Making sense of the weird three-team race in the NL West

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It has been several years since we've had a good division race in the National League West. The Los Angeles Dodgers have won five straight division titles and weren't really threatened in any of those seasons. They held first place every day in September and October all five years.

Oh, the 2014 race was pretty close for part of September. The Dodgers entered the final month up two games over the San Francisco Giants, and it was down to one game with 15 to go, but then the Dodgers pulled away and won the division by six games. The Dodgers were also two up on the Giants at the beginning of September in 2016, but eventually stretched their lead to eight games before winning the division by four. Heck, last season they were so far ahead they survived that 11-game losing streak in early September without it threatening their division lead.

Before the Dodgers' run of dominance, the Giants cruised in 2012 and the Diamondbacks cruised in 2011. The last time the NL West had different leaders in September was 2010, when the Giants and Padres went back and forth (and the Rockies climbed to one game back with 14 remaining), before the Giants pulled into first place for good with six games remaining and clinched on the final day of the regular season. The Giants went on to win the World Series that year, and the Padres haven't had a winning season since.

This season, finally, should be different, with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies and Dodgers in a three-team duel. FanGraphs still sees the Dodgers as the favorite even though they're in third place, with 54 percent odds of winning the division. Still, the race should go down to the wire, with the Dodgers projected to win 89 games, the Diamondbacks 87 and the Rockies 86.

Here are a few key things to watch down the stretch for all three teams:

Arizona Diamondbacks (70-56)

Hitter to watch: Paul Goldschmidt. The six-time All-Star had a solid April with a .900 OPS, but then fell apart in May. On May 22, he was hitting .198. At the time, I wrote there had to be serious concerns because his strikeout rate was way up, and that was after his strikeout rate had already increased from 2016 to 2017. Well, he figured things out:

Through May 22: .198/.320/.355, 31.5% K rate, 13.8% BB rate
After May 22: .348/.443/.652, 21.4% K rate, 13.7% BB rate

Pitcher to watch: Robbie Ray. Zack Greinke and Patrick Corbin have been very good all season, but Ray could be the key to a division title. After an All-Star breakout season in 2017, Ray is just 3-2 with a 4.91 ERA in 16 starts and missed nearly two months with an oblique strain. The swing-and-miss rate on his fastball is down about 5 percent from 2017, and thus his OPS allowed on his fastball has increased from .705 to .853. His overall strikeout rate remains strong, but if he can better locate his fastball down the stretch, he could go on a big run.

Key stat: The Diamondbacks lead the NL with a 3.12 bullpen ERA. That's been a big key ... but closer Brad Boxberger hasn't exactly been a lockdown ninth-inning guy. He is 28-for-33 in save chances, has lost four games and has allowed eight home runs in just 43⅔ innings.

Schedule: They have seven games remaining against both the Dodgers and Rockies, with four-game road trips to L.A. (starting Aug. 30) and Colorado (Sept. 10). From Sept. 6-26, they play 20 games against the Braves, Rockies, Astros, Cubs, Rockies again and Dodgers. Overall, 27 of their final 36 games are against teams currently over .500.

Colorado Rockies (68-57)

Hitter to watch: Charlie Blackmon. Nolan Arenado is in the MVP discussion and Trevor Story has been hot of late, but they need a third hitter to step in what is otherwise a weak lineup (the Rockies are 27th in the majors in park-adjusted wRC+). Blackmon made the All-Star team and leads the NL in runs, but he has hit just .237/.304/.404 in the second half. The Rockies just went 30-16 during a stretch of 46 straight games against opponents who entered the game above .500 (the longest such stretch in MLB history), but they did it with great starting pitching, not a pile of runs.

Pitcher to watch: Jon Gray. The hard-throwing right-hander had a 5.77 ERA in late June, and the Rockies were so frustrated they sent him to the minors for a couple of weeks. The move was much-derided in sabermetric circles because Gray's peripherals remained strong. His issues with runners on base, however, were a problem, and maybe he needed to clear his head a bit. Since his Triple-A sabbatical, he's 2-0 with a 2.55 ERA and .182 average allowed.

Key stat: The Dodgers have a plus-108 run differential. The Diamondbacks are plus-82. The Rockies are minus-13. FanGraphs calculates an expected record off baseruns -- bases gained and allowed -- and the Dodgers have underperformed bye ight wins, the Diamondbacks are exactly what is projected, and the Rockies have overperformed by six wins. As those results would suggest, the Rockies have performed well in high-leverage situations with a .797 OPS, versus .756 in medium-leverage and .725 in low-leverage situations (via Baseball-Reference). So they've been clutch. Will they be clutch these final few weeks?

Schedule: They have those seven games against the Diamondbacks and six against the Dodgers. They end the season with seven games at home against the Phillies and Nationals. Right before that comes a nine-game road trip to San Fran, L.A. and Arizona. Overall, 20 of their final 37 games are against teams over .500.

Los Angeles Dodgers (67-60)

Hitter to watch: Matt Kemp. The Dodgers have averaged 4.7 runs in the second half, right in line with the 4.7 they averaged in the first half, but the offense hasn't been consistent, mixing in a 21-run game with 11 games (out of 31) with two or fewer runs. So what do you do with Kemp? He was an obvious regression candidate after hitting .310/.352/.522 in the first half, but he has slumped to .198/.292/.319 in the second half. Dave Roberts has continued to stick with him, and he did go 7-for-20 with five walks over six games from Aug. 15-21. Max Muncy also hasn't been as effective post-break, but he's still slugging .506. Kemp's bat appears vital.

Pitcher to watch: Kenley Jansen. Really, the whole back of the Dodgers' bullpen. Jansen returned Monday from his irregular heartbeat and promptly served up home runs to the first two batters he faced and lost the game. The Dodgers are 51-9 when leading after six innings, an .850 winning percentage. The MLB average is .874 -- and remember, that includes the Marlins and Royals and everybody else. The Dodgers are 4-7 when tied through seven innings and 6-7 in extra innings. The late-game bullpen needs be clutch in September.

Key stat: The Dodgers had the splashiest trade deadline, acquiring Manny Machado and Brian Dozier. They're just 14-16 with Machado starting, however, and 8-9 when Dozier starts. Dozier started off with two home runs and five RBIs in his first two games with the Dodgers, but has hit .196/.370/.286 since -- drawing walks, but not doing much else. Machado has hit .280/.366/.464 with the Dodgers with five home runs in 125 at-bats.

Schedule: The Dodgers have the easiest schedule, with 18 of their remaining 35 games against teams over .500. They have two series against the Padres, plus series against the Mets, Reds and Rangers. They end the season with a six-game road trip to Arizona and San Francisco. You know the Giants would love to send the Dodgers home early if that final series comes with a playoff spot on the line.