[Edit.: I’ve known Gordon since he was in high school and we’ve been friends and colleagues for over twenty years. As a displaced lifelong Yankee fan now living in Los Angeles, Gordon finds himself right at home cheering for the luxury-cap-busting Dodgers as his second team. If he’s got the time (and you don’t mention Danny Tartabull or ARod) Gordon may answer your questions about the Dodgers. A big Redleg Nation thanks! — SPM]
If you haven’t paid close attention to the Dodgers, you might be surprised to learn they are in third place behind the Giants and Rockies. This is the same Dodgers team that finished last year on a record run and played over .700 ball for their last 70 games and finished one game away from the World Series.
2014 hasn’t started as poorly as 2013, but the Dodgers go into Memorial Day just three games over .500 (27-24) and 5½ games out. Going into the Dodgers-Reds series, here are some things to watch.
The Dodgers run (a lot) – Dee Gordon has played like what the Reds fans hope Billy Hamilton will soon develop into. In 46 games, Gordon has scored 27 runs and stolen an MLB best 28 bases, with a .294/.338/.385 line. Like Hamilton, he was moved away from shortstop and his strong play has stabilized 2B for the Dodgers. Their speed is not limited to Gordon, the Dodgers lead all MLB with 55, that’s thirteen more than the next best team, your Reds.
An elite trio (but maybe not who you expect) – The Dodgers have an elite trio of offensive performers in 2014, led by Yasiel Puig. The off-the-field stories about Puig have given way to a monster start (.347/.439/.624) with 10 home runs and 38 RBIs. His defense can also be spectacular as the Mets just learned.
Beyond Gordon and Puig, add a resurgent Adrian Gonzalez (.267/.340/.519), whose power numbers are the best in four years and who has already chipped in 12 homers.
Matt Kemp (.264/.327/.453) has started to hit better in recent weeks, but neither he nor Hanley Ramirez (.250/.333/.451) have had great starts. Taken together this Dodger club is still scoring a lot of runs (eighth best in MLB, third best in the NL). This is especially impressive when you consider the Dodgers are only 3 for 33 (with 3 singles) with the bases loaded.
Platoon outfield? – Manager Don Mattingly has a challenge finding playing time for his four veteran outfielders, without even considering the depth at AAA. Puig has clearly earned the full-time job in RF, but it now looks like Kemp, Ethier and Crawford are rotating in the other two spots. Until this weekend, Kemp was the regular CF. The Dodgers now feel his speed hasn’t come back far enough from off-season ankle surgery. He is now being looked at as an option in both LF and CF, opening the door to Ethier as a full-time CF.
Both Andre Ethier (.279/.343/.380) and Carl Crawford (.268/.292/.406) have struggled in limiting playing time. The Dodgers continue to insist no trade is coming, but even for MLB’s top payroll, three veterans who feel under-used and who are performing below their career standards is tough to justify at $58 million.
Who can play SS and 3B? – The left side of the infield has had a terrible week with respect to their health. First, 3B Juan Uribe who continues to enjoy a late career renaissance (.303/.331/.454) was placed on the DL after suffering a hamstring strain. Hanley Ramirez is now suffering soreness in his calf muscle and is currently out of the lineup. The Dodgers are left without many options.
Off-season acquisition Alex Guerrero, who disappointed some when he didn’t make the big league club out of spring training despite signing a 4 year/$28 million contract, was thriving in the Pacific Coast League having already hit 10 home runs and putting up a strong .376/.417/.735 line. After losing part of his ear from a fight with (then) teammate (and very briefly a Red) Miguel Olivio, Guerrero needed surgery and is now out for 5 weeks.
Reds fans should expect to see a heavy dose of Justin Turner, Chone Figgins (who was out of baseball in 2013) and Cuban rookie Erisbel Arruebarruena at third and short this week.
Dodger SP up to full strength – The Dodgers’ starting pitching has been very solid. They rank sixth in ERA across baseball (3.34) and have earned 21 wins (second in baseball). What makes these feats more impressive is that ace Clayton Kershaw has only 4 starts. The other four Dodger starters (Zack Greinke, Danny Haren, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Josh Beckett) have been great, averaging just under 6 innings per start with a 2.79 ERA and earning wins in 18 of their 35 starts. The Dodgers struggled with Kershaw out because their fill-ins (mostly Paul Maholm) put up a 5.50 ERA in his 7 starts. With their top five back together, the Dodgers could be well-positioned for another run, if…
The bullpen cooperates – If you look at the Dodgers team statistics and try to reconcile those against the roster, it is bit perplexing. How is a team with such great starting pitching and such experience in the bullpen in the middle of the pack for team ERA (3.70, good for thirteenth)? The answer has a lot to do an inconsistent bullpen.
The Dodgers are built a lot like the pre-luxury tax Yankees, with a lot of veterans holding guaranteed (and sizable) contracts. Dodger bloggers bemoaned the recent demotion of Chris Withrow. Withrow wasn’t perfect, he was holding batters to a .141 average and was striking out over 30% of the hitters he faced. The problem for Withrow is that he, like Paco Rodriguez, had options remaining. The rest of the Dodger bullpen is a roster of current and former big league closers. When you see Mattingly make a call to the pen, keep in mind that seven relievers out there make a combined $33.9 million, with their closer (Kenley Jansen) earning only $4.3 million of that. Brian Wilson ($10 million) and Brandon League ($8.5 million) lead the way for a bullpen that earns just a bit less than the entire Astros or Marlins roster.
I am sure the Dodgers wouldn’t mind the salaries if the players performed. Unfortunately he Dodger pen is in the bottom half of most indexes and has put up a combined 4.25 ERA (3.93 FIP) and an unsightly 1.43 WHIP. That last number should seem familiar to Reds fans. The Dodgers and Reds share a problem of having their bullpen walk too may batters. The Reds walk the second most (12.2%) and the Dodgers are right behind them at 11.8% percent. Relievers, especially seasoned veterans, need to be counted on to throw strikes in late innings and neither team has excelled to date.
What about shifts? Don’t expect to see much in the way of Dodger defensive shifts. A lot of teams will make a point to target hitters who only hit to a portion of the field, but not the Boys in Blue. So far they are in the bottom 5 at employing shifts this season and they are vocal about not seeing it as essential to their style of play. It is still early to draw conclusions, but several of the defensive indexes rate the Dodgers as below average (such as twenty-fifth team Ultimate Zone Rating or having allowed 15 more runs than average), despite a few elite defenders.
Summary Blue vs. Red – Should be a good series. The Dodgers will send Ryu, Greinke, and Kershaw so the Reds should focus on staying in the game and trying to get to the Dodgers bullpen. Overall, enjoy the games knowing you have a better view than most Dodgers fans. Their ongoing fight with Direct TV has 70% of the local fans unable to watch the games on TV.