Mailbag #5: Offensive Performance, Ethier, Pitcher Health, McGwire, Grit

Mailbag! Don’t forget, send in some questions using the form at the right.

Let’s start with two questions that are basically the same.

Ken: “It would be tough to predict that all but two Dodgers would be hitting below .270 at this point in the season. Gonzo, Hanley, Kemp, Ethier will all eventually get it going, but how much do you attribute the current struggle to missing A.J. Ellis? Even when he’s not getting hits he eats up a ton of pitches and gets that pitch count up for opposing starters. Do you support the position that when A.J. comes back, our offense will come back with him?”

Eric: “Why do people expect this team to have a better than average record when none of their ‘stars’ (save Puig) are performing better than average (money can’t buy you love or batting averages apparently)? Kemp: .245 Gonzalez: .249 Ramirez: .254 Ethier: .251 Crawford: .261. Add in the NL’s worst defense and we’ve got a ‘whole damn team of utility infielders’ (name that quote) and a below average bullpen. Call me an over-reacting hater, but you are what your record says you are.”

There’s some obvious issues with this analysis, starting with the fact that both are using batting average. It’s not as egregiously terrible as pitcher wins or saves, but it totally ignores walks, base running, and park effects, and treats a single the same as a homer. It tells you a small part of the story. This is why we use wRC+, which is park-adjusted and tries to account for a player’s total offensive contribution.

By that measure, the Dodgers’ offense is the best in baseball.Of the 15 hitters with at least 20 plate appearances, eight are average or above, and Andre Ethier, Chone Figgins, and Carl Crawford fall just barely short. The four worst hitters have been all four catchers, and that should only improve; obviously, Miguel Olivo won’t be seen again, and a healthy A.J. Ellis has replaced Tim Federowicz. I don’t think Ellis by himself is going to turn the offense around, but if he can simply hit to his career norms — .253/.351/.371, a 105 wRC+ — then that alone will greatly improve one of the worst catching situations in baseball. Simply not having a black hole in the No. 8 spot would be nice.

You’re not wrong about the bullpen, Eric — though it’s been much better lately — or the defense, but the rotation has been good (especially now that Paul Maholm isn’t in it), and the offense is better than people think. The main issue is that the No. 1 wRC+ offense is just the No. 12 run-scoring offense, which speaks a lot to “luck” — sequencing and performance with runners in scoring position that should hopefully even out.


Stephen: “Do you think that a hitting coach has a significant effect on run production? If so, why is Mark McGwire still in his job?”

As said above, the Dodger offense has been more productive than people think it’s been, with the main offenders being terrible backup catchers who don’t belong in the big leagues. But generally, I do think the impact of a hitting coach is overstated. Sure, sometimes you get a Dwayne Murphy turning around the career of a Jose Bautista, but that’s rare.

Besides, we’ve been down this road before. In July of 2011, the Dodgers fired Jeff Pentland and replaced him with Dave Hansen. The offense all but immediately improved, and so an easy narrative was born. Fire the hitting coach, get offense! Except, as I detailed at the time, that’s not what happened. For the few guys with considerable playing time under both coaches, their performance was about the same. The issue was that the struggling Pentland Dodgers had Juan Uribe‘s terrible debut, the injury-plagued last hurrahs of Casey Blake and Rafael Furcal, the rushed debuts of Jerry Sands and Dee Gordon, and a general manager that really tried to sell us on Jay Gibbons / Marcus Thames / Tony Gwynn in left field. Under Hansen, nearly all of those guys were out of the lineup, and he got the benefit of the very brief hot streaks that newly-acquired Juan Rivera and Rod Barajas ran into.

One year later, after dealing with a 2012 roster that included Elian Herrera, Matt Treanor, Adam Kennedy, and an overmatched Gordon, Hansen was gone too. It’s not the coaches, it’s the players, and under McGwire, the players have been performing.

Milo: “Adam Lind in Toronto is a perfect situation where platooning a lefty has worked out marvelously. Why can’t the Dodgers learn to do that with Ethier?”

I long for the day that the Dodgers treat platoons with as much reverence as the Jays or A’s do, but I think they’ve gotten a bit better in this regard. After years of pretending Ethier wasn’t terrible against lefties, they finally began to limit his usage against them this year. Remember how happy we were when both he and Crawford sat in favor of Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, and Scott Van Slyke against lefties? The Kemp situation impacted that somewhat, but they’ve committed to getting Ethier out against lefties enough that they’re actually willing to play Van Slyke in center to make it happen. Only 35 of Ethier’s 208 plate appearances this year — 16.8 percent — have come against lefties. I think they’ve done a good job here.

Jonathan B.: “Might we ever get to the point that after each game, an MRI is immediately performed on any pitcher who appeared in the game?”

That’s an interesting question, but I doubt it. In addition to the cost — and though teams are swimming in money, they don’t like to spend where they don’t need to — having an MRI is hardly a pleasant experience. It’s difficult to see a pitcher submitting to that 30 times a year (for a starter) or 80-ish (for a reliever). Then throw in logistics like needing to run to the airport on the last day of a series, and it’s probably not realistic.

Besides, an MRI doesn’t always give you the information you need. As Cleveland manager Terry Francona said a few weeks ago,

“There are not a lot of pitchers who don’t have something going on somewhere,” said Francona. “If you gave every pitcher an MRI, and you just looked at the MRI of their shoulder and elbow, I’d be willing to bet you could find a reason to put 99 percent of them on the disabled list . . .That’s just the way it is.”

In 2011, a New York Times article quoted Dr. James Andrews as believing that MRIs were relied upon too much:

The pitchers were not injured and had no pain. But the M.R.I.’s found abnormal shoulder cartilage in 90 percent of them and abnormal rotator cuff tendons in 87 percent. “If you want an excuse to operate on a pitcher’s throwing shoulder, just get an M.R.I.,” Dr. Andrews says.

He and other eminent sports medicine specialists are taking a stand against what they see as the vast overuse of magnetic resonance imaging in their specialty.

So, no, I don’t think that’s the answer. But I do think you’re near the right answer, as far as a good way to improve pitcher health. We already have post-game technology that shows release point, arm height, etc. If we can get to the point where pitching coaches have that in real time, maybe they’ll know to lift a pitcher before he throws that high-risk pitch that destroys his arm.

Grit! So much grit!
Grit! So much grit!

Kelly: “When are we going to grab some glue guys? Last year we had Shoe, Punto, Hairston. I think we have too many guys who think they’re stars, what do you think? Also, how long should Donnie Baseball get to turn this thing around? This team is killing me, and on top of it all I moved to the Bay Area 7 months ago…”

I can’t tell if this is a serious question or not, and to be fair it was sent in before I wrote about “chemistry” a few days ago, but, seriously, go look at what I wrote a few days ago:

When people think of “chemistry,” they often think of the traditional gritty white scrappy guy, like Nick Punto or Skip Schumaker. Those guys both departed this winter. Without them, the Dodgers have no rudder. They have no hope. They have no chemistry.

except, the Dodgers did have both of those guys last season, and all the gritty chemistry in the world didn’t prevent them from being an embarrassing train wreck for the first three months of the season. It wasn’t chemistry that turned that around. It was Puig, and it was Ramirez, and it was Zack Greinke, and it was Kershaw. You may have noticed that Schumaker’s new team, the Reds, are limping along in fourth place. Punto’s new team, the A’s, have won essentially as many games through this point in the season with him as they did without him. Last year’s chemistry darlings, the World Series champion Red Sox, are six games under .500. It’s almost as though winning helps create chemistry more than the other way around.

As for Mattingly, he just signed an extension over the winter, the team is above .500, he did show that he could lead a team to the playoffs, and he got the outfield situation dumped in his lap. I think it would take a very serious collapse for an in-season move to be made, and we’re not close to that yet.

William: “Haven’t heard any updates on Alex Guerrero‘s status since the bite/fight … do we know how he is and when he’ll be playing again?”

Sadly, no. We heard last week that there was progress in the blood flow to the ear, and that Guerrero was living across from the UCLA Medical Center, where he was receiving several hours of treatment daily. But so far, we’ve heard nothing about a return date to the field, and after this amount of time it’s obvious he’ll need a few weeks, at least, to get back up to baseball speed. At this point, I’m not sure we see him in Los Angeles before August or September. It’ll be four weeks on Tuesday. We laughed at the initial “five week” estimate when it came out; now, it seems that will be much too short. What a disaster.

About Mike Petriello

Mike writes about lots of baseball in lots of places, and right now that place is