With just over a week until the Dodgers open their 2019 season, most position battles seem to be all-but settled. Barring an injury during the final week of Spring games, the Dodgers seem set in their starters at nearly every position. Austin Barnes‘ torrid Spring has him in the drivers’ seat to be the primary catcher despite a terrible 2018 season offensively. More likely than not, Joc Pederson will be the primary left fielder with Alex Verdugo being too good for the minors and still the fourth-best full-time outfielder on the Dodgers.
The main position battle left is at second, where the Dodgers have not had much success in recent years. Since 2010, the Dodgers have had 37 different players play at second base. Eight of those 37 have been worth 1.0 fWAR or more. Only Mark Ellis, Dee Gordon, Chase Utley and Howie Kendrick have been worth more than 2.0 fWAR. All those second basemen have combined to be worth 20.5 fWAR since 2010, the 19th-best mark in the majors. Only eight teams have had a lower OPS out of their second basemen than the Dodgers have over the last nine seasons.
I wrote a bunch of words in February about how bad Dodger second basemen were in 2018. Other than walk rate, Dodger second-basemen finished in the bottom half of the league in every stat that I looked at. Utley was the only Dodger second baseman with a positive fWAR last season at 0.1. Logan Forsythe and Brian Dozier were both very bad, combining for a -0.8 fWAR. And now it seems like in 2019, the Dodgers will be splitting second base between two players that each played over 400 innings in the outfield last season. Sure, Max Muncy is can play second, but his defense there would likely be questionable at best. An argument could definitely be made to start him at second and slide Cody Bellinger back to first, despite him being a plus defender in the outfield. That doesn’t seem like the likeliest outcome, as Bellinger has played each of his 69 Spring innings [nice] in right field.
So barring a trade, the Dodgers will rely on Enrique Hernandez and Chris Taylor as their primary second basemen in 2019. It almost feels wrong to pigeonhole either of them into one position. Last season, Hernandez did everything but catch and was a plus defender pretty much everywhere. Taylor, the slacker, only played center, left, second and short last season. Neither player has ever had a season in which their most defensive innings came at second base. However with Corey Seager reportedly set to be ready for Opening Day (and hopefully at least 150 more regular-season games this season), it seems like second base will belong some combination of Taylor and Hernandez.
Looking at Spring stats is often dumb, but doing so would give a pretty steep advantage to Hernandez. Prior to last night’s game, Hernandez had played 60 innings at second base and only four elsewhere. Taylor has played 33 innings at second with an additional 37 2/3 at short. Seager has yet to play this Spring, which could be the reason behind the majority of Taylor’s playing time coming at short. If you want to look at the tiny sample size of Spring stats, Hernandez has been outplaying Taylor pretty handily. In 43 plate appearances, Taylor has posted a .220/.256/.390 triple slash with only two walks and 15 strikeouts. In 45 plate appearances, Hernandez has a .333/.386/.641 triple slash and has walked and struck out three times each with three dongs to Taylor’s one.
But this isn’t just the case over a handful of Spring plate appearances. In 2018, Hernandez outperformed Taylor at the plate as well. Taylor posted about 140 more plate appearances than Hernandez, but each drew 55 walks last season (five of Hernandez’s were intentional, but still). The big difference came in strikeouts, as Taylor’s 29.5 percent strikeout rate was the worst among qualified National League hitters (sixth overall), and while Hernandez didn’t have enough plate appearances to qualify, his 16.9 percent strike out rate is the 55th-best among hitters with 400 or more plate appearances.
Hernandez also outperformed Taylor in each of the three triple slash categories and wRC+. Luck still seemed to be in Taylor’s favor, as he posted a .345 BABIP compared to Hernandez’s .266. Taylor’s average sprint speed is nearly one MPH higher than Hernandez’s, and Taylor barreled balls slightly more often than Hernandez, both of which could help explain the difference in BABIP.
Still, despite the 140 fewer plate appearances, Hernandez outperformed Taylor in fWAR, aided by his 372 1/3 innings in center. Hernandez also showed more of an ability to be an everyday player than he ever had before, as he actually performed better against righties than lefties in 2018 (.833 OPS vs righties, .780 OPS vs lefties). Taylor also fared better against righties (.786 OPS) than lefties (.754), and both are definitely worthy of being everyday players, but Enrique appears to have the edge for now.
The Dodgers didn’t add a second baseman in the offseason, and that’s probably ok. Dozier and DJ LeMahieu were probably the two best available second basemen this offseason. While the Dodgers were attached to LeMahieu for a time, I’m not really sure how much of an upgrade he would have provided over Hernandez or Taylor.
Taylor and Hernandez have each been integral to the Dodgers’s success over the past couple seasons. While much of their value has been tied into their versatility, the door is open for one of them to lay claim to an everyday position in 2019. I’m sure the Dodgers will still move them around and give the fans what they want (Yoga pants Kiké at first), but one of these two could be the everyday second baseman in 2019 and quickly establish ownership of the position.