Ah, California. Land of Phantom Planet’s foretold arrival, home to singing raisins, and cradle of the marquee pennant race of the 2021 MLB season.
Back in April, we thought we were in for a two-team NL West race that could not have been any simpler or better scripted. From one corner came the Dodgers, the defending World Series champions, winners of three of the past four NL pennants and the past eight NL West division titles. The Dodgers are the richest club in the sport, and one of the best organized, with a roster festooned with the biggest stars of the 2010s: Clayton Kershaw, Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger, and so on.
From the other corner came the Padres, a team that has traditionally been behind the Dodgers, Angels, and sometimes Cal State Fullerton in the pecking order of Southern California baseball. After years of shrewd player development and heavy free-agent spending, however, the Padres have emerged from the mist like Brigadoon, armed with their own stars: former Dodgers Yu Darvish and Manny Machado, for starters, but most importantly Fernando Tatis Jr., who might be the zoomer Ken Griffey Jr.
So the title bout was set up perfectly—the champ and the contender, both with loaded rosters and a propensity for aggressive gameplay and trash talk. A frenetic second-round playoff series in 2020 seemed to augur a wonderful future: This was going to be the early-2000s Yankees–Red Sox divisional rivalry, only cooler.
But with two months left in the season, the San Francisco Giants are in control of the division, holding a three-and-a-half-game lead over Los Angeles and a six-game lead on San Diego. And after a wild trade deadline that saw Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, Kris Bryant, Danny Duffy, Adam Frazier, and Daniel Hudson all head west, these teams’ rosters are basically set for the rest of the year. Will those moves be enough to upset the standings? Or are the Giants so far ahead that the division’s already been decided?
The FanGraphs playoff odds projections indicate a hotly contested finish. While all three NL West leaders are heavy favorites to make the playoffs somehow, the combined ZiPS and Steamer projections have the Dodgers as nearly 2-to-1 favorites to win the division despite their current deficit. In fact, FanGraphs has the Dodgers making up five and a half games in the standings over the final 54 games of the season.
That might not seem like a lot, especially after the famous pennant pursuits of 2011 and 2007 and 1995. But we remember those instances because they’re outliers. It’s not outrageous, or even controversial, to say the Dodgers will do the same. But that assertion relies on an assumption that we can’t take for granted: that the Dodgers are the best team in the division.
That’s certainly true on paper. It’s been true all year, and it’s basically been true since 2013, which, given the perceptual time dilation that comes with living through such a tumultuous period of history, might as well be the Bronze Age. As recently as late April, the question was not whether the Dodgers would finish with a better record than the Giants, but whether they’d finish with a better record than the 2001 Mariners and 1906 Cubs, MLB’s two 116-win teams.
But that hasn’t borne out in the standings this season, for a variety of reasons. The Dodgers have struggled with injuries: Dustin May had Tommy John surgery, while Betts, Bellinger, Corey Seager, and AJ Pollock have all spent time on the IL. And even after Bellinger came off the IL, he’s been truly dreadful at the plate. Kershaw, Duffy, Tony Gonsolin, and Gavin Lux are hurt right now. And Trevor Bauer is on administrative leave as the league and Pasadena police investigate a woman’s account that Bauer sexually assaulted her.
The Dodgers’ trade for Scherzer and Turner was a coup. L.A. picked up the best pitcher and one of the best position players to move at the deadline, and the team had to send back only players who were on the periphery of the big league roster. Moreover, the Dodgers denied Scherzer to the Padres. San Diego GM A.J. Preller woke up the day before the deadline as the favorite to land the top pitcher on the market, and went to bed that night contemplating the possibility of facing him in the wild-card game—a delicious and dramatic reversal of fortune.
But Scherzer and Turner—who has yet to play a game for the Dodgers after a positive COVID test a few days before the trade—are merely filling holes on the roster left by the aforementioned player absences. They don’t necessarily make the juggernaut stronger than it was in April: They’re just making it whole.
Which, of course, is no small thing when compared to the house of cards that is the Giants’ roster. Even after prying Bryant from Chicago in exchange for a handful of magic beans, San Francisco’s hold on the division looks tenuous at best. How long can the team rely on 34-year-old Brandon Crawford to hit like 25-year-old Derek Jeter? How did they turn Mike Yastrzemski from a forgettable college outfield prospect into a star, then turn around and pull off the same trick with LaMonte Wade and Steven Duggar? And how long will Darin Ruf tickle a .600 slugging percentage?
This roster is due for a regression, but when—or if—that will happen is still anyone’s guess. Projections systems like ZiPS and Steamer take humongous quantities of historical data into account, which renders them invulnerable to the kind of overreaction and heuristic fallacies that come with human judgment. But it also makes them slow to react when the underlying reality changes. What if Wade, Duggar, Kevin Gausman, and the rest of the Giants’ retinue of surprising performers are just better than we realized?
In addition to its projection-based playoff odds, FanGraphs offers playoff odds using season-to-date stats as a data input. Here, again, the Dodgers outperform the Giants through the rest of the season, but the margin is closer—50 points of winning percentage rather than 100—and that would be enough to keep San Francisco ahead in the standings through the end of the season.
The Padres, meanwhile, have a divisional deficit that’s almost certainly too large to overhaul, even if they get red hot down the stretch. They do hold a five-game advantage on Cincinnati for the second wild-card spot, and will likely wrap up the regular season in that position two months from now. But unlike their division rivals, the Padres are trending in the wrong direction.
It’s not like they had a bad deadline in a vacuum. Frazier is a good hitter and can play anywhere; Hudson makes one of the best bullpens in baseball even deeper; and even Jake Marisnick is a useful backup outfielder. But while they made moves that could be classified as OK, the rest of the league went completely bananas. Add to that the fact that Blake Snell’s ERA and BB/9 ratio both start with five, Chris Paddack and Dinelson Lamet are both on the IL, and there’s a chance—however slim—that the latest flare-up in Tatis’s chronic shoulder ailment could require season-ending surgery.
The best thing the Padres have going for them is their remaining schedule. So far this season, San Diego has struggled to beat up on bad teams. While the Dodgers are 27-9 against the NL’s four worst teams (Arizona, Miami, Colorado, and Pittsburgh), the Padres are 20-16. That’s how San Diego came to be two and a half games behind a team it’s beaten seven times in 10 head-to-head games.
But starting Friday, the Dads play 13 in a row against the Diamondbacks, Marlins, and Rockies. If they correct for their previous failures to bank wins against these kinds of clubs, the Padres could be right back in the race in two weeks. Then, after a three-game series with the Phillies, who alternate between looking dangerous and looking cooked, San Diego will have 35 games left on the schedule, including 10 against the Giants and nine against the Dodgers.
To climb from seven games back with 53 to go, a team needs everything to go right—especially a schedule that makes such a comeback feasible. And that’s exactly what the Padres have. All they have to do is play their best two-week stretch of the season, and then come out ahead against the teams with the two best records in the National League, both of which came out as big winners at the trade deadline. Should be just as dramatic as advertised.