Friday, May 30, 2014

Shuffling deck chairs in the Dodgers' outfield, featuring Matt Kemp

Earlier this year, I questioned if the Dodgers defensive weakness up the middle would work out. I looked at it in terms of offsetting factors that could make it work -- having good corner defense and getting good offense from the defensively questionable middle. Plus, while I accepted the gloves up the middle would be bad, I thought they'd be bad within the range of Major League players.

Best case, Matt Kemp would have speedsters Carl Crawford and Yasiel Puig covering so much ground in the corners, he could cover a minimal center field and the team would be in good shape. And since his bat is much better than the average center fielder, the team, all in all, would have a great outfield situation. Similarly, Juan Uribe could cover some ground and let Hanley Ramirez cheat to the middle a little. And counting the offense and defense, the Dodgers' infield would also be in great shape.

Just on team defense, while the Dodgers have indeed committed a lot of errors, eight of those have come from pitchers (all last year Dodgers' pitchers committed 10). That rate should slow down. But a better metric to look at for team defense is defensive efficiency -- what percentage of balls in play turn into outs. The Dodgers are about middle of the pack, maybe a little lower (but definitely not in the basement) on either a straight or park-adjusted basis. So, it's not a disaster situation overall, but there is room for improvement.

Kemp and Ramirez's defense has been much worse than feared. Their offense has been good, not great, so we are not willing to overlook as much. At the same time, the Dodgers corner defenders are not necessarily lighting up like they're supposed to either. Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez are a couple notches below where they used to be. Puig and Uribe are doing their part, and Andre Ethier has been fine. Second base of course has turned out to be mostly Dee Gordon, who is more or less getting the job done out there.

So the question comes down to Kemp and Ramirez. Neither one has probably been playing at full strength. Both have been terrible in the field. Their UZR/150 ratings (a measure of defensive play converted to runs saved above/below average for that position in the major leagues, scaled to a full year) are in the -25 to -30 range.  Negative 10 is about as bad as you can hope to be and hold a job. Out of 161 Major League regulars (non-catchers), all rankings normalizes for positions played, Hanley & Matt are very near the bottom in both major aspects of defense. You can't be bad at both and stay where you are. Gordon's error rate is just as bad, but he does compensate with above-average range.

Range Rank
Error Rank
UZR/150 rank

The season's about a third over, and the Dodgers are not running away with the division as expected. In fact, they're 6 1/2 games behind the Giants. The hitting is good, the starting pitching is good (especially now with the rotation healthy), the bullpen is a problem and poor defense is exacerbating the bullpen problem.

So, what to do? Let's leave the shortstop question aside for a later day. Don Mattingly has done one bold thing, which is stop sending Kemp into center field every day. The intention is he'll play mostly left field now and a little bit of center. Ethier will play center field most days, while Puig is in right field every day.

What can we expect from Matt Kemp, left fielder? Well, left field is easier for sure. I thought I'd look at Major League players who played a good amount of both left- and center field last year, and see how their performance was at each spot. There are only three such players -- Alejandro De Aza, Gregor Blanco and Mike Trout.

We see an average increase in UZR/150 of about 5 when we look at their left field ratings vs. their center field ratings. The error rate is going to be about the same, but limited range is less of a problem in left. Now, if Kemp only improves from a -30 CF to a -25 LF, I'll be surprised. Then again, his ankle is clearly not 100 percent, so it might be awhile before we see him running 'em down again. And playing left field, if you're used to center- or right field, is not entirely easy. Just look at Ethier. While solid in right- and center field, he's actually struggled a bit in limited time in left.

Kemp's attitude is not great right now. He apparently "took a few days" to get used to the idea of not being the center fielder. And then he shagged balls in left field for half an hour, once. With Crawford injured, the outfield rotation is pretty set now: from right-to-left field, it'll be Puig/Ethier /Kemp vs. righties and Puig/Kemp/Van Slyke vs. lefties (even if Ethier is starting on Friday against the Pirates).  Puig, an above-average right fielder, could be turned into a good center fielder, but in that would take time.

It's not clear that even once that learning takes place, Puig in center field and Ethier in right field is a better situation than Puig in right and Ethier in center. So leave that be.

Jamie Romak, for now, is the fifth outfielder, with Chone Figgins and/or Gordon as emergency options after that. Like always, the four outfielder situation seems to have resolved itself without a trade, but there's definitely going to be some trade talks with teams as we get closer to July 31 (i.e. the Red Sox, Rangers, Yankees, etc.). Because Crawford is coming back at some point and Joc Pederson continues to knock on the door.

It may not be fair, but how Kemp and Ethier play over the next month or so will impact which one gets traded. If Crawford was almost entirely untradeable while healthy, he is entirely untradeable on the disabled list.

Photo credit: SD Dirk, Flickr


  1. Dustin nice job. Good analysis. Obviously Kemp is hurt because when healthy should be able to cover Cf with no problems.
    Bully is so bad, why is it Colletti doesn't get rid of the guys he got in winter and then use Ethier as trade chip (only guy is tradeable right now) to get a solid young SU. Joc can be BU CF.
    This may be a good discussion for next prodcast. How to right Colletti's wrong and get better defensively and Bully.
    Bully is terrible and will not get better by itself. We have 2 guys Reed (my choice) and Garcia in minors who can help soon.
    CBills when ready? perhaps July could be solid LR guy bumping Maholm etc..