Thursday, May 31, 2012

With left approach, Dodgers can solve righties

Matt Kemp is injured again, and the Dodgers were starting to lose their grip against right-handed pitching even before Kemp returned from the disabled list the first time. However, the Dodgers have demonstrated an approach to right handers that works. The question is whether they will go back to it.

By BILL PETERSON
Big Leagues in Los Angeles


The Dodgers reached their first three-game losing streak of the season Wednesday night, the same night Matt Kemp's hamstring gave out again following a one-day return.

You might say this is the low point of the Dodgers season. Some low point -- first place, 5 1/2-game lead, best record in baseball. But the low points can plumb much lower, and this is precisely what is feared most in blue heaven.

As we endure the horror of this three-game losing streak, we look back on happier times, when the results were so satisfying despite a very long disabled list that has included Kemp, Jerry Hairston, Juan Rivera, Juan Uribe, Mark Lewis and Ted Lilly. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly somehow held the house together by his mode of tinkering that looks in one light like drawing names from a hat and looks in another light like interesting development.

But even before Kemp's brief return from the disabled list, it appeared this club's offensive foundation was cracking. The one attribute the Dodgers had demonstrated, with or without Kemp, was the ability to beat right-handed starting pitchers. The Dodgers won 20 of their first 25 games against right-handed starters. Since then, though, the Dodgers have lost four of their last five against right-handed starters.

This three-game losing streak is all against right-handed starters. A week ago, it was almost inconceivable that the Dodgers couldn't tack up six runs against most of the world's right handers. Then, just like that, they're being taken to the woodshed by Lucas Harrell and Michael Fiers.

About a week ago, our fascination with how Mattingly transformed the batting order without Kemp led to an analysis of the new lineup against right-handed pitching as a core and a shell. The core was four left-handed batters consecutively -- Bobby Abreu, Andre Ethier, Adam Kennedy and James Loney -- followed by A.J. Ellis in the seven hole. The results were rather impressive.

This particular core has taken six starts against right handers since Kemp first went on the disabled list. That lineup's output: six wins and 40 runs, nearly seven per game. The details of the core's first four games are discussed here. The hitters in the core, within the six games, are hitting .350 (40 for 114) with 22 runs and 20 RBI.

The core played its fifth game together on May 22 at Arizona. The Dodgers won, 8-7. Not a spectacular night for the core, which went five for 17, but it produced runs with just the right amount of tapping. For example, Mattingly decided in the seventh inning of that game, with the bases loaded, to pinch hit for Kennedy with Ivan DeJesus. The last time the Dodgers faced a right-handed starter, Mattingly took down Kennedy for Scott Van Slyke against a left-handed reliever in the sixth inning and Van Slyke hit a three-run homer to beat St. Louis, 6-5. This time, DeJesus hit a sacrifice fly in his pinch at-bat, then won the game in the ninth with a two-run double. Another golden victory.

Then, as always, the dynamics of the club changed. As a most welcomed development, Jerry Hairston returned from the disabled list, and, naturally, the manager wants him in the lineup. And you certainly aren't thinking that the reason your lineup bashes right-handed starters is because you have Adam Kennedy at third base in the No. 5 hole. It's seeming at this point like every time you pinch hit for Kennedy, you score three runs.

So, Hairston goes into the lineup against the next right hander, batting fifth at third base, on May 25. Hairston did fine -- one for three with a walk and an RBI. But the lineup, which was otherwise unchanged, laid an egg. The core was only three for 14 and the shell (the bottom two and top two slots in the order) was four for 18. The Dodgers lost, 3-1, to Houston and Harrell.

OK. So, let's go back to the core with Kennedy included on May 26, with the Astros tossing right hander Bud Norris at Dodger Stadium. And it's another winning performance by the core with four straight left-handed hitters. The core went seven for 19 with four runs, four RBI and a homer. The Astros won, 6-3, on Ellis's three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth.

Monday night, against Milwaukee and Shaun Marcum at Dodger Stadium, Mattingly went back to the version of the core that broke up the left-handed hitters by batting Hairston fifth. The core did a less productive job -- seven for 22  with only one run and two RBI. Again, Hairston was fine -- two for three with an RBI and a walk. But the lineup was terrible. The shell, in particular, finished the night one for 16 with a run and nine strikeouts. The Dodgers lost, 3-2.

The last two nights, with Kemp in the starting lineup, Mattingly has tried some other combinations, including an order Wednesday night that had Loney batting second against Yovanni Gallardo. The Dodgers lost again, 6-3, their fourth loss in five games against a right-handed starting pitcher.

Now, with Kemp back on the shelf for a while, the Dodgers are scuffling all of a sudden, but they need not scuffle too much. At least, we know they have a productive approach with what they have against right handers. The problem with that approach is that lining up four consecutive left-handed hitters clashes with getting Hairston into the lineup at third base.

Look what's happened here. All the manager did was take Adam Kennedy out of the lineup against right handers and put Jerry Hairston in his place. Hairston produced, added value to the lineup, yet, the lineup tanked. Kennedy was nothing special in that slot, just six for 22 (.273) inflated by one four-for-four game. As No. 5, Kennedy drove in just two runs in six games. Hairston matched that in two games.

It doesn't add up. Then, again, it's not supposed to add up. Lineups aren't the sort of things that add up, like ledgers, balance sheets and math problems. Lineups either work or they don't. We might say of a successful balance sheet that it adds up. We say of a successful lineup that it works.

And when something works, you keep working it until it doesn't work anymore, or until you no longer must work it. In times of widespread injury, baseball management operates by the seat of its pants. Long-run statistical samples about this or that player or combination are not here to help. You need to win a game today. You’re past seeking the best probability. You’re down to your best chance, period. It’s good to know that something works.

Here's a tidbit about Loney as the last lefty: In the six games in which Loney batted sixth, right behind Kennedy, in the order against right-handed pitchers, Loney batted .385 (10 for 26) with a .928 OPS. Coincidence? No. Just an indication of how deep that lineup runs against right-handed starters.

But maybe Loney as the fourth consecutive left-handed hitter against a right-handed starter is quite better than the guy we normally see, and if there are reasons why stacking left-handed bats has worked so well, that might be one of them. So, here is a vote to going back to stacking a core of left-handed hitters  against right handed starters. Let’s test that out a little more.

And if you're worried that four straight left-handed hitters will be easy pickings for the other guy's left-handed reliever in the seventh inning, don't be. The left-handed hitters in that Dodgers core are seven for 12 against the first left-handed reliever during those six games.

The shell of that Dodgers lineup against right handers now is on its third iteration, since Mattingly relented and wrote in Dee Gordon as the No. 8 hitter for the May 22 game at Arizona. Here is how Gordon has responded in eight games at No. 8: 10 for 28 (.357 average) with a .400 on-base and a .793 OPS. He has walked a couple times, stolen a couple bases and scored four runs.

With Ellis batting right in front of Gordon, you now have two ways to start the offense from the bottom of the order, because Ellis knows how to get on and Gordon can do damage when he's on. If Gordon starts your inning by reaching, he can steal second, your pitcher can bunt him to third and you score on a sacrifice fly, at worst.

Then, we come around to the leadoff hitter, who has typically been Tony Gwynn against right handers. In his games leading off against righties for the last two weeks, Gwynn is nine for 33 (.273) with five runs and six RBI. Following Gwynn is Elian Herrera, who has 15 strikeouts and 14 hits, but he's also batting .292.

Submitted for your approval, then, is a modest proposal for how the Dodgers should arrange their batting order against right-handed pitching.

First, drop Gwynn from the lead off position and put him in the five hole. Then, put Hairston in the leadoff spot at third base. Playing the game in such a tough, engaging way, Hairston sets a good tone to begin the game for the Dodgers. He knows how to take a pitch and navigate the bases. Follow Hairston with second baseman Herrera, a switch hitter with speed.

After Herrera, march up the core, four straight left-handed hitters -- it actually becomes five straight left-handed hitters because Herrera switches. We'll call the proposed core Abreu in left, Ethier in right, Gwynn in center and Loney at first. After that, it's Ellis batting seventh and catching, followed by Gordon eighth at short, then the pitcher. If Ellis is on or Gordon has something working on the bases when the leadoff man comes up, then you're back to Hairston, who can hit line drives.

This obviously isn’t an everyday lineup, and we haven’t begun to consider how the Dodgers might attack left-handed starters. However, there is enough here, perhaps, to illustrate that the Dodgers ought to hold their own against right handers as they weather the newest storms.

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