National League Worst: Why the NL West is Struggling

The 2016 Major League Baseball season is now over a month old. Some teams have shown vast improvements over last season, while others that were thought to be contenders already appear to be in “wait till next year” mode. But we have winners and losers, teams over .500, and teams that could make noise in the playoffs in each division.

Each division, that is, except the NL West. Entering play on Friday, May 6th, no team in the NL West had a winning record. Three teams – The Colorado Rockies, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Francisco Giants – sat tied atop the standings with a .500 winning percentage. At the end of the weekend, both the Dodgers and the Giants are barely sitting 1 game above .500.

But why have all the teams in this division struggled out of the gate? The answers are different for each team. Let’s go team by team, and try to figure out what the problem is.

Arizona Diamondbacks (15-18)

mlb-dbacks-zack-greinke-welington-castillo-021916.vresize.1200.675.high.1The Diamondbacks finished just below .500 in 2015, at 79-83. They were a trendy pick for a huge improvement this season, after an off-season in which they revamped their starting rotation by adding Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller. Both pitchers have been a huge disappointment so far though. Arizona’s offensive struggles, and a key injury to CF A.J. Pollack, have led the Diamondbacks to the cellar in the NL West to this point.

Greinke, the ace of the staff, sports an unsightly 5.50 ERA. He’s been extremely inconsistent thus far, giving up two earned runs or fewer in three of his six starts, but allowing seven twice. Miller, on the other hand, only wishes his ERA looked as good as Greinke’s – Miller is the proud owner of an 8.49 ERA and a 0-3 record. Miller’s command has disappeared, allowing a league-leading 19 walks this year. It’s not much prettier after those two either; Arizona’s other three starters (Patrick Corbin, Robbie Ray, and Rubby De La Rosa) all have ERAs in the high 4s. Along with an unsteady bullpen, the Diamondbacks have the fourth-worst team ERA in the National League.

061914-FSO-PaulGoldschmidt2.vresize.1200.675.high.33Well, at least the Dbacks have their offense to prop them up, right? Actually that’s not the case. Pollock, an All-Star last season, suffered a broken elbow before the season began, and is expected to miss all of 2016. 1B Paul Goldschmidt, a 2015 MVP candidate, has hit just .232 in the early going. The Diamondbacks have had decent performances thus far from C Welington Castillo, OF Yasmany Tomas, and especially new 2B Jean Segura, who’s hitting .345. It hasn’t been enough to bring the Diamondbacks to a positive record, though.

While it should get a little better as the season goes on, assuming the new pitchers and Goldschmidt move more toward their averages, it’s not going to be a great improvement over last season – if there’s even any improvement at all.

Colorado Rockies (15-16)

A near .500 record has to actually feel pretty great for Rockies fans, whose team finished 2015 at 68-94, and were predicted by most to have a similar lack of success this year. The Rockies have had a generally decent starting pitching performance to supplement their strong offense.

All-Star 3B Nolan Arenado is leading the way offensively, as expected, with a .309 batting average, a league-leading 12 home runs and 28 RBIs, and a 1.050 OPS. Arenado’s also shown the spectacular defense that earned him a Gold Glove last year. Young SS Trevor Story has also been a big, well, story, setting a rookie record by smashing 10 homers in April.

Of course, the Rockies can only go as far as their pitching will take them, and it’s been mixed results so far this season. Starter Tyler Chatwood has been phenomenal out of the gate, with a 2.15 ERA and a 4-2 record. He’s thrown four quality starts out of his six turns. Chad Bettis leads the team with 30 strikeouts in 43 innings pitched. The team has been forced to mix and match after those two, and have had some rough starts.

The bullpen has also looked somewhat suspect, with new closer Jake McGee sporting a 5.59 ERA, and four other regular relievers holding ERAs of 4.00 or higher. The Rockies have already been bitten by the injury bug, having used 18 different pitchers so far. Based on the pitching production, the win-loss record is likely to slip, no matter how good the offense is, which unfortunately for the Rockies has become the norm.

Los Angeles Dodgers (16-15)

After the Dodgers lost Greinke, it was reasonable to expect some decline from last year’s 92-70 record. Few people could have predicted this team to struggle as much as it has though, especially in the last three weeks. While there have been positives for the Dodgers, including ace Clayton Kershaw’s 14-strikeout three-hitter, and the brilliance of Japanese newcomer pitcher Kenta Maeda, the negatives have been glaring – namely, the offense, the bullpen, and the rest of the starting pitching.

la-sp-dodgers-padres-20160407After starting the season scoring an average of over five runs per game in the first two weeks, the offense has cooled considerably. For example: the Dodgers scored 12 runs in a game at Colorado on April 24, then proceeded to score a total of 13 runs in their next seven games, a stretch that ended with one win and six losses (the win being Kershaw’s gem). The Dodgers looked better over two games in Tampa Bay, though, so there may be light at the end of the offensive tunnel. The biggest bright spot offensively has been the resurgence of 2B Chase Utley at the top of the lineup, hitting .286 (after finishing 2015 at .202).

The Dodgers are the only NL West team with an ERA under 4, sitting at 3.77 to be exact. In the bullpen, closer Kenley Jansen has been lights out, converting all 10 of his save opportunities. Unfortunately, getting to Jansen has been an adventure, as the bullpen has already blown six leads that were handed to them. And it’s not just a single pitcher struggling, as three different relievers have taken losses (and four of them have ERAs over 4.00). Chris Hatcher is the prime suspect, with a 7.50 ERA and three losses on his record.

GettyImages-492202150.0Of course, the Dodgers’ bullpen might not be put into this situation if half of the rotation wasn’t struggling. Scott Kazmir, signed as Greinke’s replacement in the #2 slot, has pitched horribly, with a 5.68 ERA and 10 hits allowed per nine innings pitched. Alex Wood, filling the #4 rotation spot thanks to major injuries to three other starters, also carries an ERA over 5.00, and can’t seem to get hitters out the third time through the lineup. Ross Stripling looked brilliant in his first career start, but has slowly gone downhill since as the league starts to figure him out.

Better days should be ahead for the Dodgers, as Hyun-Jin Ryu and Brandon McCarthy get closer to returning from the disabled list, but it certainly hasn’t been all roses so far.

San Diego Padres (13-19)

The Padres certainly looked bad at the beginning of the year, and then things got even worse. San Diego was predicted by most to be the fourth-worst team in the division, ahead of only the Rockies. The opening series against the Dodgers was a disaster – the Padres were swept at home, losing all three games without scoring a single run. In that series, the Dodgers outscored the Padres 25-0.

It then got worse, as their stud starter Tyson Ross was placed on the disabled list after just one start with shoulder inflammation. Ross is recovering slowly, and hasn’t picked up a baseball since his injury. Nobody knows when he’ll be able to return to the team. James Shields has been solid, if unspectacular, but as good as Drew Pomeranz has looked, Andrew Cashner has looked bad. All in all, though, it’s not the starting pitching that’s kept the Padres down.

050414-7-MLB-Padres-Andrew-Cashner-OB-PI.vresize.1200.675.high.26

San Diego has been dreadful on offense, with only two regulars batting better than .265. OF Matt Kemp has had a nice season so far with eight home runs and a .288 average, while 1B Wil Myers leads the team with a .302 average. But while Kemp and Myers have combined for 14 homers, the rest of the team has combined for just nine. The team has scored just 3.5 runs per game, good for 13th (out of 15) in the NL.

usa-today-8693447.0On defense, San Diego has committed 20 errors, tied for fifth-worst in the NL. The Padres also have problems in the bullpen, where only two relievers have an ERA below 4.60. New closer Fernando Rodney has been brilliant, converting all seven of his save chances and not giving up a single earned run, and Ryan Buchter has struck out 20 in just 12 innings while allowing just one earned run, but the rest of the bullpen is a hot mess.

Four things have to happen for the Padres to move up – Ross has to come back strong, the offense has to get on track, defense must improve, and the bullpen has to figure itself out. Stacked like this, it seems like a tall order for this group.

San Francisco Giants (17-16)

Buster_Posey_olrtvhgf_503r9zhuThe Giants are an interesting case, because they haven’t done anything particularly wrong, but they don’t have a lot of success to show for their efforts. All-Star C Buster Posey is looking every bit the part, hitting .330, leading the third-best hitting team in the NL. The Giants have scored over five runs per game. Even the pitchers have gotten into the act, driving in 11 runs, most for an NL pitching staff. The team ranks in the top 5 in the NL in most hitting categories. They also haven’t played poor defense – their 13 errors are third-fewest in the NL.

So why aren’t they winning?

Giants fans can probably put a lot of the blame on the back-end of the rotation. The top-three, (Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, and Jeff Samardzija), have all been very good, with ERAs in the low 3.00s. These three starters have combined for just four losses in eighteen starts. The back-end, (Matt Cain and Jeff Peavy), are a different story though: Cain’s ERA sits at 7.84, and is actually better than Peavy’s 9.00.

rawImageBoth veterans have looked awful so far, and have combined to lose seven games themselves. The Giants’ bullpen has been alright, but closer Santiago Casilla has already blown two saves on the young season, and injuries have taken out key relievers Sergio Romo and George Kontos. Add all of these pitching issues up, and throw in some bad luck, and you end up with a near .500 team. However, like the Dodgers, better days should lie ahead for the Giants.

Final Thoughts

Offensive woes. Starting pitching problems. Defensive miscues. Bullpen disasters. Disastrous injuries. Plain old bad luck. Each team in the NL West suffers from at least two of these problems (more in some cases).

With all of this in mind, it’s resulted so far in a division full of teams that are average or worse overall. Preseason predictions should hold true though, and the division should be a race between the Dodgers and the Giants all year. Right now? Neither team, nor any other in the division, looks prepared to make much noise in the postseason against the likes of the Chicago Cubs, the Washington Nationals or the New York Mets.

Statistics provided by: ESPN.com, FanGraphs.com

Images thanks to: LA Times, Fox Sports, Washington Times, Getty Images, USA Today, sfgate.com

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