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The Dodgers’ ‘hard mode’ problem

Or “The Dodgers offensive woes with the bases loaded” or “Someone needs to check if the Dodgers have gone “vegan,” because they sure don’t like meatballs.”

Cardinals pitcher Packy Naughton after striking out Cody Bellinger. Busch Stadium. July 12, 2022.
Robert Cohen / St. Louis Post-Dispatch

We could all stand to be a bit more vegan, but the pun was just too good to pass up. As you may or may not know by now, the Dodgers lost to the Cardinals on Tuesday, 7-6. And frankly, that loss feels like six weeks ago based on the events of Wednesday night.

Losses happen, and generally, they are not a big deal. However, sometimes a confluence of events arrives that is so epic you cannot continue without commenting on it. We had a combination of:

  1. The Dodgers doing nothing productive with the bases loaded and no outs in the seventh inning.
  2. The Dodgers doing nothing productive with a center-cut fastball that catches a lot of the plate. (Hence the vegan joke, which was originally shared in the TBLA Writer’s Room.)

We shall address each point in order.

The Dodgers’ woes with the bases loaded in 2022

You, probably: The Dodgers sure seem to leave the bases loaded a lot with nothing to show for it.

Stop me if you have heard this scenario before: the Dodgers load the bases in 2022...and then nothing. Inning over. Maybe we get a sacrifice fly as they have done that ten times as of publication this year.

But your eyes are not deceiving you. It’s a bad state of affairs. At end of play on Tuesday, the league as a whole with the bases loaded was hitting .259/.300/.445 with 65 grand slams, an average of a little more than two per team.

But Michael, you say. It’s not fair to compare the Dodgers to the League as a whole because it’s one team versus 29 teams, and the Dodgers’ stats also count in the overall total. I agree, that’s a fair point. It is worth noting at this point, that I am not the TBLA stat guy. I am the TBLA law, travel, and essay guy. But let’s give this analysis a whirl.

Looking at the statistic of run differential, it feels fair to compare the Dodgers’ offense to a team of similar if not better run differential, because that feels closest to an apples-to-apples comparison. As of Tuesday, the Dodgers had a plus-150 run differential. The only team with a better mark is the New York Yankees, at plus-176.

Dodgers vs. Yankees with the bases loaded

Statistics LAD NYY
Statistics LAD NYY
PA 97 83
AB 79 66
R 69 77
H 17 20
2B and 3B 11 6
HR 0 5
RBI 60 70
BB 6 6
K 28 16
BA 0.215 0.303
OBP 0.258 0.317
SLG 0.367 0.636
OPS 0.625 0.954
GDP 5 6
SF 10 20
BABIP 0.279 0.273
2022 season, through July 12 Michael Elizondo / TrueBlueLA

As you can see, while the Dodgers are getting the bases full more often, the Yankees are actually getting more runs with fewer at-bats. The Yankees have also been striking out far less with the bases loaded. Even the BABIP numbers are comparable. The Dodgers are doing less with more in these situations, while the Yankees are doing more with less as to this point in the season.

Who has been the most productive for the Dodgers with the bases loaded? As of this essay, (apart from the injured Edwin Rios and his small sample size) Freddie Freeman is hitting .444 (4 for 9), with 3 extra-base hits, and 10 RBIs. Will Smith and Justin Turner have also done well with the bases loaded.

Who has done poorly? Mookie Betts is 2 for 10 but with 9 RBIs and the injured, Chris Taylor has gone 0 for 7 with 4 Ks. Cody Bellinger has gone 1 for 10 with 3 RBIs and 7 Ks to lead the team. But with the season effectively half over, that point does not tell the whole story.

Fangraphs argues that the 2022 Dodgers have been terrible with center-cut fastballs and yet really good with pitchers’ pitches

You, probably: It’s right down the middle. Do something!

Hitting is hard, but imagine foregoing the meatballs, the center-cut fastballs in favor of plate discipline, and turning pitchers’ pitches into runs. On Tuesday, Justin Choi of Fangraphs wrote an excellent article worth examining showing the odd way that the Dodgers have been manufacturing runs this year.

Notably, it is not just you - the Dodgers have been terrible with turning center-cut fastballs into runs, akin to the last-place Nationals and Athletics.

This fact has remained true all the while being exceptional at hitting pitchers’ pitches on the corners, mitigating their advantage while employing exceptional plate discipline. The article as a whole is completely worth your time. The main culprits for the Dodgers’ ineptitude with center-cut fastballs are Trea Turner, Cody Bellinger, and (not surprisingly) Max Muncy. In comparison to last year, Turner has gone from pretty good to below average, Bellinger has remained terrible (compared to his 2021 numbers), and Muncy’s production has become worse than Bellinger’s, which does not seem possible.

More from Choi:

In sum, the Dodgers up to this point have come up empty against middle-middle fastballs. But breaking and offspeed pitches have been point of strength (as Ben Clemens also noted), and so have all kinds of borderline pitches. And keeping up with recent tradition, they haven’t been susceptible to pitches outside the zone...

...Despite abysmal numbers against meatballs, the Dodgers rank second in runs generated from swings and takes, which make up most of a team’s offensive output. It really is bizarre....

...But as it stands, the Dodgers’ path to an elite offense has been, well, supremely weird. The top five offenses this season by wRC+ belong to, in order: the Yankees, Astros, Dodgers, Twins, and Mets. Four of the five teams are among the top ten in Heart zone runs; the other one is 29th. As if hitting isn’t difficult enough, the Dodgers this season are playing on hard mode, producing runs via 50–50 pitches and nasty breaking balls both in and out of the zone.

[emphasis added.]

As such, the math currently indicates that you have a better chance of beating the Dodgers if you let them load the bases and then throw the following pitches down Broadway.

One last note as to Cody Bellinger

You, probably: Good grief.

As I wrote before the season:

It was rough to watch Cody Bellinger in 2021. Every time you thought “that’s got to be bottom, right?” - it just kept getting worse....

And if we’re lucky, Bellinger makes some semblance of a return to form in 2022. It would be quite disheartening if he were to follow the Yasiel Puig arc. It seems pretty clear that Bellinger can function and grind in the clubhouse with everything stacked against him.

For that week in April, it seemed that Bellinger had finally, mercifully figured it out, earning Player of the Week honors. Unfortunately, it’s been more of the same: great defense, but maddeningly inconsistent and below-average offense.

I saw something from SportsNetLA pointing out why pitchers can routinely beat Bellinger with fastballs this season, which is worth sharing, pointing out that his starting position of his bat is too flat and he is rushing his swing:

His second-best moment in the 2021 Playoffs seems to confirm Hairston’s diagnosis:

Note the upright position of the bat in both San Francisco in the NLDS and Los Angeles in the NLCS.

I do not think that anyone is expecting a return to MVP form from Bellinger anymore, which is a shame. At this point, expectations have diminished to where if Bellinger were to put up average to slightly below average offensive numbers, he could still have a solid career.