2013 Dodgers in Review #17: LF Scott Van Slyke

90topps_scottvanslyke.240/.342/.465 152pa 7hr .353 wOBA 0.9 fWAR A

2013 in brief: Showed improvement while bouncing between Albuquerque & Los Angeles.

2014 status: Deserves a crack at a bench spot, and just might get one.

Previous: 2012

******

I know I’ve said this about a dozen times, but I can’t help repeating it. Last year, Scott Van Slyke didn’t even get a token September call-up, and he was removed from the 40-man roster. Every team could have had him for essentially nothing at that point — the Twins, the Astros, the Marlins, etc. No one did. While that says more about what Van Slyke was at that point than any mistakes all those teams made, the fact remains: his career was basically dirt.

A year later, Van Slyke saw some decent playing time for the Dodgers, showed some good power, and even made the playoff roster, sort of. Yeah, I’d say that deserves an A.

Despite reports that he was seen mainly as an outfielder, Van Slyke started his 2013 in Triple-A with the Isotopes as a first baseman, destroying the ball at such a clip that even “yeah, but Albuquerque” wasn’t enough of an excuse. When he was called up on May 10, ostensibly because Adrian Gonzalez & Carl Crawford were both banged up, his Triple-A line stood at an absurd .397/.503/.733.

Two days later, he made his first start. It went well.

Chris Capuano was solid in allowing just a Justin Ruggiano solo homer while pitching into the seventh, but the hero of the day is clearly Scott Van Slyke. In his first start of the season, the 26-year-old repaid the faith of all those who insisted the Dodgers should have called him up two weeks ago, crushing a Tom Koehler pitch just out of Ruggiano’s reach for a homer in his first plate appearance for the first scoring of the game. He finished off the scoring with an RBI single in the seventh, wrapped around a few solid defensive plays at first base; I won’t say that one game has substantially changed my opinion about a player who went unclaimed by all of baseball when he was DFA’d last winter, but I’m much happier having someone with his profile than yet another punchless utility player like Elian Herrera.

Though that game came at first base, Van Slyke played mainly left field in his first month with the team, showing good power — including a two-homer game in Atlanta — but not a whole lot else, hitting .221/.284/.559. On June 10, after slumping terribly to start the month (.143/.226/.357), he proved himself to be a true Dodger by heading to the disabled list with a sore left shoulder, sustained diving for a ball in late May.

After his rehab, the roster games began, and then some. On June 28, he returned from the DL when the team finally cut Luis Cruz loose, but he played in only eight games over the next three weeks before heading back to the minors when Matt Kemp returned on July 21. Yes, that was when Kemp immediately destroyed his ankle in Washington, but when Kemp went on the disabled list a few days later, it wasn’t Van Slyke taking his place… it was that incredibly odd period when Ted Lilly was activated for one day in Toronto, never pitched, and then was cut. Van Slyke spent a week in the minors, then returned as soon as he was eligible to, because the team blew the “10 day” loophole by activating Lilly in the first place.

Van Slyke then started three games in Wrigley Field at three different spots — left, right, and first — and went right back down so Stephen Fife could be activated. Barely more than a week later, he was back up when Dee Gordon was sent down; after two starts (and three hits) in Philadelphia, he once again was optioned, this time so that Brian Wilson could join the team in Miami. Finally, he came back up in September for good, though he didn’t do much in 13 games, hitting .192/.382/.346. In 263 minor league plate appearances, however, he’d hit an insane .348/.479/.627, and though there was definitely a Albuquerque influence, he did hit .317/.410/.524 on the road.

With Kemp out and Andre Ethier hobbled, Van Slyke made the playoff roster… kind of. Despite our continuing wish that he either start against lefties or relieve Michael Young of ever getting a shot in a big spot, his postseason time was limited to a pinch-running appearance in the NLDS and a cameo in center field in extra innings of Game 2 of the NLCS. He didn’t get a plate appearance in the entire postseason. I still don’t know why.

I’m still not sure what to make of him, really. He’ll turn 28 in July, so he’s not particularly young, and he doesn’t have much of a big league track record. Clearly, the game doesn’t think much of him. But he reportedly put a lot of work into his conditioning prior to 2013, and it showed — he was clearly slimmer. He’ll never be a starter, nor should he be, but the power is real, he can kind of play three positions, and this Dodger team has lefties at first base and potentially two outfield spots on any given day, two of whom absolutely cannot hit southpaws. It’s not like there’s not a role for him here. Or if he’s traded, that’s fine too. There’s just not a lot left for him to prove in the minors.

*****

Next! So long, Elian Herrera!

To Van Slyke, Or Not To Van Slyke?

vanslyke_2013-08-02Thanks to the injuries to Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp, along with the lack of productivity from Jerry Hairston, Scott Van Slyke managed to find his way onto the playoff roster. That alone is a pretty big success for a guy who went back and forth between Albuquerque and Los Angeles about 70 times this year (or so it seemed) and — I just cannot stress this enough — went unclaimed by every team in the big leagues when he was removed from the 40-man roster last winter.

When Van Slyke was DFA’d last December, it was to make room for Skip Schumaker, who had just been added in a trade with St. Louis. Now Schumaker is the starting center fielder by default until Ethier can run again, but we’re left with this question: should Van Slyke get the start tonight in Game 2 of the NLDS?

It’s only even a question because Atlanta is tossing out lefty Mike Minor, who was about 100 points of OPS tougher on lefties in 2013 (and about 40 for his career), and Schumaker absolutely cannot hit lefty pitching (.211/.280/.255 .534 in his career), nor does he offer enough on defense to make up for it. Van Slyke brings more power of course, though he hasn’t really had a ton of success against lefties himself in a very small sample size; over his minor league career, he’s had almost no platoon split whatsoever.

Note here that I’m not at all suggesting that Van Slyke play center, as seems to be the emergency plan, but instead to push Yasiel Puig there. Sure, Puig in center is probably something of an adventure, though we should remember how smartly he played last night, and again, it’s not like Schumaker is Carlos Gomez out there.

Carl Crawford, it should be noted, can’t really hit lefties either, so slotting Van Slyke into left field is also an option, and that means there’s two chances to get a platoon-heavy lefty out of the lineup. All that being said, I imagine none of this is particularly likely and that Van Slyke starts on the bench again. Why? The time-tested managerial trope of “it worked last night, so why change it?” We’ll see.

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.

Braves 8, Dodgers 5: Have a Day, Scott Van Slyke

vanslyke_atlanta_atbat_2013-05-17Let’s see… should we talk about Scott Van Slyke, who made a great diving catch in the fifth, then hit homers in both the sixth and the eighth?

Or should we talk about the grand slam Justin Upton hit off of Paco Rodriguez that still hasn’t landed, and the mess of fielding miscues by Luis Cruz, Dee Gordon, & Carl Crawford? Or the 0-5 Matt Kemp took, ending his hitting streak? Or that no one seems to want to talk about the fact that Gordon is now hitting just .200/.280/.311, because he’s, you know, not a great baseball player?

Right, I didn’t think so. The impressive Van Slyke becomes the first Dodger rookie with a multihomer game since 2006, when Matt Kemp, James Loney, Andre Ethier, & Cody Ross all managed the feat, and he’s certainly staking a claim to stick around here for a while. There’s no question that there’s a role for him; we’ve been dying for a righty 1B/OF option with power for literally years — no hyperbole at all — and Juan Rivera was never the man we were looking for. On a team with three lefty starters at first and the outfield corners who all tend to get banged up in some way, how can you not need a guy like that over yet another utility infielder?

Now, whether Van Slyke is that man remains to be seen. Not to drive the point into the ground, but it’s difficult to forget that even the Astros & Marlins wouldn’t touch him for free this winter. But I’m open to the idea that a player can improve if there’s real evidence behind it other than just “derrr, he’s got potential”, and Van Slyke clearly showed a commitment to both his conditioning and his mechanics since last season. That’s to his credit, of course, but it’s also a matter of survival; if even the bottom feeders don’t want you, then what you’re doing isn’t working.

I won’t go so far as to say that Van Slyke’s role is set in concrete, because it’s not. But I also can’t come up with a single legitimate reason why it would be him and not Cruz or Ramon Hernandez who leaves town when Mark Ellis is ready to return to the team, perhaps as soon as early next week. I’ll give Van Slyke this, at least: he was going to have to impress early, as unfairly as that is, and that’s what he’s done so far, on both sides of the ball.

Lost in the late inning fireworks on both sides was a mediocre outing from Hyun-jin Ryu, who failed to get more than 15 outs for the first time this season. Ryu’s usually pinpoint control wasn’t quite there today, as he walked five in five innings and never really looked comfortable, but good on him for managing to get through five with only two runs allowed despite clearly not having his best stuff.

Dodgers 5, Marlins 3: Scott Van Slyke, For You

vanslyke_2013-05-12That was, all in all, a relatively uneventful and workmanlike victory over an inferior roster. I say that without any negative connotation whatsoever; after all that’s happened to this Dodger team so far, sometimes a quiet, effective win is about the best you could ask for.

Chris Capuano was solid in allowing just a Justin Ruggiano solo homer while pitching into the seventh, but the hero of the day is clearly Scott Van Slyke. In his first start of the season, the 26-year-old repaid the faith of all those who insisted the Dodgers should have called him up two weeks ago, crushing a Tom Koehler pitch just out of Ruggiano’s reach in his first plate appearance for the first scoring of the game. He finished off the scoring with an RBI single in the seventh, wrapped around a few solid defensive plays at first base; I won’t say that one game has substantially changed my opinion about a player who went unclaimed by all of baseball when he was DFA’d last winter, but I’m much happier having someone with his profile than yet another punchless utility player like Elian Herrera.

Elsewhere, Carl Crawford & Matt Kemp each had two hits — for Kemp, that makes him the fifth fastest Dodger to reach 1,000 career hits — and once again, special attention must be paid to Juan Uribe, who didn’t even get into the game until the seventh but still had a hit and a walk, scoring on an Andre Ethier sacrifice fly. He also made an excellent defensive play in the ninth to prevent Brandon League from blowing a lead — we can talk more about this later, but for every “why isn’t Kenley Jansen the closer?!” complaint, remember that League could have just as easily been awful in the eighth when Jansen was striking out four of five — and so far this year, Uribe has a .420 on base percentage. I will never get over this.