The New York Mets’ first-round foe is the Los Angeles Dodgers, which may be baseball’s version of Lieutenant Columbo — a group of rough-around-edges, unsuspecting ballplayers in trenchcoats who don’t look so fearsome to you until your three-game series with them is over and they’ve won two.
The Dodgers have little flash — no dominant ace pitcher, no big slugger, and a bullpen closer that no one right of the Pacific has ever heard of. Their Game One starter is Derek Lowe, a guy we know to be pretty good, but no one to fear. There’s a good chance their cleanup hitter will be Jeff Kent, who is well past his prime and had less than 70 RBI this year. In fact, their top homerun hitters were Nomar Garciaparra and JD Drew, who both hit 20. Despite Drew’s home run prowess and team-leading 100 RBI, there’s a chance he won’t be a starter in the OF in every game, as manager Grady Little has lately been depending on no-name rookies Jason Repko, Matt Kemp, and Andre Ethier.
Little has a fourth rookie, James Loney, who went 4-5 with 9 RBI in a crucial game at the end of the season — but will probably have him riding the pine while Garciaparra plays first base.
Speaking of, in Garciaparra, Julio Lugo, and Wilson Betemit, the Dodgers have three natural shortstops not playing shortstop because that’s where Rafael Furcal plays.
For all their quirks, the Los Angeles Dodgers (of Los Angeles) have played very competitive baseball from game one through 162, and despite their lack of a Ryan Howard or Albert Pujols, may very well have a better offensive team than anyone in the NL — including our beloved Mets.
Consider this: the Dodgers finished the year with 820 runs scored to the Mets’ 832. That’s not a huge difference — in fact, its negligible. Bottom line is, both teams average five runs per game. The Dodgers’ OPS is .781 to the Mets .780 — you can’t get much closer than that. Of more concern, offensively speaking, is the fact that the Dodgers walk slightly more often (3.7 per game to the Mets’ 3.3), and strike out significantly less frequently (5.9 to 6.7). If by chance this five-game series becomes an arms race, it would appear the Dodgers have a slight edge in their ability to create runs.
And as they say, it is pitching that wins in the playoffs. The Mets have a slightly better ERA — 4.14 to 4.23 — and struck out close to 100 more batters than the Dodgers, while walking 25 more. So far, it looks like a dead heat. Except for one glaring statistic: home runs allowed. The Mets have allowed 180 home runs this year, while the Dodgers limited opponents to 152 — less than one per game and the best rate in the Major Leagues.
Comparing the statistical lines, the teams do look very similar in nearly every category, except in the case of home runs. The Mets hit many, the Dodgers hit few. However, the Dodgers allow few, the Mets allow many. The Dodgers also have scored nearly as many runs without hitting the long ball, and in fact led the NL in batting average. So if the Mets somehow are able to keep LA from hitting homers, it likely will not affect their offensive production — they’ve been scoring that way all year. Conversely, if the Dodgers’ legion of groundball specialists can deny the Mets’ batted balls from taking flight, our Metropolitans may struggle to score runs. As you might imagine, the Dodgers also tend to turn a lot of double plays; in fact they were third in the Majors in that category, turning 174. By contrast, the Mets were 27th, with 134. These last stats feed further suspicion that the Mets may have their hands full with the Dodgers.
What does it all mean? Well, if you believe that regular-season statistics are an indicator of how a team will perform in the postseason, then this series between the Mets and Dodgers can easily go either way. In fact, it appears that unless the Mets are able to hit home runs against a staff that allowed the least amount in MLB, the Dodgers may have the edge. Even if the Mets are able to build rallies by getting on base, the numbers suggest that runners will be erased by double plays. So if the Mets offense is, in effect, grounded (pardon the pun), the only way they’ll get through this short series is via outstanding pitching — the kind that allows two, one, or no runs. Unfortunately, the tandem of El Duque, Tom Glavine, and Steve Trachsel doesn’t look up to the task. If this were five years ago, maybe, but in 2006, it’s asking quite a bit from two has-beens and one never-was.
For once, I hope Lt. Columbo is unable to crack the case.