AnalysisNL West

Rock Bottom for the Dodgers’ #7-9 Hitters

When discussing the Dodgers offense, a lot of the focus goes to the top 3 of the lineup. Mookie Betts, Shohei Ohtani, and Freddie Freeman are a trio of MVPs hitting back-to-back-to-back. This then overshadows how productive Will Smith, Max Muncy, and Teoscar Hernandez have been this year.

From 1-6, the Dodger lineup is as productive as any lineup in baseball, yet the team’s OPS+ is only seventh. While this isn’t the end of the world, it does show how much of an anchor the bottom of the lineup has been this year. The main five guys who get at-bats in 7-9 spots – Chris Taylor, Gavin Lux, Miguel Rojas, James Outman, and Kiké Hernández – have a combined 0.489 OPS. For this team to hit their ceiling, the bottom of the lineup needs to overcome their struggles.

James Outman

James Outman was not expected to be one of the top bats for the Dodgers, but with a ZiPS projected OPS+ of 110 he was still expected to contribute. However, with a 74 OPS+ through his first 19 games, things have been rough for Outman. It’s not doom and gloom for him though. He’s hitting the ball harder than he did last year, and his expected statistics are in line with last year’s. His line drive rate is way up, and his hard-hit rate has jumped 15% from last year. The most promising part of Outman’s batted ball numbers is that he is 21st in baseball in sweet spot percentage (45.9%).

The big thing with Outman this year is he has been a victim of poor BABIP luck. His BABIP on fly balls is 0.000 and 0.500 on line drives, as opposed to the league averages of 0.118 on fly balls and 0.678 on line drives. However, it is simply not enough to say it’s bad luck and move on. The root cause of this BABIP luck is his struggles on inside pitches. He has a BABIP of .000 on inside pitches this year as opposed to 0.283 last year. Pitchers have responded by throwing him more pitches on the inner third of the zone (12% last year vs. 18% this year).

Looking at a lot of Outman’s swings in the inner third of the zone, one thing becomes immediately apparent: Outman’s timing is clearly off when it comes to these pitches. A lot of the swings look awkward and none are hit solidly at all. Ultimately, Outman needs to be quicker to the ball in order to rediscover the success he’s had in his career.

Chris Taylor

Chris Taylor has always been a streaky player, but we’ve not seen him have a streak like this. To start the year, Taylor is 2-for-39 with 19 strikeouts. The biggest issue for Taylor this year has been breaking and offspeed pitches. His whiff rate jumped 28% on breaking pitches and 13% on offspeed pitches. When he does make contact on these pitches, it has not been ideal either. His average exit velocity on breaking stuff has dropped by over 4.5 mph, and there was nearly a 3 mph drop on offspeed pitches. This is especially concerning since he wasn’t hitting these pitches hard last year either.

We’ve always known that Chris Taylor struggles with offspeed and breaking pitches, but he’s always been able to make up for it with his ability to hit fastballs. However, fastballs are also giving him trouble this year. This is because he’s chasing them more this year, nearly tripling his chase rate compared to last year. On top of that, he’s making less contact on the pitch overall, as his contact rate has dropped by nearly 8%. When he does make contact, they are usually easy pop-ups for the defense.

There is no easy fix for Chris Taylor. His swing has always had holes in it and has been inconsistent. These problems have only compounded with age. There are adjustments that can be made to his approach and his swing, but for now, he’s best suited coming off the bench for limited playing time.

Kiké Hernández

A fan favorite for several years, Kiké Hernández is someone we’ve always rooted for since the beginning. On the surface, Hernández seems poised for a breakout. He’s hitting the ball harder and more consistently than he ever has. On top of that, he has the highest sweet spot and barrel percentage of his career. All of this unfortunately is fool’s gold.

He’s always struggled against right-handed pitching, but he hasn’t been great against lefties this season either – Hernández shockingly has a 50 WRC+ against lefties. He has a 3.8% hard-hit rate against lefties and no barrels. Hernández wasn’t supposed to be an everyday player, however, he is not succeeding in his platoon role. Even with great defensive versatility, his bat holds his value back.

Gavin Lux

Coming off a torn ACL, everyone was expecting a slow start from Gavin Lux. However, no one could have foreseen how much Lux has struggled to begin the year. Through 67 plate appearances this year Lux has an 11 OPS+ with 0 barrels. On top of that, he has the lowest hard-hit rate of his career, as well as being in the bottom tenth percentile in wOBA, xwOBA, and xSLG. In short, it’s been an extremely rough year for Lux.

The thing that is immediately apparent with Lux is his incredibly high groundball rate (55.6%) and subsequent 0.120 average on groundballs. This has also caused his line drive rate to plummet to a career-low 15.4%. The cause of this can be attributed to Lux’s poor plate approach. He’s taking a lot more pitches than he should. There are two key areas where Lux has struggled with his swing decisions. The bottom third of the zone has given Lux a lot of issues. He’s swinging at 45.6% of pitches in the bottom third of the zone, meaning he has more takes than swings in the lower third of the zone.

Ideally, Lux needs to adopt a more aggressive approach and stop giving free strikes to pitchers. We should not expect him to make radical swing changes since he is returning from a major injury. It is also important to note that Ronald Acuña Jr. struggled initially coming back from his ACL injury before finally hitting his stride.

What next?

James Outman will ultimately be okay, once he adjusts back to inside pitches. However, it is what Dave Roberts does with the other two spots is the real challenge.

Gavin Lux’s plate approach has been poor to start the year, but how long do you let him continue to figure things out? A stint in AAA may be what he needs to start figuring things out. Unfortunately, this means more playing time for Taylor or Hernández, who have struggled even more than Lux has this year. Miguel Rojas can get more at-bats, but it’ll be curious to see if he can keep up his atypical hot streak to start the year. Andy Pages has had an interesting start to his career and is worth more runway in right field to figure things out.

Ultimately, this isn’t an easy problem to solve, and every one of the players who have been hitting in this spot has a myriad of flaws. It can be argued that a trade at the deadline may provide help if the 7-9 hitters continue to struggle. However, prospects look to be an important part of Andrew Friedman’s team-building strategy, considering how expensive this roster is. It’s something that Roberts and Friedman need to figure out at some point.

As we’ve all seen, flaws shown can become the things that hold you back in October, and that’s one thing this team cannot afford to do again.

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Featured Image: @Dodgers / Twitter

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