This is the fifth installment in a six-part series in which I will go division by division and recap the biggest storylines of each team’s season. To find the recaps for other divisions, follow the links below.
All WAR metrics are fWAR unless otherwise stated.
Los Angeles Dodgers (104-58, .642)
The Dodgers were truly a tale of two halves. That’s not to say that their 43-29 (.597) second half record was bad, but it was a far cry from their first half record of 61-29 (.678). They went from being possibly the “Best. Team. Ever?” according to Sports Illustrated, to possibly not even making it out of the first round of the playoffs. At the end of July, the team sat at 74-31, and had a 28% chance of winning the World Series, according to FiveThirtyEight. According to the same odds, two months later, at the end of the regular season, the Dodgers sat tied for the second-highest World Series odds with the Astros, at 18%. They went from having the best offense in the National League in the first half by wRC+ to being below average in the second. They still clinched the National League West for the fifth time in as many seasons, thanks to their 104-win regular season, but the playoffs did not end as they had hoped, with a heartbreaking loss in game 7 of the World Series to the Houston Astros.
The Dodgers entered 2018 with lofty expectations and perhaps an even loftier payroll, $265 million to be exact. For reference, the MLB-average payroll was around $152 million this past season, and the AL representative in the World Series had a payroll nearly $120 million less. They entered the season with the second-best odds to win the World Series, behind the Cubs. They set their intentions to win early in the offseason, by re-signing key free agents Rich Hill, Justin Turner, and Kenley Jansen, in that order.
After four straight seasons of being eliminated in the playoffs prior to the World Series, it seems fair to say that anything short of a World Series appearance would be considered a failure by this Dodger fanbase, and perhaps even the front office, after spending so much. Fortunately for those fans, when the season got underway, the Dodgers did not disappoint.
Their first half was marked by the aforementioned Turner’s obscene .377/.473/.583 triple-slash, rookie phenom Cody Bellinger‘s 25 HR, and the starting rotation’s 3.24 ERA (for reference, the MLB average this season was 4.49). Clayton Kershaw was, unsurprisingly, insane in the first half (and the entire season, but particularly the first half), throwing 132.1 innings of 2.18 ERA ball, and he was joined in insanity level by Alex Wood, who didn’t throw quite as many innings in the first half (only 75.1 as a starter), but pitched to the tune of a 1.79 ERA.
Despite having the best record in baseball at the All-Star break, they only had a 7.5 game division lead. That didn’t really end up mattering, because after the break, the team rattled off a 14-2 record, and that was after entering the break with a six game winning streak. From July 4th to August 1st, the team went 20-2, and finished the month of July with a 14.0 game lead in their division. The Diamondbacks did manage to get that lead down to 8.5 games at one point in September, but the Dodgers were locked in to a playoff spot, so their second-half performance wasn’t as detrimental as it could have been to a team that wasn’t firmly in a playoff spot.
In the second half, Turner fell back down to the level of a normal human, triple-slashing .266/.357/.476, and the rest of the Dodgers offense crashed back to earth as well. In the first half, the team had three regular offensive players with a wRC+ of 139 or better, and they had none in the second half.
The pitching came back down to earth somewhat as well, going from a 3.15 first-half ERA to a 3.68 ERA in the second half. This is despite the acquisition of right-handed pitcher Yu Darvish from the Rangers at the trade deadline. The Dodgers, by spending the needed prospect capital to acquire Darvish, showed their fans that anything short of a World Series would be considered a disappointment, and, unfortunately, it seems the Dodgers disappointed in 2017. That shouldn’t be a huge deal, because this team is still set up for success in 2018 despite their mammoth payroll.
National League hitter ranks: 770 Runs scored (6th), 221 HR (4th), 77 SB (t-8th), .249/.334/.437 triple-slash (12th/t-3rd/t-4th), 30.1 WAR (1st)
National League pitcher ranks: 3.38 ERA (1st), 26.1% K% (1st), 1.15 WHIP (1st), 24.3 WAR (1st)
Arizona Diamondbacks (93-69, .574)
The Diamondbacks were projected to go 76-86. They greatly outperformed their projection, and it was thanks in no small part to the improvement their pitching staff made. They kicked off the offseason by trading Mitch Haniger, Jean Segura, and minor league arm Zac Curtis for starter Taijuan Walker and SS Ketel Marte. Walker had the best season of his relatively young career, pitching to a 3.49 ERA in 157.1 innings. The D-Backs pitching staff was so good this past season that, according to fWAR, Walker was the team’s #5 starter. Let’s dive into the D-Backs surprising playoff appearance.
The Diamondbacks got off to a hot start, finishing April at 16-11, May at 33-22, and June at 50-31. Their pitching staff, after finishing 13th in the National League in fWAR in 2016, shocked the Senior Circuit by finishing second overall in fWAR in the first half (they would go on to finish second in the NL for the whole season, just behind the Dodgers), and it was thanks to breakout performances by the aforementioned Walker, Zack Godley, and Robbie Ray. Godley, in his third season, threw 155 innings of 3.37 ERA ball, after throwing 111.1 innings of 5.34 ERA ball in his career prior to 2017. He also had a 9.6 K/9 (3.10 K:BB ratio), and 1.14 WHIP. Ray was even better; he pitched to a 2.89 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and ridiculous 12.1 K/9. Here’s a list of starting pitchers in the MLB who had a K/9 of 12.1 this season and threw at least 100 innings: Chris Sale and Robbie Ray. Pretty good company, right? Sale finished second in AL Cy Young voting, and Ray finished seventh in NL Cy Young voting. Anchored by staff ace Zack Greinke (for the record, his real first name is Donald, and Donald had a 3.20 ERA and 1.07 WHIP over his 202.1 innings pitched this season), and joined by Ray (under contract until 2021), Godley (2023), and Walker (2021), this Diamondbacks staff figures to be formidable for the next four years at the very least.
The real story of the year for the Snakes was the acquisition of J.D. Martinez. On July 18th, the team traded three guys I had never heard of (and I know a lot of minor league players) for Martinez, and the rest is history. Martinez triple-slashed .302/.366/.741 (yes, that’s his actual slugging percentage) with 29 HR in 62 games for the D-Backs (that’s a 75 HR pace), good for 2.6 rWAR (that’s a nearly 7-WAR pace.) He was pretty good. The rest of the offense was pretty solid, too, with the usual suspects doing their things: Paul Goldschmidt triple-slashed .297/.404/.563 with 36 HR and 18 SB while finishing 3rd in NL MVP voting, and Jake Lamb smacked 30 long balls while triple-slashing a much less inspiring, but still quite good, .248/.357/.487.
The team also finally got some quality innings out of former top prospect Archie Bradley. After throwing 175+ innings of 5.18-ERA ball over the first two seasons of his career, the D-Backs decided to use Bradley in an Andrew Miller-type role, and it paid off in spades. Bradley had the 12th-highest fWAR among MLB relievers this year, ahead of notable names such as Ken Giles, Aroldis Chapman, and Wade Davis. Bradley finished the season with an obscene 1.73 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 73 innings, and also added a 9.7 K/9. Bradley is under contract until 2022, and I’d be surprised if the D-Backs didn’t make an effort to keep him under contract beyond that, considering that he is now one of the top-flight relievers in baseball.
The Diamondbacks fell to the Dodgers in three games in the NLCS, but I fully expect them to make another run at the playoffs in 2018. It’s not every year that you have to play the best team in baseball in the first round.
National League hitter ranks: 812 Runs scored (4th), 220 HR (5th), 103 SB (4th), .254/.329/.445 triple-slash (7th/t-7th/2nd), 19.8 WAR (8th)
National League pitcher ranks: 3.67 ERA (2nd), 24.4% K% (2nd), 1.27 WHIP (3rd), 23.2 WAR (2nd)
Colorado Rockies (87-75, .537)
#Rocktober is alive! The Rockies, after missing out on the playoffs in the past seven seasons, finally got back to October. It was only for one game, but it still counts for something! And besides, the Rockies have more World Series titles than the Dodgers since 1993 (when the Rockies joined the league), and still have not even won the NL West once. That didn’t change in 2017, but they got a wild card after not being expected to do so. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Rockies were projected at 75-87 prior to the season, and, like the Diamondbacks, they greatly outperformed that, thanks to their pitching. The Rockies have always had a good offense thanks to their home ballpark, but, in the same vein, have never really had a great pitching staff. What changed in 2017?
In a word: philosophy. That’s not to say that the philosophy of the pitching staff as a whole change, it has probably been “pitch our best and win games” since the franchise started, but the philosophy of the front office changed. The Rockies entire starting pitching staff in 2017 was homegrown, and ever pitcher was either a first or second round pick, or an international signing. We can clearly see the front office attempting to develop pitching in spite of a home ballpark that gives pitchers trouble, and their efforts paid off this past season.
The Rockies pitchers had the 4th-highest fWAR in the National League, thanks in no small part to the (relatively) stellar performance of 26-year-old Jon Gray. Gray, in 110.1 innings, had a 3.67 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, and 3.7 K:BB. He’s under contract for the Rockies until 2022, and he will be their staff ace for the next half-decade.
The rest of the starting staff didn’t have eye-popping numbers compared to the rest of the league, but Rockies pitchers had the best ERA the team has had since 2013. Former first rounder, 24-year-old Kyle Freeland, had a 4.15 ERA in nearly 150 innings (149.2), which was above the league average ERA. 22-year-old German Marquez posted a solid 4.39 ERA over 29 starts (162 innings). Another former first round pick, Jeff Hoffman, had a 4.33 ERA through 10 starts before he imploded and ended the year with a 5.89 ERA. Obviously not a pretty sight from Hoffman, but considering the righty will be only 25 on Opening Day of 2018, there is certainly room for improvement. As a matter of fact, I’d say improvement is likely given that his 4.80 FIP is over a run lower than his ERA.
The offense for the Rox was more of the same in 2018; they were top-three in the bigs in every leg of their team triple-slash, they were .1% off the league lead in line-drive percentage, and were tops in the league in both runs scored and triples. Thanks, Coors.
In terms of individual performance, 3B Nolan Arenado had yet another MVP-caliber season, posting 5.6 fWAR in a 2017 campaign that saw him drive in at least 130 runs for the third consecutive season. He hit only (“only”) 37 HR, but compensated for that with a triple-slash line of .309/.373/.586, which is a career best in every category. Arenado finished fourth in MVP voting in the NL, and took home the Gold Glove at 3B for the fifth consecutive season.
Arenado’s longtime teammate Charlie Blackmon captured the batting title with a .331 average, but the rest of his .331/.399/.601 triple-slash was not too shabby. His SB total (14) declined for the second straight season, but he set a career high in HR with 37 and triples with 14. He also led the National League in hits and runs scored. Just another day at the office for Chuck Nazty.
The Rockies had two other hitters finish the season with batting averages over .300, D.J. LeMahieu and Gerardo Parra, and LeMahieu even added a gold glove. They look to be a playoff contender again in 2018, with their entire starting infield returning (Arenado-Story-LeMahieu-Desmond), and David Dahl, Raimel Tapia, Blackmon, and Parra returning to play the outfield. I fully expect #Rocktober to live on in 2018.
National League hitter ranks: 824 Runs scored (1st), 192 HR (10th), 59 SB (t-13th), .273/.338/.444 triple-slash (1st/t-1st/3rd), 13.7 WAR (11th)
National League pitcher ranks: 4.51 ERA (9th), 20.6% K% (11th), 1.38 WHIP (t-8th), 18.2 WAR (4th)
San Diego Padres (71-91, .438)
Oh boy. Not as big of an oh boy as the Giants, who finished last in the NL West, but still…oh boy. The Padres had their seventh consecutive losing season in 2017, and their ninth in the last ten. This is not a good baseball team right now, but they had their bright spots, and things are growing on the farm, so progress is being made. Here were the (few) bright spots for the Padres this year:
28-year-old Jhoulys Chacin was the team leader in both fWAR and rWAR. I don’t know if this counts as that much of a positive for the Friars, because they didn’t get anything for him at the trade deadline and it really only improved his stock, but hey, good on them for being able to identify major league talent.
The newly-acquired Jose Pirela showed the club that he could hang at the major league level, triple-slashing a very respectable .288/.347/.490, which is especially impressive when you consider that he was a 27-year-old to start the season with only 59 games of MLB experience under his belt.
Highly-touted rookies Hunter Renfroe and Manny Margot both provided positive value in 120+ games. Renfroe hit 26 long balls and Margot flashed some never-before-seen power (13 HR) in addition to his 17 SB.
The most surprising story of the season, though, may very well have been Dinelson Lamet. Lamet, a 25-year-old rookie from the Dominican Republic, pitched to a good-but-not great 4.57 ERA and 1.24 WHIP over 114.1 innings. What was so surprising, then? Well, he posted a 10.9 K/9. Not that it’s out of nowhere, he’s always had good stuff in the minors (his K/9 in the minors hovered around 11), but it seems that nobody was talking about Lamet prior to the season, and he burst on to the scene and became a legitimate middle-of-the-rotation starter.
The team isn’t set up for success in the near future, but if they keep developing their young players and acquiring prospects, the franchise should be in a good position to compete within the next three-to-four years.
National League hitter ranks: 604 Runs scored (last), 189 HR (11th), 89 SB (6th), .234/.299/.393 triple-slash (last/last/14th), 11.0 WAR (13th)
National League pitcher ranks: 4.70 ERA (11th), 21.5% K% (t-7th), 1.38 WHIP (t-8th), 7.5 WAR (13th)
San Francisco Giants (64-98, .395)
Oh boy. And this is a real oh boy. Not like an “oh boy, the Padres were bad this year but at least have a promising future,” but more of an “oh boy, the Giants are in some serious trouble.”
For starters, they had the worst record in baseball this season after making the playoffs in 2016, and their decrease in winning percentage from 2016 to 2017 was the worst in at least the last ten seasons, possibly longer. They also were projected by FiveThirtyEight to capture the first NL wild card spot at 88-74. That didn’t go too well either.
In terms of other starters (their pitching), those weren’t terrible. They weren’t particularly great, pretty much middle of the pack in every major category, but they weren’t terrible either. And it doesn’t help when your staff ace, Madison Bumgarner, misses three months, and when he gets healthy, pitches to his worst ERA (3.32) since 2012. None of their other starters had an ERA under 4.40, but three of their regular starters were somewhere between 4.40 and 4.80, which is solidly mediocre. The problem is that if those three pitchers are making $40 million combined, you are likely expecting them to be pitching a little better than “solidly mediocre.”
Their hitting wasn’t particularly inspiring either.
The Giants had the worst walk rate and wRC+ of any team in the National League, and they averaged a paltry 3.94 runs per game (MLB average: 4.64 runs per game).
Buster Posey played spectacularly as per usual, posting a .320/.400/.462 triple-slash line with 12 HR and nearly as many walks (61) as strikeouts (66). Aside from Posey, though, only four hitters performed at or above league average. Joe Panik, Eduardo Nunez, and Denard Span had wRC+s of 104, 102, and 100, respectively, and Nunez only played half the season with the Giants. Not exactly a good look when your third, fourth, and fifth-best hitters are barely producing above league average.
The team may have one more opportunity to contend in 2018, but given the depth of their division and the fact that their stars are aging, I wouldn’t count on the Giants to contend for at least a few seasons, and it could perhaps be even longer, considering that their farm system is barren. Things look bleak in San Fran.
National League hitter ranks: 639 Runs scored (14th), 128 HR (last), 76 SB (10th), .249/.309/.380 triple-slash (t-11th/14th/last), 9.9 WAR (14th)
National League pitcher ranks: 4.50 ERA (8th), 19.6% K% (14th), 1.38 WHIP (t-8th), 11.6 WAR (10th)
(Image Credit: Richard Mackson / USA Today Sports)