My friend Vic was in town the other day from Los Angeles, so I asked him about his beloved Los Angeles Dodgers. “The hot dogs are $7, the beers $13, parking is $20 and I can’t watch them on TV,” he ranted.
Sure, but what about the team?
That was Tuesday. The Dodgers beat the Padres that night in 12 innings, overcoming a Kenley Jansen blown save. They beat San Diego again Wednesday, pounding out 18 hits in a 13-4 victory. Suddenly, 8-9 looks a lot better than 4-9, which is where the Dodgers stood before their current four-game winning streak. Still, it has been a rocky beginning with Justin Turner on the DL, Jansen struggling with both velocity and movement on his famous cutter, and with some of the big hitters off to slow starts. The Dodgers certainly appear more vulnerable than last season, when they rolled to 104 wins and Game 7 of the World Series.
Put it this way: The Dodgers are currently carrying only 12 position players and half of them are Kemp, Utley, Max Muncy, Enrique Hernandez, Joc Pederson and Kyle Farmer. The ironic part about the Dodgers’ start is that Kemp and Utley have been two of their best hitters, along with Yasmani Grandal, who was persona non grata by the postseason last year as Austin Barnes took over regular catching duties. That’s sort of the concern, however: Relying on Kemp and Utley to be valuable members of the lineup is wishful thinking given their ages and recent production.
The Dodgers, Padres and Braves have all eagerly dumped Kemp in recent seasons and he has been worth minus-0.6 WAR over the past three seasons, in part because of lousy defense. He lost weight over the offseason, and maybe that’s helping, and maybe he’s motivated as he sees his baseball career on life support, but this was a guy who nobody expected to play an inning in a Dodgers uniform. He’s hitting .347/.389/.592, but there is some good fortune driving those numbers: His strikeout rate is over 30 percent and 25 percent of his fly balls have gone for home runs.
Utley was brought back as much for his clubhouse presence and leadership as for what he does between the lines. He’s a decent bench player, but he’s not going to hit .343/.455/.514 all season.
The Dodgers will eventually need last year’s stars to start hitting again. Here’s why that will eventually happen, as we compare 2017 numbers to 2018 for their four core hitters: Yasiel Puig, Corey Seager, Chris Taylor and Cody Bellinger.
All four players are hitting the ball harder with worse overall results -- even though each one has a lower strikeout rate. That should bode well for improved results. Bellinger actually has a higher BABIP, but his fly ball rate, which was one of the highest in the majors last season, is at a meager 16.4 percent this season. That’s why he has just two home runs.
While there are obvious reasons for optimism for these four, they aren’t without some concerns. One by one:
Puig: He does go through stretches when he has trouble launching the ball in the air, but it’s also possible his higher isolated power figure last year was the result of the ball. If the ball has changed slightly this year -- as some have suggested -- maybe he’s back to being a 15-20 homer guy instead of hitting 28 again.
Seager: His power has largely evaporated since last August, when he played through a sore right elbow down the stretch. Over his past 65 games and 276 plate appearances, he has hit just .271/.330/.367 with five home runs. What if the elbow is still an issue?
Taylor: He was a huge surprise in 2017, but also a possible regression candidate. Maybe it was a fluke. His .361 BABIP was high last year, and his 22-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio so far is terrible.
Bellinger: Not only is the fly ball rate down, but his walk rate is half of what it was last season. I wouldn’t read too much into that -- his chase rate is actually down 15 percent from 2017, so he’s controlling the zone. He’s making more contact, just not launching the ball in the air.
On the pitching end, things have gone better. Clayton Kershaw has looked great through four starts, even if his velocity is down a bit. Alex Wood has 22 strikeouts and one walk, and Kenta Maeda and Hyun-Jin Ryu have combined for 40 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings. Dave Roberts hasn't extended those guys, as Wood, Maeda and Ryu have averaged just 4.9 innings per start, so he’s going to have to get some length at some point from them.
The bullpen had major questions heading into the season, but Jansen wasn’t supposed to be one of them. He has blown two saves -- after blowing just one all last regular season -- and lost a game. He has faced 31 batters and served up three home runs, after allowing five in 2017. He has three walks; he didn’t walk a batter last year until June. The average velocity on the cutter is down 2.2 mph to just 91.1 mph, and maybe more alarming is the pitch has looked flat without that late movement. He has allowed at least one hit in each appearance except one two-batter outing. Maybe it’s a World Series hangover, physical or mental, but Jansen’s struggles are causing a lot of angst in Dodgerland.
What does it all mean? It’s just 17 games. According to FanGraphs, the Dodgers’ odds of winning the NL West have dipped from 85.2 percent at the start of the season to 76.3 percent. They’re still projected as the heavy favorites. Dodgers fans shouldn’t be so alarmed just yet.
Although it would be nice if Seager started hitting, Bellinger popped some home runs and Jansen regained his mojo.