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

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Podcast: 'Dugout Blues' episode 80 - Blessing, Arruebarrena, Guerrero

On this episode of "Dugout Blues," Jared Massey (Dodgers Nation) and I have special guest co-host Chris Blessing of in for a visit.

I know, it's been awhile since I posted a podcast here. My apologies. I'm going to start doing it every week. You can also get to the podcast on Dodgers Digest via the "podcast" tab in the menu bar.

Anyway, we talk a lot about Erisbel Arruebarrena, who was, coincidentally, recalled to the Dodgers the day after we recorded. Blessing wrote a great scouting report on EA.

We also talk about Miguel Olivo showing 70-grade cannibalism by biting a piece of Alex Guerrero's ear off in an altercation during Tuesday's game. Olivo was released on Thursday.

We close with a lengthy Q&A session. Keep up with the great questions, folks.

Libsyn link
Direct link
iTunes link

Look for new episodes of "Dugout Blues" every Wednesday. Don't forget to subscribe to the podcast and review us on iTunes. We want to make this the best podcast we can so we're always looking for suggestions and ways to improve.

If you have questions you'd like us to answer or certain topics/players you want to hear more about, feel free to email us ( or send us messages on Twitter (@JaredJMassey or @DustinNosler). You can also "Like" the podcast on Facebook. We always welcome audience participation.

Image credit: Joe Martin

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Dodgers' 3B situation: strained hamstring, bitten-off ear, mediocrity

Coming into the 2014 season, third base was a position of strength for the Los Angeles Dodgers at the major league level in addition to great promise for the future with the inevitable move of Corey Seager from shortstop to the hot corner.

The same could not be said the last couple of seasons with the massive struggles of Juan Uribe, but following a 5-fWAR campaign, his excellent defense and suddenly solid offensive contributions were something to look forward to. Though he has walked less and struck out more through the early portion of this season, his overall line is nearly identical and his defense is still Grade-A stuff.

Unfortunately, what has not carried over is good health. A hamstring injury a few weeks ago sidelined Uribe, but he returned to the field after about a week off to recuperate. That week off could look amazing compared to what is likely in store for Uribe after he re-injured the same hamstring in Tuesday's game against the New York Mets.

Ken Gurnick reported the injury as a right hamstring strain, and David Vassegh chimed in with added information as well as words from Juan himself.
With Hyun-Jin Ryu slated to be activated tomorrow from the DL and the Dodgers in need of a 25-man roster spot, a faux-DL stint for somebody was already a possibility. Uribe's injury simply makes it that much easier to free up a spot for Ryu while letting Uribe rest the hamstring in an effort to not have it linger all season long.

The bench would be short a guy but the club has gone that route before, and Ned Colletti has proven to care more about not cutting end-of-the-roster players in the fear that somebody claims them rather than keeping the most talented guys in the majors.

Of course, the Dodgers do have the perfect replacement, who is tearing it up in Triple-A Albuquerque: second baseman/shortstop Alex Guerrero, who entering play today was hitting .368/.411/.737/1.148 with a .482 wOBA and 191 wRC+ in just over 120 plate appearances. Yes, it's Albuquerque, but he is 27 already and the issue all along with him has been defense.

Unfortunately for Guerrero, tearing it up doesn't mean anything right now after he was physically torn up by teammate Miguel Olivo, who tried to attack Guerrero on the field; sucker-punched him in the dugout; and then sealed the deal and his fate in the big leagues moving forward by biting Guerrero's ear and taking a chunk out of it.

Guerrero's agent Scott Boras said plastic surgery to repair the ear is in order. How soon Guerrero returns to action remains to be seen, but putting him out of the question for the time being means third base will be handled by some combination of Justin Turner and Chone Figgins.

Turner is hitting .230/.280/.284/.564 with a .254 wOBA and wRC+ of just 60. Figgins sits at .211/.423/.263/.686 with a .340 wOBA and 119 wRC+. That's due to him somehow drawing six walks thus far. Neither is an appealing alternative to Uribe or Guerrero.

As I suggested on Twitter, it's pretty much come to this.
Photo credit: Dustin Nosler, Dodgers Digest

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

What must the Dodgers think of Alex Guerrero's defense?

With a monster weekend, Alex Guerrero has moved into the 1.100 OPS range at Triple-A Albuquerque. Word is that he is just not good enough in the field though to get a promotion. His defensive numbers are not that bad, so what are the Dodgers thinking?

If you're thinking of the present only, clearly a Guerrero/Dee Gordon platoon is the best way to go, and send Chone Figgins back down. You have to keep Justin Turner because he's the only other halfway competent backup shortstop unless you want to put Gordon or Guerrero there (which nobody does) when a backup is needed.

But the Dodgers want Guerrero to keep getting reps at second base. They've said all along they see him as not-yet-acceptable as a major league defensive second baseman, but with a few months of practice hopefully he gets up to at least the level where his bat can compensate for what his glove gives away.

First, his numbers. In 28 games at second base he has a .971 fielding percentage, a 4.75 range factor and a 1.1 Fielding Runs Above Average. That doesn't scream "unacceptable."  It actually sounds quite acceptable. But scouts are seeing something they don't like out there.

Dee Gordon, by contrast, in 20 games last year at 2B for Albuquerque, had a .990 fielding percentage and a 4.9 range factor. In the majors this year, he's slightly below-average in fielding percentage and slightly above-average in range factor, leading to an overall evaluation as "average major-league second baseman." Let's say Guerrero is worse in the field (and obviously on the bases), but stronger at the plate -- who offers the better overall package? Is there a way to get playing time for everyone that deserves it? Is Turner really going to get 300 plate appearances this year for the Dodgers?

Kindly, I think Gordon is capable of about a .275/.330/.355 triple-slash line going forward, which is about 10 percent below an average Major League hitter, and so costs the team about 8 runs over a full season, relative to average. His baserunning is historic, though. He looks capable of about +11 runs there. So, we're up to +3 runs above-average, offensively. His defense is maybe just a little below average for a second baseman -- so he'd probably give back five runs there compared to an average major league second baseman.  Now, in the full WAR framework, an average major league second baseman is worth two runs more than an average player, So, we get to an exactly average major league player, all in all. It's a kind of head in the oven/feet in the freezer kind of average, but average nonetheless when you add everything up.

Guerrero, on the other hand, can hit about Major League average, maybe better. If he's at least an average baserunner then, he'd have to be no worse than two runs below average over the course of a season to be the team's best option. Despite his stats, he is, by all accounts, not that. The last thing the Dodgers want is to get weaker on defense right now. But, if it came with enough bat to be worth it, that'd be something to consider.

Let's say that the scouts are right and he'd be a terrible second baseman right now, -20 runs below average over a season. How good of a hitter do you have to be to make that up? Pretty good. Say .360/.480 or so. I don't think he's that good. What if he was only bad at second base, -10 runs over a season? A .340/.450 line would make up for that. That's probably the upper bound of how good he might be. So in this case, it's probably true that there's no huge advantage to making Guerrero the every day second baseman over Gordon today.

There would be a huge advantage per game to be had by playing Guerrero as the right-handed side of the platoon, since Gordon is horrible against lefties and Turner is Turner. Having Guerrero available as a pinch-hitter sure would change the complexion of a lot of games. But the Dodgers want him to get better at second and that takes playing games at second. If they had a Bill & Ted phone booth, they'd get him a bunch of games at 3B too and turn him into a utility infielder overnight (they've started giving him some time at SS, presumably so they can see what they've got there and so he doesn't completely get out of practice). But they don't. He arrived in America only when he did, and the best the Dodgers can really hope is they get their act together and take charge of the playoff race so that they can have this ideal situation in place come September/October.

Same story for swapping out Zach Lee for Paul Maholm. Similar story for swapping out Joc Pederson for one of our lefty outfielders. Except in the case of Pederson, he has nothing much left to learn at Triple-A. He has to do the rest of his learning in the majors. So, if we want him contributing down the stretch, the sooner Ned Colletti can get this man out of town, the better. And if you can get a reliever that won't walk every other batter, or a late-inning defensive infielder back, that's a victory.
 Photo credit: Dustin Nosler, Dodgers Digest

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Exploring some trade ideas involving the Dodgers and their outfielders

The Dodgers outfield situation has gotten a lot clearer. There's Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp and everybody else. Scott Van Slyke is proving he can hit Major League pitching (really well) and is surprising everyone with his above-average defense. Joc Pederson continues to be the best-performing player in the minor leagues - he has a 1.125 OPS after 38 games in Triple-A, 11 stolen bases and numerous highlight catches. What more do you want the guy to do? Well, hit lefties, but that's what Van Slyke is for.

Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier are each doing about what you might expect, given their age. They're unfortunately similar right now. Neither can hit lefties at all, but are OK 400 plate-appearance/year outfielders getting paid a lot of money through 2017 ($66 million for Ethier, $77 million for Crawford). Ethier offers positional versatility and a little more on-base percentage. Crawford has way more speed, and that's about it. While Ethier is perceived as having more power, that's from people having a looooong memory. Their isolated slugging (ISO) has been about identical the last five years. Both are now firmly below the average Major League position player in ISO and they're unlikely to reverse the trend at age 32. With performance-enhancing drug testing in place, the vast majority of 32-year-olds are firmly on the downside of their MLB careers.

The Dodgers should feel comfortable now moving one (or both) of Ethier and Crawford for whatever they can get. Kemp's defense has been atrocious in center field, although maybe improving lately as he gets confidence in his health back. So I'd line up (LF-CF-RF) vs righties: Kemp/Pederson/Yasiel Puig and Van Slyke/Kemp/Puig vs. lefties.

So, what could they get for Crawford or Ethier?  Well, nothing, given the contracts. Either one could go on waivers and not be claimed. But if the Dodgers ate some money or threw in some other pieces, what could they get? Still not much, but that's more fun to think about than nothing.

Would the Dodgers be a better team just by getting rid of one? It's debatable. It opens a spot for Pederson, which is the only positive. But consider Miguel Olivo also had an 1.100 OPS at Albuquerque this year, which translated to .544 in the bigs. Ethier and Crawford are both serviceable role players on a first-division team, or the Dodgers would be tempted to just cut them.

Someone else's problem is what you could get. Best case, that's a small-market team with a good player due for a big payday. For example, Baltimore decides not to re-sign Matt Wieters ($12M-$15M in arbitration next year, then free agency). They need an outfielder and a starting pitcher (hey, the Dodgers have extra of those too!). But Wieters' elbow issue would likely preclude any deal this season, as he's already on the disabled list, but won't likely need Tommy John surgery.

Houston (Crawford's hometown team) could decide they have enough catching prospects that they can let Jason Castro go before his bill comes due. If the Dodgers pay basically all of Carl's salary, and throw in a prospect of our own, they'd oblige.

I focus on catchers because A.J. Ellis is getting old too, and given the starting point for his skills, a little decline makes him a backup pretty quick.

But more likely, it's just some other overpaid, not-very-good-anymore guy. That can work out just because the Dodgers have too many outfielders and someone else needs an outfield but has too many relief pitchers or something. Rafael Soriano, Jonathan Papelbon, Heath Bell, Jonathan Broxton all fit that bill.

What do the Dodgers need besides more overpaid ex-closers or young catchers? Backup infielders.

Wouldn't you know it, an expensive backup infielder got designated for assignment on Wednesday. Jeff Keppinger is a decent second baseman/not very good third baseman/emergency everything else who is owed about $7.5M this year and next, and might be expected to get on base at a .310 clip and slug .360. Not much of a fit. The White Sox also have reliever Matt Lindstrom earning $4M, and they'd probably like to get rid of him too. That's the kind of "why bother" package the Dodgers could probably get in trade. You have to really believe in Pederson to go down that road.

The Diamondbacks probably want to get rid of Didi Gregorius and probably want hometown, high-grit Ethier, if they can get over their seething resentment of all things Dodger. The Dodgers do not have a credible MLB-ready replacement shortstop right now, so that's a need they could fill.

It's hard to make a match, but the Dodgers have shown a willingness to get creative. If they give up on re-signing Hanley Ramirez, for example, there's some blockbusters to be put together. The Tigers and Yankees would very much like to have that conversation with us and that's a situation where you can make them take an albatross contract if they want to get the deal done (poor Crawford, shuffled as an unwanted throw-in from one rich team to another!). Of course, that gets back to the Dodgers not having a credible MLB-ready replacement SS right now and neither do those teams. So, even in this sad fantasy world where Ramirez doesn't see us anymore, it's still hard to get a match without a third team.

Photo credit: File photo

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Dodgers still project to win NL West comfortably, despite slow start

Preseason, I felt confident the Dodgers would run away with the National League West. Partially because they have so much talent, and partially because nobody else does. But the Giants and Rockies are off to great starts, the Dodgers are showing some holes and the Dodgers are in (gasp!) third place as of the morning of May 5. Do we expect a real race from either of these teams?

Well, first suppose the preseason projections stand unchanged, and I still expect each team to win the percentage of their remaining roughly 130 games that I originally expected them to win of 162. Add that to their current win total and where would things sit?

To-date + preseason

The Dodgers have such a talent advantage (ignoring any information learned this season about all the respective players), they would still run away with it. But of course, everything is not going exactly as expected -- we should incorporate the information from this season into the forward projections. Some guys are doing much better than expected (Dee Gordon, Charlie Blackmon, Brandon Crawford) while others are doing much worse (Carl Crawford, Pablo Sandoval, Carlos Gonzalez). Some players are injured and not expected back until a certain time. Playing time is being allocated differently than expected, etc. So, I want to update the projections for these three teams, and see what to expect.

Adjusted Up
Dee Gordon 
(offense & defense),
(Offense & Defense),
Charlie Blackmon
Adjusted Down
(offense & defense),
(offense & defense),
Carl Crawford,
Pablo Sandoval,

So if I knew then what I "know" now about all the players' performance, I would take two games each from the Dodgers and Giants while giving two to the Rockies. Bottom line, counting the performance to date and the updated projections, I still see the Dodgers comfortably advantaged although with only half the lead I once thought they'd have.

Going Forward
To-date + Forward

Why have the first 33 games or so not played out entirely like expected? Basically, the Dodgers are doing all the right things, just not at all the right times. Some research by Dave Cameron revealed the Dodgers could have reasonably been expected to score 15 more runs and allow seven fewer had the number of each event (home run, walk, stolen base, great catch, etc.) been the same but the order been shuffled. This 22-run deficit due to sequencing is the largest in the majors. The Giants, conversely, have nine more runs than their context-free play would suggest. The Rockies are just getting a bit lucky with balls falling in for them. Baseball's a funny game in short time; there's a reason the season is so long.

Photo credit: File photo