Dodgers’ center field situation needs fixing, and fast

Teams want to be strong up-the-middle. But what does that mean? Of course you want guys who can hit a little bit, but more importantly, you want defense. If that’s the criteria, then the Dodgers have a ton of work to do.

Sure, the Dodgers have some pretty good bats up-the-middle, but the defense is lacking. And the biggest hole is — believe it or not — in center field (depending which defensive metric you rely on), which says a lot considering Hanley Ramirez‘s defensive struggles at shortstop.  He’s bad. This is worse.

Position Shortstop Center field
UZR/150 -15.0 -16.7
DRS -8 -17(!)
rPM* -7 -14

*-Runs plus/minus above average, according to the Fielding Bible

The Dodgers’ -17 defensive runs saved in center field is the worst in baseball, and their -16.7 UZR/150 is 28th in MLB. For good measure, they rank 28th and 29th in DRS and UZR/150, respectively, at shortstop. But overall numbers are worse in center. Some of that has to do with Matt Kemp, and some of that has to do with Andre Ethier.

It’s no secret Kemp isn’t a good center fielder, because he hasn’t been for years, to the point that the Dodgers could finally take no more in May. When Ethier replaced him earlier this year, folks probably expected him to perform closer to what he did filling in for Kemp last year; Instead, Ethier is patrolling center field at a worse clip this year (-4.1 UZR/150, -6 defensive runs saved in roughly 122 fewer innings) than last (-4.7 UZR/150, -3 DRS).

Ethier’s lack of center field ability really showed in the last week in Colorado and Detroit, and it stems from his corner outfield range. On a J.D. Martinez ball that ended up being a triple, Ethier was about 10 feet away from being 10 feet away:

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Yeah, that’s just awful. And there was so much ground to cover in Colorado, that he couldn’t get to fly balls that even a center fielder with average range could track down. Remember: It’s hard to get too upset at Ethier because he shouldn’t be in center field in the first place. He’s being asked to do something he isn’t really capable of. This is why not having a true center fielder on the roster hurts, and it’s showing.

It may not be completely fair to compare Ethier to one of the game’s best center fielders in Juan Lagares, but I’m going to do it anyway.

According to Inside Edge Fielding, Lagares has made 25 percent of “unlikely” plays, meaning there was a 10-40 percent chance of him making the play (3-for-12 the last two years). Ethier is 0-fer (0-for-8). On “even” plays (40-60 percent), Lagares has made 50 percent of those plays (6-for-12). Ethier has made 25 percent (1-for-4).

You can have the best reads of any player ever, and it won’t matter if you don’t have the range in center field to track down fly balls. Lagares has it, Ethier doesn’t.

This is a problem, and the fix isn’t as easy as it may seem.

The obvious solution: recall Joc Pederson (who is back from his shoulder injury) and play him every day in center field. It doesn’t make any sense to bring him up otherwise. Pederson isn’t lauded for his defense, despite Baseball America naming him the system’s best defensive outfielder heading into the 2013 season. He’s probably average out there with average-to-solid-average range. Still, he’d look like in-his-prime Andruw Jones compared to Ethier out there.

But that would be too obvious. Instead, I could see the Dodgers pursuing a trade for a true center fielder — not as a full-time guy, but as a guy who isn’t a liability on defense. I wanted the Dodgers to sign such a guy this winter in Franklin Gutierrez. He’s out for this season due to health issues, but a guy like that is sorely needed on the Dodgers’ bench. Of course, whether it’s Pederson or someone else, it always comes back to the same issue: one of the current outfielders has to go. That’s easier said than done.

One thing is for sure: something needs to happen, and it sounds like we may be seeing the beginning of a change. When Scott Van Slyke drew the start in center last night, I assumed a lefty was going. Instead, it was right-hander Odrisamer Despaigne (who was pretty impressive, actually). That’s an eyebrow-raising move from Don Mattingly. If Ethier isn’t even going to play against right-handed pitchers because he’s getting the Kemp treatment, then it’s time for some action. While recalling Pederson is the easiest solution, player-wise, it’s the most complicated solution, money-wise. That would push Ethier to the bench, and the Dodgers would have him and Carl Crawford as the most expensive bench players ever. While it strengthens the bench, it makes Mattingly’s job even tougher.

The Dodgers are weak up-the-middle, but it’s really showing in center field. This is why one of the four outfielders needs to be traded. The Dodgers have 20 days to make it happen (or 51, if you count August, which isn’t out of the realm of possibility). And if Van Slyke is in center again tonight against a righty in Jesse Hahn, you know something is really up.

About Dustin Nosler

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Dustin Nosler began writing about the Dodgers in July 2009 at his blog, Feelin' Kinda Blue. He co-hosted a weekly podcast with Jared Massey called Dugout Blues. He was a contributor/editor at The Hardball Times and True Blue LA. He graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in digital media. While at CSUS, he worked for the student-run newspaper The State Hornet for three years, culminating with a 1-year term as editor-in-chief. He resides in Stockton, Calif.