Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Dodgers could be in big trouble against lefties

Before this week, the Dodgers were 6-1 at home against left handed starters. Then they put four right-handed hitters, including Matt Kemp, on the disabled list. Let's just say the new right-handed batting order isn't as good.


By BILL PETERSON
Big Leagues in Los Angeles


The Dodgers placed Matt Kemp on the disabled list Monday. He wasn't the same since slightly pulling a hamstring in Chicago on May 5.

Since then, Kemp was four for 20 with one walk and one RBI. Subtract one freak three-for-four game from the mix, and it becomes one for 16. The Dodgers had to do it, and now is the time to do it. The Dodgers will be at home for most of those 15 days. Long term, they need Kemp running.

Short term, the problems for the Dodgers run deeper than trying to paper over Kemp's absence. Their further problem is that the resources they would count on to cover for Kemp also are on the disabled list. None is expected to be back before Kemp.

The Dodgers put Juan Uribe on the DL Sunday because of soreness in his left wrist. They put Juan Rivera on there Sunday with a ruptured hamstring. Jerry Hairston has been on the disabled list since May 11 because of a strained hamstring.

You can imagine that Dodgers manager Don Mattingly is hamstrung. In place of four key right-handed hitters, he now has Elian Herrera, Justin Sellers, Jerry Sands and Scott Van Slyke. It would seem that the manager has quite a juggling act to do for the next two weeks.

Sunday afternoon, Mattingly moved catcher A.J. Ellis up to the sixth spot. Given a chance to drive runners home, Ellis notched four RBI, including a three-run homer just when it seemed like the Dodgers wouldn't score again because Kemp was on the bench and Andre Ethier had just been ejected.

A couple reporters asked Mattingly about keeping Ellis up as high as sixth in the order, instead of the No. 8 position where he has been so effective. It really was the least of Mattingly's concerns. Let's see who else is in the lineup first. Monday evening's lineup included Ellis in the No. 5 position. Unless Ellis slumps, we won't see him at No. 8 for a long time.

Before this week, the Dodgers offense operated on one big bang principle: Mark Ellis, followed by Kemp, followed by Ethier. Through Monday, that singularity high in the order scored a combined 75 runs -- almost exactly half of the club's 154 total runs. With Kemp missing from the middle of that cocktail, the Dodgers will really struggle to score.

Mattingly doesn't have a lot left on which to depend. He has to be frustrated that Dee Gordon, with a .250 on-base percentage, is such an easy out. But Gordon has to be in there because his speed is one of their few offensive weapons. If he's having one of those days when he reaches base and the Dodgers pitcher is on, they can steal a win that way. We can assume that day will come against a right hander, because Gordon hits them a little. Gordon isn't winning the game of plate discipline against anybody, but he has a .299 career batting average against right-handed starters.

We can figure that Gordon will remain in the lead-off position. There's nowhere else to put him. You probably don't want him batting eighth. As Mattingly told reporters after the Dodgers beat Arizona, 3-1 Monday night, "Eight is harder than one." But now you're cooking your leadoff spot against left-handed starters, who have held Gordon to a .238 career on-base percentage in 122 plate appearances.

Following Gordon, there's no reason to move Mark Ellis from the No. 2 hole. The rest of the order, from No. 3 down, is where Mattingly's lineups will be very interesting for the next couple weeks.

Monday night, against Arizona right hander Ian Kennedy, Mattingly put left-handed Bobby Abreu in the third slot, followed by Andre Ethier in his regular cleanup position. A.J. Ellis batted fifth and first baseman James Loney batted sixth. Placing A.J. Ellis fifth allowed Mattingly to break up some left-handed hitters, which included everyone following Ellis -- Loney, third baseman Adam Kennedy and center fielder Tony Gwynn.

We could call it the "El" lineup -- all left-handed except for two players named Ellis. That doesn't make this lineup so unique, because the two players named Ellis will be in every optimal lineup. It is, however, about as left-handed as the Dodgers can get. Their bench would be all right-handed, except for the switch-hitting Herrera.

The lineup didn't score a lot, but it scored three different ways in a 3-1 win. The first run was Gordon singling, drawing a wild pickoff throw to take third, then crossing on a ground ball by Ellis. The second run was a homer by Ethier. The third was A.J. Ellis singling, taking third on Loney's single to center and crossing on Adam Kennedy's sacrifice fly. Two of the runs scored on outs.

Tuesday night, Arizona sent out a left hander, Wade Miley. The Dodgers lineup against Miley once again began with Gordon, followed by Mark Ellis. Ethier remained in the cleanup position, though he moved to center field. A.J. Ellis stayed at No. 5.

Moving Ethier to center enabled the Dodgers to play their two right-handed hitting call-ups, with Scott Van Slyke taking right field and Jerry Sands in left. Van Slyke batted third and Sands batted sixth. Loney batted seventh at first base and Justin Sellers batted eighth at third base.

If you're asking about the best and most right-handed lineup the Dodgers can put to a left hander, that's it. Maybe Herrera can rest Gordon against some of them. In that case, your bench is all left-handed, except for backup catcher Matt Treanor.

The obvious difference here is removing Gwynn and Abreu for Van Slyke and Sands. By flipping the lineup for left handers, the Dodgers change from a veteran lineup to an inexperienced lineup. We shouldn't be too surprised by nights like Tuesday, when the younger lineup produced ten hits, but the only run came on a solo homer by Mark Ellis. The Dodgers lost, 5-1.

The Dodgers couldn't hit in sequence, and it had a lot to do with the young outfielders. Van Slyke hit into two force outs, one with two down and a runner on third. He'll be a hero if he can mix in some doubles. He hit three balls hard through the middle, including a fly out to center. All three were outs.

The Dodgers minor league player of the year in 2011, Van Slyke made his first career start Tuesday in the No. 3 hole. No. 3 is a big responsibility. Mark Ellis, batting in front of Van Slyke, and Ethier and A.J. Ellis, batting behind him, were a combined six for 11 Tuesday night. Van Slyke, in the middle of all those hits, was zero for four.

Also, Sands followed three hits by Ethier and A.J. Ellis with outs. So, it wasn't a great night for the young right-handed hitters. It also shows, specifically, what the Dodgers are up against for the next couple weeks.

Entering Tuesday's game, the Dodgers were 6-1 at home against left-handed starters. But injuries have forced the Dodgers to go all the way down to prospects, greenhorns, to get important jobs done against left-handed pitching.

The resulting weaknesses also magnify the flaws that already were there, namely the fact that Gordon and Loney don't hit left handers. Loney has a career .663 OPS against lefties. When Matt Kemp is in the lineup, you're going to score against lefties, anyway. When he's missing, these become areas where you might start looking to improve offensive production.

So, half of the Dodgers most right-handed batting order is compromised -- Gordon and Loney because they're left-handed hitters who don't hit left handers, and Sands and Van Slyke because they are inexperienced, at best. The Dodgers need to find a way against left handers. The hope, as always, is that a young hitter like Sands and Van Slyke will seize the opportunity. The Dodgers are down to needing something like that, just for the next couple weeks.

PS: The Dodgers were to face another left hander, Clayton Richard, Wednesday afternoon in San Diego.

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