Let's get right to it: The Los Angeles Dodgers are a better team than the Colorado Rockies. This isn't really a matter of debate, although I'm guessing more than a few Rockies fans will disagree with that statement.
The Dodgers have outscored the Rockies by 39 runs. That never happens. Or almost never. Since the Rockies joined the National League West in 1993, they've outscored the Dodgers every season except one -- in 2006, the Dodgers topped the Rockies 820-813. Of course, that's a function of altitude as much as the quality of the offenses, but the Dodgers' outscoring the Rockies tells us they clearly have the superior offense in 2018.
The Dodgers also have allowed 133 fewer runs than Colorado, but that's not unusual; the Rockies have never allowed fewer runs than the Dodgers. The closest was 2010, when the Dodgers allowed just 25 fewer runs. Last season, when both teams made the playoffs, the Dodgers allowed 177 fewer. Still, the Rockies have one of their best pitching staffs in franchise history. Even adjusting for home parks, however, the Dodgers have the better ERA (115 ERA+ to 106, via Baseball-Reference.com).
And yet ... here are we. The Dodgers blanked the Padres 14-0 on Sunday as Hyun-Jin Ryu lowered his ERA to 2.00, and the Rockies shut out the Diamondbacks 2-0 behind seven sterling innings from Kyle Freeland, so the Dodgers' slim lead in the NL West remains 1½ games. All the Rockies need to win the division is one great week and one so-so week from the Dodgers.
How did this happen? How have the Dodgers put themselves in such a precarious position despite huge advantages in run differential, payroll, depth and trade-deadline acquisitions?
As you would guess, the run differential is explained by a big spread in one-run results and blowouts (games decided by five or more runs):
Dodgers: 30-9 (plus-175 run differential)
Rockies: 14-20 (minus-32 run differential)
What's interesting about the one-run results is that the Dodgers' bullpen has a better win probability added than the Rockies' bullpen -- 2.43 to 1.75 (entering Sunday, via FanGraphs). Look at WPA as sort of a stand-in for clutch. The Dodgers' pen did have that stretch of notable late-game defeats in August, but otherwise it has been solid enough. In fact, the Dodgers are 74-6 when leading after seven innings, and the Rockies are 69-7.
When we dig into games decided by two to four runs, these are the results:
You could argue that the Dodgers have simply padded their stats against bad teams -- after all, seven of their 30 blowout wins have come against the Padres. But 15 of the blowout wins have come against decent or good teams: Brewers (2), Pirates (3), Cardinals (1), Rockies (2), Mariners (2), Phillies (1), Braves (2), Diamondbacks (1), Nationals (1).
You could argue that the number of blowout losses for the Rockies signifies a lack of depth in the bullpen. You're losing by three or four runs and then you bring in the seventh and eighth relievers on the staff and they get pounded instead of keeping the game relatively close.
You could argue that it's a funky Coors Field thing, although only 12 of the 20 blowout losses have come at home. That also doesn't explain the lack of blowout wins at home. It has been suggested that the Rockies are streaky because they're good when Ian Desmond or Carlos Gonzalez is hitting, adding much-needed depth behind Charlie Blackmon, Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story. But when those two aren't hitting, they're really not hitting.
By expected record based on run differential, the Dodgers should be 98-58 and the Rockies 78-77. I'm just pointing that out -- run differential, as we've just seen, doesn't always explain everything. On those rare occasions it doesn't, it gives us a crazy, unexpected race like this one.
It comes down to this: The Dodgers have one week to prove they're the best team in the NL West. The Rockies have seven games at home -- four against a Phillies team that looks like it's playing on fumes (6-14 in September) and was eliminated from the playoffs over the weekend and three against a Nationals team that can't wait for the season to end. The Dodgers finish up on the road against the Diamondbacks and Giants, and at the minimum they'll have some tough games while facing Robbie Ray on Monday and Zack Greinke on Wednesday (looks like they'll miss Madison Bumgarner over the weekend). Who you got?
Little League play of the day: The Brewers and Cubs both won to keep the NL Central at 2½ games in favor of Chicago. The Brewers benefited from this three-run wild pitch:
The Cubs beat the White Sox 6-1 behind Kyle Hendricks, who has allowed two earned runs or fewer in seven straight starts. Ben Zobrist had three hits and is hitting .314/.387/.450, including a .354 average in the second half. I've barely mentioned him in this space over the season, but he has been remarkable, bouncing back from a down year in 2017. He's one of the unsung heroes of the 2018 season.
Big ovation for Beltre: The Rangers play their final week on the road, so Sunday may have been Adrian Beltre's final home game for Texas. He received hugs and an emotional farewell from the crowd when removed from the game:
Who's cutting onions? pic.twitter.com/XZDEIMMhlM— Texas Rangers (@Rangers) September 23, 2018
At the conclusion of the fifth inning, the Rangers played a video tribute to Beltre and when he took his place in the field for the sixth, Rougned Odor came on to replace him. Beltre isn't one for celebrations, but he said he let himself enjoy this one. "Seeing the crowd, seeing my teammates, everybody cheering for us. It was special, it was emotional, but it was nice," he said.
Beltre has yet to decide on his plans for 2019. He's hitting .275/.333/.431 in 114 games with 14 home runs, so he has a little juice left in the bat, and the defensive metrics say he can still pick it at the hot corner (plus-9 defensive runs saved). He'll also turn 40 in April and has cemented his legacy as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The Rangers probably want to open up third base for Jurickson Profar. (Elvis Andrus can opt out of his contract, potentially complicating things for the Rangers.)
Beltre's eight-year run in Texas was remarkable, including four top-seven finishes in MVP voting (peaking at third in 2012, when he hit .321 with 36 home runs). His two-way ability made him one of the best "old" players ever, ranking 10th all-time in WAR among position players ages 32 to 39 (behind only Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Ted Williams since World War II). He reached the World Series in his first year in Texas, but the Rangers lost Games 6 and 7 and never made it back. If Beltre does decide to play in 2019, you'd have to think he'd pursue a playoff contender, maybe in a part-time role for a final shot at a ring.
Chasing history: Chase Utley's best seasons obviously came with the Phillies, but he received a nice ovation for his final home game with the Dodgers. He has already announced he'll retire at season's end:
A standing ovation for Chase Utley in his final regular-season home game. pic.twitter.com/VpkwRe8F2U— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) September 23, 2018
Utley is hitting .216/.301/.309 and while he has played 83 games as a role player, he probably gets squeezed off the postseason roster. I count 13 position players ahead of him (not including Alex Verdugo), and it seems like the Dodgers would carry 12 pitchers.
Utley's Hall of Fame case is much less certain than Beltre's and will prove to be a fascinating debate when he hits the ballot. At his peak, he was one of the best two or three players in the game for a five- or six-year period, but his career lacks the longevity and counting stats of typical Hall of Famers. Still, he compares favorably to, say, Ryne Sandberg:
Victor's march: Tigers DH Victor Martinez played his final game on Saturday, and the Tigers sent him into retirement with a leather recliner and a video tribute:
Martinez had one of those careers that probably wasn't appreciated enough. He came up as an offense-first catcher for the Indians, helping them reach the American League Championship Series in 2007 when he finished seventh in MVP voting after hitting .301 with 114 RBIs. He eventually moved to DH with the Tigers, and his 2014 season stands out.
That was the year of the dead ball, when offense plummeted and everybody was worried about the state of hitting, yet Martinez hit .335/.409/.565 with 32 home runs, leading the AL in OBP and OPS while drawing 70 walks and striking out just 42 times. (OK, 28 of the walks were intentional, but it felt almost impossible to strike out Martinez that season. I still remember watching one battle against Yu Darvish, who threw the kitchen sink at Martinez, who kept fouling off pitches.) He finished second in MVP voting. He was also a great postseason performer, hitting .315/.374/.503 in 39 games.
Brawl of the year: Finally, I give you this:
Ichiro's just horsin' around. pic.twitter.com/zXFj2DtMEw— Cut4 (@Cut4) September 23, 2018
Now Mariners fans can take those pillows and cry themselves to sleep after another playoff-less season.