Monday, June 4, 2012

Dodgers scoring output as predictable as the lineup

The Dodgers played three in Colorado over the weekend, and the team's offensive performance played out exactly as it has for the last three weeks. The best production came with left-handed hitters stacked against right-handed pitchers. So, why would the Dodgers deviate from a successful approach?

By BILL PETERSON
Big Leagues in Los Angeles


We find ourselves on the edge of a Dodgers-Giants kind of thing again, though not the kind on which the glory of this rivalry was built.

Instead, we see two flagging teams, both beset by injury, just hoping their pitchers can miss enough bats to minimize the beatings. The Dodgers have been losing their games and the Giants have been winning theirs, but the general blueprint is the same. However, because the Dodgers have been losing their games and the Giants have been winning theirs, the Giants now are within three games of the Dodgers for the NL West lead.

The Dodgers lost two of three in Colorado during the weekend, extending their losing streak to five games, then ending it there, then losing again. The details are dreary enough, but the predictability of the results makes this losing special. You can tell if the Dodgers are going to score by reading the lineup card.

Suppose you visited our lush offices last Friday and made the following proposition: "The Dodgers are in Colorado this weekend for three games. In one game, they will face a left-handed starting pitcher. In another, they will stack four or five left-handed hitters against a right-handed starter. In the remaining game, the Dodgers will break up their left-handed hitters against a right-handed starter. How will the Dodgers fare in these games?"

Our reply would have gone something like this: "We cannot predict wins and losses. In general, the Dodgers pitch it and catch it well enough to win every game. However, based on recent trends and results, which is the best we can go on with an ever-fluctuating situation like a baseball team, the offense is easy to predict. The Dodgers will produce next to nothing offensively against the left hander, they will score six runs when they stack the left-handed hitters against the right hander, and they will produce next to nothing offensively when they break up the left-handed hitters against the right-handed starter."

That prediction would have come true. That's incredible. Why would we predict that? Because that's exactly what's been going on with this club for three weeks.

The Dodgers lost the Friday night game, 13-3, against left-handed starter Josh Outman, filling in for released left hander Jamie Moyer.  The Dodgers lined up a mighty arsenal of right-handed hitters, starting with Jerry Hairston in the clean-up position, followed, in order, by Scott Van Slyke, Alex Castellanos and Matt Treanor. Guess what? They actually did some damage -- five for 12 with all three runs and RBI, along with a double, a triple and a stolen base. Of course, they did it all against right-handed relievers.

For the middle game against right hander Juan Nicasio, the Dodgers featured their core-and-shell type of lineup so often described by now within this journal. Same guys -- Bobby Abreu, Andre Ethier, Adam Kennedy, James Loney and A.J. Ellis, three through seven. The main component is that the first four are left-handed hitters.

The Dodgers scored six runs, because that's what this core has produced every time it has gone out there since Matt Kemp first went on the disabled list. The Dodgers won, 6-2. The core went seven for 20 with two runs and four RBI, along with four walks, two doubles and a homer. The core hitters were three for six with a double and a homer against Matt Reynolds, the first left-handed reliever of the game.

Closing out the series on Sunday, the Dodgers faced Colorado right hander Alex White with the lineup splitting the left-handed hitters, replacing Kennedy in the order with Hairston. The whole lineup generated three hits in a 3-2 loss.

We say, again, go with the hot hand. The Dodgers can maintain their stack of left-handed hitters and get Hairston into the lineup by moving Tony Gwynn down to No. 5 and putting Hairston in the lead-off position. We don't think Adam Kennedy is some kind of magic ingredient making that lineup tick. We think that when you don't have a dominant right-handed hitter around, a stack of left-handed hitters who are better is the best attack on a right-handed starter.

At some point, we're starting to think, it wears on the pitcher. Look again at Loney, the last of four straight left handed hitters in that middle game. He went two for five with a double. As the last of four straight left-handed hitters since Kemp first went out, in each case batting right behind Kennedy, Loney is hitting .387 (12 for 31). And the Dodgers have won all seven of those games. Every game the Dodgers have lost to a right-handed starter since Kemp went out, the Dodgers broke up the left-handed hitters.

You might say that the sample sizes here aren't large enough for making predictions of the sort we suggested above. But we don't get large sample sizes for making these predictions. The baseball club is always changing. Players are injured, people get called up, trades are made and your combinations of available players are rarely the same from week to week. How would the stacked lineup of these players fare in the long run? There is no long run. So, just ride it while it's hot because it's there and nothing else is.

The Giants were 25-23, 7 1/2 games behind the Dodgers on May 28, when they went home to Pac Bell Park for seven games against two weak hitting clubs, the Chicago Cubs and Arizona Diamondbacks. The Giants won five of the six games played through Sunday, outscoring their foes, 16-11. The Giants took two of the wins by one run and the other three by two runs.

For doing just that much, the Giants closed their deficit to three games behind the Dodgers. Which shows how precarious and stable is the Dodgers' lead, all at the same time. It also makes the Dodgers’ reticence about using a successful lineup all the more puzzling.

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