Dodger Musings: Reasons for Optimism (6/5/2014)

The following is part one of a two-part investigation into the struggles of the 2014 Dodgers and possible reasons for optimism as the season progresses. Part one will focus on the Dodgers’ offensive production to date, with an emphasis on key contributors and a deeper look into batted-ball data for a few struggling Dodgers. Part two will focus on the starting rotation and bullpen, with a look at some predictive stats and contextual clues that point to an expected increase in pitching performance as we get into the dog days of summer. Without further ado, part one awaits:

Part One: The Offense (or Puig & everybody else, supposedly)

“…all we need is a little patience.” – Axl Rose

Ah yes, the oh-so-eloquent Axl Rose. One might say that Axl, through the gift of foresight, wrote that lyric with the 2014 Dodgers in mind. One might then ask, if Axl had the gift of foresight, how does he explain the cornrow hairdo, or pretty much anything after ‘Appetite for Destruction’? Well that’s neither here nor there. Regardless of the song lyric’s intended target, the words ring true when it comes to the boys in blue. (See what I did there?) It’s no secret that the Dodgers have stumbled out of the gate and underperformed so far this season, with a 31-30 record. Though by the slimmest of margins, the fact that they’re above .500 with 101 games to go and all of Los Angeles appears to be in panic mode says more about our expectations than it does about this team.

True, this team is not without its faults and concerns. The offense has been underwhelming at times, going through stretches of seemingly uninspired play and undisciplined at bats. However, if you look a little deeper, there are legitimate reasons for optimism that this group of hitters can and will resemble something closer to last year’s second-half juggernaut and less like the futile bunch that showed up in April. This is a team that can break out at the flip of Puig’s bat…err…drop of a hat. After digging deeper into their actual production this season, I feel confident in saying that this breakout WILL happen. Yes, THIS year. Would you like to know why? No? Too bad.

First of all, this team has Yasiel Puig playing right field every day and batting somewhere from 2nd to 4th in the lineup. Also, there’s the fact that Puig is currently batting .340 with a .433 On Base Percentage (OBP) and a .604 Slugging Percentage (SLG), which, put another way, is essentially Ted Williams’ career line. Next. Dee Gordon, though not as good as he was in April, and not as bad as he was in May, has improved leaps and bounds defensively at second base, forming an air-tight right-side defense with Adrian Gonzalez. Dee is also getting on base JUST enough (.327 OBP) to disrupt games with his plus-plus speed. Though his defense might not directly affect his offense, the comfort he has shown at second base has allowed him to focus more on making continued improvements in his offensive approach, and the results speak for themselves, with career highs in OBP, steals and extra base hits already exceeded or within reach. Moving to the heart of the order, batted-ball data shows that Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez have been suffering from a bit of bad luck as far as Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP). Adrian is currently at a .275 BABIP (career .321 in 6,000 plate appearances) while Hanley is currently at a .279 BABIP (career .332 in 5,000 plate appearances). Adrian and Hanley’s SLG numbers are artificially lowered by their low BABIP, but a quick look at their Isolated Power (ISO) numbers show that they’re hitting for power when making contact, so no need to fret. With a return to career BABIP rates, the rest of their triple-slash line will return to normal and increased production thus inevitably follows. There’s your top four in the lineup: a toolsy speed/defense-oriented second baseman, an MVP candidate, and two proven middle of the order run producers due for a return to career norms. The three-headed outfield monster of Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier has yet to live up to expectations, but frankly, our expectations were probably too high to begin with. Though Crawford showed signs of life with the bat prior to spraining his ankle, the continued foot and leg injuries diminish his two primary weapons, speed and defense. If Crawford can find a way to continue producing with the bat, and manage to stay off the DL, he at least provides average production against right-handed pitchers, though lefties give him all sorts of trouble. Andre Ethier has filled in capably defensively since the move to centerfield, though his bat is still hovering somewhere between a deep freeze and respectability. Ethier’s offensive production has been on a downward trend for 2-3 years, and, like Crawford, is virtually unplayable against left-handed pitchers. Ethier does still post basically respectable numbers against right-handed pitchers so he’s not without value, at least as the dominant side of a platoon. This leads us to our final contestant, Matt Kemp. What do you do with Matt Kemp? Have a little patience. Yes, he’s been injury riddled and on the disabled list for much of the last year and a half, and generally average/borderline unproductive when on the field in that time. And yet, just two years ago this past April, Kemp was hitting over .400 with 13 HR’s through 28 games, and looked to be well on his way to winning his 2nd 1st MVP. I have to believe that some semblance of that hitter is still in there. Many, many major leaguers will attest to the arduous return from reconstructive shoulder surgery that Kemp has been dealing with the past year and a half. Some hitters claim it was at least a year, if not two, before they felt remotely close to their old selves. So I preach patience with #27. He’s earned that much. Though these are three flawed players, with the proper platooning strategies and some regression to career-norm rates, this can be a moderately valuable 2/3 of an outfield, which, when paired with the dynamic Puig, becomes a strength. The catcher spot is primarily focused only on defense, unless you’re one of the lucky few who get to watch Buster Posey or Yadier Molina or Jonathon Lucroy play for your team. In this regard, the Dodgers grade out well, as all three backstops used this season are at least average to above average defensively. The return of AJ Ellis will also provide a much-needed OBP bump near the bottom of the order. Third base is up in the air right now, with Juan Uribe on the shelf and no clear timetable for his return. Justin Turner has filled in capably on both sides of the ball, though third base will be a potential area to upgrade leading up to the July 31st trade deadline. Honestly, I’m still holding out hope for a move of Hanley to 3B to better hide his sub par defense, but that’s a story for another time.

Offensively, though this team has unperformed as a unit to date, they led the league in batting average and runs scored in the month of May, and when you factor in that many of their key players are showing signs of expected improvement in the near future, along with the continued maturation and transcendence of Yasiel Puig, it’s not hard to see that a more prolific offense is bubbling under the surface. As Axl said, “…all we need is a little patience”.


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