.7% 9.1% 21.6% 7.3% 98.4
COL 0.335 0.541 0.338 0.536 21.3% 7.9% 19.5% 8.7% 97.2
AZ 0.335 0.551 0.336 0.564 22.8% 7.4% 20.5% 9.4% 102.4
SD 0.320 0.520 0.326 0.539 25.0% 7.5% 19.6% 9.1% 100.3
NL AVG 0.326 0.528 0.326 0.528 21.5% 8.3% 21.4% 8.4% 99.6

The first four columns indicate how each team “should have” performed at the plate and on the mound if each batted ball generated league-average results for its exit-speed and launch-angle “bucket.” The next four columns list each club’s offensive and defensive K and BB rates.

The last column represents each club’s Defensive Multiplier. This measures each club’s defensive performance compared to its opposition over 162 games. Using granular BIP data, each team’s actual AVG and SLG (excluding home runs) was compared to the projected levels (as described in the previous paragraph) for such BIP, both on offense and defense. This essentially isolates the contributions of pitching from those of team defense. If a club out-defended its opponents, its Defensive Multiplier is below 100. If a club was out-defended, its multiplier is above 100.

Color-coding is used above to note significant divergence from league average. Red cells indicate values that are over two full standard deviations above league average. Orange cells are over one STD above, yellow cells over one-half-STD above, blue cells over one-half STD below, and black cells over one STD below league average. Ran out of colors at that point. Variation of over two full STD below league average will be addressed as necessary in the text below.

Next, let’s convert the above data into run values, perform some Pythagorean magic, and come up with a series of projected win-loss records: (a) on only each club’s BIP hit/allowed, (b) further adjusted for K and BB for/against, and (c) further adjusted for team’s Defensive Multiplier. This third projection represents the club’s true-talent W-L record for 2016. For comparative purposes, each club’s 2016 actual and Pythagorean records are listed:

NL West – 2016 Actual/Projected Records
2016 BIP W-L K/BB ADJ DEF ADJ ACT W-L PYTH W-L
LAD 90-72 97-65 94-68 91-71 90-72
SF 78-84 89-73 90-72 87-75 90-72
COL 81-81 76-86 79-83 75-87 80-82
AZ 79-83 71-91 69-93 69-93 69-93
SD 76-86 64-98 63-99 68-94 72-90

Let’s make some broad observations about each club’s 2016 performance utilizing the data in the two tables above.

The Cubs, Nationals and Dodgers dominated the NL almost totally in 2016 — the Cubs a little more so than the other two, for sure, but this was no democracy. On BIP alone, all three clubs similarly throttled opposing contact. The Dodgers’ projected OBP and SLG allowed were both over a full STD lower than the NL average, representing the driver behind their projected 90-72 record on BIP alone. Clayton Kershaw, Kenta Maeda, Julio Urias and Scott Kazmir all showed the ability to limit authoritative contact. Oh, by the way, relative newcomer Rich Hill does so as well.

Adding back Ks and BBs is a big plus for the Dodgers, due to the existence of that Kershaw guy, even in an abbreviated 2016 campaign. Their pitching staff’s K rate was over a full STD higher, and their BB rate over a half-STD lower than the NL average. This adds seven wins to their projection, up to 97-65.

The Dodgers did not fare well in my team defensive metric, posting an overall 103.9 multiplier, the highest in the division. This is at odds with the publicly available defensive metrics. Their biggest issue was on grounders, where they posted a 110.4 multiplier, second worst in the NL. Adrian Gonzalez slipped significantly with the glove in 2016, and while Corey Seager and Justin Turner were fine, they likely didn’t deserve the big positive numbers bestowed upon them by UZR. Team defense lops three wins off of the Dodger projection, down to 94-68, three games better than their actual record.

The Giants took an odd path to their 90-win campaign last season. It’s a good thing for them that baseball games weren’t decided on BIP alone. The club’s offensive authority was well below average; their projected AVG was over a full STD below, and their projected SLG over a half-STD below the NL average. This was the key force behind their projected 78-84 record on BIP alone.

The addition of Ks and BBs into the mix propels the Giants forward. Their offensive K-BB spread was exceptional; the club’s K rate was over a full STD better than league average, while their BB rate was over a half-STD better. Buster Posey, Joe Panik, and yes, even the departed Gregor Blanco helped drive this result. The pitching staff, led by Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto, also contributed, with a BB rate over a full STD better than the NL average. This adds a whopping 11 wins to the Giants’ projection, up to 89-73.

The club posted a team Defensive Multiplier of 98.4, which is good, but nearly up to the level suggested by publicly available defensive metrics. They fared best on grounders, with an exceptional 79.7 multiplier, the best in baseball. Glove-man extraordinaire Brandon Crawford at shortstop was the obvious leader of this effort. They were held back by an MLB-worst 109.3 multiplier on liners; while their outfielders were adequate on fly balls, there weren’t many far-ranging highlight film plays made by this group. Defense adds a win to their projection, up to 90-72, three wins better than their actual mark.

The next two clubs, the Rockies and Diamondbacks, saw authoritative contact made by both clubs in their games last season. The Rockies’ projected AVG, both for and against, was over a full STD higher than league average. At bat, they hit both their fly balls (led by Nolan Arenado) and grounders (led by DJ LeMahieu) much harder than league average, while their pitching staff allowed by far the most liners in the NL. On BIP alone, it all balanced out, with a projected 81-81 record.

With regard to K and BB, the Rockies were in the league-average range in three of the four component metrics. The one exception, pitching staff K rate, was a big one. It was over a half-STD lower than league average, a big enough deal to drop five wins off of their projection down to 76-86. Minimization of the amount of contact made is an even bigger deal at altitude. If Jon Gray becomes a bat-missing monster, it’s a big boost for these guys.

Three teams, three pretty big differences between UZR and my BIP-based defensive model. The Rockies ranked best in the division in the latter last season, with a 97.2 team Defensive Multiplier. They were actually solid across the board, a little better than league average on fly balls, liners and grounders. Nolan Arenado was clearly their best defender, while park effects likely unfairly hurt their outfielders’ UZR numbers. Defense adds three wins to the Rockies’ projection, up to 79-83, four wins above their actual record.

Diamondback pitchers, particularly Robbie Ray and the rest of the starters, allowed very loud contact last season, with projected AVG and SLG allowed marks of over a full STD higher than league average. Their hitters, led by Paul Goldschmidt and Jake Lamb, raked as well, with the club’s projected AVG over a full STD above, and projected SLG over a half-STD above the NL average. Overall, the club posted a projected 79-83 mark on BIP alone.

The addition of Ks and BBs into the mix hurts the Diamondbacks dramatically. They were measurably worse than average in three of the four component measures: over a full STD worse than league average in BB rate allowed, and over a half-STD worse in offensive K and BB rates. Offensively, we could call this the Yasmany Tomas effect. Overall, this shaves eight wins off of their projection, down to 71-91.

We have our first agreement in this division between UZR and this BIP-based method; both see the D-backs as a materially worse than average defensive club in 2016. Difficulties on both fly balls (105.2 multiplier) and grounder (106.3) contributed to their overall 102.4 team Defensive Multiplier. Corner outfielders Tomas and Brandon Drury and first baseman Goldschmidt were their weakest defenders. Defense subtracts two wins from their projection, down to 69-93, exactly matching their actual record.

Lastly, the Padres. On BIP alone, they had no areas of strength, and two weaknesses: projected offensive AVG and a pitching-staff SLG allowed of over a half-STD worse than league average. Offensively, their grounder authority and liner frequency were among the worst in the league. On BIP alone, this was a 76-86 club.

Adding back Ks and BBs hits the Padres hard. They pulled off the neat trick of being materially worse than league average in all four component metrics. Most notably, their offensive K rate was over a full STD higher than the NL average. In a nutshell, they struck out almost exactly as often as the Dodgers’ opponents. That’s a lot. This drains 12 wins from their projection, all the way down to 64-98.

The Padres posted an almost exactly league-average 100.3 team Defensive Multiplier, quite a bit better than their ratings according to publicly available defensive metrics. There was quite a gulf between their performance on fly balls (92.0 multiplier) and grounders (106.5). Travis Jankowski was their best outfield defender, the departed Alexei Ramirez their worst infielder. This takes one more win off of their projection, down to 63-99, five games shy of their actual mark.

Now, let’s look forward. Below are the current FanGraphs projections, as of Monday afternoon:

2017 Projected Records
2017 FANGRAPHS
LAD 94-68
SF 87-75
COL 77-85
AZ 76-86
SD 66-96

There’s some pretty clear stratification here between the haves and have nots. I largely agree, with one slight exception regarding the club in the middle.

Let’s briefly discuss some key issues — and some of the important changes from 2016 — for each club below:

Los Angeles Dodgers
There’s a strong argument to be made that these guys, and not the Cubs, are the most complete team in the major leagues. The offense has depth, youth and balance, with left field — where Andrew Toles and an injured Andre Ethier reside — representing the only potential hole. The starting rotation has quantity and extreme quality, allowing it to absorb Scott Kazmir’s unavailability and Urias’s demotion without missing a beat. The pen is dynamite at the end of the game, iffier in the middle.

The Fall 2017 version might be even better, with a conserved Urias fortifying the rotation and Cody Bellinger supplementing or supplanting the declining Adrian Gonzalez at first base. A Kershaw-Hill-Maeda-Urias rotation will be difficult for anyone to beat in October. They’re my early-line World Series favorite.

San Francisco Giants
The Giants fought off myriad injuries to make the playoffs and give the Cubs a scare last fall. As usual, their foremost trait is their stability. Just about everyone is back, and their only potential hole is in left field, where Jarrett Parker has won the job. If anything happens to either Brandon Crawford or Panik, they have a real problem, as their depth is virtually nonexistent.

The front of the rotation is excellent, with the top four a good bet to provide 750-800 solid innings. The five slot is a bit dicey, as Matt Cain may be out of gas, and Ty Blach is pretty much the only other guy whom the club trusts. The addition of Mark Melancon helps the club at the end of the game, but the seventh and eighth innings could be an issue. This a high-floor, moderate-ceiling club. I think the FanGraphs projection is pretty much right on; I see them as a Wild Card, with 86-88 wins.

Colorado Rockies
Coming into March, this was my NL sleeper. Injuries have hit them hard and often this spring, from Ian Desmond to David Dahl to Tom Murphy to Chad Bettis and, most recently, Jon Gray. If Gray is out for any meaningful length of time, these guys are toast. In the early going, they need to weather the absence of those position players and hope that breakthrough contact-manager Tyler Anderson and the rookies at the back end of their rotation can buy them some time.

This club is coming close to developing a formula for winning at altitude: an offense of guys who would be productive at sea level — LeMahieu, for one, gets absolutely no help from Coors, and is much better than his WAR total — and pitchers who stifle contact. Their ETA as contenders might be postponed a year, but I look for this club to make a strong run at .500.

Arizona Diamondbacks
Here’s the NL West team with the largest expanse between ceiling and floor. The 2016 season was their worst-case scenario: key offensive injuries (A.J. Pollock) combined with the worst rotation-wide contact-management effort imaginable. Enter a new management team, who should at least recognize this club’s shortcomings, but (likely) exit some of their best current MLB talents in fairly short order, as the club likely initiates a substantial rebuild. Jean Segura is already gone, and even bigger fish could soon follow.

Potential position-player problem areas abound, from catcher (Chris Herrmann) to second base (Ketel Marte) to shortstop (Nick Ahmed and/or Chris Owings) to left field (Tomas, due to his poor defense). It’s possible that none of the above will be part of the next good D-backs’ club. The rotation could significantly rebound, but they’ll get no help from this pen. They’ll win more games than in 2016, but a fire sale at the deadline could keep them below 75.

San Diego Padres
When A.J. Preller took over, the Padres had a decent big-league club, and their farm system was quite good. His first wave of moves almost universally flopped, while his second has resulted in the organization’s current state: a club with no present but a potentially bright future. You can’t tell these guys without a program. Wil Myers is the face of the franchise by default in a lineup that could include rookie Manuel Margot in center, Hunter Renfroe in right, Austin Hedges at catcher, as well as the relatively inexperienced Ryan Schimpf (at second or third) and Jankowski in left field. Yup, Erick Aybar is their shortstop.

Their starting rotation, at the very least, has some experience that will provide some competent innings. What it lacks is true quality. Jhoulys Chacin against virtually any other club’s No. 1 starter is not exactly a recipe for success. Growing pains will be aplenty in San Diego this season, with 100 losses a legitimate possibility.





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JUICEMANE
Member
JUICEMANE

“Wil Myers is the face of the franchise by default…”

So when he goes 30/30 for the first time since Trout and Braun 2012 will it still be by default?

thetoddfather
Member
thetoddfather

He went 28/28 last year, so you’re essentially asking if a repeat performance will help his case. Which…yes, of course it will.

Still, his 3.8 fWAR last year was 65th in all of baseball. If the talent in the MLB was equally spaced out among all 30 teams, he would be the 3rd best player on his team. Still very good! But still the face of the franchise by default.

JUICEMANE
Member
JUICEMANE

I disagree, with that logic everyone is “a face of the franchise” (which is a subjective title) by default. And you can use fWAR if you want but that is a “cherry picked” stat to support your argument.

I was just arguing with people about Swanson’s WAR…it is 2 (he’ll be lucky to accomplish that), that puts him like the 200-300 range…And he is soooo popular in Braves country. No doubt he is or will be the face of that franchise.

Based on last season looks like Harper is below Myers, so lets apply what you just said to Harper….doesn’t make sense.

Azizal
Member
Member
Azizal

A huge reason why Swanson is face of the franchise is that he’s A) from Atlanta B) dreamy C) quiet and hard working. In other words, a lot of the hype isn’t really hype, it’s that fans love a hometown player, especially a humble one, double especially a hometown, humble, handsome one. That’s all 3 H’s!

JUICEMANE
Member
JUICEMANE

All good points and I agree, he is the face of the franchise “not by default”

victorvran
Member
victorvran

Braves fans seem to overrate Dansby Swanson quite a bit on other sites I’ve seen. You suggest that Dansby Swanson is a high floor lower ceiling player and they act like it’s a personal attack.

Isn’t Freddie Freeman the face of that team though? He’s been there forever and is pretty good.