For the first month of the baseball season, the Los Angeles Dodgers romped through their opponents as if the rest of the league did not get the memo that the season was underway.
Through the first week of May, the Dodgers were 21-8*, a pace that would have resulted in a record-breaking 117 wins in a 162-game season. The 2001 Seattle Mariners and the 1906 Chicago Cubs share the single-season record with 116 wins. However, Dodger fans had put aside thoughts about the record books when news broke on May 7 that their best player, outfielder Manny Ramirez, would be suspended for 50 games after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. The question went from could the Dodgers win at a record pace to could the Dodgers continue to win at all.
Ramirez will return tomorrow, and, as it turns out, Dodger fans didn’t need to worry. Their team is 48-28 as of Monday morning and on pace for 102 wins. For a sense of how much better they are than the rest of the league, no other National League team is on pace to win more than 88 games right now. With that kind of dominance, the most relevant question about Ramirez’s return isn’t whether Manny will be Manny—he is the game’s most unpredictable superstar—but does Manny even matter?
Part of the Dodgers’ dominance is a reflection on the senior circuit’s— the National League’s—chronic mediocrity. Last season, only two teams in the National League managed to win more than 56 percent of their games. You have to go back to the 2004 season to find a situation where several National League teams played like genuine championship contenders. By contrast, this season, six American League teams are on pace, on the basis of their current win percentage or by run differential, to win 56 percent of their games.
The real question for the Dodgers is whether they will see through their gaudy record and the hype around Manny’s return and improve their team sufficiently to avoid being playoff roadkill.
Put simply, the Dodgers don’t hit enough home runs. Admittedly, their ballpark, the wonderful, picturesque Dodger Stadium, plays a role in that as the cavernous dimensions cut down on offense, but the Dodger power outage is shocking for a team that might win more than 100 games.
The Dodgers have hit only 57 home runs so far this season; the league average is 70.
I don’t argue with the idea that home runs get far too much attention in the nightly highlight clips, but they are important, especially in the post-season. In the playoffs, hitters have been scouted much more thoroughly than they are in the regular season, and the quality of pitching is usually far better. There are fewer “mistake pitches” for batters to feast on. Teams that can put runs on the board with one swing tend to do better than ones that are reliant on several singles.
Dodger fans already know the case study which illustrates this point: Their “cross-town” rival, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, perennially exit the playoffs a tad earlier than expected, usually at the hands of the power-hitting Boston Red Sox. If the Dodgers would like to avoid an early exit, they will need to bolster their already stellar offense with some guys who can take pitchers deep. Manny’s return is part of the solution, but not all of it.
Although the National League pennant is the Dodgers to lose, the fun is just beginning in the American League. Each of the three divisions has a hot race going on, and barring injuries, all three could go down to the wire.
In the American League East, the usual suspects—the Red Sox and the New York Yankees—are dueling at the top with the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays a few games back. All four teams have suffered through significant injuries and surprising bouts of ineffectiveness. Of the four contenders, the Rays have the best run differential, so barring further injuries or slick trades by the other teams, Tampa Bay should win this division, and the Yankees and Red Sox will battle for the wild card.
The other two divisions are too close to call right now. The Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers are dueling in the Central Division, and both teams are tied in most leading indicators. The Angels and the Texas Rangers are also tied in run differential and comparable in other key areas.
Fans in several American League cities can hunker down for what looks like a series of classic races. In the National League, fans of the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets and Chicago Cubs can hope that their teams stop their underachieving ways, but even if they do, it may not be enough to catch the Dodgers. Only the harsh realities of October baseball can do that.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.
*This article previously reported that the Dodgers' record during the first week in May was 21-9.