The Dodgers’ Approach to Hitting Is Unlike Any Other

Los Angeles Dodgers
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Dodgers have been so good for so long that whatever numbers they put up seem to elicit a blasé response at best. Oh, their 116 wRC+ is good for third in the league? Ho-hum. It’s been that way for a while, and I wouldn’t blame you for not thinking about the Dodgers, or even refusing to. You’d like someone else to seize the throne; after all, baseball is at its best with several contending teams, not select superpowers.

But let me implore you to consider the Dodgers again. The mere fact that they’re great isn’t interesting; it’s how they’re great that is. While the pitching is playing a crucial role, I’m going to focus solely on the hitting, because that’s where this team stands out.

To lay some groundwork: Over at Baseball Savant, there’s a tool called Swing/Take runs, which shows the run value players accrue on pitches in each zone. The distinction goes beyond simple balls and strikes; down-the-middle strikes, for example, correspond to the “Heart” zone, and borderline strikes correspond to the “Shadow” zone.

We can look at these run values by team, too. Quick: what do stellar offenses do against down-the-middle pitches? Crush them, that’s what. To wit, the Yankees have accrued a league-leading 26 runs against such pitches. It makes sense; the Yankees make sense. The Dodgers, however, do not make sense:

It’s not just a quirk from this season: A vast majority of players, and thus teams, are regularly in the red when they swing against seemingly easy pitches. The Yankees are actually an outlier in that regard, and it’s part of why they’ve been successful. But the Dodgers aren’t merely missing out on down-the-middle pitches. Nay, they’re atrocious against them. On the graph, they’re in the same neighborhood as the Nationals, who own the league’s 22nd-best offense by wRC+, and the Athletics, who own the very worst. This is… strange.

How can we explain it? Often, players or teams harbor poor run values against middle-middle pitches because they take too many of them. Every one of them is called a strike barring an umpiring catastrophe, and falling behind in the count is never good for a hitter. It’s not so simple, though. The Dodgers have swung at 73.7% of meatballs, the 10th-highest rate among teams. If anything, they’ve been aggressive! In contrast, the Yankees have swung at just 69.5% of meatballs, which is the second-lowest rate among teams. Their prodigious output has been the result of selectiveness rather than indiscriminate hacking.

So that didn’t help. This time around, let’s look at pitch types. Are the Dodgers terrible against all middle-middle pitches, or specific ones? Turns out, we have an answer. Here are the Dodgers’ Heart zone runs split by fastballs (four-seamers and sinkers), cutters, breaking balls (sliders and curveballs), and offspeed pitches:

Run value is cumulative, and since four-seam fastballs and sinkers account for a lot of the Savant-defined meatballs the Dodgers have seen, it’s natural that we’re seeing a lower number, but only to an extent. Even if we adjust run value to a per-100 pitch basis, there’s no escaping it: The Dodgers are almost unbelievably awful against middle-middle fastballs. But hey, they’re quite good against breaking and offspeed pitches. Those numbers might seem low, but remember, most of the league fares even worse. It seems like the Dodgers are collectively making a trade-off: They’re sitting on slower pitches and ambushing them, at the cost of letting fastballs go by.

Still, we’ve yet to touch on the heart of the matter. If the Dodgers are so inept at handling mistake pitches, where the heck are they making up so much ground?

One place is the “Shadow” region, which surrounds the edges of the zone. Borderline pitches are a tough nut to crack. They have a near-equal chance of becoming either a ball or a strike, so as a hitter, it can get tricky to defend yourself. Should I swing against this pitch that looks like a strike but might veer slightly outside the zone by the time it passes home plate? Even when a hitter does connect, the results are often disappointing. These pitches might be strikes, but they definitely aren’t your average meatball. How do the Dodgers perform when faced with the iffiest of offerings? Let’s see:

If you thought hitters were bad against middle-middle pitches, think again. Not even a powerhouse like the Astros can escape the despair caused by a perfectly-located pitch. Now consider the Dodgers. They’re still in the red, yes, but they’ve minimized the damage like no one else. Whereas the 29 other teams are scrunched up together, the Dodgers are first in run value by a wide margin. That they’ve been poor against hittable pitches and stellar against difficult ones is a bit of a head-scratcher, but well, it’s worked so far.

For the Dodgers, the process involved in conquering the Shadow zone isn’t uniform, but instead individualized. Freddie Freeman (+9 swing runs) and Trea Turner (+5) are earning their keep by making quality contact against borderline pitches; Will Smith (+4 take runs) and Max Muncy (+3) are carefully differentiating balls from strikes. There are inevitably a few weak links — Justin Turner has totaled -12 Shadow runs so far — but as a whole, the Dodgers have shown impressive results. Interestingly, there’s no team-wide disparity between fastballs and non-fastballs here, existing only on an individual basis. Regardless of pitch type, the Dodgers are augmenting their at-bats with good decisions against problematic pitches.

Then there’s the “Chase” region, which corresponds to the areas clearly outside the zone. It’s here that the typical two-strike slider ends up. It’s also here that teams find a source of profit, working toward advantageous counts by ignoring balls. Every team so far in 2022 has accumulated at least 50 runs in the Chase region. But some teams are better than others at mining this area, and no team other than one has been better than the Dodgers:

This one is a no-brainer. Per Pitch Info’s plate discipline metrics, the Dodgers this season have the league’s lowest rate of swings on pitches outside the zone. Fewer chases equal more favorable counts, which in turn equal more walks and hittable pitches. In the instances that the Dodgers do chase, their close-to-average rate of contact on pitches outside the zone keeps them afloat. Restraint has been the team’s identity for a while now, and this season represents a continuation.

Finally, there’s the “Waste” region. Here, you’ll find curveballs bounced in the dirt and other uncompetitive pitches that hitters rarely swing at. Naturally, there is a higher degree of parity between the worst and best teams compared to other areas of the zone, but the latter still find ways to squeeze out a few extra runs. Indeed, the Dodgers are tied for seventh with 57, another product of their ironclad discipline.

In sum, the Dodgers up to this point have come up empty against middle-middle fastballs. But breaking and offspeed pitches have been point of strength (as Ben Clemens also noted), and so have all kinds of borderline pitches. And keeping up with recent tradition, they haven’t been susceptible to pitches outside the zone. What does all this add up to? Below are the composite Swing/Take runs of each team:

There you have it. Despite abysmal numbers against meatballs, the Dodgers rank second in runs generated from swings and takes, which make up most of a team’s offensive output. It really is bizarre.

But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. To observe that the Dodgers’ offense has been peculiar is one thing; to claim that there’s been an actual, team-wide change in approach is another. Maybe the Dodgers are inexplicably better against borderline pitches this season. It’s possible! I haven’t checked the reliability of these swing/take numbers. Besides, I doubt Muncy wanted to go from 11 Heart zone runs last year to -15 this year. The ebbs and flows of baseball are no doubt a factor as well.

What I will say is this. If we consider returning Dodgers from who’ve also accrued enough plate appearances this season, there’s a portion of this shift in approach that does seem more like a fluke than reality:

Returning Dodgers in the Heart
Player ’21 Heart Runs ’22 Heart Runs Change
Mookie Betts -8 -1 7
Gavin Lux -5 -3 2
Will Smith -14 -12 2
Justin Turner -4 -2 2
Cody Bellinger -14 -15 -1
Austin Barnes -7 -13 -6
Chris Taylor 3 -5 -8
Trea Turner 8 -4 -12
Max Muncy 11 -15 -26
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Min. 100 PA both seasons.

You can see how the decrease in runs is primarily driven by Muncy, who in many ways is unlike his former self, and the younger Turner, who otherwise feasts on down-the-middle pitches. If I had to guess, the Dodgers don’t finish alongside the Athletics as one of the worst meatball-mashing teams. But another portion of this shift does seem like a genuine step forward. The Dodgers are displaying alarming amounts of ineptitude against middle-middle pitches, sure, but that’s being offset by their gains against borderline pitches:

Returning Dodgers in the Shadow
Player ’21 Shadow Runs ’22 Shadow Runs Change
Cody Bellinger -26 -3 23
Will Smith -16 3 19
Trea Turner -12 5 17
Austin Barnes -12 3 15
Mookie Betts -10 2 12
Gavin Lux -13 -5 8
Max Muncy -14 -11 3
Chris Taylor -10 -9 1
Justin Turner -10 -10 0
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Min. 100 PA both seasons.

Unlike with Heart zone runs, this is across-the-board improvement. Maybe the Dodgers aren’t this good in the Shadow moving forward, but with nearly everyone in the lineup better than their 2021 self, it’s also hard to imagine them taking a significant step back. As for the Chase and Waste zones, the differences from last year are pretty much evenly distributed; some Dodgers are chasing less, whereas others are swinging with less of a clue. But overall, they’re still one of the more disciplined squads around.

The biggest caveat is that with the season only halfway done, these numbers are subject to change. But as it stands, the Dodgers’ path to an elite offense has been, well, supremely weird. The top five offenses this season by wRC+ belong to, in order: the Yankees, Astros, Dodgers, Twins, and Mets. Four of the five teams are among the top ten in Heart zone runs; the other one is 29th. As if hitting isn’t difficult enough, the Dodgers this season are playing on hard mode, producing runs via 50–50 pitches and nasty breaking balls both in and out of the zone. Maybe some of this is intentional. Maybe it isn’t. But it certainly is fascinating to talk about, and we’ll get to see if the Dodgers continue their odd ways through the rest of 2022.

All statistics are through games of July 10.





Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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connjc
2 months ago

Interesting to see Bellinger improved so much the shadow zone. I’m wondering if you broke that down it would be driven by the balls he hits well that are down between his ankles and knees. It’s about the only thing he hits now. A pitcher should never throw him a pitch below the waist.

Hopefully Muncy can turn it around since he has traditionally been so good against the fastball. But if you watch the games, it is not that surprising that number is driven by Bellinger and Muncy swinging through meat fastballs.