Dodgers outfielders will be auditioning for playoff roles down the stretch

The Dodgers find themselves in a very unique position. Currently, the team sits 19.5 games up in the division race and has six more wins than any other team in baseball. Coming off a stretch where they absolutely shelled two of the best pitchers in the National League this year, there is not much to criticize. That being said, there is an interesting question that is beginning to develop: What is the crowded outfield lineup going to look like during the postseason?

Obviously, Mookie Betts isn’t going anywhere. He has put together a great season both offensively and defensively, showing once again that he is one of the game’s best five-tool players. But the situation in left and center has been much cloudier, as the Dodgers currently have four legitimate options that have been rotating between those two positions (Joey Gallo, Cody Bellinger, Chris Taylor, and Trayce Thompson). So far, the plan has been to platoon these four guys based on the pitching matchup that particular day.

Here is a look at where each player currently stands and what they need to do to garner more playing time.

Joey Gallo

Gallo was acquired at the Trade Deadline in a move that puzzled a lot of Dodger fans at the time. Joining the team after having the worst stretch of his MLB career, many wondered what Andrew Friedman and Co. were thinking when they traded for the former All-Star. Those concerns have been put to rest as Gallo has made a positive impact when he has seen the field.

In the 14 games he has played for the Dodgers, Gallo has a 1.010 OPS with three home runs. His exit velocity is up seven mph compared to his time with the Yankees and his hard-hit rate has increased by over 20 points. The two-time Gold Glove winner has also made an impact in the field as well, showing off his defensive prowess at Chavez Ravine on more than one occasion.

It is a very small sample size, but it seems like the change of scenery has benefited Gallo in a way he could have only dreamt of after his slow start in New York. Something to look for as the season moves forward will be his usage, as out of 42 plate appearances, only three have come against left-handed pitchers. It seems that Gallo will almost exclusively be used if a righty is on the mound over the next month and into the playoffs, but the change of scenery seems to have unlocked at least some of his All-Star upside, which he will look to solidify in the final month.

Cody Bellinger

The other left-handed hitter in the Dodger outfield, Bellinger has had an up and down season. His overall numbers leave something to be desired as he is currently slashing .208/.266/.404/.670, a far cry from his MVP year in 2019. The Dodgers have been patient, moving him down in the lineup to help alleviate any additional pressure he may be feeling, but eventually it got to the point where he was benched for a stretch. Still, even though the numbers in the box are less than stellar, he has still contributed to the team this year with several big hits and elite defense at a premium position

And that is essentially the argument for keeping Belli in the lineup. He is the best defender of the bunch (though the other three are no slouches either) and he has a history of coming through with big hits in key moments. Let’s not forget he had one of the biggest hits in Dodger history with the home run off of Chris Martin in Game 7 of the NLCS in 2020, and several other big moments throughout his postseason career.

He also has the ability to carry an offense for a game or two if he’s right (the two-homer game against the Padres is a perfect example). In the playoffs, a guy with Bellinger’s talent and knack for the big moment can be the difference between winning a series and going home early. The Dodgers have been extremely patient with Belli this season and have the opportunity to keep him in the lineup over the next month. If Cody can get hot down the stretch, he will make Dave Roberts‘ decision very easy. If he continues to struggle, we will still see him in the lineup, but perhaps more sporadically and in a bench/defensive role.

Chris Taylor

Taylor just hasn’t been able to get things to click this year like he has in the past. After starting the season hot, he has struggled and seen his numbers consistently decline since mid-May. To date, he is slashing .230/.311/.400/.711 with 125 strikeouts. While Taylor has been a high strikeout player, he has the highest rate of his career in 2022. That’s usually balanced out by his contact being loud, but his xwOBA on contact is the second-lowest of his career with the Dodgers, and a strikeout rate approaching 40% is difficult to stomach for any player.

In line with the theme of this article, Taylor plays fantastic defense, which has helped supplement his struggles at the plate. Like Bellinger, Taylor has always been a consistent playoff performer and has come up with big hits time and time again in the playoffs.

Down the stretch, if Taylor can make some tweaks to his swing and get back to his usual production, then Roberts may elect to have him as the everyday left fielder. He always has skids like this and the broken foot surely didn’t help him, so it’s just a matter of whether he can find his swing again in time.

After all, Taylor hits both lefties and righties well and comes with the playoff experience that can help the Dodgers in a tight series, so he’s an ideal option. If not, he seems like prime candidate to shift back into his super-utility role where he can be used in specific spots and back up players in case of injuries.

Trayce Thompson

Perhaps the most intriguing player of the bunch, Trayce has been a sparkplug since being acquired from the Tigers in June. Since the trade, he has slashed an impressive .298/.383/.548/.931 over 46 games. While it is a smaller sample size, there does not seem to be any signs of slowing down. Against the reigning NL Cy Young winner, Corbin Burnes, Trayce was 2-for-2 with a home run and four RBI.

Thompson’s surge has come with splits that are rather unorthodox. As a right-handed hitter, it would be logical to think that he would hit left-handed pitching better than right-handed pitching. But in Thompson’s case, he has hit righties significantly better this year.

Platoon Splits
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While it’s a small sample, he’s not a lefty killer, as he actually has a higher OPS against righties for his career. Trayce’s splits are rare to find and they actually make life much more difficult for Dave Roberts. Both Gallo and Bellinger are left-handed and hit righties significantly better than lefties. If Trayce was having more success against lefties, he would be in the lineup much more often than he is. However, Roberts seems to prefer to get Belli and especially Taylor at-bats against lefties, which could be telling as we move closer to the postseason.

Trayce certainly deserves more playing time, but the track record of the other veterans prevents Roberts from committing to him 100%. Thompson has yet to record a postseason at-bat, while Bellinger and Taylor both have over 60 postseason games under their belt. In terms of actual performance and not potential, Trayce is leaps and bounds ahead of any of the other options for the year, but it’s fair to wonder how much Roberts trusts him given his usage.

What’s Next?

This should be a fun and interesting month of baseball. There are still 39 regular season games to be played and they afford players the opportunity to separate themselves from others. If no one is able to break away from the pack, we could see a lot of mixing and matching in the starting lineup, and a lot of in-game substitutions come playoff time. The outfield situation recalls 2018 in that regard, which was a sparkplug for debate, and this might end up being similarly messy. Roberts and the front office may decide to play the matchups based on data, or they may elect to go with their guys who have been there and contributed before, but surely they are hoping the roles are solidified by the next month of play.

Time will tell, but the Dodgers will likely elect to continue the platoon approach as the season comes to a close. While the Dodgers will not be playing a lot of meaningful baseball in terms of seeding as the season winds down, these games will be extremely valuable to see which outfielders deserve the all-important playoff at-bats, as September will effectively serve as an audition for this quartet.

About Shane Mittleman