Tuesday, May 3, 2011
Dodgers walk line with two-man offense
By Jonah Keri
Special to ESPNLosAngeles.com
Stars and scrubs. It's a tried-and-true strategy in any fantasy league. Bid big on a couple of superstars, then hope to luck out on enough low-priced talent to build a winning team.
But can it work in the major leagues? The Los Angeles Dodgers look primed to test this method more aggressively than any team in years.
We looked at every team's Weighted Runs Created going back a decade. Weighted Runs Created (or wRC) is a FanGraphs.com stat that isolates offensive contributions that a player can make on his own (as opposed to RBIs or runs scored, where a player relies on others to get on base or drive him in). Matt Kemp ranks sixth in the majors in wRC, while Andre Ethier ranks seventh.
Problem is, nearly every other Dodgers hitter has struggled through the first month of the season. How bad is it? Kemp and Ethier have combined to deliver 44.6 percent of the team's production. Small sample size caveats apply. Still, the Dodgers' 2011 offense is on pace to be the most lopsided in baseball going back more than a decade (see accompanying chart).
Having two players carry a huge chunk of the offensive burden isn't necessarily a deal-breaker for a wannabe contender. As you might expect from any team with Barry Bonds at his peak, the 2002 San Francisco Giants also make the list of biggest stars and scrubs clubs of the past 10 years, with Bonds and Jeff Kent contributing nearly 37 percent of the team's offense. That team won 95 games and made it all the way to the World Series. Lance Berkman and Jeff Bagwell made up a full one-third of the 2001 Houston Astros' offense; that team won 93 games and the NL Central title.
Still, those two clubs are the exceptions, the only two out of the top 20 stars and scrubs teams of the past decade to make the playoffs. Combined, those 20 teams averaged just 82 wins a season. That's a pretty unimpressive number for a group that includes vintage seasons by the likes of Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, Albert Pujols and other superstars.
The Dodgers should still be thrilled with how Kemp (.368 AVG/.442 OBP/.596 SLG) and Ethier (.374 AVG/.442 OBP/.539 SLG) have performed, of course. A big part of Kemp's success stems from his stratospheric .444 batting average on balls in play. Compare that to his career BABIP of .349, and you have to figure some serious regression toward the mean lies ahead. Still, Kemp's also hitting for more power, walking a lot more and running more than he has at any other point in his career. Ethier's start might be a little tougher to sustain. His BABIP is a similarly sky-high is an identical .444 (vs. .323 for his career). But he's also hitting for slightly less power and striking out a bit more than he has before. If all those balls in play start finding gloves, he could fall back to the pack quickly.
That's small beans compared to the larger problem: the rest of the Dodgers' lineup. Their best complementary player has been Casey Blake, who posted a .956 OPS in his first 14 games. Now elbow and groin injuries have knocked him out of the lineup, possibly for a month. As for the other Dodgers hitters? Oy. Juan Uribe is batting .247 with a .299 on-base percentage; last year's playoff heroics aside, his track record combined with his advancing age could point to more bad times ahead. James Loney can't help but improve on his abysmal .472 OPS, but he's been a subpar offensive first baseman for years now, and the Dodgers will need more power than even a much-improved Loney can provide. Jettisoning Russell Martin for Rod Barajas won't look quite this bad by season's end, but there's a reason Barajas has played for so many teams: He's not very good. New left fielder Jerry Sands has some upside, and the shortstop combo of Jamey Carroll and Rafael Furcal isn't bad. Still, when you're relying on a rookie, a 37-year-old slap hitter and one of the most injury-prone players in the game to pick up the slack, you're in trouble.
Clayton Kershaw's a legitimate ace, Hiroki Kuroda is one of the most underrated pitchers in the game, and there are several solid pieces elsewhere in the Dodgers' rotation and bullpen. But a two-man offense going up against the loaded Rockies and defending champion Giants could find rough sledding in the NL West.
As soon as the Dodgers solve all their off-field problems, they should move quickly to address that offense. If they can move quicker than that, even better.
Jonah Keri's new book, "The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First," has received critical acclaim from Peter Gammons, Joe Posnanski, Buster Olney and many others and is a national bestseller. Check out the Jonah Keri Podcast at JonahKeri.com and on iTunes, and follow him on Twitter @JonahKeri.