Welcome to Round 4 of our Lead Writer debate series! Following a debate over who should win the National League's Most Valuable Player award, two members of the Bleacher Report MLB team are ready for another scuffle.
Who is Major League Baseball's best team in 2013?
That's a heavy one, huh? There are plenty of candidates for top squad this season, but the battle about to be waged by MLB Lead Writers Zachary D. Rymer and Jason Catania (for what it's worth, his middle name begins with a "J") is straight up East Coast versus West Coast.
Furthering the drama that's set to unfold, the two teams that are being debated as the best in baseball just so happened to swap nine players—and a couple hundred mill in salaries—between the two of them only a little more than a year ago.
That's right: The Boston Red Sox, Rymer's pick, are going up against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Catania's choice. Their arguments for and against lie below. Anything pro-Boston or anti-LA is Rymer, and anything pro-LA or anti-Boston is Catania.
Since the Red Sox have a slightly better win-loss record than the Dodgers, we'll start by opening the floor to Rymer to argue on behalf of Beantown.
Sound the bell: Ding ding!
The Case for the Boston Red Sox
We can do this the easy way, and that’s by pointing this out: Through Monday’s action, the Boston Red Sox led MLB in wins with 87.
Or we could keep going and do this the hard way.
Yeah, let’s do that.
While the Dodgers have had it easy this season in terms of competition (more on that later), it’s been the exact opposite for the Red Sox in 2013.
For starters, the AL East is deeper than the NL West by quite a big margin. Per Baseball-Reference.com, the AL East has a combined winning percentage of .536 this season, which is easily the highest out of MLB’s six divisions. The only sub-.500 team in the division is the Blue Jays. Everyone else is kicking butt.
Boston’s record against the Blue Jays is about what it should be. The Sox have handled the Jays to the tune of a 9-7 mark. But they haven’t slacked off against the Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees, all three of whom are in the middle of the American League wild-card chase. Against them, the Red Sox are a commendable 27-19.
However, the Red Sox haven’t just faced tough completion within the AL East. Their entire schedule has been one of the toughest in MLB.
By ESPN.com’s reckoning, only three teams have had it tougher than Boston. Baseball-Reference.com is a little more unimpressed, but it still says that only seven teams have had a more challenging schedule than the Red Sox. So by either account, they’ve run one of the tougher gauntlets in baseball this year.
Now, the Red Sox haven’t had a stretch in which they’ve gone 42-8. Frankly, it’s hard to do that when you’re facing stronger competition. But if you want to talk tough stretches, the Red Sox just so happen to be in the middle of one of their better stretches of the season. They’ve won 14 out of their last 19.
And the best part: 13 out of these 19 games have been played against teams with winning records, including two division leaders: the Detroit Tigers and yup, the Dodgers.
The Red Sox have won nine of these 13 games, including two of the three they played in Los Angeles against the boys in blue. Some of you might recall that it was the first series the Dodgers had lost in more than two months, and it was the start of a stretch that saw the Dodgers lose seven out of 16.
The short version of this: The Red Sox are in the middle of a stretch of games that could have been their undoing. Instead, they’re the ones doing the undoing.
That this is the case isn’t overly surprising. Boston is, after all, a remarkably well-balanced team in terms of pitching and offense.
Boston’s offense doesn’t need much of an introduction. The Red Sox lead MLB in runs scored, and their offense is basically what the Dodgers offense wants to be: balanced.
Here’s a chart of Boston’s full-season and post-All-Star break production in Isolated Power and baserunning runs above average:
You want power? The Red Sox have David Ortiz, Mike Napoli, Will Middlebrooks, Stephen Drew and Jarrod Saltalamacchia to provide some of that. Heck, even Shane Victorino has been getting in on the fun recently with seven homers in his last 17 games.
You want baserunning? The Red Sox may have the best baserunner in MLB in Jacoby Ellsbury to provide some of that, but Victorino and Dustin Pedroia can hold their own on the basepaths as well.
There’s nothing else to say about the Red Sox’s offense. Theirs is the most productive and most balanced in MLB, hands down.
The heck of it is that these Red Sox can pitch, too.
It may not seem like the Red Sox are so great at pitching at first glance, as they have only a 3.81 team ERA that’s tied for 12th in MLB. That’s good, but not elite.
But that’s why we have ERA-, essentially FanGraphs’ version of ERA+, in which lower is better than average. It puts things on a level playing field, and it pays Boston’s pitching a much better compliment than regular ERA.
Boston’s ERA- for the season is 91. That ties it for seventh in MLB with the Tigers, and puts it just one point behind…
Yup, the Dodgers. All things being equal, their pitching hasn’t been much more dominant than Boston’s in 2013.
Granted, there’s more separation when the field is narrowed to starting pitching. Per FanGraphs, Boston starters rank just fourth in MLB with an ERA- of 93, while the Dodgers pace the pack with an ERA- of 86. That leads MLB, which confirms that, yeah, the Dodgers starters are pretty darn terrific.
But keep this in mind: Boston’s pitching has been as successful as it has been is impressive enough. After all, it's been without its best starting pitcher for the majority of the season. Clay Buchholz had an ERA of 1.71 through his first 12 starts, and he’s just now coming back into the fold. To put his hot start in perspective, the immortal Clayton Kershaw had a pedestrian 1.85 ERA in his first 12 starts.
Give the Red Sox an intact rotation for the entirety of the season, and they might already have 95 wins by now. In that case, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.
As it is, things have been going well enough for Boston’s pitching recently. Case in point, I bet you didn’t know that Jon Lester has a 2.2 fWAR since the break and that John Lackey has a 1.5 fWAR. Go ahead and ponder that for a second.
And now ponder this: Since the break, Kershaw has a 1.7 fWAR and Zack Greinke has a 1.4 fWAR. By FanGraphs’ reckoning, Lester and Lackey have been better than Kershaw and Greinke in the second half.
While we’re making comparisons, we might as well go ahead and compare Koji Uehara to Kenley Jansen. Both took over their team's respective closer position in June and have done a fantastic job closing games since then.
However, one of them has been better than the other.
Jansen has been exceptional as the Dodgers closer since taking over for Brandon League. He’s been one of the best closers in the business without a doubt.
But Uehara’s been better. The Red Sox may not have the strongest bridge to him, but they might as well start heading for the showers when he’s on the mound in the ninth inning.
So why are the Red Sox the best team in baseball? Well, they’ve won more games than any other team, and they’ve done so despite playing a very tough schedule, and it’s all been thanks to MLB’s best offense, very good starting pitching and a lights-out closer.
Go ahead, Jason. Do your worst.
The Case Against the Boston Red Sox
The Fenway Factor
Admittedly, it’s darn near impossible to poke a hole in the Red Sox’s offense. But hey, let's try!
While the Red Sox are the best in the league in runs scored and OPS, they do benefit quite a bit more from their more hitter-friendly home digs at Fenway Park than LA does from playing at Dodger Stadium, which is the lowest run-scoring environment in baseball.
While we won't overlook offensive numbers achieved at home—where the Red Sox have a slash line of .287/.356/.469 for a league-high .825 OPS, while the Dodgers go .259/.316/.387 for a .703 OPS—perhaps a fairer way to compare the production of these two lineups would be to focus on their road output.
In that split, the Red Sox sport a .266/.342/.421 line and remain on top with a .764 OPS. But behold: The Dodgers are just as impressive at .274/.340/.406 with a .746 OPS that ranks fifth-best.
Now, you're probably thinking: Um, didn't you just prove the Red Sox are better than the Dodgers on offense?
Maybe, but the point isn't that Boston isn't beastly—it darn well is—so much as it is that the Dodgers aren't exactly bashful when it comes to bashing either. And when the Sox aren't pumped up by Fenway and the Dodgers aren't suppressed by their park, well, things look mighty even, don't they?
Keep that in mind when Zach tries to persuade you later on.
Well-Armed—but Not Dangerous
While the Red Sox might have an edge with the sticks to an extent, they can't touch the Dodgers when it comes to pitching.
Let's hit the rotation first, because everyone else in the league does, judging by their decidedly middle-of-the-pack 3.81 ERA, as Rymer himself pointed out. The five-man is deep and made up of a bunch of No. 3 types, but lacks a shutdown ace. That's fine and dandy from April to September, when pitching depth is just as important as talent, but once October rolls around, it's much tougher to win without a dominant arm or two.
The good news for Boston on that front is that Clay Buchholz, who looked like an ace early this season, made a very promising return to the mound Tuesday night. Of course, this is a pitcher who hadn't thrown a big league inning since June 8 due to neck and shoulder problems and who has been among the most maddeningly inconsistent and injury-prone hurlers the past few seasons.
Sure, Boston bolstered its rotation with the deadline deal for Jake Peavy, but rather than standing out from the pack, the past-his-prime right-hander (4.01 ERA in 2013) is really more of the same for a staff that also features the enigmatic Jon Lester (3.86) and Felix Doubront (4.15), as well as the aging Ryan Dempster (4.79), each one less effective than the last.
The 34-year-old Lackey, who missed all of 2012 with Tommy John surgery and had been an unmitigated disaster since joining the team in 2010, has been the Red Sox's most stable starter for most of the year (more or less) tells you just about all you need to know.
The Boston bullpen, by the way, is both injured and mediocre. Undoubtedly, Koji Uehara has been as indispensable to the Red Sox as Kenley Jansen has to the Dodgers since taking over ninth-inning duties after both Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey were lost for the year, and right-handed setup man Junichi Tazawa has had a mighty fine season, too.
But after that pair? Well, there’s left-hander Craig Breslow…and…Bueller?
The Dodgers have had several superstar hitters spend a large chunk of 2013 on the disabled list. Boston, on the other hand, has been able to roll out the same lineup of batters more often than not.
Consider: Only two Dodgers players will reach the 500-plate appearance plateau this season (Adrian Gonzalez and Andre Ethier), while four of the Red Sox's best bats (Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli) already have hit that mark and three more could join them before the end of the regular season.
In other words, whereas Los Angeles has weathered a DL storm to this point, Boston hitters have faced more of a DL breeze.
Point being? We're about to find out how the Sox handle being sans one of their top players for a few weeks. Ellsbury, the club's leadoff man and center fielder, is dealing with a fracture in his right foot that could keep him out through September and hamper him in the playoffs. Not exactly great timing there.
Aside from Ellsbury's foot, Pedroia (torn left thumb ligament) and Victorino (back and left hamstring) are also fighting through injuries that leave them less than their normal selves—and put them at risk for aggravating their ailments at the most important time of the season.
Look, no one here is saying the Red Sox aren't a great team. They have great players, and they've had a great season. But there's "great," and then there's "best."
The Case for the Los Angeles Dodgers
On the Run
The most amazing thing about the Dodgers being the best team in baseball in mid-September of the 2013 season is that they spent part of the year as one of the worst. Heck, even yours truly was wondering what was wrong with them as recently as mid-June.
After a loss on June 21, Los Angeles' record sat at 30-42—a season-low 12 games below .500. The very next day, though, history began. My counterpart already pointed it out above, but it bears repeating: Over the next 50 games, the Dodgers went an incredible 42-8, the best stretch in the sport since the St. Louis Cardinals did the same back in—wait for it—1942.
When that 50-game run came to a close through Aug. 17—nearly two full months later—LA's record stood at 72-50, and the club was on its way to becoming the best around. This is a team that has been through injuries, adversity, disappointment and scrutiny and has came out all the better for it. Here's how.
A Healthy Lineup is a Loaded Lineup
It's no surprise that the Dodgers dominated the sport throughout July and August. After all, that's when the star-studded lineup began operating at full strength (or just about) for the first time all year.
Injuries to Hanley Ramirez, Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp and Mark Ellis, among others, forced LA to rely on the likes of Justin Sellers, Dee Gordon, Luis Cruz, Jerry Hairston, Skip Schumaker and Scott Van Slyke. That MASH unit was nobody's idea of the best team, let alone a good one.
Getting their actual starters back—as well as bringing up NL Rookie of the Year candidate Yasiel Puig in June—allowed the Dodgers to compile a .342 wOBA and a .443 slugging percentage in July, both of which were the second-highest (to the Detroit Tigers). Those rates dropped a bit in August (.322 wOBA, .397 SLG) but nonetheless, remained right around the top 10 in each.
This is a deep and dangerous, American League-style lineup with good lefty-righty balance, one that has performed to expectations since midseason.
In case you still need convincing: Since July 1, the Dodgers are hitting .280 (second-best in MLB) with a .339 OBP (third) and a .422 SLG (third) and have scored the third-most runs in the majors.
By the way, they've done all this more or less without Kemp, who remains bogged down with injury problems. While it looks like a lost season for a guy who was the team's best player entering the season, it's not entirely out of the question that he could be an X-factor down the stretch.
Even without him, though, teaming a healthy Ramirez, Crawford and Ellis with a dynamic Puig, as well as a consistent Gonzalez, a Juan Uribe who is better than described and Andre Ethier, who is coming on late, gives Los Angeles one of MLB's top lineups.
Basically, any argument that the Dodgers offense isn't among the best is one that relies too heavily on numbers from the first two months, when the roster was flooded with journeymen and players better off in Triple-A. That's no longer the case.
This may be hard to believe, but as good as the Dodgers lineup has been the past two-and-a-half months, their pitching has been even better.
Since the start of July, LA's entire staff has an ERA of 2.45 and a batting average against of .227—both tops in the bigs. Let that sink in for a second.
Obviously, NL Cy Young front-runner and MVP candidate Clayton Kershaw has been dominant all year and is at the forefront of the rotation, but he's been getting plenty of help. Right-hand man Zack Greinke—who also missed a chunk of time to injury in April and May—is arguably the best No. 2 starter in the sport, while import Ricky Nolasco has been perhaps the best in-season trade acquisition of the year.
By the way, with ERAs of 1.71, 1.99 and 2.11, respectively, Kershaw, Greinke and Nolasco all rank in the top five among MLB ERA leaders from July 1 on. That's not just scary—that's unbelievable.
And let's not leave out left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu, who is using his consistent approach—19 quality starts out of 26—to challenge Puig, his more explosive first-year teammate, for Rookie of the Year.
The Dodgers have come a long, long way from giving starting nods to pitchers like Ted Lilly, Stephen Fife and Matt Magill, which they had to do in the first few months. With the Kershaw-Greinke-Nolasco-Ryu foursome intact, LA can make a fair claim as the best rotation around, and anyone who might try to tell you otherwise (ahem, Mr. Rymer) is straight frontin'.
The Pen is Mightier
As for the bullpen, a good amount of the credit here goes to manager Don Mattingly, who reportedly was on the verge of being fired at one point when things were at their worst.
It may have taken Mattingly a little too long to figure out that Brandon League should never have been closing games, but hey, at least he did. To say the bullpen has calmed down after the flame throwing Jansen replaced the ineffective League in the ninth inning would be an understatement.
To wit, after Mattingly finally, mercifully removed League as the closer on June 10, Dodgers relievers maintained a 3.06 ERA—good for seventh-best in the majors.
While the right-handed Jansen and his 1.36 ERA since then leads the way, he's getting plenty of help from a bunch of immensely underrated late-inning options like veterans J.P. Howell (2.30) and Ronald Belisario (3.09), as well as rookies Paco Rodriguez (0.91) and Chris Withrow (2.83). That quartet features two righties (Belisario and Withrow) and two lefties (Howell and Rodriguez), so the Dodgers can handle the opposition from both sides to nail down the final outs.
Beyond the points raised so far, there's also this: The Dodgers have made themselves better thanks to general manager Ned Colletti.
Nolasco, as previously mentioned, already has paid huge dividends since going to LA, but after obtaining him from the Miami Marlins in early July, Colletti has done anything but stand pat. Since acquiring Nolasco, Colletti also has brought the following players into the picture: righty relievers Brian Wilson and Carlos Marmol, right-hander Edinson Volquez and infielder Michael Young.
While none of those four is likely to be a difference-maker down the stretch, especially since the Dodgers the NL West well at hand with a double-digit lead, all of them have been successful players in the not-too-distant past and each has postseason experience. None of them, by the way, will compromise the roles of any of the club's star players in their primes, which is another factor to consider.
If nothing else, it's useful to have some veteran options for depth to fall back on to rest others over the final few weeks and then to help fill out the 25-man postseason roster. Having guys who have been there and done that doesn't hurt and might actually help, especially in October when one team will prove it is, in fact, the best.
The Case Against the Los Angeles Dodgers
At this rate, it won’t be long before I get slapped with a label as a Dodgers hater. My first foray into this debate series involved me shooting down Clayton Kershaw’s claim to the National League MVP award, and now here I am to shoot down the notion that the Dodgers are the best team in baseball.
So allow me to get a necessary statement out of the way: No, I don’t hate the Dodgers. I don’t have “the bias,” as they call it on the intertubes. Heck, it wasn’t all that long ago that I myself was referring to the Dodgers as the best team in baseball and putting them down as a lock for the World Series.
What can I say? People tend to overreact when cool things are going on, and at the time, I was reacting to the absurd 42-8 run that the Dodgers went on. It was indeed a stretch unlike any that’s been seen in recent memory, and the Dodgers sure looked like the best team around while it was in progress.
But then, it’s easier to stand out when you’re not playing against standout competition, isn’t it?
That’s the great, big caveat of the Dodgers’ winning streak. They were playing great baseball, sure, but they weren’t playing great baseball against great teams.
All told, the Dodgers played 31 games—the bulk of the 50 games that comprised that 42-8 run—against the following clubs: San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Philadelphia Phillies, Colorado Rockies, Toronto Blue Jays and Chicago Cubs.
What do those six ballclubs have in common? They're all below .500 for the season.
So there’s that, and it’s not just that these six clubs are bad. It’s how bad they are.
So of the six sub-.500 teams the Dodgers played in their epic 50-game stretch, only one, the Rockies, currently ranks in the top half of the league in both ERA- and runs scored. Maybe it’s no surprise they’re the ones who gave the Dodgers the most trouble, as the Rockies lost only four out of the seven games they played against the boys in blue during the streak.
Take those seven games out of the equation, and here’s how the Dodgers did in the 24 games against the other duds they played: 22-2. That’s more than half the wins they racked up in their streak, against only a quarter of the losses.
But hey, success against weak competition isn’t just the story of the Dodgers’ success. It’s also the story of their season.
For starters, the Dodgers play in one of MLB’s weakest divisions. Per Baseball-Reference.com, the NL West has a combined winning percentage of .492. The Dodgers haven’t exactly had to run the gauntlet in terms of intra-division play.
And since the rest of the National League is also largely mediocre this year, nobody should be surprised to hear that the Dodgers’ strength of schedule in general is sorely lacking. Per ESPN.com’s calculations, only four teams have played easier schedules than the Dodgers. Per Baseball-Reference.com’s calculations, only the Atlanta Braves have played an easier schedule.
But sure, OK, it’s not all about the competition. Such a dominant team surely must be a dominant force, right?
They are in one sense. The Dodgers can definitely pitch with the best of them, as Jason pointed out. I can’t argue that they’re not a great pitching team, nor will I attempt to try.
But a great offensive team? Meh. More like a good offensive team.
Improved offense was certainly a key component in those 50 games. After averaging only 3.54 runs per game in 72 games prior to the run, the Dodgers averaged 4.88 runs per game from June to August. For some perspective, that would put them as the third-most prolific offense in baseball if they’d been averaging that many runs per game all season.
However, you’ll recall that the Dodgers faced some rotten pitching during their hot streak. It always was a matter of time before their offense came back down to earth, and it has in their last 21 games.
In those games, in which they have a good-but-not-great record of 12-9, the Dodgers have averaged only 4.14 runs per game. Their offense has indeed been better than it was earlier in the season, but far from elite. The MLB average for runs per game, for example, is 4.19.
It doesn’t surprise me that the Dodgers offense could be so easily and quickly corrected. As improved as it is, it’s not an offense that specializes in anything.
The best offenses beat you with power, speed or, better yet, power and speed. This isn’t the Dodgers’ style, as we can tell by looking at their season-long and post-All-Star break ranks in Isolated Power and baserunning runs above average:
So whether we’re talking about the whole season or more recent history, the Dodgers are good at neither hitting for power nor at generating runs via baserunning. That signifies how dependent their offense is on timely hitting, which is something that comes and goes (unless you’re Allen Craig).
And if you want my opinion, here it is: The only two Dodgers hitters who scare me are Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig. Both of them are legitimately dangerous, even if one of them can be rendered useless by a good breaking ball. Beyond them, however…well, briefly: Adrian Gonzalez’s power still hasn’t come back, Andre Ethier can’t hit lefties and Juan Uribe and Carl Crawford aren’t much better than league-average hitting threats.
As for Matt Kemp, he might be a huge addition to the Dodgers lineup if he’s able to get healthy. But that appears to be a sort of perennial question mark. And even if he is able to play, he’ll have a tough task ahead of him in terms of cleaning up his approach. It was downright brutal earlier in the season.
The Dodgers are an outstanding baseball team. One of the best in baseball, for sure, and undoubtedly tons of fun to watch. If nothing else, you have to watch for the pitching.
But the best team in baseball? That’s what I was thinking not too long ago, but I snapped to my senses and noticed their weak schedule and then got all nitpicky about their offense.
There’s a better team than the Dodgers out there, and I think I know which one it is.
All statistics are through Wednesday, September 11.