Once again the Los Angeles Dodgers enter the regular season with targets on their backs. It seems to be a common occurrence in the past few years. For starters, the city they play for automatically qualifies them to be hated.
The Dodgers being a team from Los Angeles seems to invite every opponent, good or bad, to step it up a notch and every fan to voice their loathing. They could be at the bottom of the standings and it will still merit the “Beat LA” chant at every away game.
This year, not only are they coming off winning their sixth straight National League West title, but they are also vying for a third consecutive World Series appearance. Oh, it’s gonna be a boisterous season and in the words of the great Vin Scully, “You can almost taste the pressure now.”
So, how do the Dodgers overcome the hostile crowds and the teams in their division whose sole purpose, beyond developing prospects, will be to serve as spoilers? How do you prepare for teams like the Milwaukee Brewers who change their starter after facing one batter because they think your lineup is more vulnerable facing the opposite-handed pitcher? How do you combat teams that are combatting the sabermetric-based Dodgers?
Adjustments. Baseball is a game of adjustments. The same way pitchers adjust to batters and batters to pitchers, the Dodgers must adjust their approach to how teams are managing against them. Here are some of the adjustments the Dodgers can make to keep opponents on their toes:
While the Dodgers were third in all of baseball in on-base percentage, they stranded the fourth most runners with 1,163 left on base last year. Clutch hitting was not their forte. They hit the second most home runs, yet failed to meet the league average of 41 sacrifice flies. Additionally, the Dodgers struck out 355 times, 5th most in all of baseball, with runners in scoring position. This is would be evidence of hitters “pressing” when runners are in scoring position.
If the Dodgers are to catch teams off guard, they really need to focus on situational hitting or other small ball tactics. Every opponent knows the Dodgers are coming at this game from an on-base percentage focus, meaning they will swing away or walk in every at-bat. Opposing teams use the defensive shift constantly and rarely defend against the bunt.
The Dodgers don’t hit to the opposite field, they rarely attempt a hit and run, and unless it’s the pitcher at the plate, they don’t bunt to move a runner. They don’t need to institute these tactics in every game, but for the sake of being less predictable and changing the way teams play defense against them, they should increase the rate at which they do use those tactics.
In 2018, the Dodgers stole 75 bases out of 99 attempts. Not the lowest, but not meeting the league average of 82 either. They aren’t perceived as a stealing threat because it’s rare. When was the last time you saw a pitch out against them? Last year Yasiel Puig and Cody Bellinger led the team in steals, Puig taking 15 of 20 attempts and Bellinger 14 of 15. With Puig gone in 2019, someone other than Bellinger needs to step up and be a threat on the base paths.
In fact, there are enough fairly speedy runners on the Dodgers roster that multiple players can be perceived as a threat, they only need to focus on taking advantage of pitchers with slower deliveries. Additionally, more hit/bunt and run plays will help to keep pitchers off-balance and distracted. Good things happen when you put that kind of pressure on the defense.
Previously outlined in a separate editorial, the Dodgers could benefit tremendously from a six-man rotation. Unlike most teams, the Dodgers boast a deep pitching staff that includes bullpen pitchers more than capable of holding down a sixth, even seventh, starter role. Having played 179, 177, and 173 games the past three seasons, the Dodgers (when fully healthy) could and should add built-in rest for their pitchers by embracing a sixth starter.
With the Dodgers chasing another World Series appearance that rest will be invaluable. Adding a sixth starter will also aid in Clayton Kershaw chasing his velocity reclamation, Rich Hill keeping the blisters at bay, and building up Ross Stripling’s endurance. It would also keep Walker Buehler and Julio Urias at reasonable innings count while getting the best out of Hyun-Jin Ryu and Kenta Maeda who perform better with more rest.
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The sixth starter spot could be advantageous in other ways as well, as the sixth starter could be platooned between a right-handed and left-handed pitcher offering less predictability to opponents and more versatility for Dave Roberts.
Since Yasiel Puig burst on the big league scene in 2013, he had been an impact player for the Dodgers. At times he was a distraction, at others, a tongue-wagging spark to the offense. The latter being what the Dodgers will miss most from Puig, but with him being traded away the Dodgers need someone to step up as that spark maker.
An obvious charismatic candidate would be Kiké Hernández and he very well may provide it many days, but better candidates could be those that are less charismatic. Corey Seager, Justin Turner, and A.J. Pollock are all calm and cool which can make their energy more impactful. If the team sees one of those guys that don’t normally get animated, pumped up (think Corey Seager in Game 2 of the 2017 World Series), it can jump-start a dead offense.
Make no mistake, the Dodgers are the team to beat in the National League. After all, not only are they the two-time reigning NL Champs, but they are the barometer for every other team’s potential. 2019 will be different for the Dodgers, in many ways more challenging, but the key to their continued success will be making the adjustments.