Monday, May 21, 2012

Minus Kemp, Dodgers not down vs. right handers

With Matt Kemp joining the Dodgers' disabled list, the club looked to be in trouble. But manager Don Mattingly has pieced together a productive lineup against right-handed pitching, and the Dodgers only figure to see three troublesome lefties in a 14-game stretch.

Big Leagues in Los Angeles

With four players from the Dodgers opening day lineup sitting on the disabled list, Don Mattingly has resorted to managing. Heck, he's the only guy still around who isn't hurt. He has to do something.

Mattingly is left with a cast of old guys, rookies and veteran role players, almost none of whom profiles as an everyday performer at this moment. Thus, an everyday lineup with this group is out of the question. Mattingly has two names that will be in the lineup every day until some other players return -- Andre Ethier and A.J. Ellis. Let's just say it: barring further injury. Everything else is up for grabs.

But the Dodgers keep winning, anyway. They’re up to 28-13 now, the best record in the game, coming off nine wins in their last 11 home games. Just looking at the Dodgers active roster at the moment, it’s hard to see any buttons for Mattingly to push, but he keeps finding a few and they keep opening up the scoreboard.

The most obvious way to view Mattingly's task is to consider two different kinds of adversary -- left-handed pitchers and right-handed pitchers. When last we checked on the Dodgers, their temporary lineups against left handers shaped up as a problem. In the Dodgers’ last four games, though, their lineup against right-handed starters has been a fascinating development -- and productive, too, cranking out at least six runs in each game.

The lineup against right handers might be divided into two parts. Off the top of our head, we'll call them the core and the shell. The core of the lineup has been constant through the last four games, all of them wins against opposing right-handed starters. It starts with Bobby Abreu batting third in left field, followed, in order, by Andre Ethier in right, Adam Kennedy at third base, James Loney at first and A.J. Ellis catching.

After batting Ellis fifth to break up his left-handed hitters earlier in the week against Arizona right hander Ian Kennedy, Mattingly has moved Ellis to seventh, which lines up four lefties -- Abreu through Loney -- all in a row. The effect on right-handed starters has been startling.

The hitters in the core are 29 for 78 (.372) with 18 runs and 14 RBI in the last four games, through May 20. The Dodgers had 20 offensive innings in which the core hitters were at least half of the hitters who batted. In those 20 innings, the Dodgers scored 14 times for 25 runs.

With that core of veteran left-handed hitters, one coming right after another, the Dodgers are scoring more and at least as consistently as they scored with Matt Kemp in the lineup. Remember, though, this is only against right-handed starting pitchers. Which raises the obvious objection to Mattingly's core; to wit, doesn't he play into the hands of the opposing manager by lining up his left-handed hitters that way? Now, the other side can shut down your core in the seventh with one left-handed reliever, then that core has to deal with the closer in the ninth. One response for Mattingly might be to march up right-handed hitters against the lefty reliever.

But Mattingly doesn't take the bait. By bringing up right-handed pinch hitting that early, he would cook his bench and leave himself without left-handed hitting after the other guys run out of left-handed pitching. If the other side has a good left-handed closer, you might look at it differently. Otherwise,  Mattingly is keeping his left-handed core together, at least through the seventh inning. And that core has responded by scoring against those left-handed relievers. The left-handed hitters in that core are five for nine against lefties in the last four games. In those games, the core has come up for three innings against left handers and the Dodgers scored every time for a total of six runs.

Mattingly will replace Abreu defensively late in games and he'll rest a top guy or two for a couple innings if the Dodgers are winning big. But he likes to leave the left handers in there against a wave of left-handed relief. The hitters have made that the correct decision. Except when Mattingly decides otherwise, and that becomes a correct decision, too.

The Dodgers trailed St. Louis, 5-2, as they batted in the bottom of the seventh Sunday night at Dodger Stadium. The inning began at the top of the order with Tony Gwynn flying out and Elian Herrera singling against Victor Marte. With the four left-handed hitters due up, the Cardinals brought in their left hander, Mark Rzepczynski. True to form, Mattingly stuck with his lefties, who touched up the same guy for a run two nights earlier. This time, Abreu singled Herrera to second, then Ethier struck out.

In the last four days, to this point, Mattingly had not one time taken down a left-handed hitter from that core in favor of a right-handed bat against the first left-handed reliever of the game. The left-handed hitters were validating that approach. But now, all of a sudden, Mattingly changed course, taking down Kennedy for Scott Van Slyke. Kennedy was five for his last 10, including a hit and a walk in his last two ups against left handers. Van Slyke had appeared in five of the last six games without a hit to show for it. Zero for six. So, just to see what happens? Van Slyke hit his first big league homer, a game-winning three-run bomb for a 6-5 Dodgers win.

The shell of the order is the bottom two spots and the top two spots in the lineup. As the lineup begins linear and ends cyclical, the top and the bottom of the order become a shell that surrounds the core. This shell is rather delicate. To this section, Mattingly has deferred all his new problems. The guys in the core are all there to make themselves comfortable and hit. All the mixing and matching takes place in the shell.

Two of the positions to be covered in the shell are injury replacements for Matt Kemp and Mark Ellis. Another position in here is the pitcher, which means you're probably going to give up an out for a base. Next up is leadoff, which has normally meant Dee Gordon. But after you've spent a bunt to put a runner in scoring position with one or two out, you want somebody up there who might drive the ball. So many problems.

In the last four games, Mattingly has used two different shells, the difference coming about after the injury to Mark Ellis. The second shell included Herrera, excluded Gordon and put Gwynn at the top of the order. Justin Sellars at shortstop batted eight in the second arrangement. The first shell no longer is optional because of the injury to Ellis, so we are left with the second.

The newer operation went nine for 32, scoring five runs and driving in three in two games Saturday and Sunday nights against the Cardinals. The hitters within this second shell took at least half of the at-bats in five different innings and the Dodgers scored in only one of them, a four-run seventh on Saturday that ran through eight hitters. There was another inning in which Herrera singled with one out and scored after singles by Abreu and Ethier. That's a core inning.

Looking at the Dodgers batting order as this shell and core, Herrera becomes a transitional figure between them in the two hole. As 27-year-old rookie with eight years in the minor leagues, he's suitable as the last hitter in the shell. As a switch hitter with speed batting in front of the left-handed core, he has a chance to trigger some offense. Herrera's minor league numbers say he's been a pretty reliable .360 on-base guy for the last five years, and he's been stealing about 35-40 bags per year at a 75 percent success rate.

Just as Herrera could be a suitable transitional hitter between the shell and the core at the top of the lineup, A.J. Ellis is the right fit for putting the core with the shell at the bottom. Batting seventh, Ellis can lead off for the shell and put a man on, as his on-base percentage is third across the NL at .446. Or, he can clean up for the core and get a man in, driving in eight runs in as many games since moving up from No. 8.

Flaws and all, you might say the Dodgers' temporary order against right handers is a well-enough wrought urn. The Dodgers seem to have that much of it solved while the big guys are away. They haven't lost to a right hander since Kemp went on the DL. But left handers are another story, and it could be a grim story, but the Dodgers might luck through it.

Mattingly has mentioned that the Dodgers weren't great against left handers even before the injuries. It's true that the Dodgers weren't as good against lefties as against righties. But they were 9-6 in games started by left handers before Kemp's injury. Kemp leads the National League with a .486 batting average against left handers. They were doing fine.

Since Kemp's injury, Mattingly has tried two different lineups against lefties. The Dodgers lost both games, scoring a total of three runs. The first of those lineups, which scored only one run, was discussed in an earlier piece. The next time out against a left hander, Mattingly benched Loney and Gordon, along with the two Ellises. His right-handed hitters that night were Herrera, Jerry Sands, Sellers and Matt Treanor. The Padres won, 4-2, behind Clayton Richard.

So, the Dodgers do have a problem against left-handed starters. However, they also have a lot going for them. In addition to being able to fight through these injuries largely at home, they have stumbled upon a stretch of the season during which they're likely to see only three lefties in a stretch of 14 games, just when we've figured out that left-handed pitchers are going to a problem.

The Dodgers will face Patrick Corbin and Joe Saunders during the next three days in Arizona. Then, they catch a break when Houston comes to Dodger Stadium this weekend, because the Astros are using lefties Wandy Rodriguez and J.A. Happ this week against the Cubs (who are 1-6 against left-handed starters). The Dodgers will miss them. Then, Milwaukee comes to town with only one left-handed starter, old friend Randy Wolf.

Left-handers take about 30 percent of the starts in the National League, so facing only three in a 14-game span during Kemp's injury might end up being worth a couple for the Dodgers. Timing is everything.

How much more time before Kemp returns? The Dodgers are shooting for May 29, the day he is eligible to come off the DL.

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