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Welcome To The Wild, Wild, West

Kirby Lee- USA Today Sports

The National League West is coming down to the wire in 2018. Can the Rockies hold on to their slim lead?

Three teams. Only one makes the postseason.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, Colorado Rockies, and Arizona Diamondbacks have previously found themselves in a similar position—last year, all three teams fought in September for postseason play. In 2017 though, all three teams managed to make the postseason, thanks to the Rockies edging out the Milwaukee Brewers by one game.

That won’t be the case in 2018. The Brewers are better, the Cardinals are playing better baseball, and the Dodgers, due to injuries and weaker play this year, are not as dominant as they were a year ago.

As a result, the National League West is left with three flawed teams that are currently fighting for the division and the wild card simultaneously. With the Brewers and Cardinals in striking distance, these three clubs have not abnegated the possibility of earning a wild card berth quite yet. As of now though, their best shot at making the postseason rests at beating out their two competitors for the division title.

Colorado Rockies: Can Trevor Story Continue His Hot Hitting?

Perhaps the most notable observation seen in the Rockies’ play is with their starting shortstop Trevor Story. When he first arrived in the majors in 2016, he took the league by storm, hitting 10 home runs in his first month as a big leaguer and sporting a slugging percentage of .696. Naturally, baseball pundits took note and speculated that he would be the next Troy Tulowitzki without the injuries.

That thought percolated around the league for the better part of 2016, but eventually all hitters cool off. And when Story stopped hitting like he did when he first came up, it was not pretty. From July 2016 to the end of the 2017 season, Story sported a 93 wRC+, which is not unplayable but rather unimpressive.

Baseball critics were quick to note that Trevor Story hits too many grounders and strikes out too frequently. He was a Chris Davis-type hitter without the elite power numbers. From July 2016 to the end of the 2017 season, Story struck out 34% of the time while 34% of his balls in play were grounders.

Strikeouts were Story’s glaring problem. Even with the league seeing an increase in the number of strikeouts, he was brazenly striking out. However, in 2018, we are beginning to see him evolve and improve as a hitter. Consider the scatter plot below:


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Story is the dot in yellow. From 2017 to 2018, he has seen a vast improvement in his Contact% (by seven percentage points) and in his strikeout rate (a nine percentage point decrease). Besides his year-to-year improvement, Story has also shown month-to-month improvement. The chart below reveals that, except for the month of August, Story’s strikeout total gradually decreased and his batting average increased:

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While it is too early to see if Story continues his hot hitting in September, he is off to a great start. Against the Giants last Wednesday, Story homered thrice, including a 505-foot bomb to left field that broke the Coors Field longest home run record:


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The Rockies are in first place for now. Photo credit: Justin Edmonds- Getty Images

The Rockies are clinging to a slim lead for the division over the Dodgers. With four head-to-head matchups over the remainder of the season, the Rockies are going to need to be able to close out games against them. Their season will most likely depend on it.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Can They Ride A Favorable Schedule To A Division Title?

One of the most pressing storylines for this division as September rolls on is each team’s respective schedules. The Arizona Diamondbacks and the Colorado Rockies were noted as having a much more challenging schedule than the Dodgers. 

The Dodgers, meanwhile, have the following schedule the rest of the way: they have a seven-game road-trip coming up against the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals, followed by a six-game homestand against the Rockies and Padres. To conclude the season, the Dodgers play the Diamondbacks and the Giants on the road.

Therefore, what the Dodgers have are numerous opportunities to square off against their main playoff competitors while having several games against teams with losing records. In particular, the Reds and the Padres should be easy wins for the Dodgers.
So far though, the Dodgers have failed to take care of business against inferior opponents. Cincinnati has seen much success against the Dodgers this year, sporting a 5-1 record against them. For the Dodgers to pass either the Rockies, Brewers, or Cardinals, they are going to have to change that narrative. 

The good news for the Dodgers is that Manny Machado’s bat has improved over the last few weeks. When he was first traded to the Dodgers, Machado began his tenure in Dodger blue striking out 23% of the time in his first 71 at-bats. However, in the past 17 games, Machado has sported a slugging percentage of .600 and has decreased his strikeout rate. These are two trends Machado needs to maintain over the final stretch of the season for the Dodgers to move on.

Arizona Diamondbacks: What Do They Do In The Late Innings?

One of the reasons why the Diamondbacks stuck around as the division leader so long is due to the bullpen. In particular, the Diamondbacks got strong performances from Brad Boxberger in the first half of the season.

Lately, not so much. The following image showcases Boxberger’s past three appearances before he got benched, two of them concluding in a blown save.

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Finally, manager Torey Lovullo had enough. He removed Boxberger from the closer role, leaving that spot vacant. Lovullo said that he plans on playing matchups, but it remains to be seen who will now get called into duty for most of the save opportunities.

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Brad Boxberger has seen his ERA soar to 4.41 after converting 31 of 37 save chances from April through August. Photo credit: Ross D. Franklin, Associated Press.

It is possible that Boxberger may see opportunities to close later in the month. However, the Diamondbacks can turn to their other four relievers (Archie Bradley, Yoshihisa Hirano, Andrew Chafin, and Brad Ziegler) to close out games. Whoever Lovullo implements in the closer role could potentially determine if the Diamondbacks make the postseason.

Currently sitting in third place in the National League West, the Arizona Diamondbacks are on the outside looking in. In order to catch the Rockies and Dodgers, they are going to need to get better closing out games quick if they hope to return to the postseason in 2018.

(All statistics and information originated from ESPN.com, Baseball-Reference.com, or FanGraphs.com, unless otherwise noted.)



Edited by Brian Kang.

SQuiz
What other teams did Brad Boxberger play for?
Created 9/13/18
  1. San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres
  2. San Diego Padres, Tampa Bay Rays
  3. Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays
  4. Texas Rangers, Minnesota Twins

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