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How the West could be won

Next in our series handicapping the divisions, a look at the ever-tightening National League West.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at San Diego Padres Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

A year after coming within one game of their first World Championship since 1988, the Dodgers were the heavy-favorites to win the National League West coming into the season. Yet, here we are, in late August, and Los Angeles is not only behind one team, but two teams. At this point, they are not considered the favorite, and the division is very much up-in-the-air.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be all that surprised the Diamondbacks and Rockies are giving the Dodgers a decent run in the West this year. After all, Arizona and Colorado both made the playoffs, and faced-off against one another in the NL Wild Card game.

But alas, that was then, and this is now, and going into Labor Day, we have ourselves a good old fashioned pennant race. The two wild cards make things slightly less interesting, but we could be in for a wild ride if two of these three teams finish with the same record, which could be compounded if another team (or two!) finishes in the NL with identical records as well.

The projection models differ on how they see the rest of the season playing out in the West, but here is a brief summary of where we currently stand:

NL West Odds

Team 538 Playoff Odds 538 Division Odds BP Playoff Odds BP Division Odds FG Playoff Odds FG Division Odds
Team 538 Playoff Odds 538 Division Odds BP Playoff Odds BP Division Odds FG Playoff Odds FG Division Odds
Dodgers 35% 18% 37.2% 20.6% 54.7% 32.1%
Diamondbacks 70% 52% 70.6% 53.1% 62.3% 41.2%
Rockies 49% 30% 43.9% 26.2% 47.3% 26.6%

FanGraphs has been the most bullish on the Dodgers-wagon, pegging the third-place Dodgers as the division favorites as recently as two days ago (when a draft of this article was written), but this has changed over the last two days. Regardless, we know FanGraphs’ model is usually the slowest to change, tending to err on the side of earlier season projections, and the Dodgers numbers have taken a while to stabilize downwards.

While the 538 divisional odds have had the Diamondbacks as the hands-down favorites for a while, the other projection systems are catching up to them. 538 is still the most bullish on the DBacks, putting them at a 70 percent change to win the division. BP is aligned with 538, projecting a 53 percent chance of Arizona taking the West.

Taking a look behind the numbers, what does each team need to do to position themselves to win the West?

With much of the same lineup as last season, the Dodgers entered 2018 with the expectation that Corey Seager and Justin Turner could combine with one of the deepest 25-man roster in baseball to repeat as divisional champs fairly easily. It has however been unlikely names that have helped position them with as many wins as they have generated so far. Max Muncy, Yasmani Grandal, and Cody Bellinger lead the lineup in fWAR lineup, and a strong recovery year from Clayton Kershaw has given them the supreme ‘ace’ they so desperately need in the rotation. With the late-season additions of Manny Machado and Brian Dozier, an already strong lineup got stronger despite some early season (and current) major injuries.

For the Dodgers to take the division, they’ll need someone in the outfield to pick up the slack of first-half contending MVP Matt Kemp, as well as a stronger performance from the pitchers-not-named Clayton Kershaw, and a major improvement from Alex Wood in the second half has been keeping the ball in the yard (one home run over 26 innings, compared to a first-half 12 homers in just 105 innings). While Rich Hill has been fairly effective when healthy, he has struggled with blister issues all season-long, and has in total, only pitched a shade over 90 innings over the course of nearly five months.

Then there’s the bullpen.

We knew that LA had a strong lineup, and they have the pitching depth to be able to deal with the injuries that affect any rotation, but as we’ve seen the last month, their bullpen is where the team will win or lose the division.

LA is 17-21 in one-run games, and over the last ten days, have been walked-off three times, and have blew late inning leads several other times. In a tight division such as this, losing games in the eighth and ninth inning will cost a team their chance at the division. Kenley Jansen has not looked like his usual lights-out self, and teams have taken advantage. With 13 games against the Rockies and Diamondbacks left to go, late inning heroics are not out of the question as the Dodgers bullpen continues to struggle.

The Diamondbacks season has largely been in the hands (and shoulder and elbows) of their top three starters. While Zack Greinke is having a great year, which isn’t a surprise, Patrick Corbin and even more surprisingly, Clay Buchholz, have been the critical components to Arizona’s success.

While some keep waiting for the ‘other shoe to drop’ on Corbin, his performance has been outstanding, and, it seems, sustainable. Sure, his home run to fly ball rate is lower than average, but his BABIP against is in line with league average, and his FIP and xFIP are actually lower than his already-good 3.17 earned run average. If Corbin continues doing what he’s doing, the Diamondbacks could cruise to the division if they play well in their seven remaining games against the Dodgers, who are the biggest threat to the division crown.

One of the challenges for the DBacks, is that they go up against some tough competition the remainder of the year. Of their 34 remaining games, 23 are against playoff contenders, including a brutal 19-game gauntlet against the Braves, Astros, Cubs, Rockies, and Dodgers. The most significant factor for the DBacks may be having to show up day-in-and-day-out against really difficult opponents.

The Rockies are clearly the underdogs not only in the divisional race, but in the playoff race in general. While they inched closer and closer to the DBacks, they’ve taken a step back recently per FanGraphs playoff odds chart.

Even so, having a ~30 percent chance of making the playoffs at this point in the season is a pretty agreeable position. 16 of the Rockies games come against teams that are well out of the running, and their penultimate series is against the Phillies, who could possibly have their slot in the NL playoffs wrapped up by then, and could potentially be resting their starters. If the Diamondbacks have to hold their own against good teams to win the division, the Rockies challenge is to beat-up on bad teams in order to take advantage of their relatively easy schedule.

The other major piece beyond strength of schedule is whether or not Charlie Blackmon can hit his stride down the stretch. Last season Blackmon posted a 141 wRC+, this year, he’s been barely an above average hitter, with a 104 wRC+. A strong five or six weeks from Blackmon could make a huge difference in a tight race.

The next question to ask is how well Kyle Freeland will hold-up in what will be his most exhaustive year of his professional career. Last season, Freeland threw the most innings of his young career, at 156 innings. He is already at 152, so his last half-dozen starts will be in uncharted waters. Freeland has been excellent so far for the Rox.

In analyzing the current state of each of these teams, Arizona is the team that controls their own destiny the most. They are already in the driver’s seat in the division, however, they also have the hardest path towards a pennant, especially considering a really, really tough three-week September stretch. With the high-powered, and deep Dodgers behind them, it will make things interesting if they are .500 or worse in September. If the Rockies play well against their inferior competition, they could also surprise, particularly if the DBacks stumble in their tough stretch, and the Dodgers’ bullpen woes continue.

It’s going to be really great NL West pennant race, so get some sleep now, because we’re due for some late West Coast night games come September. +

* Odds in the above table were changed to reflect the playoff and divisional odds as of August 24

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Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano