Three Quick Shakes

Back from my late winter summer trip to Salt Lake City and Wyoming, where I nearly froze my ass off while backpacking in the Wind Rivers range once again. After three days of chilly weather and occasional odd snow flurries that melted the moment they hit the ground, I awoke to a snow-covered forest floor at 10,000 feet last Friday morning. Brrrrr.

Back in the swing of things, I’ve pretty much given up the Yankees for dead. Instead my focus has been on the NL West. I watched some of last weekend’s key series against the collapsing Diamondbacks and marveled at the unstoppable force that is Manny Ramire – two topics that each provided me with enough fodder for Prospectus Hit and Run pieces:

Snakes Down a Drain:

This past Saturday, the Arizona Diamondbacks did what they’ve been threatening to do for the better part of the last four months: they surrendered first place in the NL West, a position they had held at least a share of since April 6. Back in April, they appeared poised to build on last year’s league-best record and run away with the division flag. Since then, they’ve been an adventure in mediocrity. On the heels of a three-game sweep by the Dodgers, Monday night’s loss even knocked them below .500. If you were in an airplane with their Postseason Odds, you’d have strapped on your parachute, unbolted the door, and checked the crossbreeze by now.

Before peering too deeply into the abyss, a brief refresher course is in order. Recall that the Diamondbacks finished with a 90-72 record but became just the sixth team to make the postseason with a negative run differential. They wound up 12.2 games above their third-order projection, the third-highest mark of all time. It wasn’t hard to envision the old Bill James Plexiglass Principle coming back to swat them on their collective derriere; exceeding expectations two years in a row is a very tough act. Nonetheless, the addition of Dan Haren to the rotation via a blockbuster trade with the A’s, the return of Randy Johnson from injury, and steady improvement by a nucleus of players 25 or under—Stephen Drew, Mark Reynolds, Justin Upton, and Chris B. Young—figured to make the Diamondbacks at least co-favorites in the NL West. PECOTA forecasted an 87-75 finish and a +58 run differential (821 runs scored, 763 runs allowed). Not thrilling, but nice.

That forecast looked to be well on the low side through the first month of this season. The Diamondbacks compiled the best record (20-8) and run differential (+56) through April 30 while opening up a 5½-game lead in the division. They scored 5.9 runs per game to that point, second best in the majors. Even more impressively, they allowed just 3.9 runs per game (third best in the majors), a Herculean feat given that they play half their games in the second-best hitters’ park in the bigs. But since that sprint out of the gate, the D’backs have gone just 51-65 while wheezing their way to 4.2 runs per game (24th in the majors) and yielding 4.6 per game (14th).

The Manny Show

Earlier this summer, I had occasion to review the career of former Dodger slugger Pedro Guerrero, a favorite player of my youth, for a research project. Guerrero spent the first few years of his major league career–1978-1980, for those too young to remember–waiting for Steve Garvey and company to grow old. In the interim, he was forced to learn other positions, playing every spot except for catcher and shortstop, finally cracking the Dodgers’ lineup as a right fielder for a couple of years. When Ron Cey was traded to the Cubs following the 1982 season, Guerrero began a nasty, short and brutish war of attrition with third base, where his range was above-average and his arm was strong, but his footwork was lousy. The media tended to focus on his errors (46 in 1983-1984) rather than the plays he made, but Guerrero paid his critics no mind. “I can f—ing hit” was his refrain, and brother, he could. Guerrero finished in the top three in Equivalent Average three times over the 1982-1985 span, often carrying a meager Dodger offense on his back for weeks at a time.

I’m reminded of Guerrero because I swear I’m seeing the reincarnation of that one-man Dodger blue wrecking crew in the form of Manny Ramirez right now, night after night after night. Ladies and gentlemen, in case you haven’t been paying attention, know this: Manny Ramirez can f—ing hit. Since coming to the Dodgers in a three-way deal consummated just moments before the July 31 trading deadline, he’s batting .396/.498/.776 with 14 homers in 166 plate appearances while helping his new club climb from two games behind the Diamondbacks in the NL West to 3 1/2 ahead of them. On the heels of his controversial exit from Boston, he showed up in Tinseltown, chose jersey number 99, promised to cut his dreadlocks in due course but barely obliged, ignited a merchandising craze and charmed his fans, teammates and even his stony-faced manager with his between-innings misadventures. Amid all of the distractions, he’s simply beaten the tar out of the ball, and the Dodger offense has started to click. On Wednesday night, he crushed a pair of opposite field home runs in Petco Park, one of the majors’ least homer-friendly venues.

And with no time to spare, I put together this week’s Hit List in a manner that I’ve never done before in the 90+ I’ve banged out over the last four years: I wrote the team comments in order from top to bottom, 1 to 30, just to see if I could finally do it. I’m not sure it will mean much to the reader, but as an exercise in quickly assembling some “talking points” about each team, it was a productive one, and I’m proud that it came out as well as it did.

As I write this I’ve got one foot out the door. I’m headed to Philadelphia tonight for a Phils-Brewers game, my third Brewers game in three cities this year and my first trip to Citizens Bank Ballpark. Tomorrow morning I’ve got to turn that around to get back to the Bronx for my final game at Yankee Stadium. I’ll be writing that one up for Baseball Prospectus next week, and rest assured, it won’t be the kind of weepy nostalgia piece that’s going around like a bad cold given recent events.

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