Don Mattingly Wants to Know Who To Hit Leadoff

Note: I wrote this on Sunday night, planning to publish it this morning. Since then, Chad Moriyama had to go and completely steal my thunder, publishing what is essentially the exact same post. While we wait for news on Matt Kemp’s MRI, I’ll go ahead and post this anyway, but do be sure to check out Chad’s take as well.

I realize this is veering dangerously close to “beating on a dead horse” territory, because I made my feelings known in an April post and repeatedly in comments and on Twitter since; I also realize that the Dodgers are in first place and that the batting order does not have as much statistical importance as we like to think it does.

But with all those caveats out of the way, if Don Mattingly is going to ask the kind of question that he put to MLB.com’s A.J. Cassevell yesterday, namely…

“Dropping Dee in the order sounds really easy,” said Mattingly, who rested Gordon for Sunday’s series finale against Colorado. “But then who do you want me to hit there?”

… then I feel like I just have to go ahead and help him find an answer. Actually, Mattingly helpfully ran down the list for us:

Mattingly went through a list of other possible options for the leadoff spot but noted each had a drawback that leaves Gordon as the obvious choice.

Newly acquired outfielder Bobby Abreu could lead off, Mattingly said, but that would take a potent bat out of the middle of the order.

Well, “potent” seems a bit much, considering that Abreu is 38 and is barely more than a week off of being DFA’d by the Angels. Actually, I had never really considered Abreu in that spot, but now that I think about it, I don’t mind it, since he’s always had on-base skills and can still run a little. Hardly ideal, but not a terrible stopgap. I can see preferring him later on though, so who else?

Second baseman Mark Ellis could bat first, but Mattingly likes him in the two-hole, hitting ahead of Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, and doesn’t want Ellis’ role changing on a day-to-day basis.

Certainly. I mean, who else is going to grittily ground out to the right side to advance the runner? I jest, of course, because Ellis has been surprisingly effective this year, though if you could make any statistical inferences from early season splits – which, ah, you can’t – you might be swayed by the ridiculous difference between Ellis hitting with men on base (.392 OPS) and the bases empty (.932). I could live with him moving up, though I’m generally fine with him at #2. Moving on..

Left fielder Tony Gwynn Jr. got the start on Sunday afternoon in the leadoff spot, but as a platoon player, Gwynn won’t be in the lineup with Gordon very often. When Gwynn does play on the same day as Gordon, Mattingly said he’d be fully comfortable moving Gordon down because of the speed and on-base ability Gwynn brings to the table.

Gwynn is a fantastic defender, but that’s really the only value he brings. As for moving Gordon down on days Gwynn starts, I’ll believe it when I see it; Gwynn’s start yesterday was his ninth of the year. Six of those coincided with a Gordon day off, and Gwynn did not lead off in any of the other three. Besides, this doesn’t even make sense – Gwynn may have some speed, but the “on-base ability” Mattingly refers to is all but nonexistent, and that, terrifyingly enough, means that Mattingly is only worried about speed on the top of the order, and absolutely nothing else.

And then we come to the fan favorite…

Another option is moving A.J. Ellis higher in the batting order. Ellis, a catcher, has been one of the Dodgers’ best on-base percentage guys at a .455 clip this season, but he isn’t close to a threat on the basepaths.

Mattingly dismissed that notion, saying he is content with leaving Ellis lower in the lineup, where he can drive in runs and turn the order over.

Here’s the fundamental problem with that statement, and I’m not even talking about the fact that you prefer to have one of the worst hitters in the bigs leading off your lineup rather than use one of the most effective on-base artists we’ve seen so far this year. Let’s say we’re not even going pie-in-the-sky by trying to get Ellis to lead off; let’s just say we’re merely trying to get him out of the 8th spot so that he can at least see some extra plate appearances. Let’s say we’d be happy with getting him up to 6th, so he’s behind Kemp, Ethier, & Abreu, a compromise I think we’d all take. If that statement is accurate – if Mattingly really views Ellis as a run producer who “can drive in runs”, rather than the table-setter I see him as – wouldn’t it make so much more sense to have him hitting behind three guys who can actually get on base, rather than the dreadful combo of Juan Uribe & James Loney? It seems that having Ellis 8th is the worst of all worlds, because his OBP skills are wasted ahead of the pitcher and Gordon, and his “run production skills” are under-utilized behind the lousy second half of the lineup. It just makes no sense, at all – and you’d hope that seeing Ellis’ success batting #6 on Sunday would help to illustrate that.

I agree with Mattingly when he says there’s no perfect option to lead off, but I also know that the lack of a perfect alternative is not an excuse to continue on with one of the worst possible options. The Dodgers have managed to make it this far with a leadoff hitter who can’t get on base, but that’s only going to last so long – especially if the lineup is weakened if Kemp is absent for any length of time due to his hamstring injury. I still have a lot of hope for Dee Gordon, and I think he can help this team. Just not in the leadoff spot, and not right now. The time is overdue to make a move.

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