The Dodgers Infield The Key To A Playoff Push
by Jim Silva
What’s new – the Dodgers are leading the National League in ERA by a lot – .4 runs per game over second place Arizona – wait, what? Arizona? Yes, the Diamondbacks team ERA is 3.62 as of June 6th. The Dodgers leading the league in ERA isn’t shocking or even unusual. After all, they play in a pitcher’s park and have Clayton Kershaw in their rotation. What IS less boring is the fact that the Dodgers are sitting in 4th in the NL in runs scored, and second in on-base percentage. It is usually assumed that the Dodgers will be near the top of the league in raw pitching stats, but to also be near the top of the pack in offensive numbers means they might be the team to beat in the National League. It’s in the infield where the Dodgers have added punch and so that’s where we will look as we try to discover what is making the Dodgers offense tick.
Where will Cody Bellinger end up? Will it be first base or somewhere in the outfield? Based on his early work in 2017, one thing we know for sure is that Bellinger will play somewhere because his bat has been a tremendous asset to the Dodgers lineup. If you had to guess which Dodger had barreled the most balls this season relative to the number of balls he has put in play that created an outcome (Batted Ball Events – BBE), would you guess Cody Bellinger? It is indeed Bellinger who comes in ahead of Miguel Cabrera and just a bit behind Paul Goldschmidt. A barreled ball is a ball that is hit squarely and has a high probability of turning into something good. Berlinger doesn’t hit the ball softly very often – about 86% of balls hit by Bellinger have either been hit with medium or hard velocity. He also puts the ball in the air about half the time and gets to watch about 27% of those fly balls carry out of the park. The majority of Bellinger’s time in the field has been spent in the outfield because his natural position is currently occupied by Adrian Gonzalez whose contract expires after next season – more on him in a bit. At 21, Bellinger has star potential and has some positional versatility because he is athletic enough and fast enough to play the outfield. The biggest knock on the Dodgers top prospect is that his swing has a lot of miss in it. He is striking out about 33% of the time so far this season. Pitchers are adjusting to him and his batting average is plummeting, but nobody is counting him out. With Gonzalez back off the DL and Joc Pederson coming back soon, the Dodgers will be able to spot Bellinger better. Make no mistake, Bellinger will be a starter for the Dodgers, most likely on the infield, for years to come and that is a good thing for Angelenos.
A-Gone is still there manning first base for the Dodgers. After a stint on the DL, the career .290ish hitter is still the starter and most often, the cleanup hitter. So when does age start to matter? Players obviously begin to decline at some point, and to ignore that is a mistake especially when it comes to giving out contracts and playing time. Gonzalez is 35 and has one more year on his contract. While his decline hasn’t been precipitously steep, it is most certainly there and possibly accelerating a bit. Last season was the first year where he didn’t manage a WAR at 2.0 or above (1.3). It seems that Gonzalez is losing his power as he dipped to 18 homes last year in 633 plate appearances and only has one long ball in his first 175 PAs so far this campaign. If that doesn’t change it will be interesting to see if manager Dave Roberts moves Gonzalez down in the order or gives away more of his playing time to Cody Bellinger as the season progresses. The Dodgers are in a dogfight in a tough NL West, battling both the Diamondbacks and the Rockies, and they can’t afford to give away runs. Gonzalez has never had a full season with a wRC+ below 100, but he is sitting at 81. He put up a wRC+ of 112 last season and the defensive metrics like him less and less each season mostly based on declining range so at some point the Dodgers will have to see him as he is and not as he was. He hasn’t been under 600 plate appearances since he first became a starter for the Padres during George W. Bush’s second term. The times they are achangin’.
The other corner man came close to departing after last season, but then signed a four year deal just before Christmas. Justin Turner has become sort of the patron saint for the new fly ball movement in the MLB. After making some changes to his swing path designed to generate more loft, Turner turned into a star at third base. His new approach has turned him into a power hitter who gets on base and doesn’t strike out that much considering his power output. Turner is also a good glove man regularly saving five+ runs a season (DRS) and putting up positive URS/150 numbers as well mostly due to his excellent range. There are two superstar third basemen in MLB right now in Arenado and Machado so it may seem as if we are a golden age of third basemen, but ask the Red Sox and Yankees how they feel about that statement and you will understand how difficult it is to find someone who can both hit and field the position at a high level. So while Turner may not be as flashy as the two superstars who play the hot corner, he has turned himself into a supremely valuable player just a notch below and arguably the Dodgers second most valuable position player. Of course this begs the question, who is the Dodgers most valuable position player?
If you’re building a franchise and have to choose a position in which to sink resources, most GMs would spend a lot of their gold on a shortstop, and that is indeed where the Dodgers play their WAR leader from 2016. Corey Seager is the younger brother of one of the better third basemen in baseball, the Mariners Kyle Seager. A few years ago, while Seager the younger was still working his way through the minors, older brother Kyle was being interviewed and mentioned that his younger brother was a better player than he was. That’s saying a lot when you are a star in the majors and your little bro is still a kid playing single A ball, but Kyle wasn’t just being a doting big sibling. While Kyle is quite good, Corey at 22 won the Rookie of The Year award, finished third in MVP voting, started at short for the National League in the All Star game, competed in the Home Run Derby, and won the Silver Slugger Award as the best hitting shortstop in the National League – and that was in his first full season in the majors. Seager hit and fielded his way to a 6.1 WAR season and showed why he might already be the most valuable position player in the National League – I don’t mean that he is already the best player in the NL, although he might be. I mean that he could be the one player that makes the most difference for any team in the NL. He is the one player the Dodgers just flat out can’t afford to lose. They could find someone who can fill in for his good range at shortstop, but there is no shortstop in all of baseball who hits like Seager. 71 extra-base hits from your shortstop combined with a .365 on-base percentage is just not something you see anymore (and not very often in all of MLB history from a real shortstop who can field the position credibly, which Seager does – DRS and UZR/150 disagree, but he is either average or above average defensively. His wRC+, which is park adjusted, was 137 last season which means he was 37% better at creating runs than the average player – not just shortstop, but player. The Dodgers had better hope that health is one of the tools in Seager’s quiver because they would have a hard time contending without him.
There are some great second basemen in the Majors right now, but this is far from any golden age of second sackers. It seems that teams are playing guys at second who couldn’t hack it at short (or aged out of the position) or maybe don’t have the arm to move to third but can hit some. LA ran a 37 year old out there last season after trading away Dee Gordon although the old guy happened to be former All Star and Silver Slugger Chase Utley. Utley posted a 2.0 WAR season after his worst full season in the majors in 2015 so it was a nice comeback from the former star. But the Dodgers were wary of going to war with a now 38 year old second baseman and traded away one of their best chips in Jose DeLeon to get Logan Forsythe. Forsythe’s Tampa Bay teammates like Chris Archer and Forsythe bestie, Evan Longoria, were upset to lose Forsythe. Comments about the new Dodger second baseman indicated that many thought he was a lot more valuable than his stats indicated. Ok, well everybody likes their guy, but is Forsythe a valuable player? He had only put up 2.3 WAR through his first 4 seasons (through his age 27 year), but then broke out with 8.3 WAR from 2015 (5.0) through 2016 (3.3) and popping 37 home runs over the two seasons, so some of his value is in his power. Right now he is sitting at a wRC+ of 70. He certainly has a modicum of value on offense with a career wRC+ of 101, but that is almost dead average, and without those two big seasons it would be below average. He is 30 now so the odds of him improving are negligible. Hmm.
So he must have a great glove, right? Well, the answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no since Logie Bear (Archer called him that) has so many gloves. He is one of the few players in MLB who has played every position at the major league level except pitcher and catcher. So what’s his best position? DRS and UZR/150 agree that he is better at third base than any of the other positions. His career DRS is 8 at third base and 2 at second base where he played a lot more. He just covered for Justin Turner at third, but is back to the full time second base spot. It makes sense that his teammates would value him more than his numbers because he is one of those guys who will play literally anywhere you put him, even if he isn’t really good there per the statistical record. He hits home runs, which of course chicks and teammates dig, and he accepts dumb nicknames like Logie Bear. Oh yeah – and he is cheap(ish) at $7 million this year and $8.5 million next year with a team buyout for $1 million. What’s not to like? Ok, nothing really. In all seriousness Forsythe has value to a contending team with money, although not as much value as Archer and Longoria (or apparently the Dodgers, since they traded for him) think he has.
It was wise for the Dodgers, who have an old guy at second, to make sure they had a guy who could viably stand at seven positions without peeing his pants – especially when the two players most likely to appear next to the abbreviation “DL” play second and third where Forsythe plays best. Should they have given up a young starting pitcher with potential star ability to get him? In my opinion, no. Possible even, “Hell no”. But I can certainly see why they did it. They knew that Utley and Turner would both miss time and even a significant amount of time – enter Forsythe. But wait – didn’t the Dodgers already have a guy just like that? Why, yes – yes they did, and his name is Chris Taylor. Taylor certainly didn’t have the track record of Logan Forsythe – no 5.0 or even 3.3 WAR seasons under his belt, but since they already had him they could have kept DeLeon. Taylor doesn’t have much of a track record at all, but, like Forsythe, he has played a goodly amount of second and third and some outfield and has displayed an ability to hit for average, get on base, hit for a little power, and steal some bags in the minors. The main knock on him would be his strikeout totals. Of course Taylor only makes major league minimum and Forsythe makes $7 million and the Dodgers have a lot of money so why not spend more to replicate something you already have? That might be a little unfair since Taylor wasn’t “proven” as a major league hitter, but it seemed pretty clear from his minor league career and his most extended try with Seattle that he would likely hit – otherwise why did they pick him up anyway? So why give up something of value for Forsythe when you have a cheaper, younger version already on the roster? Part of the answer is that they can. The Dodgers don’t have to pinch pennies. They probably could have waited to see if Utley and Taylor could make second base work, then traded for Forsythe before the deadline if they needed to, but they could afford a little redundancy. That can be the curse of having money – the tendency to spend it.
Aside from Bellinger, the Dodgers have three more of their top prospects on the infield in Willie Calhoun, Gavin Lux and Omar Estevez. Lux and Estevez have yet to spend 20 years on Earth and haven’t advanced past single-A yet, and neither looks like they will reach the majors for a few years, but they still give the Dodgers hope for a future mostly homegrown infield. Willie Calhoun at triple-A is playing mostly second base right now, but has also been given some time in the outfield because frankly he fields like an accountant, although, fortunately he hits like a blacksmith! If you are carrying an OPS close to .900 in your first pass at triple-A ball and you are only 22 then it is highly likely that you can actually hit. Calhoun has started to show real power in the high minors – 40 homers in his last 720 or so at bats in double-A and triple-A – and would give the Dodgers a boost in the middle of the order if he can cut down on his errors at second base or somehow magically learn to field somewhere. Odds are they will let him get in a full season at triple-A so I would not count on him coming up to stay before 2018.
The Dodgers, like many well-heeled teams have lots of veteran quad-A types at triple-A ready to hold down the fort if a rash of injuries strike the major league squad, but most of their real position player prospects are lower in the chain. They are built to win now AND later (one of the more boring candies in history) as one would expect from an organization run by stat heads. Their infield illustrates that model perfectly with a mix of youngsters and veterans, but above all depth. It will be interesting how well Dave Roberts plays the hand assembled by upper management. He will certainly have to walk a bit of a tightrope handling playing time for Adrian Gonzalez and Cody Bellinger. So far injuries have made it fairly easy, but that is about to change. Roberts can’t try to make everyone happy as he tries to fight off the Diamondbacks and catch the Rockies while making playing time not just for Gonzalez, Bellinger, but also Pederson, Taylor, Forsythe, Puig, and Utley – and that’s only four positions. Being loyal to veterans like Utley and Gonzalez could hurt the Dodgers when they have so many talented young players, but Roberts will need to keep everyone locked in so he can’t completely sell out to a youth movement. It will be an interesting season for Los Angeles, especially in a year where the other divisions are off to a slow start, and three playoff teams could come out of the West.