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3 questions about the Dodgers offense heading into the NL wild card game

Houston Astros v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

The Dodgers offense led the National League in runs scored for a fourth straight season, and they scored eight or more runs in each of their last five games, tying a franchise record.

But there are still some questions about the Dodgers bats heading into their National League wild card game matchup against the Cardinals.

How will the Dodgers fill the Max Muncy-sized hole?

Muncy dislocated his left elbow on Sunday, and is still awaiting word on the damage to the joint later this week. He’ll be out Wednesday, and possibly all of October. But in the immediate future, the club needs a first baseman.

Manager Dave Roberts said Tuesday he hasn’t yet decided on his starting first baseman for Wednesday, but mentioned Matt Beaty, Cody Bellinger, and Albert Pujols as options. All three took turns at first base during workouts at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday.

“If a guy starts a game, he may not finish the game there,” Roberts said. “Trying to keep some optionality with the lineup, with the defense, all that stuff.”

Beaty would provide a left-handed option to start the game against the right-handed Adam Wainwright, but Beaty has only started three games in the last two months, just once at first. The Dodgers like to deploy Beaty off the bench, where he led the team with 59 pinch-hit plate appearances.

Pujols hasn’t started very often of late either, just nine times since the beginning of August. Eight of those were against left-handed pitching, against whom he hit .294/.336/.603 with 13 home runs this season. Against right-handers, Pujols hit .180/.233/.266 with four homers in 150 plate appearances. In the last two months, the Dodgers faced 39 right-handed starting pitchers, and Pujols started against only one of them: Wainwright, on September 8 in St. Louis. He was hitless in three at-bats against his teammate for seven years with the Cardinals.

“Albert is a great friend, but right now we are fighting,” Wainwright said with a smile on Tuesday. “We’ll make up afterwards. But we’re fighting right now.”

Bellinger has plenty of career experience at first base, but he’s only played there twice this season. And if you’re going to have Bellinger’s bat in the lineup after a .165/.240/.302 season, you might as well try to maximize his other contributions, which would be his excellent defense in centerfield.

“With Max [Scherzer] pitching, a flyball pitcher, outfield defense is a premium,” Roberts said. “So it certainly weighs into my decision, absolutely.”

Starting Bellinger in center likely means Chris Taylor begins Wednesday on the bench, with AJ Pollock in left and Mookie Betts in right. Which brings us to our next question.

Will Chris Taylor break out of his slump?

Taylor has been a lineup mainstay during this current Dodgers run, playing 51 of 54 postseason games since 2017, starting 44 times. He made his first All-Star Game in July.

But for most of this season’s final month, Taylor was fighting a two-front war. He was struggling at the plate, but also battling a pinched nerve in his neck, the latter limiting him to only two starts and 12 plate appearances over a two-week stretch in September.

But his slump has lasted much longer than that, hitting just .187/.271/.293 since the start of August. Strikeouts are always a part of Taylor’s game, but he’s whiffed at an even higher rate over the final two months.

Taylor’s 2021 splits

through July 31 411 .283/.375/.499 17 11.2% 26.3% 137
since August 1 171 .187/.271/.293 3 9.9% 34.5% 59
Source: Baseball Reference & FanGraphs

Roberts called Taylor’s mechanical adjustments “a work in progress,” but another indication of his slump is how Taylor’s fared against fastballs. Through the end of August, Taylor hit .287 with a .504 slugging percentage on at-bats that ended on a fastball, and a .373 wOBA.

But since the beginning of September, Taylor is 5-for-38 (.132) with a .237 slugging percentage and a .206 wOBA against fastballs.

Taylor’s playing time has waned during his slump, and not just because of injury. With the neck issues behind him, Taylor started only three of the final six games of the regular season. But given Muncy’s expected absence, Taylor could see an increase in playing time in October.

“He’s not right mechanically. He’s right physically. I’m going to bet on him. I believe in him. He’s just got to figure it out. He’s going to go out there and compete and prepare,” Roberts said Sunday. “I think he’s a threat when he’s in the lineup, so he’s going to keep getting opportunities.”

How deep is your lineup? I really mean to learn

On the final day of the regular season, the Dodgers fielded what is currently the best version of their lineup. Here are the eight position players, along with their final wRC+ and National League rank in that category among players with at least 300 plate appearances:

Mookie Betts: 131 (26th)
Corey Seager: 147 (7th)
Trea Turner: 142 (11th)
Justin Turner: 127 (29th)
Max Muncy: 140 (15th)
Will Smith: 130 (27th)
AJ Pollock: 137 (19th)
Chris Taylor: 114 (43rd)

That’s a ridiculously deep group of offensive players. Taylor, even with his late struggles, still ended up roughly 14 percent better than average at the plate, when factoring in park and league. And he’s the eighth-best hitter among the regulars.

Muncy being out certainly lessens the depth, but there’s plenty of production to go around.

Before this year, the Dodgers have never fielded a team with seven regulars with a season wRC+ of 125 or higher. This year is the second Dodgers team with six 130 wRC+ players, after last year in the shortened, 60-game season. But to keep that production up over a full season, with no designated hitter, is remarkable.

In 2018 the Dodgers had a whopping nine players with at least a 120 wRC+ (counting trade acquisitions Manny Machado and David Freese over the entire year), but several were used in platoons. The closest comp to this year’s team in franchise lore is the 1953 Brooklyn squad, with five players sporting a 140 wRC+ or higher, led by Duke Snider’s 165.

Even without Muncy, these Dodgers will have five hitters with a 130 or higher wRC+, plus Justin Turner and his 127 wRC+ as well. There have only been five Dodgers playoff teams with even four regulars (300+ PA) with a 130 wRC+.

Stacked Dodgers playoff lineups

Year 130 wRC+ hitters Players
Year 130 wRC+ hitters Players
2021 6 Seager (147), T.Turner (142), Muncy (140), Pollock (137), Betts (131), Smith (130)
2020 6* Seager (150), Betts (147), J.Turner (138), Smith (137), Pollock (131), Muncy (130)
1953 5 Snider (165), Campanella (154), Furillo (147), Robinson (140), Hodges (140)
1974 4 Wynn (152), Ferguson (133), Crawford (131), Garvey (130)
1941 4 Camilli (166), Reiser (166), Medwick (142), Walker (136)
minimum 300 PA *2020 season was only 60 games (used minimum 150 PA)

Now it’s just a matter of those good hitters to play like it in October.

“It’s good to be playing well going into the playoffs and having a good feeling,” Justin Turner said. “For the offense the last two, three weeks to kind of start finding its stride is certainly more promising than if we’re not.”