The Dodgers have plowed through July with reckless, successful abandon. A league-best 19-6 record for the month has propelled them into first place in the National League West and saved a year that seemed destined for late-night comedy monologues and future cautionary tales about how not to build a team. Did the July Dodgers — last to first in a 22-day span — bury the impostors of the previous three months, or is this raging wildfire about to burn itself out? Actually, with this level of spectacle, who cares?
If anything, the National League West may end up being a rout, if Clayton Kershaw can keep pitching like this, with a 1.34 ERA and strikeout-to-walk ratio of 43:2 (!) in six July starts. (What a crime it would be if he again comes in second for the Cy Young Award to a Mets pitcher who has sprung from the ether, like last year with R.A. Dickey.) And if Hanley Ramirez can keep hitting a double, triple or homer more or less every game. And if Yasiel Puig can keep irritating the rest of the league and breaching baseball etiquette by openly enjoying himself and going really hard every day, as if he were getting paid millions of dollars to play a fun game in a free democratic country after growing up poor in Cuba. (Wait a minute...)
Even if you're being more sober and analytical, the Dodgers' chances are still good. Their run differential is back in the positive range and projected to grow by season's end, and Baseball Prospectus now puts the team's odds of making the postseason at 85 percent. On a higher plane of expectation, their percent odds of winning the World Series (10.6 percent) are now the highest of any National League team besides the Braves. Which just means that the huge expectations that the Dodgers started the season with have returned. There are some great stories in the league right now — the Pirates foremost among them — but for drama and energy, at the moment, nothing beats SoCal.
But even with a playoff appearance moving more from long shot to given with every win, there are reasons for worry. According to Baseball Reference, the team's batters' average age (a weighted metric that accounts for at-bats and games played) is 30.6 years, oldest in the National League, which means health could be a problem. And they're playing slightly above their projected Pythagorean Win-Loss, which helps to calculate what a team's record should be at any given point based on runs scored and runs allowed, i.e., they're playing a little over their heads. Both of those worrisome signs are exemplified in the team's gimpy yet undoubtedly talented shortstop, Ramirez, who hit .369 in July with a robust .420 on-base percentage. Puig's splits have already started to cool after his blistering start — a relatively pedestrian .287 average in 94 July at-bats has some wondering if opposing pitchers have started to figure out his tendencies — so the 29-year-old Ramirez may need to be the real cog that keeps this machine running into the fall. But it's been three years since he had an entire season in which he was both a) healthy and b) consistently good at making a ball go over a fence with a bat. The jury's still out on defendant Ramirez in the case of Can Hanley Keep Playing Like An MVP?
But hey — Yasiel Puig! Even with a slightly chilled bat, he's still the most captivating position player in Dodger blue — save perhaps Manny Ramirez's planet-tilting (and likely chemically aided) tear in the final two months of 2008 — since Mike Piazza busted onto the scene in 1993 with an astounding rookie season that made us all rethink the concept of the modern catcher. This $42 million Cuban import is on his way to changing minds in much the same manner. His bat is explosive, but his speed and instincts may be more so. Witness the time he recently scored from second on a groundout to first.
And his fielding draws easy comparisons to Bo Jackson, with his lethal right-field throwing arm. (Even in the years after his hip surgery, Jackson had a cannon.)
It's not all about Puig — I'm told there are players on the team besides Puig, Ramirez, and Kershaw — but it sure feels that way, and maybe that's OK. The Dodgers and their fans need something else to think about besides having won only two playoff rounds since the 1988 World Series. The necessary cast is there, and the division is ripe for the taking. The rest of the National League contenders (Cincinnati? Pittsburgh? Atlanta?) don't have the pedigree of perpetual success that it feels like so many American League clubs (Detroit, Boston, Oakland, even wild-card contenders like Tampa and Texas) have right now. In other words, it's wide open, and the Dodgers could even end up as NL favorites. A team that was just in last place might end up bearing the biggest weight of October expectations.
And that's where Puig may really show his true value. Last Sunday he hit a walkoff home run and slid into home plate. Having a guy lead the way with that kind of borderline-terrifying aggression is the kind of thing that can keep a team both loose and committed even as they live and work under a microscope. The fact that it's a rookie in a new country pulling this Kevin Garnett act makes it even more extraordinary and worth watching on a daily basis. Let's hope we see a slide into home in October.