Arranging the Dodger Outfield Mathematically

Carl Crawford is expected to return to the Dodgers tonight after spending about six weeks on the disabled list with a sprained ankle. It’s never good to wish for injuries, but Crawford’s absence reduced the pressure caused by the “five outfielder problem.” As a result of the injury, Matt Kemp was un-benched and played every day. He responded well, going on a hot streak which lasted through most of the month of June.

Crawford’s return has the potential to upset the status quo which the Dodgers established in his absence. Generally, Andre Ethier and Scott Van Slyke platooned in center field, while Kemp and Yasiel Puig played every day. It was a sensible approach which caused little friction (or at least none which we could see). The Dodgers seem to be mindful of the effect Crawford’s return has, but he’s probably not going to sit on the bench every day, either. With that in mind, it’s probably good to look at the outfield situation from a mathematical perspective. Looking at the numbers alone, who should start against left-handed pitchers? Who should start against right-handed pitchers?

To establish the ideal platoons, we need a good way to establish what to expect from each of the outfielders. I’ve written a lot about Steamer Rest-of-Season projections lately. These projections estimate a player’s performance from now until the end of the year. The projections have platoon splits built into them. In the past, I’ve used a player’s previous history alone to estimate the splits, but the Steamer crew was generous enough to supply the actual platoon split projections for use in this post. The projections were run after Sunday’s game, and the series in Detroit didn’t meaningfully change the numbers.

In the tables below, I’ve sorted each player by expected wOBA against each handedness of pitching. Then I’ve converted the wOBA to expected runs above average (non-park adjusted) to give an estimation of batting value for the rest of the season. In order to do this, the number of plate appearances remaining against each handedness of pitcher for the Dodgers outfield was divided into three parts. This left an estimate of 85.8 plate appearances for each “starting” outfielder against left-handed pitching and 234.9 plate appearances for each “starting” outfielder against right-handed pitching. The offensive value does not include baserunning or defense, which I will explain later in the post.


Projected Outfield Offense vs LHP

Player Projected wOBA v LHP Projected batting value v LHP, RoS
Yasiel Puig 0.387 4.99
Matt Kemp 0.367 3.67
Scott Van Slyke 0.352 2.68
Carl Crawford 0.283 -1.92
Andre Ethier 0.280 -2.11

Ideal starters: Puig, Kemp, Van Slyke

This shouldn’t be particularly surprising. The departure between third-best and fourth-best on the list is pretty large, well over four runs in fewer than 86 plate appearances. There’s still probably an argument to be made that Kemp is better than Scott Van Slyke in center, but at least they’re starting the correct players.

Projected Outfield Offense vs RHP

Player Projected wOBA v RHP Projected batting value v RHP, RoS
Yasiel Puig 0.369 10.36
Andre Ethier 0.354 7.60
Carl Crawford 0.339 4.88
Matt Kemp 0.337 4.47
Scott Van Slyke 0.325 2.43

Ideal starters: Puig, Ethier, Crawford/Kemp

This is the fun one. Yasiel Puig is still the leader by far, even though he has the platoon disadvantage. Scott Van Slyke at the bottom is not particularly surprising either, though the fact that he is still expected to be an above-average hitter against right-handed pitching might be a better result than expected.

Really, the interesting part of the list are the three names in the middle. Andre Ethier’s projection against right-handed pitching is a lot higher than what his poor performance in 2014 would normally indicate, but he has a long history of crushing righties (.383 wOBA v RHP career). Half a season of poor performance is a pretty small sample compared to the rest of his career.

Then there’s the comparison between Crawford and Kemp. The two were in a pretty strict platoon before Crawford was injured, which caused the biggest headaches of the outfield shuffle. These projections show that whatever combination of the front office and Don Mattingly that made the lineup decisions were “right.” Crawford’s projected batting value against right-handed pitching is a tiny bit higher than Kemp’s. Kemp is the better overall hitter, of course, but the team is trying to use the platoon effect to their advantage. The fact that Crawford has the platoon advantage against right-handed pitching and Kemp does not makes the comparison very close. Crawford’s projected wOBA against right-handed pitching is .002 higher than Kemp’s, which translates to a 0.41 run difference over the rest of the season.

These numbers do not include defense and baserunning, as noted earlier. Against right-handed pitching, Steamer projects Crawford to be about 0.8 runs more valuable than Kemp on the bases over the remainder of the season. That’s another significant factor in Crawford’s favor, about double the difference already found in batting value. However, I did not include baserunning in the above tables because Crawford’s ankle issues could have a substantial impact on his baserunning performance (even though his legs did well during his rehab assignment). It’s a large enough caveat that it makes it worth keeping an eye on the situation for a while before drawing additional conclusions.

Each player’s defensive value could potentially have an even bigger impact. Kemp’s defensive numbers in left field have been incredibly bad so far (-7 DRS, -7 UZR in 326 innings). A quarter of a season of any defensive metric is nowhere near enough to draw any useful conclusions, though. Crawford has been a good defender for most of his career, still grading as average to slightly above as his speed has declined. The ankle injury could potentially cause Crawford to slow down in the field, but he should probably be considered the “better” defender until we see him in the field and until Kemp shows improvement.

You can probably argue that Kemp has more “upside,” which is somewhat true, but there is already upside figured into the projections. Kemp’s rest-of-season wOBA is projected to be .345, compared to the .338 he had before Tuesday’s game. This doesn’t mean that the Dodgers should play Crawford every day, just that it was not crazy to do so before the injury. Crawford has largely been viewed as a near-disaster, which is not really fair to him. The Dodgers did not sign his contract, and he was an above-average player just last year.

“Benching” either Kemp or Crawford for a few games against right-handed pitching is not a poor decision, and as such the playing time can be split between the two. However, as soon as there is any hint of a left-handed pitcher entering a game, Crawford should be removed immediately. Mattingly hasn’t been doing a great job with this part so far; Crawford has faced left-handed pitching in 17% of his plate appearances this year (the league-average rate is 25%). With the platoon protection on the Dodgers’ roster, that is far too often.

There is also the non-quantifiable impact on player happiness/chemistry, but given how the outfield is currently constructed there probably isn’t a way to make either of the players happy while both are healthy. On the plus side, splitting playing time against right-handed pitching would keep two players who have been prone to injuries in the past more rested.

The long-term solution to this problem is probably a complete overhaul of the outfield, but that just isn’t realistic in the middle of the season. The Dodgers are going to have to make do with what they have for now, and if that involves Kemp sitting against right-handed pitching sometimes, that’s not the end of the world. It might actually be better.

 This post uses the following statistics:

  • wOBA – Weighted on-base average: A statistic used to compute total hitting value based on fixed weight for each type of hit outcome. Explanation here.
  • UZR, DRS – Defensive value statistics, value as runs above average for a particular position. Explanations here and here.

About Daniel Brim

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Daniel Brim grew up in the Los Angeles area but doesn't live there anymore. He still watches the Dodgers and writes about them sometimes.