Opposition Prep: An In-Depth Breakdown of the Dodgers

Top-Sheet Summary (Records and Standings at End of Play, 8/26)

Record (Winning Percentage): 69-56 (.552)

Adjusted Winning Percentages (First Order, Second Order, Third Order): .553, .614, .600

Standings: Lead NL West by 2.5 games

As their second- and third-order winning percentages attest, the Dodgers are a very, very good team. No team in baseball can match their second-order projection, which reflects the runs they would have been expected to score and allow, based on their sheer performances, exclusive of questions of sequencing and clutch performance. Only the Astros have a higher third-order projection, which builds in strength of schedule as a variable.

There’s no shortage of talent on the $300-million Dodgers. Their good-not-great record shouldn’t be misinterpreted as evidence of weakness. It might be that they have yet to gel and hit their stride due to intangible elements, or it might simply be that they haven’t caught a lot of breaks yet. In either case, they’re perpetually dangerous.

The Basics

Friday: RHP Jason Hammel v. LHP Clayton Kershaw, 9:10 PM CT – MLB Network, WGN
Saturday: LHP Jon Lester v. RHP Mat Latos, 9:10 PM CT – MLB Network, WGN
Sunday: RHP Jake Arrieta v. LHP Alex Wood, 7:08 PM CT – ESPN

If you love long looks out over the parking lots and the boring nothingness of Chavez Ravine as the sun sets in California, this is the series for you. Three night games at Dodger Stadium, between two of the five best teams in baseball. It’s going to be what the cliche writers call “a playoff atmosphere, Jim.”


Typical Lineups:

vs. RHP vs. LHP
Jimmy Rollins – SS (S) Jimmy Rollins – SS (S)
Chase Utley – 2B (L) Yasiel Puig – RF (R)
Justin Turner – 3B (R) Adrian Gonzalez – 1B (L)
Adrian Gonzalez – 1B (L) Justin Turner – 3B (R)
Andre Ethier – LF (L) Scott Van Slyke – LF (R)
Yasiel Puig – RF (R) Chase Utley – 2B (L)
Yasmani Grandal – C (S) Kike Hernandez – CF (R)
Kike Hernandez – CF (R) A.J. Ellis – C (R)

These are extraordinarily rough-hewn estimates, in the Dodgers’ case. Don Mattingly recently said Joc Pederson would be benched in favor of Hernandez for a while, as Pederson has been in a funk since June. Pederson did play on Thursday in Cincinnati, though, so perhaps his stay in the doghouse will prove very short. Grandal is perfectly capable of playing against all starters, but a sore shoulder has kept him out of the lineup for a few days in the last week, so look for Ellis on Saturday against Lester, if only to further facilitate Grandal’s convalescence. Not pictured in these projected lineups: Carl Crawford, whose shaky performance when healthy led to him losing any semblance of a starting role, but who is healthy now and could play a role late in games. He might even get a start at the expense of Puig on Friday or Sunday, though Puig has heated up recently. The depth here is shocking, a testament to the team’s excellent offseason as well as to their unlimited resources.

Individual Notes and Scouting Reports:

Grandal – A switch-hitter in name only, Grandal is death to right-handed pitchers but an unintimidating presence when facing a lefty, batting right. In 866 career plate appearances against righties, he’s batted .256/.363/.447. Southpaws, though, have held him to a .248/.350/.374 career line in 257 plate appearances. The on-base skills remain, but putting Grandal on the right side of the plate can totally sap his power. With a sore left shoulder, he might be even further compromised in that regard, which is why it’s a fair bet he won’t start on Saturday night. The best way to attack him is with a steady diet of breaking stuff below the zone. He might take a walk or two that way, but he rarely misses mistakes and can handle righties’ heat even up in the zone. Jason Hammel will be vulnerable to Grandal if he has any of the problems finishing with his fastball and keeping the ball down that he had coming out of the All-Star break. Tommy Hunter is not a candidate to face Grandal in an important spot, but the other righties in the pen are good ones. Because it’s likely that Scott Van Slyke will be lurking on the bench when Grandal’s biggest plate appearances come during this series, putting in a lefty isn’t automatically the right move. Joe Maddon just has to trust that whoever he does allow to face Grandal is ready to execute, and not elevate.

Gonzalez – With an .872 OPS this season, Gonzalez remains one of the league’s better hitters, even among first basemen. That’s the surface-level reading anyway, and there’s something to it, as this very good Jeff Sullivan piece lays out. Gonzalez basically succeeded where Joe Mauer has failed, transforming from a big, strong left-handed hitter whose approach was all about going the other way to a bigger, less strong, older left-handed hitter whose approach is to do damage by pulling the ball more often.

That said, Gonzalez’s stats are a bit of a lie. Recall that, in the first series of the season, Gonzalez went rather nuts on the Padres. He collected 10 hits in those three games, seven of them for extra bases, including five homers. In nearly 500 plate appearances since then, he’s batting .273/.350/.465. Those are still fine numbers, but the average first baseman this year is hitting .260/.336/.451, so if one assumes that his season-opening barrage does relatively little to inform expectations going forward, he’s not extremely dangerous. He’s also established an above-average platoon split (though that’s dampened this season, for whatever you think that’s worth), so the Cubs’ three bullpen lefties could be busy this weekend.

Ethier – At .289/.367/.478, Ethier is enjoying his best season since 2010, on the surface. It’s not an illusion, really. He’s swinging and missing much less often, especially within the strike zone, and he’s hitting for more power than he has in a few years by using center field more and left field (the opposite field for him) less. That’s all real. Even isolating his stats against right-handed pitchers, he’s better than he had been in either of 2013 or 2014.

In large part, though, Ethier’s apparent career revival is the product of being completely sheltered from southpaws. Back when he was a full-time outfielder, between 25 and 30 percent of Ethier’s PA came against lefties, and he was terrible against them. He still is. The difference is that, this season, he’s seeing lefties just 10 percent of the time. Again, with the Cubs carrying \Travis Wood, James Russell, and Clayton Richard, that shouldn’t be true this weekend. Ethier might be taken down for a pinch-hitter if exposed to a possible matchup with a lefty, but even if he is, the Cubs will have locked a right-hander (Van Slyke, most likely, or perhaps Hernandez, if Pederson starts a given game) into the Dodgers order for the next turn, and they can force that righty to try their hand against one of their slider-happy, high-leverage right-handed relievers. Carrying three lefties in the pen is unconventional, but this weekend, it’s an advantage for Chicago.

Rollins – The key with Rollins is simply not to get too cute. As a right-handed hitter, he has very little power and mostly looks to poke the first fastball he sees into play. As a lefty, he’s more dangerous, but a good fastball away (or in, as long as it’s up) can neutralize him. Mattingly’s insistence on allowing Rollins to lead off hamstrings the Dodgers offense.

Puig – Whatever Puig once was, or still might be, this season (and even right now, as he has shown signs of coming out of his season-long malaise) he’s very human. He can’t keep up with good fastballs, swinging through them far too often, rarely doing more than flaring it the other way. Once he’s set up for it, breaking stuff out of the zone can still put him away, but Cubs pitchers should be ready and willing to look past his intimidating physicality and his reputation and throw their fastballs by him.

Turner – For a little while in the first half, it was possible to list the MLB leaders in offense over the past 365 days and put Turner in the company of Anthony Rizzo and Mike Trout, at the top of the list. That’s in the past now. Turner has 28 strikeouts and four walks in his last 132 plate appearances, and while he continues to hit for power and some average, he’s looking more like the man to whom he credits his late-blooming success (Marlon Byrd) all the time. Lefties need to be able to bust him inside with hard stuff, and righties need to be able to mix pitches and get the ball off the plate away from him, but those who do so have a fine chance to get him out. He’s good; he’s just not the new Mike Trout or Anthony Rizzo.

Utley – The spirit is willing, but the body no longer seems especially able for Utley. He’s not driving the ball the way he once did, and on a healing ankle, at age 36, there’s no guarantee he’ll ever again have the leg drive to produce much power (certainly not much over-the-fence power). He’s hitting a lot of ground balls and pulling the ball more, a combination that has led to plenty of shifts and easy outs. He makes contact at an exceptional rate against fastballs, but he doesn’t punish them. A steady diet of breaking stuff from lefties and a good, hard sinker from righties is enough to at least minimize damage from Utley these days.

Hernandez – If Hernandez were two inches taller or if his name were Rick Herndon, he might not be having the strong season he’s had so far. He’s a compact guy who can’t do anything —including, most of the time, layoff or make contact—with a slider or curveball, especially from a right-handed pitcher. In fact, Hernandez has been pretty brutal against righties. Against lefties, though, he’s batting .403/.461/.731. Part of the reason is that Hernandez is decent against left-handed pitchers. Part of the reason is that, because he’s small and plays up the middle and is Latino, pitchers don’t seem to respect him the way they should. Jon Lester found out just what Hernandez can do when he threw him a 92-mph fastball with way too much plate on it in a 1-2 count back in June. If he (and whichever other Cubs see Hernandez this weekend) wises up and delivers a steady diet of his very good secondary stuff, Lester should have no problem avoiding a repeat performance. Hernandez hurts fastballs, but everything else hurts him.

Van Slyke – Van Slyke’s numbers were very pretty last year because he took 116 plate appearances against right-handed pitchers and 130 against left-handers. With injuries to Puig and Crawford this season, Van Slyke has already taken 106 plate appearances against righties this year, and only 81 against lefties. Hence, his much less pretty numbers this year. Van Slyke owns the strike zone when a lefty is on the mound. He doesn’t have otherworldly power, but lefties simply can’t get him out. It’s a very different story when he loses the platoon advantage, though. Look for Justin Grimm to make an early appearance if Lester is due to face Van Slyke for a third time on Saturday and the stakes are high. It would be malpractice not to force Van Slyke onto the wrong side of that matchup, if it comes to it, especially since the Cubs have so many lefties they can bring in after that showdown if they need to do so.

Pederson – Much was made of his benching, but Pederson still appears to have a significant role carved out, if only because the Dodgers have no other viable center fielder when they face right-handers. Don’t blame the All-Star break or the Home Run Derby for Pederson’s prolonged slump; he batted .152/.253/.258 in his last 75 plate appearances leading into the break, too.

While he remains patient at the plate, Pederson has been taking some hittable pitches and chasing some bad ones. He’s also hitting many more ground balls lately, not able to stop from rolling over on pitches the way he was able to early in the season. He’s dangerous; he could figure it out anytime. Right now, though, he still seems lost.

Crawford – At 33, Crawford is sliding slowly into fourth-outfielder territory. He’s never been patient, but his walk rate has been miserable for two years now. He’s lifting the ball more than ever, but that’s not as good as it sounds. Crawford hasn’t added much strength (in fact, he’s lost some, as guys tend to do as their mid-30s come on), so he’s hitting a lot of lazy flies and infield pop-ups. The dynamism in his game turned out to be much more fragile than it appeared at his peak, when he seemed to have the speed-power mix to age well.

Ellis – Too little respect is given to Ellis’ offensive game. He’s never going to hit for average or power, but he works pitchers hard and takes a ton of walks. He’s never posted a below-average OBP in a season over any meaningful sample. It’s certainly not so when things are good for the Dodgers’ top hitters, but just now, Ellis might give the toughest at-bat of anyone on their roster.

Guerrero – In his first 24 plate appearances of the season, Guerrero batted .500 and cracked five home runs. That created a totally unhinged level of hype, to which, naturally, Guerrero has not remotely lived up. In 174 plate appearances since that blazing beginning, he’s fanned 50 times, managed 12 extra-base hits, walked four times, and grounded into six double plays. He’s a high-power, terrible-OBP guy who seems to prey purely on mistakes.

Injury Notes: Gonzalez left the Dodgers’ game in Cincinnati on Thursday with a knee contusion. Puig left in the ninth inning after pulling up lame at first base on an infield single. Grandal continues to nurse a sore shoulder and some neck trouble. If Gonzalez can’t go during the series, expect Grandal at first base on Friday and/or Sunday, and Van Slyke on Saturday. If Puig is out at all, Pederson will certainly be in, and perhaps Crawford will be, too, for one or more games.

Pitching and Defense

The Starters

Kershaw – The repertoire of the best pitcher in baseball should be no secret. He throws a four-seam fastball, a slider and a curve, all of them among the very best in the league. Against lefties, he starts with the fastball, and uses his two breaking pitches about equally often to put them away once he gets ahead. Against righties, the story is similar, but there’s a wrinkle. He still starts them with the heat, but when he falls behind in the count, he goes to the slider about 36 percent of the time, using it like a cutter, to try and get off the hook of that at-bat. If and when the time comes to put a hitter away, he leans much more heavily on the curve against righties. It’s a bat-misser.

Latos – Latos has a funky delivery, but once everything gets going and the ball leaves his hand, nothing special happens. He’s much more of a kitchen-sink guy than Kershaw, lacking anything akin to Kershaw’s put-away pitches. Against lefties, he uses his sinker and four-seamer fairly equally (leaning mostly on the sinker, especially when behind), then blends his splitter, curve, and change to keep hitters off-balance when they know the soft stuff is coming. The splitter is the pitch he goes to when he needs a strikeout.

When facing righties, Latos is a little more traditional. The four-seamer becomes his primary weapon, and his slider backs that up and works off of it. Once ahead in the count, though, Latos will use his sinker and splitter the way he uses the change and curve against lefties, to induce weak contact or worse. His arsenal is a study in quantity over quality, but he gets by with it much of the time. What he doesn’t do, at least consistently, is get lefties out. They have a .792 OPS against Latos this year.

Wood – Both Latos and Kershaw are good pitchers because of their very good command. Wood is useful because of his stuff; his command lags far behind. He goes sinker-curve-changeup, but in an unusual way. That sinker misses no bats whatsoever. He really doesn’t have a fastball capable of anchoring his arsenal. Happily, his curve is a devastating one, capable of getting whiffs on more than half of all swings, especially from lefties.

The first time through the order, Wood leans on the sinker, mostly to avoid showing anything else to his opponents before he needs to. When he gets in trouble and is behind in the count, especially against righties, he goes to the change. The second time through, he becomes a curveball machine against lefties, but from the 10th batter onward, with any right-hander at bat, he blends the change and curve evenly. He seems to know that he needs to keep the curve in his back pocket against righties, but that lefties will struggle with it no matter how many times they see it.

In general, lefties can’t touch Wood. They have a .552 OPS against him this year, compared to a .785 for right-handed hitters. Look for Kyle Schwarber to get the night off on Sunday, and if David Ross is back by then, Miguel Montero should sit, too.

The Bullpen

Pitcher Pitches (Mon.) Pitches (Tues.) Pitches (Wed.) Pitches (Thurs.)
Kenley Jansen x 11 23 X
Jim Johnson x x 16 12
J.P. Howell x 23 5 X
Chris Hatcher x 6 x 15
Juan Nicasio x 15 6 X
Luis Avilan x 6 4 x
Pedro Baez x x x X

This is the picture of a well-rested bullpen. Jansen and his better-than-Mariano cutter lead the unit, and though the supporting cast has drawn considerable malign, they’re a decent group. If the Cubs can miraculously push Kershaw out after five or six frames on Friday night, they might be able to tap into the weak middle portion of the relief corps, but it’s not going to be easy to find a tired arm out there this weekend.

The Defense

While there are flawed or slumping hitters up and down the Dodgers order, they have a number of strong defenders. Grandal might be the best framer of any catcher in baseball. If he isn’t, it’s very close. Gonzalez, Utley and Rollins are each well past their defensive primes, but they were once great and they remain, at least, viable. Pederson is a very good center fielder. It could do wonders for the Cubs’ chances of scoring on Kershaw, especially, if a tender Gonzalez is forced out of the lineup and Grandal moves to first base, because Ellis is a much, much worse framer.

The Takeaway

Every big-league team is dangerous, but the Cubs’ remaining opponents after this series are:

  • Cincinnati (six games)
  • Arizona (three)
  • St. Louis (six)
  • Philadelphia (four)
  • Pittsburgh (seven)
  • Milwaukee (six)
  • Kansas City (one)

In other words, what’s left on the other side of these games are a bunch of chances to rack up wins and a fistful of head-to-head battles with the teams they’re chasing in the NL Central. To put themselves in position to avail themselves of that schedule, though, the Cubs have to pass one more tough test. They should sail to a spot in the Wild Card Game, but if they want more, they have to avoid losing touch with Pittsburgh and St. Louis this weekend.

The Dodgers are what the Cubs might aspire to be: Team Depth. Though they have a number of underachievers and there are real warts on even their would-be stars right now, they carry 13 position players better than the eighth- or ninth-best player on most teams. Joe Maddon is tactically superior to Don Mattingly, but Mattingly will be playing poker with better cards. It will be up to the Cubs to win some tough matchups, as well as up to Maddon to avoid some others. With Hammel, Lester and Arrieta lined up, there is no reason the Cubs can’t win two of three. If they do so, the final five weeks will be a lot of fun, because there will be no risk of losing anything, but a real chance to push for the division crown. If they lose this series, it will again fall to Maddon to make sure the team stays focused and driven, even as the possibility of winning the division runs away from them.

Lead photo courtesy of Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

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