Wanted: A Center Fielder for the Playoffs

Sometimes, I’m not sure if anything I add to a story can be funnier than the original information itself:

There’s like a 0.00001% chance that Dee Gordon, who cannot hit and has never played center field, will play center field in the playoffs, unless Yasiel Puig somehow steamrolls Skip Schumaker and they both end up in the hospital. There’s probably even less of a chance that Scott Van Slyke actually ends up out there, something akin to what happens if you divide by zero. I imagine Don Mattingly is just doing some due diligence for that complete worst-case scenario, or perhaps more likely no one wanted to stand by Puig and risk getting injured.

Still, just imagine it. Imagine Gordon in center field. Imagine Van Slyke there. In a game that not only counts, but is the culmination of months of hard work. Imagine how many things have to go wrong for that to be the situation, where two guys who A) don’t play the position and B) aren’t even certain to make the postseason roster end up playing center field. It’s glorious, or at least it would be if it weren’t so mind-numbingly terrifying.

It’s not going to happen, because it can’t, but seeing that out there at least makes me a little less likely to be hard on people who want to call up Joc Pederson for the playoffs. (Short version: even if asking a guy to make his big-league debut in the playoffs wasn’t a terrible idea, he hasn’t started a game since August 31.)

Anyway, if you’re so desperate that you’re really looking at those guys in center, even if only in an emergency situation, you put Puig out there. Simple as that. No, he’s not an ideal option, but if my choices are “Puig misses a cutoff man” or “Van Slyke turns a single into an inside-the-park homer,” it’s not all that complicated.

It’s going to be a long next 48 hours, I think. Eeesh.

Reds 4, Dodgers 3: It Helps To Use Fast Guys to Run

wilson_2013-09-07If you thought that Zack Greinke against Mat Latos was going to be a matchup of two of the National League’s best pitchers, you might have been considerably surprised by how this game got started. Latos allowed four to reach in the first inning and two more in the second, including Yasiel Puig‘s 15th homer of the season; Greinke gave up four singles to the Reds in the bottom of the first, scoring two.

But for both starters, that was really it. Greinke pitched through the sixth, and Latos through the seventh, without allowing any further damage, with Greinke adding nine strikeouts against just a single walk. For Greinke, that runs his streak of allowing two runs or fewer to eight in a row and 11 of his last 12.

Unfortunately, Greinke was replaced by Paco Rodriguez, pitching for the sixth time since last Friday, and again it didn’t go well. Rodriguez squandered the lead by allowing a single and then a double to Cesar Izturis — yes, that Cesar Izturis — before being saved by Ronald Belisario. Rodriguez has been wonderful all season, and carried a .182/.265/.318 line against since August 1 into this game, so it’s not like he’s turned into Russ Ortiz or anything, but he’s had a tough enough last few outings that I think we can all agree a nice long rest is exactly what he needs.

By the way, as much as some like to complain about Don Mattingly, thank whatever deity you prefer every single day that Dusty Baker is not your manager. In the bottom of the ninth, J.P. Howell walked leadoff man Chris Heisey. Baker then took the bat out of Shin-Soo Choo‘s hands (and gave the Dodgers a precious out) by having him sacrifice in order to get to Izturis, of all people. When Izturis failed to reach, Joey Votto was intentionally walked, so Baker successfully avoided having either of his two best hitters swinging the bat. Thanks, Dusty!

Of course, Mattingly isn’t without his own negatives, and the entire tenth inning showed exactly why. After Adrian Gonzalez led off with a single to center, he came out for a pinch runner, as you’d expect. But it wasn’t Dee Gordon, who exists on this planet for no other reason than to pinch run, it was Nick Punto. (Gordon was not suffering from the effects of being hit by a throw yesterday, as some suggested.) With expanded September rosters, you don’t have to worry about using extra players if you didn’t want to let Gordon field, because you could still put Punto in at third base and move Michael Young to first, as Mattingly did. Punto ended the inning standing on first as none of the three hitters following were able to move him, wasting a great chance for Gordon to attempt to steal and generate some fastballs.

In the bottom of the tenth, Brian Wilson — who looked absolutely atrocious, to the point that Mattingly and the trainers came out to check on him — walked Ryan Ludwick to start the inning. Baker countered by sending out his own speedy guy who can’t do anything other than run in Billy Hamilton, who immediately stole second. That ended up proving crucial once Todd Frazier singled to right, where even a strong throw by Puig wasn’t close to preventing Hamilton from scoring the winning run.

That’s now three losses in a row, and no, no matter what you hear elsewhere, it’s not time to panic or anything close to it. But I would like it if the bats would decide to start hitting again, because great pitching will take you only so far. Fortunately, there’s still three weeks until the playoffs, so time enough to work that out.

The Hanley Ramirez Backup Plan

gordon_sanfran_2013-05-04When I said yesterday that Hanley Ramirez may be the most irreplaceable player on this team, I really meant that. You can (and, as we’ve seen, already have) deal with losing Matt Kemp or Carl Crawford for some time because there’s great depth in the outfield. You can live without players like Mark Ellis or Juan Uribe, because neither are really that great and there’s a ton of utility guys floating around here. You can’t really ever replace Clayton Kershaw, I suppose, but at least that’s only one out of every five games.

But Ramirez is different because we’ve already seen what happens when he’s not available, and it’s not pretty. They tried Justin Sellers when Ramirez missed the start of the season with an injured thumb, and they got a line of .188/.263/.246 with mediocre defense. They tried Dee Gordon when Ramirez hurt his hamstring shortly after returning, and for that they got a line of .175/.278/.254 with terrible defense. They’ll probably have Nick Punto in the lineup tonight in St. Louis, but he’s hitting all of .213/.276/.275 since May 1 and isn’t someone you can count on on a daily basis.

Considering how great Ramirez has been, there might not be a larger dropoff in the game from a starter to a backup. No, really — look at the Dodger shortstops on FanGraphs. Ramirez has a massive .447 wOBA. Punto lags behind at .280, and Gordon, Sellers, and long-gone Luis Cruz are far behind that. This team has either “amazing” or “atrocious” at shortstop. There just isn’t a middle-ground option there.

So now we wait for updates on Ramirez’ shoulder injury, and we try not to read Dylan Hernandez’ report that notes “high-ranking club officials said they were bracing themselves for the worst.” We know that Gordon didn’t play last night in Fresno for the Isotopes — Elian Herrera, Alex Castellanos, and Sellers all did — and we start to think about what the options might be here if and when Ramirez is unavailable for a third time.

Due to the configuration of the roster, a move is almost an absolute necessity unless Ramirez is magically going to be able to play in St. Louis. Other than Punto, there’s really not anyone on the active roster who’s even an option to play shortstop, and while I know that both Jerry Hairston & Uribe have past experience there, that was a long time ago. Besides, since Scott Van Slyke was optioned out for Stephen Fife yesterday, the team is already carrying 13 pitchers. That means that they really can’t handle having Ramirez eating up a roster spot for a few days while they try to get him healthy, because that many pitchers means that Don Mattingly has a short bench even if everyone can go.

So if you’re making a move internally, it has to be Gordon or Sellers, and the team appears to have selected Gordon based on the semi-scientific evidence of “he didn’t play last night”. He’s coming off a hot July for the Isotopes (.356/.455/.436, though let’s not ignore the .424 BABIP) while Sellers struggled (.229/.302/.386), so fine. This is a team that really doesn’t have much speed off the bench, so I don’t hate the idea of Gordon being available to run for Adrian Gonzalez or Andre Ethier or whomever in the late innings.

The only real issue there is that he wouldn’t just be a pinch-runner, he’d be needed at shortstop since Punto can’t go everyday, and there’s little indication that the defense has really improved from the mess we’ve seen. He’s got 17 errors in 65 games so far this year (though zero in 15 appearances at second base), and this scouting report from Baseball Hot Corner from just four days ago doesn’t really give you confidence:

Gordon’s defense was also shaky tonight, having committed a throwing error in the first inning which lead to the River Cats scoring their first run.  In the 4th inning, he ranged to his left for a grounder up the middle, going down to a slide to field the ball and ended up booted in into short right-center.  No error was given on the play, but if he would have drives glove first, he may have been able to field the ball cleanly and throw the batter out at first.  A tough play no doubt, but he could have fielded the ball better.  He did have one redeeming play in the bottom of the 8th inning when he made a nice play on a ball hit to the third/short gap.  Gordon chased it down in the gap and made a crisp throw to first to get the batter out.  But overall, his performance tonight was under-whelming.

For a team that’s succeeded lately really due much more to great pitching than people think, putting such a lousy defender at the most important defensive position doesn’t seem wonderful. (Yes, I see the irony here, because we said that about Ramirez as well; he did end up being better than expected. Which isn’t to say good, of course.)

Still, options are limited, and if it’s for a week or two or three, you probably suck it up and try to get by with Gordon and Punto. But if it’s more? If it turns out this is something serious that costs Ramirez a month or — lord help us — the remainder of the season? Gordon / Punto does not seem like a combo that you take into October, and that means we get into the scary territory of over-priced waiver deals for underperforming veterans like Jimmy Rollins or Alexei Ramirez or someone similar.

That’s getting ahead of ourselves, however, because we still don’t know what’s going to come of Ramirez’ injury. Hopefully, we’re talking about an absence of days, not weeks, though it sure didn’t look great when he came out of the stands doubled over in obvious pain. My guess? Gordon gets activated tonight, and either Ramirez goes to the disabled list or Carlos Marmol or Chris Withrow finds his way off the pitching staff. No matter what the details are, this team needs Ramirez to be okay. Even seeing how great things have gone over the last six weeks, I’m not sure they can win without him.

Braves 2, Dodgers 1: No One Will Remember That Stephen Fife Pitched Pretty Well

fife_2013-06-08Stephen Fife & Kris Medlen each went 6.2 innings today, except it took Medlen 116 pitches — 20 more than Fife — to get through them. That’s the good news for the Dodgers righty, who put up the longest outing of his young career. The bad news is that two of the 86 pitches he delivered, each in the fifth inning, ended up over the fence. That includes one to Medlen himself, the first of his career, and that sadly provided the margin in a 2-1 Atlanta win.

The problem, really, is that no one other than Yasiel Puig is doing much on offense. Andre Ethier has been decent enough covering in center, but he’s down to .229/.316/.348 after another oh-fer. Even Scott Van Slyke isn’t contributing anything when he isn’t hitting homers — his OBP is now at .300 — and don’t get me started on the continued existence of Luis Cruz. Hanley Ramirez drove in the only run pinch-hitting for Ethier, but Clayton Kershaw — of all people! — came in to run for him, which doesn’t really give me a lot of confidence in Don Mattingly‘s assertion that Ramirez is starting tomorrow. (Skip Schumaker did at least have three hits, all singles.)

Speaking of Mattingly, we once again ran into some bunting trouble down one in the ninth against Craig Kimbrel. Schumaker reached on a single, but then Tim Federowicz was asked to lay down the bunt, despite having Cruz and Mark Ellis (on an 0-16 skid) behind him. Federowicz failed the first time, failed the second time, and nearly failed a third time on a ball in the dirt; with the at-bat taken away from him, he was blown away by Kimbrel. Nevermind that Federowicz isn’t exactly the greatest hitter on the planet himself, what you’ve done is taken one of your three precious outs and said, “here, take one.”

To Mattingly’s credit, he did replace Cruz after Federowicz whiffed, but brought in Ramon Hernandez rather than Juan Uribe, sacrificing both some small amounts of OBP and speed. (The fact that we’re talking about Juan Uribe here is not lost on me.) Hernandez grounded out, Ellis struck out (make that 0-17) and Puig was left standing on deck, depriving Dodger Stadium — and the entire baseball world, really — of what would have been just a fantastic showdown.

As for everyone’s favorite superstar, Puig didn’t hit another homer, but he did contribute two hits. Let it never be said that the man is boring, because we saw the highs and lows of his game tonight.

In the fifth inning, Fife allowed an infield single to Andrelton Simmons after the Medlen homer. Jason Heyward singled, and when Simmons attempted to go to third… oh good lord, that is just not right. (Via SBN)

That is just… everything. It should replace the Mona Lisa. The best part is, Cruz didn’t even have to move his glove. The throw was right here, dead on, right on a line.

But in the eighth inning, we saw the … shall we say, “less refined” side of Puig. He topped an infield grounder to short, and had it easily beat out thanks to his outstanding speed. Unfortunately, he didn’t just do the easy thing and continue running, instead opting for this ugly mess:

Puig was seen clenching his right fist while in right field in the top of the ninth, and let’s all pray to whatever deity you support that this is nothing, because I am not sure this fanbase can handle it being something.

Also, Yasiel: NEVER EVER DO THAT AGAIN. Nunca vuelvas a hacer eso! You stay away from Nick Punto no matter what you do.

******

Of note in Albuquerque tonight, Dee Gordon played second base for the first time as a professional. It’s unclear if that’s a long-term move or not, though Ken Gurnick noted earlier today that the team is concerned about infield depth since Mark Ellis & Hanley Ramirez are both aching. Gurnick also said that for the first time, the club is “considering getting Gordon some outfield time,” which is mildly interesting to think about but probably not all that relevant. As I’ve long said, if Gordon can’t hit, then it doesn’t matter where he plays, and the last thing this organization needs is more outfielders right now anyway.

Dee Gordon Still Isn’t Ready For the Big Leagues

"Look, someone who can hit better than me!"

“Look, someone who can hit better than me!”

The Seattle Mariners DFA’d shortstop Robert Andino a few days ago, and if you’re wondering why you should care about that in the least… oh.

gordon_sellers_woba

Whether it’s been Dee Gordon or Justin Sellers, shortstop has been an absolute disaster for the Dodgers this year. It’s been so bad that they’re the two worst hitters at the position in baseball who haven’t been cut loose, now that the Mariners have moved to sever ties with Andino.

That was never the plan, of course, but it’s interesting to look at the decision process that’s gone into using either at various times and the perception fans have of them.

Headed into the season, the Dodgers had a pretty clear-cut plan on the left side of the infield. Hanley Ramirez would play shortstop, Luis Cruz would play third, and Gordon would return to the minors after a 2012 split between being awful and being injured. There were a whole lot of reasons to think that neither Ramirez or Cruz were likely to succeed at those spots, but there was little reason to think that Gordon belonged anywhere but in Albuquerque.

92topps_justinsellersWhen Ramirez injured himself on March 19 in the final game of the World Baseball Classic, the Dodgers didn’t deviate from that plan. Despite some initial thought that Cruz might move to shortstop and allow third to be manned by a combination of Jerry Hairston, Nick Punto, & Juan Uribe, they quickly decided to keep Cruz at third and hand shortstop to the defensively capable Sellers, rather than give Gordon another chance.

We expected little offense from Sellers and that’s exactly what we received, as you can see in the line above. He had one really awful inning in the field, though he was generally adequate otherwise. That said, the lousy offensive production on a team full of the same meant that I was constantly having to explain why replacing him with Gordon was a silly idea. “Sellers is atrocious, so it couldn’t be worse!” went the argument. Well, sure it could; Gordon was no guarantee to be any better on offense and was very likely to be worse on defense. We’ll get back to that in a second.

Ramirez returned ahead of schedule on April 29, and Sellers was immediately nailed to the bench. That gave us time to argue about the wisdom of an untrue report that Gordon might be moving to second base, but it all ended up being for nothing as Ramirez injured himself again on May 3, after playing just four games.

But this time, the team went in a different direction. Instead of simply moving Sellers back to the starting role, the team instead recalled Gordon, apparently intrigued by a solid .314/.397/.431 line in Triple-A. (Sellers was optioned back to the minors days later.) It was a more defensible move at the time, since Gordon had at least had a full month of decent play behind him in the minors this time around, and with the team struggling on all fronts, more of Sellers was an option few found appealing.

At first, it seemed like a great idea. Gordon got on base five times in his first two games while stealing three bases, though the Dodgers lost both games and in fact dropped each of his first six starts. But while many liked to point to a batting average of .429 after two games as an indication Gordon should have been up all along, it quickly became clear that little had changed. And now, as Gordon has had just about as many plate appearances as Sellers had, the question of “could it be worse?” is… well, yes.

Think about it this way: on offense, the contributions have been nearly equally poor, as the close-to-identical wOBA marks show. Yes, Gordon’s speed on the bases is obviously superior, but he’s given some of that value back with poor decisions, and his net stolen base total is merely three.

But on defense, even though Sellers hasn’t really been wonderful (0 Defensive Runs Saved, -5.1 UZR/150), Gordon has been worse (-2 DRS, -9.3 UZR/150). I’m aware of the risks of using defensive stats over a month of play, and so that’s why these are not to be taken as gospel, but as a data point that backs up what we’ve seen with our own eyes. Yes, Gordon’s gotten to some balls that Sellers never would have; he’s also botched more than a few that haven’t been marked down as errors. Neither has added much on offense, especially as Gordon just went more than a week without a hit, and Gordon has given back more on defense.

There are some arguments to be made in Gordon’s favor, of course. Obviously, his upside is far higher than that of Sellers’, which makes you want to invest more into his future, and he does have a poor .219 BABIP, which indicates some amount of bad luck. But in this case, his batted ball profile makes his BABIP seem like less of a quirk and more of a choice:

gordon_gb_lb_fb

Gordon’s groundball rate has plummeted as he’s hit more balls in the air and as line drives. Liners are good, but a player like Gordon simply shouldn’t be hitting the ball in the air like this; he’s not strong enough to muscle the ball out of the park, and he’s not hitting the ball on the ground enough to take advantage of his breathtaking speed.

gordon_ifh_buhThat’s shown again in his declining rates of infield hits and bunt hits, as shown at right. Again, small samples are at play here, but if Gordon is going to be successful it’s going to have to come with his legs, and so far he’s not doing that.

Gordon has now played 162 major league games with 636 plate appearances, or essentially one full season. In that time he’s hit .250/.296/.312, enough for a .270 wOBA and -1.1 WAR, and he’s provided poor defense to go with it. Despite how exciting he can be at times, he’s not ready, he wasn’t ready before, and while I’m not close to being ready to “give up on him,” in my opinion he’s further away than ever from being a reliable major league shortstop.

So what’s to be done? Don Mattingly has already begun to play Gordon less, sitting him in favor of Punto three times in the last seven games, but Punto isn’t really the solution there either. There’s a small possibility that Gordon gets optioned when Hairston is activated later today, but it seems far more likely that a move is made with Cruz, whether that’s a DFA or a disabled list trip.

Assuming that’s the case, then Gordon remains, and we may be a week to ten days away from seeing Ramirez return. (Or more than that. His return date remains unclear.) There’s a case to be made to give Sellers that time, if only for the defense, but I honestly can’t say I feel all that strongly about doing so. If anything, the recent trend of giving Punto time at short might be the best solution — especially as he’s needed less at second and third with Mark Ellis & Hairston back — until Ramirez is ready.

I can’t believe I’m even saying that, because Nick Punto. But while the season isn’t quite hopeless yet, I’ll admit it’s getting close to getting there, and the less time they can give to shortstops who aren’t major-league caliber right now, the better.

Come back soon, Hanley. We miss you, even with all your warts.