Since Ducky Medwick in 1937, no National League player has completed the illustrious Triple Crown – leading the lead in batting average, homers, and runs batted in. Nearly a quarter of the way through the 2010 season, Andre Ethier of the Los Angeles Dodgers leads the National League in all three of these categories, with a .392 batting average, 11 home runs, and 38 RBIs. On Tuesday, the Dodgers announced that the fractured finger that he sustained on Saturday would send him to the disabled list for the first time in his career.
Given that the injury will likely sideline Ethier for two to three weeks, if not more, his triple crown dreams are essentially dead. With 27 players within four home runs of Ethier’s total of 11 and 12 players within 10 RBIs of Ethier’s total of 38, it’s almost assured that Ethier will only lead the league in batting average upon his return.
At this point, the Triple Crown is not much more than a historical relic. Much more important is how the loss of Ethier will impact the Dodgers’ playoff chances. The Dodgers have rattled off nine straight victories after a 13-17 start and now only sit half a game behind the upstart San Diego Padres and the San Francisco Giants. With 203 runs scored, the Dodgers’ offense has quite easily been the best in the National League West, and Ethier’s tremendous performance to date has been the leading factor.
Right now, the Dodgers’ lineup has a wOBA of .338. That mark puts them at 15 runs better than the average NL offense. Remarkably, Andre Ethier has been worth over 20 runs just by himself. Replace Ethier with a league average hitter, and the Dodgers’ offense is roughly 5 runs below average. That’s equal to the level of the Florida Marlins’ offense so far this year or the Chicago Cubs’ offense in 2009. Both of those offenses are a far cry away from averaging 5.21 runs/game or finishing 3rd in the NL in scoring.
For the foreseeable future, Ethier will be replaced by Xavier Paul and Reed Johnson. The right handed hitting Johnson will likely see most of the plate appearances against left handed pitchers. Johnson has typical splits, and hits about 20 points higher against lefties than he does against righties. That puts Johnson’s half of the platoon at about a .325-.330 wOBA, given his performance so far this season as well as his preseason projections. The left handed hitting Paul has posted a .373 wOBA so far this season, but that’s heavily boosted by a .364 BABIP. His minor league numbers suggest an above average ability to reach base on batted balls, but not to that extent. An overall wOBA of .305 is a more reasonable projection for Paul. Against mainly right handed pitchers, that projection jumps up to roughly .315.
That puts the wOBA of the platoon as a whole at .319, or nearly 190 points below Ethier’s performance to date and 83 points below his rest of season ZiPS projection. If this platoon only sees 12 games – assuming a very optimistic return date of June 1 – the Dodgers will lose about four runs of production against Ethier’s projected performance. Both Paul and Johnson are much better fielders than Ethier, who’s been roughly -10 runs per 150 games over his career. Ethier’s offensive superiority, however, simply cannot be replaced by poor-to-average bats and slightly above-average gloves.
There’s no doubt that the Dodgers will need Andre Ethier back in their lineup as soon as possible. Their division-leading offense has been the key to their current run and will be key to gaining a lead over the division and holding it over not onlythe first place Giants and Padres but also the very talented Colorado Rockies. Xavier Paul and Reed Johnson should offer solid defense and acceptable hitting in the meantime, but Ethier’s bat is just simply irreplaceable, and much of the Dodgers’ 2010 season will hinge on his recovery.
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