Halfway through the 2009 season one can fairly say it has not played out the way most fans expected.
Manny Ramirez received a 50-game suspension for use of a banned substance, with steroid use believed to be involved, and the Dodgers remain in first place not only in the NL West, not only in the National League, but in all of baseball (as of June 28).
In addition to this, one of the Dodgers' best starters, Hiroki Kurdoda has missed significant time and has only pitched 36.2 innings.
All-Star catcher Russell Martin is batting an atrocious .246 with one home run and has a slugging percentage which stands at an anaemic .296.
To put that in perspective, Dodgers ace Chad Billingsley is slugging .259.
The major reason for the Dodgers' ability to excel this season in spite of all the turmoil has been their pitching staff, even mostly without Kuroda.
Billingsley has been excellent with a 3.10 ERA in 104.2 IP, allowing only 85 hits while striking out 99 and walking just 48.
Youngster Clayton Kershaw has also stepped up for Los Angeles, striking out 83 batters in just 82 innings pitched, and holding opponents to a batting average of just .214.
Kuroda has also played excellently when healthy, striking out 30 and walking just seven in 32.2 IP.
In addition, Randy Wolf currently has a 3.64 ERA, almost 60 points below his career ERA.
When the Dodgers rotation has experienced injuries or other issues, spot starts from Jeff Weaver, Eric Milton (who is currently the fifth starter) and Eric Stults have been of good enough quality to allow the Dodgers offense to save the day.
The Dodgers' best pitcher this season has been closer Jonathan Broxton.
Broxton, who took over the role from Takashi Saito during last year's playoffs, has struck out 57 in 35.2 IP and is holding opponents to a .130 average with a 6-0 record and 18 saves in 20 opportunities. Ronald Belisario and Ramon Trosconso have also pitched superbly with ERA's of 2.03 and 2.11 respectively.
This has helped atone for the performances of Guillermo Mota and Cory Wade who have bloated ERA's of 4.36 and 5.88.
The Dodgers' offense has also excelled overall this season, even without Manny for a large portion of it.
The 374 runs scored by the Dodgers are more than all but three teams outside the AL East and their run differential of +86 is top in baseball.
Los Angeles' offense has been highlighted by Juan Pierre (who 99 percent of Dodgers fans wanted traded before the season began), Orlando Hudson, Matt Kemp, Casey Blake and James Loney, to a lesser extent. Andre Ethier, who is batting only .264, has hit 14 home runs and driven in 49, both top among Dodgers (the latter tied with James Loney and just one run more than Blake.
It is the performance of these batters, with 261 RBI collectively along with 241 runs scored between them, which has made up for the poor performances of Rafael Furcal and Russel Martin, usually two of the Dodgers most important hitters. The two of them have combined for just four home runs and 37 RBIs in 134 games and 504 at bats.
Tell that to almost any analyst before the season, along with the absences of Manny Ramirez and Hiroki Kuroda and they would probably be projected to be in third or forth place, even in the weak NL West.
The Dodgers' fielding has also been terrific this season. The fielding percentages of Los Angeles' starting line-up (minus Manny) look like this: .997, .988, .975, .971, 1.000, .990 and .978. For context, the 1.000 fielding percentage belongs to Manny Ramirez, the .990 to Matt Kemp and the .997 to James Loney.
Any team which lists Orlando Hudson with a .998 fielding percentage as its fourth best starter defensively is well placed.
As a team, the Dodgers are the fourth best defensive team in baseball with a .989 fielding percentage and just 31 errors.
As a whole, the Dodgers lead the league in ERA at just 3.64 and are tied for the league lead in saves with 23, and holding opponents to a ridiculous .237 batting average, six points below the second place Cubs.
They also rank second in all of baseball (behind a three-way tie for first) in batting average at .276 (0.01 behind first place) and are second in baseball in slugging percentage, but just in second by 0.03.
The Dodgers have without a doubt feasted on a weak division, going 26-10 against the NL West.
In addition to this, they are losing the season series to just one team, the Houston Astros, at 2-1 and are tied with two teams, the Chicago Cubs and the awful Washington Nationals (albeit in only two games). In interleague play, the Dodgers also have a winning record at 9-8.
Looking at the season so far, it looks fairly assured that the Dodgers will not only make the playoffs, but also win the division comfortably.
Although they have missed key players either through injury, suspension or sheer under-performance, they are among the league leaders in just about every important category in terms of offense, defense, and pitching.
The only real second—half issues are:
- Will Manny be able to play at his usual level after his suspension. Or was his performance steroid fueled?
- Will any of the key starters or relievers for the Dodgers go down for an extended period (injuries to Billingsley, Kershaw or Broxton would be especially damaging)?
- Will the veterans of the team, Orlando Hudson, Casey Blake and Randy Wolf, keep performing so well?
The second pont, injuries, will be the crucial factor for Los Angeles which is still thin in the bullpen and rotation.
Of particular concern should be the very young Kershaw and the aged Randy Wolf, not to mention the back end of the rotation. Billingsley has also had a heavy workload in recent years, and could be susceptible to an injury.
Any regression to the mean by Hudson and Blake should be matched by improvements to some extent by the anaemic batting performances of Russell Martin and Rafael Furcal, who are far below their career averages.
Although Juan Pierre could also regress, he has been a very consistent batter during his career with a .301 average. This means the Dodgers should be able to succeed even without Manny returning to his usual form.
Where the Dodgers really miss Ramirez is in the home run hitting department.
Without him they are 26th in the league in home runs, hitting slightly better at home than away which does not bode well for their long ball offense.
The small ball offense however has been exceptional across the board and seems to be the real deal, with no real weaknesses to be seen.
Any increase in home runs would just be a bonus, and it would be almost impossible for the Dodgers to have a decrease. The only way here is up.
All things considered, it would appear that the second half outlook for the Dodgers is highly positive.
Their second half schedule isn't overwhelmingly, and it would seem they are only in danger of losing their division lead if the entire team catches swine flu or goes into a New York Mets—like slump to end the season.
Taking all things into account, I project that the Dodgers will finish the season with 89—91 wins and will win the NL West by eight to 10 games.
Even without Ramirez, the Dodgers couldn't have played much better in the first half so their second half should look quite similar, barring major injuries.