Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Dodgers' third-best hitter, A.J. Ellis, bats eighth

A.J. Ellis
While Jon Weisman at Dodger Thoughts is (rightfully) starting the "A.J. Ellis All-Star campaign," I'm thinking we need to start a "Move A.J. Ellis up in the order campaign," though, it doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

But with Dee Gordon's unsurprising early-season struggles, perhaps it's time to shake up the lineup a bit.

Don Mattingly has said as recently as Saturday night he's not ready to remove Gordon from the leadoff spot -- yet.
"'I could think about it, but then I have to find a guy who can lead off. At this point, I don't feel I need to do a whole lot different.'"
It's a valid concern, but like Mattingly, I want to give Gordon a little more time to "figure it out" atop the Dodgers' order.

I wrote back in February the Dodgers' success would be tied to Gordon in the leadoff spot (which can be said about a lot of teams). Of course, I don't think we expected Matt Kemp to be this good so far, as he and Andre Ethier are basically carrying the offense thus far.

Dee Gordon
Luckily for the Dodgers, Gordon's struggles have yet to hurt them too much. He's tied for the Major League lead in stolen bases with Starlin Castro (10), but as the old adage goes: you can't steal first base, as his .253 on-base percentage will confirm.

Gordon only has two bunt hits this season and has been successful in doing so 25 percent of the time, according to FanGraphs. When he gets into funks like this, he should try to bunt a little more. If nothing else, it puts pressure on the defense to throw him out.

Gordon's line drive rate is down a little from 2011, but his flyball rate is up more than 5 percent. That simply will not do for a guy who has zero power.

I'm not giving up on Gordon in the leadoff role just yet, just as Mattingly isn't. But there is a solution Mattingly isn't looking at -- and it's a solution that also moves A.J. Ellis up in the batting order: Make Mark Ellis the Dodgers' leadoff man and bat A.J. second.

Bet ya didn't think that's where I was going.

Ellis is already firmly entrenched as the team's No. 2 hitter and is enjoying hitting in front of the world's best hitter, posting a .370 on-base percentage in 20 games. While he isn't exactly tearing the cover off the ball in the other categories (.261 batting average, .319 slugging percentage), he's getting on base, leading to 16 runs scored -- second on the team and tied for third in the National League.

As you'll recall (or probably not), I wasn't exactly bashing this deal, as I've seen Ellis play a lot with the Oakland A's in the past. I always liked his game. Anytime you mix decent on-base ability with good defense, I'm going to be a fan.

Which brings us to A.J. Ellis, a.k.a. the Dodgers' third-best hitter.

I remember in 2004 when Jim Tracy began the season with Adrian Beltre hitting seventh. That experiment lasted all of 18 games, as Beltre hit .338/.347/.662 with six home runs. Beltre was the Dodgers' best hitter that season, but Tracy knew when it was time to move him up in the order.

Fast-forward to 2012: A.J. Ellis has hit eighth in the lineup in 16 of the 17 games he's played. He boasts an .843 OPS and a .439 on-base percentage. As Weisman points out, if the four intentional walks he's drawn are removed, Ellis' OBP is still .403.

I'm not comparing Ellis to Beltre; just making a point.

So why, with a team starved for offensive production outside Kmep and Ethier, is a guy with a .439 OBP and .843 OPS consistently stuck hitting eighth?

Ellis is a victim of circumstance -- he won't hit atop the order because he's slow and he won't hit in front of guys like Juan Rivera, James Loney and Juan Uribe because ... well, I'm not exactly sure why. Rivera is an #RBIMachine™, Loney is Loney and Uribe is making $8 million this season. That's about all I have.

So, if the Dodgers wanted to maximize their lineup, it would look something like this:

Ellis 2B
Ellis C
Kemp CF
Ethier RF
Rivera LF
Loney 1B
Uribe 3B
Gordon SS
Pitcher's spot

While Mattingly's never had the opportunity to bat a catcher high in the lineup, it isn't without precedent with this club -- Paul Lo Duca and Russell Martin come to mind.

With Gordon in the No. 8 spot, he's likely to draw more walks (in theory), but when he does get on base, he's still able to utilize his speed. I'd have no problem with him having the green light in front of a pitcher (especially with less than two outs). It might not be conventional thinking, but the Dodgers need to generate some more offense outside of Kemp, Ethier and A.J. Ellis.

Like I said, I'm not ready to pull the plug on Gordon hitting leadoff, but if a change must be made, this is probably the best way to go about it.

Oh, and vote for A.J. Ellis for the All-Star game. It will please Saberites and forward-thinking baseball people. Plus, any vote for Ellis is one less vote for Buster Posey.

Photo credits
Ellis:  2010thinkblue, Wikimedia Commons
Gordon: bridgetds (Flickr), UC International (Wikimedia)

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