After being called up to the Dodgers prior to the México Series, Alex Verdugo has made a bigger splash in his second stint with LA than in his first call-up to the majors last September.
The top Dodgers’ prospect with the fiery red batting gloves and sliding mitt is hitting .286/.333/.429/.762 with four doubles, two walks and four strikeouts in 28 at-bats since being called up from Triple-A Oklahoma City April 28. Injuries to Yasiel Puig, Andrew Toles, Corey Seager and Justin Turner have opened the door for Verdugo to start in the Dodgers outfield. So far, he has taken advantage of the opportunity to showcase his plate discipline and improved maturity.
Last season, the former second-rounder appeared in 15 games in September, but he failed to impress right away. It should be noted that not all prospects burst onto the scene like Puig did in 2013 or Cody Bellinger did last season. Verdugo hit .174/.240/.304.544 with one home run, two walks and four strikeouts in 25 plate appearances. The 21-year-old (22 in a week) also showed up late to the ballpark after oversleeping on Sept. 15, which led to Dave Roberts decreasing Verdugo’s playing time. He got just seven plate appearances down the stretch for the Dodgers.
Prior to the México Series loss, the Dodgers had finally snapped a four-game losing streak when they defeated the Diamondbacks on Wednesday night at Chase Field. The bullpen stepped up big after Hyun-Jin Ryu exited the game in the second inning with a left groin strain, and Verdugo doubled twice and scored both of the Dodgers two runs.
Dave Roberts told Ken Gurnick of MLB.com that he likes Verdugo’s grit.
“He’s a gritty little player,” Roberts said. “He does a lot of things to help you win ball games. I like his at-bats. For a young player, he’s really unfazed.”
The Dodgers need someone like Verdugo to step up and contribute out of the lineup, because the loss of Turner and Seager has completely changed the way the lineup is constructed as well as how players have been approaching their at-bats.
Alex wrote about Alex on Monday, and he pointed out that Verdugo has only swung and missed nine times out of 66 swings so far this season with the Dodgers. Verdugo nabbed “Best Strike Zone Discipline” on Dustin’s Dodgers prospects tools list, so it would make sense to try to fit him into the lineup while the regulars are out and the offense remains inconsistent. LA outfielders have struck out 21.3 percent of the time. That’s good for third-best in the National League, but their 8.5 percent walk rate is among the worst. Enrique Hernandez sits at a 27.4 percent strikeout rate and Chris Taylor, whom Daniel wrote about for The Athletic, has looked at more called strikeouts this year. Despite his slightly lower strikeout rate (23.9 percent) over last year (25 percent), he’s walking 2.5 percent more of the time this season.
Verdugo’s 12.9 percent strikeout rate and 6.5 percent walk rate is something to consider once the outfield crunch happens upon Puig’s return from the disabled list on Wednesday. Since Kiké has been playing well, Matt Kemp is essentially the best Dodgers hitter at the moment and hasn’t been a total disaster in the outfield, and Joc Pederson is quietly putting up solid numbers (hello 132 OPS+), it would look like Verdugo would be the odd man out. It would also be more beneficial for Verdugo to play every day, making a trip back to OKC likely.
He may very well be optioned back, but his improvements offensively at the big league level are promising when you look at what he’s done in his minor-league career up to this point. Verdugo has a .762 OPS so far this year with the Dodgers, and he’s hit .304 over his career in the minors. He’s always got on base at a high-rate over his minor-league career (.360 OBP), but he has never found that power stroke (career .440 slugging percentage with 35 home runs in 1,688 minor-league at-bats). His power has improved so far this season with LA (.429 slugging percentage) over last September (.304), but that’s only 31 plate appearances worth (25 in 2017).
The sample size is small, and Verdugo still has a long way to go before we can compare him to say a Jason Heyward (at his best) who holds a 13.3 percent strikeout rate in 113 plate appearances this year (17.5 K% and 10.4 BB% over his career). Even though he has more experience to gain, Dugie’s plate discipline is a valuable asset to have in the lineup when guys are undeniably pressing.
Whether Verdugo stays with the club once Puig returns or not, he’ll certainly be important this season as the Dodgers look to recapture that magic the offense had last year. Let’s not forget that he’s an above-average defender as well. While he may not be the third Rookie of the Year in as many seasons for the Dodgers, his excellent plate discipline along with his maturation off the field are priming him for a successful career in the majors. The injuries to the team may ultimately decide his role this year, but Verdugo has nothing really left to prove in the minors.