Dee Gordon Making It Interesting As Alex Guerrero Shows Power

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Dee Gordon, it must be said, has been outstanding over the first two weeks of the season, hitting .400/.457/.525. He hit a homer off of Max Scherzer. He has four walks. He stole four bases on Sunday alone, leading the big leagues, and also leading to Jeff Sullivan dedicating a post to his speed at FanGraphs. He’s just a hair behind Jason Heyward for being the most valuable baserunner in baseball to date. At the plate and on the base paths, Gordon has been the entire package, and considering just how messy the second base situation looked all winter, this is more than we could have possibly hoped for, especially if you were worried about weeks of Chone Figgins and Justin Turner.

You know why I used that otherwise not-that-appealing picture above as the main image? Because Vin Scully said on the air that the Diamondbacks were so worried about Gordon bunting, they added sand to the dirt (the lighter area above) to try to deaden any bunt attempt. I have absolutely no idea if that’s true, it should be noted. But it could be true, and the fact that we even believe it to be a possibility says a lot about what he’s done.

So Gordon has been great over the first two weeks, and no one can take that away from him. I’m impressed, and I want to see more, and that says a lot. For a very long time, “wanting to see more Dee Gordon” was at about the same level as “wanting to see more Brandon League,” and I’m pleasantly surprised.

Of course, we can appreciate what Gordon has done while still remaining in the realm of reality. It’s been 46 plate appearances. Luis Cruz once hit .429/.455/.667 over 44 plate appearances. Charlie Blackmon is hitting .478/.490/.696 in 49 plate appearances. Chase Utley is hitting .489/.549/.844 in 51 plate appearances. Allen Craig is hitting .133/.184/.133 in 49 plate appearances. Literally anything can happen over a handful of times to the plate, and since Gordon’s BABIP is .441, he is going to decline. That’s not me being a buzzkill. That’s just the facts of the game we love. No one can keep up a .441 BABIP all season long. It cannot be done.

There’s also this: his defensive transition to second base has been… okay. And okay is okay, because it’s a new position and he was an awful shortstop and no one expected him to be a standout defender by April 15. If we can expect that his offense will regress, because it will, then we can probably hope that his defense will improve as he gains experience. He won’t be among the best hitters in baseball all year long; one would hope that he won’t be among the worst-ranked defensive second baseman either, as his -2 Defensive Runs Saved rating would indicate.

Down in Albuquerque, Alex Guerrero has made his debut after missing a few weeks thanks to an oblique strain. In eight plate appearances over two games, he has two homers, and a walk, and a double, and three singles. Thanks to the magic of the internet, we can see them both.

On Sunday, against Clay Rapada:

On Monday, against Jonathan Arias:

That’s after a better spring training than you remember — again, spring stats mean little, but a .300/.400/.500 almost seems surprising after all the negative press he got — though, like Gordon, defense remains a question.

Again, it’s April 15, so none of this means a lot. All we know so far is this: Gordon’s excellent start has contributed to winning ballgames, and it will likely allow the Dodgers to prevent rushing Guerrero up to the big leagues. At some point, Guerrero will be in Los Angeles. By then, either Gordon will have collapsed, or he’ll have turned himself into valuable trade bait, or a speedy and useful utility man. Two of those three things will be happy outcomes for the Dodgers. That’s two more than I think most of us thought there would be six months or a year ago, and for that alone, he deserves our applause.

With righty Tim Lincecum on the mound tonight in San Francisco, I imagine Gordon will be leading off and playing second. I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do. This is progress. Great progress.

Dodgers 8, Diamondbacks 6: Dee Gordon Is Fast, Dodgers Sweep Diamondbacks

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In yet another marathon game, the Dodgers clinched their three-game series with the Diamondbacks with an 8 to 6 victory, despite striking out sixteen times in the process.

The scoring opened on this laser by Matt Kemp on a Trevor Cahill sinker that didn’t sink:

GIF Link

It’s probably a bad idea to miss there to him. Kemp went on to strike out three times, but let’s just remember this plate appearance instead.

Beyond Kemp, the offense was led by Dee Gordon, who had one of the best games of his career. Dee went 1-for-3, but walked twice (doubling his season total). More importantly, he stole four bases, including one that occurred without a pitch (GIF via Chad):


GIF Link

Gordon is just the sixth player in franchise history to steal four bases in one game (though stolen base numbers are a bit iffy beyond the 50s). The last Dodgers to accomplish the feat was Rafael Furcal on September 15th, 2007. Davey Lopes did it five times.

The Dodgers appeared to put the game away in the third inning. The inning started in a frustrating fashion, with Dan Haren grounding out to right fielder Gerardo Parra. After that, the Dodgers tacked on four runs, started by Dee Gordon’s walk and two steals. Yasiel Puig walked and (hilariously) stole second. Hanley Ramirez drove in Gordon with the highest Baltimore Chop you’ll ever see, then Adrian Gonzalez drove them home with a home run, his fourth in the last four games. Gonzalez went 7-for-13 with three homers during the series, and was one of the main reasons why the Dodgers swept the Diamondbacks. After all was said and done, Cahill made 43 pitches and the Dodgers batted around.

Despite the early scoring, the game didn’t ever feel out of reach for the Diamondbacks. Haren looked very shaky today, throwing 110 pitches in 5-2/3 innings. He struck out five batters and walked just one, but he allowed a lot of hard contact, which led to ten hits, six of which went for extra bases. He was constantly pitching from behind in the count (starting the start with five straight three-ball counts), but with a bit of luck he only allowed three runs.

Even after the Dodgers re-expanded their lead to five runs, Jamey Wright made the game interesting yet again again. After allowing a three-run homer to Mark Trumbo, he allowed the next two batters to reach base before finally recording the final out in the seventh inning. J.P. Howell, Chris Perez, and Kenley Jansen (who was again throwing in the upper 90s) put an end to the scoring, securing the sweep.

After completing the sweep, the Dodgers have yet another day off. Mercifully, this is the last off-day in a while. Starting Tuesday, the team will play thirteen games in thirteen days, followed by a stretch of sixteen games without a break.

Carl Crawford missed today’s game due to “right side tightness.” The Dodgers say that it is “nothing serious,” which probably means that he’ll be on the disabled list soon enough. Too many outfielders, etc.

Dodgers benefting from Dee Gordon’s improved offense

gordon_2014-03-08Dee Gordon has actually looked like a Major League Baseball player in the first 10 games of the season. Of course, this is the very definition of small sample size, but the early returns are promising on the Dodgers’ starting second baseman.

He’s already been worth half a win in his first nine games played, which puts him on pace to be an 8-win player. I don’t think that’s sustainable (for him), but Gordon has been a positive or better player in all aspects of the game so far.

It looked like Gordon might be a hero on Wednesday night, as he drove in the game-tying run off Joe Nathan in the ninth inning, only to have Kenley Jansen give up a home run to Victor Martinez in the 10th inning (more on that in another post, but here’s a preview: don’t fret).

Gordon is hitting .394/.432/.535 with a .425 wOBA — good for 20th-best in the National League ahead of guys like Giancarlo Stanton, Ryan Zimmerman and Ryan Braun. The fact he’s done that at any point in his career is impressive in and of itself.

There’s no way he sustains this production through the rest of the month, let alone the entire season. He will come back to earth, and it’s just a matter of when. When he does, he’ll have to adjust and continue to produce if he wants to be the Dodgers’ second baseman,

With Alex Guerrero recovering from an oblique strain, Gordon’s time to show Don Mattingly and Co., what he can do.

Gordon is hitting the ball on the ground more early on, as he has a 3.20 GB/FB rate. The best he has done in his limited playing time was 2.87 in 2012. His rate was a paltry — especially for a no power/speed guy — 1.63 last season. He’s also seeing more pitches per plate appearance. That rate is 3.81 in 2014, up from 3.67 in 2013 and 3.64 in 2012. A marginal improvement, but an improvement nonetheless.

Gordon GB FB LD 4.10.14In fact, as the graph shows, his ground ball rate has increased while his fly ball and line drive rates have decreased. For a player of Gordon’s skill set, that’s not a bad thing.

But the biggest improvement for Gordon so far has been his plate discipline. Coming into the season, he had never posted an O-Swing% (swing on pitches outside the zone) less than 33.8 percent, which he did last season. This season, he’s at 26.9 percent. This means he’s swinging at fewer pitches in which he has less chance of hitting well. He’s also improved — or decreased — his swinging strike percentage. He’s only swinging and missing at 1.4 percent of the pitches he sees. That sets him up for more success at the plate.

Look, it’s a small sample size. I mean, his .414 BABIP isn’t going to hold up. He is getting lucky, but when he puts pitches in play, his speed puts pressure on the defense. And the fact he’s physically stronger than he was in seasons past plays a role. He’s able to generate more bat speed, allowing him to turn on fastballs on the inner half — at least, that’s what he did against Nathan on Wednesday night. He also took Max Scherzer out to right-center field that was “plenty” deep (it wasn’t a cheapy).

Gordon has been OK on defense, but he’s still getting used to playing second base. But his strong arm is quite the advantage there, as is his agility. He’s able to make the turn better than a guy like Guerrero (as witnessed by yours truly at spring training). He’s also stolen four out of five bases. When everyone is healthy, Gordon should be batting eighth, which could minimize his stolen base ability. But, that’s what happens when there’s a lot of really good hitters in the lineup.

For now, Mattingly will probably keep batting Gordon leadoff — or, at least until Yasiel Puig returns.

Like Chad said in last night’s recap, “I want to believe.” But, I have also been fooled before. If Gordon is still producing well in a few months, perhaps there’s some legitimacy behind his turnaround and not just SSS numbers.

We could pen a post in a month saying we can’t wait for Guerrero to come up and replace Gordon. But for now, let’s just enjoy the positive Major League production Gordon is providing early on. Things are going to change, but maybe Gordon isn’t such a lost cause after all.

Dodgers 3, Tigers 2: Let This Be The World Series, Please

If there was ever a time for me to do a post that was literally just a GIF and nothing else, it would be this. Dee Gordon hit a homer. In the big leagues. Off Max Scherzer! In a game the Dodgers won by one run. And it wasn’t cheap:


GIF Link

I know. I know! As I said on Twitter, Gordon has more homers than the entire Kansas City Royals. I said that barely an hour ago. It has over 140 combined retweets & favorites. I say that not to inflate my own ego — okay, mostly — but to point out just how insane and wonderful and terrible and fantastic baseball can be.

But let’s pause for just a second. Between Gordon and extra innings, everyone is going to forget about Dan Haren. No one should forget about Dan Haren, especially not when he kept Miguel Cabrera hitless in three at-bats, allowed just one mistake — Austin Jackson‘s solo homer — and in 12 innings this year, has allowed only that one run while striking out 10 and walking one. It’s only two starts, but with Clayton Kershaw hurt, Josh Beckett hurt, and Paul Maholm not great in his one start, it’s been more than we could have hoped for.

After Chris Withrow easily got through the seventh — that’s 14 in a row for him, and Justin Turner‘s sacrifice fly made it 2-1, and Chris Perez got through the eighth, and Vin Scully told stories about crack pipes, it was time for the ninth. Good lord, the ninth.

Kenley Jansen let Ian Kinsler lead off with a double, then got Don Kelly to ground out. That was just table setting for the main event: Jansen. Cabrera. Arguably the best closer in baseball — quiet, Braves fans — against arguably the best hitter in baseball — quiet, Angels fans — and Cabrera got nothing but heat. 98. 99. Again. Whiff. Regardless of what came next, this was the kind of matchup you pay to see. This was the matchup you die to see in October. On April 8, it was a treat.

But of course, striking out Cabrera doesn’t get you two outs, even though it should. (Stupid “rules” of “baseball”.) Victor Martinez came up and dropped a bloop into center, and even though Matt Kemp looked awful fielding it, it didn’t matter. Kinsler was off with two outs, and he scored easily. Tie game. “Blown save,” as though what Jansen had just done to Cabrera didn’t matter.

So after three Dodgers struck out against Joba Chamberlain (!) in the bottom of the ninth, it was off to extra innings, where J.P. Howell easily got through the top of the tenth. In the bottom, Chone Figgins led off — look, I know. You wanted Scott Van Slyke. I  get it. Against a righty, leading off, Don Mattingly was never going to do it. Anyway, Figgins walked, and Dee Gordon bunted (ARRRGHHH) into a pop out. Then Carl Crawford took one to left, and uh, well… let’s thank Chad for the visual aids:


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Oh, poor poor Rajai Davis.

It’s a fun game because the Dodgers won, but it’s a fun game because it was a fun game. I would not at all mind seeing a rematch of this one in October. We’ll just need to make due with Josh Beckett and Anibal Sanchez on Wednesday, I suppose.

Dodgers 7, D’Backs 5: Nice Way To Start A Season

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I am quite unsure how that could have gone better. If there’s one thing that would have been more annoying than flying approximately 200 million miles to Australia during spring training — for the players, that is, because I’ve quite enjoyed seeing baseball at the famed Sydney Cricket Grounds — it would have been flying approximately 200 million miles only to come home knowing that you’re starting your season 0-2, down two games to your biggest competitors in the division.

So… good luck with all that, Arizona.

After a solid Clayton Kershaw start in the first game of the abbreviated two-game set, Hyun-Jin Ryu followed with five shutout innings, allowing just a walk and two singles. Including Kershaw’s start, the two Dodger starters combined for 11.2 innings, giving up just one run while striking out 12 against two walks and seven hits… and Zack Greinke wasn’t even part of it. You know what? I think that’s going to work.

Out of the pen, things were great, until things got derpy. Chris Withrow and Paco Rodriguez combined to throw 1.2 scoreless innings, reminding us all how perturbed we’ll be when they’re inevitably sent to Triple-A when the team has to set their regular Opening Day roster. Jamey Wright struggled a bit, allowing four runners on and one to score, but J.P. Howell picked him up, then Jose Dominguez struggled too, because what would a baseball game trying to sell itself to a new audience be without a four hour running time? Paul Maholm came in, mercifully, to get an out, but only just one, because Don Mattingly insisted on going out to get Kenley Jansen to shut the door… only to see Jansen immediately give up a homer to Mark Trumbo, cutting the lead to two, but Jansen rebounded to strike out Gerardo Parra.

(Sadly, no appearance from Seth Rosin. Imagine if he’d made his debut here, then got Rule 5′d back to Philadelphia and never made it back, thus making his only MLB appearance ever coming on the other side of the world? Just a hypothetical, of course; Alexander Guerrero actually did get his first plate appearance, striking out against Addison Reed as a pinch-hitter in the ninth. I imagine we’ll see him again.)

But to merely focus on outstanding pitching — other than the eight walks, of course — would be to neglect an offense that put up seven runs against Arizona starter Trevor Cahill and several relievers who were not Arizona starter Trevor Cahill. Three Dodgers had three hits apiece, combining for nine of the club’s 13 hits, and I’m not sure I’m being facetious when I say that Dee Gordon, Yasiel Puig, and Juan Uribe just might be the most unlikely trio in the world to comprise that group. Each of the three had a double and two singles — Hanley Ramirez and Andre Ethier also reached three times, it should be noted, combining hits and walks — and Puig reached base a fourth time, on a hit by pitch.

Gordon actually got on five times, believe it or not, thanks to a hit by pitch, and also thanks to not a little bit of help from Arizona catcher Miguel Montero (thanks, Chad!):


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All this, by the way, despite the Dodgers doing their best to give runs back to the Diamondbacks with silly mistakes. Puig was thrown out twice on the bases, Adrian Gonzalez let a ball get past him at first (though it was scored a hit,) Gordon booted what looked to be an easily catchable ball, and then, well, this happened:


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But then, that Montero gaffe was just one of Arizona’s three errors, and the Diamondbacks didn’t have seven runs and a pitching staff that did not allow seven runs to divert attention to.

The Dodgers fly back to California after the game, and are expected to arrive back home at around 3 p.m. Pacific on Sunday, with three days off before facing the Angels in the first game of the Freeway Series on Thursday. No matter what happens there, they’re still 2-0 in games that count. It’s a pretty nice way to spend a 17-hour flight, I would imagine.

Ryu gets the nod in Game 2, along with Gordon and Baxter

The Dodgers are changing things up in the second game of the season in Australia, inserting two new players into the lineup and switching up the batting order. Scott Van Slyke is sitting for Mike Baxter and Justin Turner is being replaced by Dee Gordon, but perhaps the most interesting move is the decision to bat Gordon leadoff.

The changes are understandable with a switch in handedness of the opposing starting pitcher (though SVS had a reverse platoon split last year), and I think it’s actually a positive sign for the future if this indicates a new willingness to platoon going forward. Here’s hoping Don Mattingly doesn’t give up on it if a few tries are unsuccessful … and that he doesn’t view players like Baxter as a legit platoon option going forward.

Meanwhile, starter Hyun Jin Ryu has high expectations for his 2014.

“Our one and two starters are so strong, but after Zack Greinke was hurt, I started thinking I might pitch,” said Ryu, who gets the ball for the Dodgers on Sunday against the D-backs. “I had a really good spring, and I feel really good. I have high expectations.”

Diamondbacks
Dodgers 
7:00pm PT
Sydney, Australia
CF
Pollock
2B
Gordon
2B
Hill
RF
Puig
1B
Goldschmidt
SS
Ramirez
LF
Prado
1B
Gonzalez
1B
Trumbo
CF
Ethier
RF
Montero
C
Ellis
C
Parra
LF
Baxter
2B
Gregorius
3B
Uribe
P
Cahill
P
Ryu

In injury news, Chad Billingsley continues to progress in rehab.

Billingsley said he expects to throw a few more BP sessions against hitters, and he remains on track to make the first of at least five rehab appearances in the Minor Leagues starting on April 6. The right-hander estimates that he has already thrown close to 20 bullpen sessions this year.

“My arm felt good, so that’s definitely good, especially being the first time going full bore with the heater and the first time throwing a hard curveball and changeups,” Billingsley said. “I was a little rusty, but I was very pleased with the curveball. The timing was a little off, but I threw some good pitches, and overall, I’m pretty pleased with it.”

And no, Matt Kemp is apparently not banned from getting hits in minor league games.

Kemp finished 2-for-4 with a home run and a double in a Triple-A game against the a White Sox.

“I’m getting my work in and getting ready for the season,” Kemp said. “I felt pretty good. Today was a good day.”

Have a feeling the Dodgers are really going to need him in 2014, for better or worse.

=====

-Carl Crawford‘s fiance gave birth to a baby boy. No complications and he should be ready to go when the Dodgers get back. Congrats to him.

Revisiting The Second Base Platoon

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In February, I wrote about the potential for a platoon at second base after Don Mattingly stated that it was a possibility. I was a bit dismissive of the idea, citing the lack of combinations that made sense based on past hitting performances. My conclusion was that it was fairly likely that Alex Guerrero would start the season at second, so the platoon didn’t matter much.

Now that it’s pretty clear that Alex Guerrero will start the season in the minors, it’s worth revisiting the platoon idea. The Dodgers seem convinced that they should use Dee Gordon in some capacity, and he has hit just .221/.267/.232 against left-handed pitching in 204 plate appearances. Finding a platoon combination that reduces that impact is important.

Assuming that Guerrero is demoted to the minors, the Dodgers have three players capable of playing second base: Dee Gordon, Justin Turner, and Chone Figgins. What would a platoon among these players look like? First, I took each candidate’s past performance and split up their batting runs against each handedness of pitcher. Given a full season of 600 plate appearances, 173 will be against left-handed pitching and 427 will be against right-handed pitching (using the league-wide plate appearance ratio from last season). The batting value is also park-adjusted to account for each player’s different offensive environment.

Since Dee Gordon adds a bit of offensive value with his speed, base running value is also included in the platoon value calculations. Some scaling is applied* to get base running value against each type of pitcher. The overall offensive value is a sum of batting runs and base running runs.

 Table 1: Platoon performance using past hitting only
 Player Batting Runs/173PA vs LHP Batting Runs/427PA vs RHP Base running runs/173PA v LHP Base running runs/427PA v RHP Offense runs/173PA v LHP Offense runs/427PA v RHP
Dee Gordon -10.85 -6.58 0.83 2.06 -10.02 -4.51
Justin Turner -3.43 0.00 -0.13 -0.19 -3.55 -0.19
Chone Figgins (career) -3.04 0.00 0.32 0.72 -2.73 0.72
Chone Figgins (2010-2012) -4.95 -15.50 0.16 0.33 -4.79 -15.17

The first thing that sticks out is how awful Dee Gordon looks against lefties. Even after accounting for his baserunning, he’s worth -10.2 runs on offense. Chone Figgins is the best option on both sides, but only if his entire career is included. If only the last four seasons are used (sensible, given his age), then Justin Turner is the best option on both sides of the ball. Choosing Dee over Turner on the left side of the plate costs 6.47 runs, and choosing Dee over Turner on the right side costs an additional 4.32 runs.

The method used to find platoon value in table 1 has a flaw. It only looks backwards. It doesn’t take into account the instability of platoon splits or projected future performances. Luckily, Fangraphs outlined ways to apply regression to future platoon split forecasts using methods found in The Book. If we use those methods for the three options and the mean projected wOBA for each player from Steamer, we get slightly different results:

Table 2: Platoon performance using split regression and Steamer forecasts
 Player Batting Runs/173PA v LHP Batting Runs/427PA v RHP Baserunning runs/173PA v LHP Baserunning runs/427PA v RHP Offense runs/173PA v LHP Offense runs/427PA v RHP
Dee Gordon -8.17 -7.49 0.50 1.50 -7.68 -5.99
Justin Turner -1.46 -7.43 -0.15 -0.27 -1.61 -7.70
Chone Figgins -7.68 -12.41 0.20 0.24 -7.66 -12.17

The adjusted numbers are pretty interesting. Justin Turner’s reverse platoon split flips**, predicting that he will hit better against left-handed pitching than right-handed pitching. The change in methodology results in a clear platoon pairing: Justin Turner against left-handed pitching and Dee Gordon against right-handed pitching. Choosing Turner over Gordon against lefties results in six fewer offensive runs lost over the course of a season.Choosing Gordon over Turner against right-handed pitching results in 1.71 fewer runs lost. Figgins does not appear to be viable in either half of the platoon based on his Steamer projected wOBA.

The methodology isn’t perfect. Steamer is a very good projection system for batting value, but it is fairly conservative on baserunning value estimates, which hurts Gordon a bit. Additionally, this methodology completely ignores defensive value. This is intentional, since we know almost nothing about how Gordon will handle second. Defensive metrics don’t like Turner’s defense at second, but the sample is too small to come to any definitive conclusions.

I really like it when data surprises me. Before this article, I was convinced that Turner would be a better choice for second than Gordon on both sides of the plate. After doing the math, using Gordon against right-handed pitching makes a lot more sense. However, using him against left-handed pitching is a mistake. As I was writing this, news broke that Turner will be playing in tomorrow’s game against lefty Wade Miley. Maybe the platoon talk wasn’t just talk. In any event, it’s probably only temporary, until Guerrero gets a bit more playing time in the minors.

Footnotes:

*Baserunning value scaling: There is a penalty for stolen base success rate if a left-handed pitcher is on the mound. That was accounted for when scaling stolen base value (wSB on Fangraphs) to apply to platoon values. The scaling factor for wSB was the percentage difference in overall stolen base success rate against each type of pitcher. Results also had to be scaled based on batting success rate (more times on base means more positive value from baserunning). In order to account for this, total baserunning value (wSB and UBR combined) is scaled by platoon OBP changes.

**Reasoning for Turner’s platoon split flip: Justin Turner has had a reverse split (hits better against same-handed pitching) during his career. However, right-handed batters show less platoon variation than left-handed batters, so the Fangraphs/Book regression method gives a higher weight to the league-average split. The regression brings Turner’s split far enough towards the league average platoon split that it passes the break-even point.

This post uses the following statistics:

  • wOBA: Weighted on-base average, a statistic used to calculate overall offensive value by using unique weights for different types of hits. Explanation here
  • wSB: Weighted stolen base runs, a statistic used to calculate the value gained by stolen bases only. Explanation here
  • UBR: Ultimate base running, a statistic used to calculate the value gained by all other events on the bases. Explanation here

The Mark McGwire effect on Dodgers’ hitters

Mark McGwire is a really good hitting coach. (By: Dustin Nosler)

Mark McGwire is a really good hitting coach. (By: Dustin Nosler)

Even at their best, the Dodgers have never been known as an offensive juggernaut along the lines of the Cardinals, Rangers, Red Sox or Rockies. They’ve had some really good hitters to don the uniform, but they could never really pull it all together at the same time.

The 2014 Dodgers could be one of the team’s best offensive units in their history. The talent absolutely has a lot to do with a proclamation like that. Adrian Gonzalez, Yasiel Puig and Hanley Ramirez are all Top-10 players at their positions, while the their “secondary” guys include the likes of Carl Crawford, A.J. Ellis, Andre Ethier (a hopefully healthy) Matt Kemp and a rejuvenated Juan Uribe. But how much credit should go to hitting coach Mark McGwire?

It might be too early to tell, as there is only one season of data available. But it would appear McGwire has the Dodger hitters heading in the right direction.

In 2011, also known as Kemp’s shoulda-been-MVP-season, the Dodgers ranked ninth in the National League in runs scored (644), sixth in batting average (.257), seventh in on-base percentage (.322) and 12th in slugging percentage.

In 2012, the Dodgers ranked 13th in the NL in runs scored (637), eighth in batting average (.252), ninth in OBP (.317) and a paltry 15th in slugging (.374).

Year 2011 NL Rank
2012 NL Rank
2013 NL Rank
Runs scored 9 13 7
Batting average 6 8 3
On-base percentage 7 9 3
Slugging percentage 12 15 6

Under McGwire’s watch last season, the Dodgers improved in every category. They were seventh in the NL in runs (649), third in average (.264) and OBP (.326) and sixth in slugging percentage (.396). They finished sixth in slugging percentage despite hitting just 138 home runs (10th in the NL). While the rate statistics wouldn’t be that impacted by Ramirez’s absence last season, the Dodgers still had to replace his elite bat with guys who weren’t as good (admittedly, Nick Punto played pretty well last year).

It could be coincidence, as it was the first year the core of the team was together, even if Ramirez missed a ton of time and Puig didn’t come up until June. But it is reasonable to suspect McGwire had something to do with the overall improvement of the team from an offensive standpoint.

When McGwire was somewhat surprisingly hired by the Cardinals prior to the 2011 season, he had an immediate impact on some of the individual players. Before McGwire, guys like Allen Craig, David Freese and Yadier Molina weren’t the hitters they are now. Craig is one of the most underrated right-handed hitters in the NL, Freese made a name for himself in the 2011 postseason before following it up with a solid 2012 campaign and Molina went from “good catcher” to “great catcher’ once he learned how to hit.

I isolated this trio when the Dodgers hired McGwire after the 2012 season.

“Craig was never a blue-chip prospect coming up through the Cardinals’ system. His bat was always going to be the thing that made or broke his career. McGwire’s guidance, coupled with opportunity, allowed Craig to post a .307/.354/.522 triple slash this season.

Freese was an afterthought at third base for the Cardinals. He was a light-hitting third baseman who got a late start in baseball. Since McGwire took over in 2010, his home runs per at-bat number has improved every season:

  • 2010: 60 AB/HR
  • 2011: 33.3 AB/HR
  • 2012: 25.1 AB/HR

Oh, and he has a shiny World Series MVP trophy and a career .345/.407/.645 triple slash in postseason play.

McGwire’s best job might have been what he did with Molina. Molina has never been questioned defensively. He is the best in the game. However, some wondered if his bat would ever catch up.

Through the 2010 season, Molina managed just a .268/.327/.361 triple slash. His next two seasons, he had a .310/.362/.484 triple slash. He’s gone from glove-only catcher to MVP candidate in two years. It’s an amazing transformation.”

Craig 2011-12 (97 games average)
.309/.357/.532, 141 OPS+

Craig 2013 (134 games)
.315/.373/.457, 131 OPS+

Freese 2011-12 (120 games average)
.295/.363/.457, 125 OPS+

Freese 2013 (138 games)
.262/.340/.381, 101 OPS+

Molina 2011-12 (138 games average)
.310/.362/.484, 131 OPS+

Molina 2013 (136 games)
.319/.359/.477, 131 OPS+

Only Freese saw a decline in production after McGwire left. That isn’t much of a coincidence, as Craig and Molina are much better hitters than Freese. Their overall team numbers didn’t change much after McGwire left, as the Cardinals’ offense was among the best in baseball, and has been for many years.

While Puig and Ramirez carried the Dodgers for a 50-game stretch, the Dodgers didn’t exactly get all-world performances from anyone else in 2013. Gonzalez was solid, Kemp showed flashes but got off to a terrible start and Crawford and Ethier were just OK.

One of the biggest improvements McGwire could be attributed to is that of Juan Uribe. A pariah for his first two seasons in Dodger Blue, Uribe developed into the team’s leader in WAR (albeit, a lot of that was his glove) and provided solid offense at third base.Uribe went from a .199/.262/.289 triple slash in 2011-12 to a respectable .278/.331/.438 triple slash last season. While his walk rate didn’t improve that much from 2011-12 to 2013 (6.3 percent to 7 percent), he seemed like he had a better idea of what he wanted to do at the plate.

We’ll see if McGwire can coach up some of the other guys in camp this year. Alex Guerrero immediately comes to mind, but he won’t get to work with McGwire much after he’s optioned to minor-league camp (not official, but we all know it’s coming). Dee Gordon is a guy who could benefit, but his own skill set might prohibit a big improvement. And if he can help Erisbel Arruebarrena clean up what initially looks like a really bad swing, then he deserves a raise. McGwire is, rightly, known as one of the best power hitters of all-time. But the guy knows hitting inside and out. He can’t teach these guys to have the plate discipline he did (career 17.2 percent walk rate), but he can teach them the fine points of hitting in hopes of improving the club.

If all goes well, this should be the best Dodgers’ offense in the last 15 years. If that comes to fruition, the Dodgers are going to be in awfully good shape.

Uncertainty Reigns For Dodgers at Second Base

gordon_2014-03-08

Dee Gordon reached base three times last night against Seattle, and the first two were pretty much the most Gordon successes ever. In the first inning, he hit a chopper to the left side and beat the throw. After striking out in the second, he tapped back to the pitcher in his next plate appearance, reaching base partially because of his speed, and partially because Logan Kensing did, well, this. In the seventh, he got on for a third time, stroking a hard-hit single to right field off of Andrew Carraway. He added two stolen bases — that’s seven-for-seven this spring — scored once, and was thrown out (probably) on a very close play at the plate when he tried to tag on a sacrifice fly.

Giants
Dodgers 
1:05pm PT
Glendale, Ariz.
CF
Pagan
CF
Figgins
LF
Perez
C
Ellis
1B
Belt
RF
Puig
C
Posey
1B
Gonzalez
3B
Sandoval
3B
Turner
SS
Arias
LF
Baxter
2B
Hicks
2B
Guerrero
RF
Graham
SS
Rojas
P
Escobar
P
Kershaw

All in all, it was a very good night for Gordon, the kind he needs to prove, finally, that he can be a major leaguer, and so far this spring his defensive transition from shortstop to second base has gone well. At this point, it’s easy to see him as the leader for the second base job over Alexander Guerrero, and I can live with that if it happens. While it will be portrayed as a huge disaster — one of the game’s worst players over the last three years beats out $28 million Cuban import! — I’ve said a few times that I have no problem if Guerrero spends a few weeks in the minors, since acclimating to a new country, culture, and position isn’t easy. Yasiel Puig didn’t start out in the big leagues last year; no Dodger position player ever has.

That said, I’m still wondering a little bit about the usage of the two here. Ken Gurnick noted that “Guerrero has started only two of the last seven games at the position, so he is essentially ruled out,” and on the surface, that looks bad. Then again, “starts” matter little in spring training, and between DH appearances and late-game insertions, Guerrero’s 24 plate appearances are only one fewer than Gordon’s, and are tied with Mike Baxter for third-most on the team, behind Gordon and Chone Figgins. Gordon has made it into 11 of the team’s 12 games; Guerrero, 10.

So despite the starts disparity — and Guerrero is back in there at second today, which Gordon scheduled to replace him — it’s been pretty even. That’s fine, I guess, but if the question is more about his defense than his offense, then I’d like to see him getting more time than Gordon at second, not similar. In February, Don Mattingly said “that’s the objective, to get him on the field as much as possible.” I certainly wouldn’t mind fewer games at DH and at the bottom of the order to reach that goal.

So far, the duo have performed similarly at the plate, though of course no one’s scouting a spring stat line. If you could, Gordon’s .379/.446/.485 2012 line or his identical 7/0 SB/CS in 2013 would have led to a lot more success, and to further illustrate that point, the list of pitchers who either have had hits off of hardly constitute an All-Star team:

Gordon (5)Blake Beavan, Carraway, Kevin Shackelford (bunt), Kevin Quackenbush, A.J. Griffin

Guerrero (6) — Beavan, Jeff Francis (grand slam), Brent Leach, Leonel Campos, Eury De La Rosa, RJ Hively

No matter how this turns out, the roster for the Australia games isn’t going to be the same as the roster on April 15 or May 15 or August 15. I think we always put a little too much emphasis on the Opening Day roster, as though that’s set in stone. And while I still don’t have a lot of faith that Gordon can hit in the big leagues, I have been impressed by his defense at second base, enough to think that maybe he can be useful as a bench player. But really, my feelings haven’t changed: as I said at the time, I really wish the Dodgers had picked up Mark Ellis‘ option, just in case.

***

dodger_magazineAnd, I meant to mention this other day, Dodger Insider — the new official Dodgers magazine — has officially launched, and is available for purchase now. I’m pimping it here partially because it’s mainly driven by your friend and mine, former Dodger Thoughts kingpin Jon Weisman, but also because it’s a new team publication, and a very visually appealing one at that.

It’s to come out monthly, and while the debut issue is over 70 pages, April’s is to be over 100. And May’s? Well, you just might see a name you recognize pop up in May’s issue. (Yasiel Puig, probably.)

This Is How Dee Gordon Apparently Ruined His 2013 Season

As you’ve no doubt heard, MLB has approved a new rule limiting home plate collisions between runners and catchers, and the reaction from Dodger backstops has been mixed at best. J.P. Hoornsta took a different approach, asking Dee Gordon for his opinion as a runner, and Gordon dropped an interesting tidbit, claiming that he was in favor of the rule partially because Arizona catcher Miguel Montero apparently caused Gordon to injure his ankle on a play at the plate last spring:

“The ball wasn’t even there and he blocked the plate,” said Gordon, who weighed about 160 pounds at the time. “It was kind of dirty, especially for spring training. He blocked it. I slid. We collided, then the ball came past.”

and:

Rule 7.13 comes a year too late for Gordon, who suffered a significant ankle injury in the collision and didn’t feel 100 percent again until midseason.

“I was really messed up. I shouldn’t have played Opening Day in Triple-A,” he said. “Yeah, I like (the rule). It’ll help me.”

That’s fascinating, because while we heard about the ankle briefly last year, the idea that it bothered him for half the year is new. (The idea that noted enemy of the Dodgers Montero would do something termed “dirty” is not fascinating, new, or surprising at all.)

But first, through the magic of MLB.tv archives, the play in question. Gordon attempted to score from second on a Carl Crawford single, and…

…well, that was ugly. I’d love to totally throw Montero under the bus there, but it does seem pretty clear he was reaching for the ball, and it’s not like Gordon was taking a particularly graceful route to the plate. His memory of “colliding before the ball came past” appears to be mostly faulty. However, you can see that he is limping a bit on his way back to the dugout:

…and Vin Scully notes he looks “shaken up.” Anyway, the point here is less to argue about the play at the plate than it is to note that Gordon claims he was hurt for half the season, to the point that he shouldn’t have been playing on Opening Day. We’ve seen this happen so, so many times, that a player tries to play through pain and ends up hurting both himself and the team — to pick one of many, here’s Jerry Hairston — and it also makes projections difficult, since so many times we never know this information.

For what it’s worth, Gordon hit .314/.397/.431 in 117 Triple-A plate appearances before being recalled by the Dodgers on May 4, where he then hit .175/.278/.254 in 73 plate appearances before being sent back. It sure seems like that’s less about any ankle issues and more about not being good enough to hit in the major leagues, which has been proven time and again over the last three years. But early –extremely early — reports on his 2014 commitment and added bulk have been good, starting with a leadoff homer against Hyun-jin Ryu in Sunday’s intrasquad game.

We’ve seen him impress in small samples and against lesser competition before, of course, so none of that matters yet. Still, I’d say it’s safely more than a 50/50 shot that he’s active for at least the Australia series — Matt Kemp not going helps free up a roster spot — and probably at least even that he breaks the start of the regular season back home on the roster. Hopefully, he can finally be useful. Even more hopefully, maybe he can avoid Montero while he’s in Australia.