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Dodgers preaching patience with a slumping James Outman

Dave Roberts: “It’s how can we get him back with some traction, some confidence.”

MLB: JUN 13 White Sox at Dodgers Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — James Outman’s two-out single in the sixth inning on Thursday loaded the bases for what would be a game-tying rally for the Dodgers, thanks to a Chris Taylor grand slam three pitches later. While the hit was welcome for Outman, it was surrounded by three more strikeouts, emblematic of his struggles for the last month and a half.

Since winning National League Rookie of the Month with an incredible April, Outman is hitting just .167/.275/.275 with a 55 wRC+ that ranks 234th among the 240 major league hitters with at least 100 plate appearances during that time.

Outman’s batted-ball numbers since the start of May are even worse, with an expected batting average of .141 and an expected slugging percentage of .204.

“It’s frustrating to not get the success that you want, but baseball’s hard,” Outman said. “It’s not like I’m expecting to start raking all of a sudden. It’s got to build up, and the more I can stack positive days, the better off I’ll be.”

Even with the single on Thursday, Outman is currently in a 5-for-48 slump with 26 strikeouts and six walks.

“We wouldn’t be here without James and his production in April,” manager Dave Roberts said. “So now it’s how can we get him back with some traction, some confidence.”

Outman’s confidence was riding high for over a year, after working his way up from Double-A to Triple-A and then to the majors last season. He was only active for four games in 2022, but his production in limited duty was wondrous, including a home run in his first major league at-bat. He just kept hitting at absurd levels in Triple-A after he was sent back down to the minors, at .333/.422/.720 over the final eight weeks of the season.

Outman kept that up with a red-hot spring training, forcing his way onto not only the Dodgers opening day roster, but also the regular centerfield job. He hit .292/.376/.615 with seven home runs through April, the most home runs by a Dodgers rookie in one month since Will Smith four seasons earlier.

But the hits have come with less frequency since then, with pitchers adjusting to Outman and attacking him in different ways. He’s no longer crushing fastballs, after a .319 batting average and .617 slugging percentage on at-bats that ended on the pitch in April, hitting just .145 on fastballs with a .236 slugging percentage since.

“They started pitching me a little different, then the swing broke down a little bit, and then the confidence wasn’t there,” Outman explained.

“For me, understanding what he’s good at and being convicted each pitch, that’s what I’m looking for, as opposed to the struggles, when he’s caught in between,” Roberts said. “If we can get him to be convicted on his zone, the results will be there.”

On the season, Outman’s 36.2-percent strikeout rate is highest in the majors.

After playing nearly every day, Outman has been starting less and less. He has only eight plate appearances against left-handed pitchers in the Dodgers’ last 26 games, though part of that is due to the team only facing six southpaw starters in the last month. But Outman is even sitting occasionally against right-handers, against whom he is hitting only .154/.280/.269 with a 56 wRC+ since May 1.

Outman’s defense in centerfield is generally perceived as above average, which jives with his Baseball Savant numbers (+3 in Outs Above Average) but not so much in Defensive Runs Saved (-3) or Total Zone Rating (-2). But it’s earning him playing time, even if it’s less regular than earlier in the season.

Over the Dodgers last 28 games, playing time has been split almost evenly between David Peralta (21 starts, 78 PA), Outman (18 starts, 74 plate appearances), and Jason Heyward (18 starts, 73 PA), with all but three of those total starts coming against right-handed pitchers. The only ways all three left-handed-hitting outfielders can all start in a game is if Mookie Betts shifts to the middle infield or, as was the case on Thursday, when designated hitter J.D. Martinez gets a rare rest day.

“What he’s done, as far as the preparation, each day coming in fresh and expecting good things to happen, I think that will show itself,” Roberts said of Outman. “I sort of look at it as we have a three-headed monster with Jason, David, and James. It’s how best we use them to keep them frisky and fresh, to put them in good spots to succeed.”