The Dodgers Are Struggling Out of the Gate — Again

Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

Thanks to an eight-run fifth inning that included Andy Pages‘ first major league home run, the Dodgers beat the Mets 10-0 on Sunday to avoid being swept at home. Even so, they’re off to a sluggish start this season after committing nearly $1 billion in free agent contracts this past winter and pushing their payroll to a club record $314 million. Maybe they’re not the juggernaut that figure suggests, though even given their star-laden roster, they came into this season as a work in progress.

The Dodgers entered Sunday having lost seven of their past nine games. They dropped the finale of a six-game midwest road trip to the Twins, then two of three to the Padres at Chavez Ravine, followed by two of three to the Nationals and two in a row to the Mets. The skid undid a 10-4 start, and they were in danger of — gasp — sinking to .500 had they lost on Sunday. They weren’t exactly getting steamrolled by powerhouses, either. The aforementioned teams had a weighted projected winning percentage of .472 at the outset of the season, and finished Sunday having produced a .453 winning percentage outside of this nine-game stretch against Los Angeles.

For the Dodgers, run prevention has been the biggest issue. Even with Sunday’s shutout — their first of the season, with eight dominant innings from Tyler Glasnow and one from Nick Ramirez — they’re allowing 4.54 runs per game, 11th in the National League. While they haven’t allowed runs at that clip over a full season since 2005, they allowed exactly the same number of runs over their first 24 games last year while going 13-11, then picking up the pace and winning 100 games. Déjà vu all over again?

Maybe so, but the situation is still worth a closer look.

Outside of Glasnow (2.92 ERA, 2.94 FIP), their starting pitching has left something to be desired, with the rest combining for a 4.40 ERA and 3.98 FIP while averaging just 4.20 innings per start. Yoshinobu Yamamoto, whom they signed to a 12-year, $325 million deal in December, was rocked for five runs and chased after one inning in his debut in Seoul on March 21, and while he’s pitched better since, it wasn’t until Friday that he turned in a quality start — and even then, he allowed four runs (one unearned) in six innings.

Yamamoto is carrying a 4.50 ERA but a 3.07 FIP, striking out a robust 32.3% of hitters against a 5.4% walk rate, albeit with a lot of hard contact, with an average exit velo of 90.4 mph, a barrel rate of 14%, and a hard-hit rate of 54.3%; those last two figures rank in the second and fourth percentiles, respectively. His four-seamer has been hammered, and it’s not too big a mystery why:

Too many of Yamamoto’s four-seamers are going right down Broadway, and batters are destroying them, with a 25% barrel rate and .710 slugging percentage (more numbers below). On the SNY broadcast, analyst Ron Darling theorized that Yamamoto may be having trouble adjusting to the different ball; those used in NPB have lower seams and are slightly smaller and tackier, making them easier to grip. That said, Yamamoto’s secondary pitches have performed just fine. The contrast in his Statcast numbers broken down by pitch type is incredible:

Yoshinobu Yamamoto by Pitch Type
Pitch % BA xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA Whiff% EV LA HH% Barrel%
4-Seam 37.0 .355 .371 .710 .665 .454 .486 20.9 96.5 14.9 67.9 25.0
Non-4-Seam 63.0 .167 .182 .278 .257 .220 .217 39.3 84.3 5.5 41.4 6.9
Curve 28.6 .208 .212 .375 .304 .254 .221 37.2 81.9 5.2 46.2 7.7
Splitter 27.3 .115 .163 .192 .226 .192 .227 42.9 86.2 5.3 38.5 7.7
Cutter 6.8 .250 .122 .250 .175 .225 .124 33.3 87.1 8.0 33.3 0.0
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Darling suggested it might take a dozen starts for Yamamoto to adjust. As you can see by his overall stats, he’s missing enough bats to suggest he’ll be fine in the long run — his 26.9% strikeout-to-walk differential ranks fifth in the majors among pitchers with at least 20 innings — but he could continue to experience some growing pains.

James Paxton has been wobbly so far, walking 14 in 16 innings while striking out just 10 and producing a 6.23 FIP. The Dodgers have been giving him extra rest between starts, which may have an impact on his sharpness; his next start on Tuesday against the Nationals will be on eight days of rest.

As for the rest of the rotation, it’s a work in progress due to injuries, some of which the Dodgers have planned around (the eventual returns of Walker Buehler and Dustin May from Tommy John surgery and Clayton Kershaw from shoulder surgery), others not so much. Emmet Sheehan suffered a forearm strain in February and has been shut down from throwing; he’s on the 60-day injured list. Bobby Miller struck out 11 while shutting out the Cardinals for six innings on two hits on March 29, but his next two starts were rocky, and according to manager Dave Roberts, he struggled to recover. The team placed him on the IL with shoulder inflammation; he’s due to start playing catch this week but will need to be built back up, so even in the best-case scenario, he won’t be back until sometime in May.

With Buehler slow-walked this spring in order to limit his innings, the Dodgers have used Gavin Stone, who’s had two reasonably effective starts and two short ones en route to a 6.00 ERA and 3.10 FIP. Landon Knack, a 26-year-old righty, held the Nationals to two runs in five innings in his major league debut last Wednesday and will face them again this Wednesday. To give all the starters extra rest, the team has used Ryan Brasier and Kyle Hurt as openers ahead of lefty Ryan Yarbrough, who’s pitched to a 3.86 ERA but a 5.21 FIP — too many homers, not enough strikeouts — in 21 innings; Hurt’s now on the IL with shoulder inflammation as well. Buehler should be back sometime soon, but he lasted just 2.2 innings on 68 pitches in his most recent start at OKC, his fourth overall; he’ll take another turn on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the bullpen (including Yarbrough) has turned in a 4.35 ERA and 4.64 FIP; the latter mark ranks last in the NL while its -0.1 WAR is second-to-last. Closer Evan Phillips has been stellar, but Brasier and Joe Kelly, the two setup men on which the team spent the most money this winter, have both been shaky. Brasier’s six runs allowed in 9.2 innings matches his total in 38.2 innings after being picked up by the Dodgers last year; he has a 5.59 ERA and 6.31 FIP, Kelly a 7.00 ERA and 3.32 FIP in nine innings. Righty Daniel Hudson has been solid, but the loss of Brusdar Graterol, who’s on the 60-day IL due to shoulder inflammation, looms large. The lack of a reliable lefty is a concern as well, particularly with Alex Vesia walking nine in 11 innings so far. The team has used a total of 21 pitchers, the third-highest total in the majors behind the Astros’ 23 and the Mets’ 22; it’s a dizzying process of remembering and then forgetting some guys as they’re shuttled between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City.

As for the offense, its 117 wRC+ (on .259/.343/.421 hitting) ranks third in the league, but something is getting lost in translation. Not only is the team’s 5.17 runs per game fifth, but by BaseRuns, they’re about a quarter of a run short of their projected 5.41 runs per game (likewise on the pitching side, they project to be allowing just 4.26 runs per game). Mookie Betts and Shohei Ohtani are putting up videogame numbers, ranking first and second in the league in wRC+ and WAR (206 and 2.0 for the former, 199 and 1.5 or the latter); they’re on pace for 13.5 WAR and 10.1 WAR, respectively.

Even so, Ohtani is just 3-for-22 without an extra-base hit with runners in scoring position; three of his homers have come with the bases empty. Betts has picked up the slack in that regard (.563/.632/.875, 311 wRC+), but the team as a whole has just a 101 wRC+ with runners in scoring position, part of the reason for their shortfall. Max Muncy has hit for a 112 wRC+ overall, mashing with the bases empty (.241/.371/.586, 163 wRC+) but struggling with men in scoring position (.182/.250/.273, 41 wRC+ in a team-high 40 PA). Will Smith (138 wRC+), Freddie Freeman (131 wRC+, and Teoscar Hernández (127 wRC+) have been quite productive on the whole, but Hernández has shown a drastic split, going 1-for-24 in 30 PA while making seven starts in left field but hitting .338/.377/.615 in 70 PA while making 17 starts in right in place of Jason Heyward, who’s been out since early April due to lower back tightness. On the whole, the Betts-less outfield’s offensive production has been abysmal, as Davey Andrews illustrated last week:

The Majors’ Least Productive Outfields
White Sox 262 3 8.4% 24.4% .186 .263 .266 57 -1.1
Rockies 277 7 7.2% 32.1% .209 .274 .368 65 -0.5
Pirates 302 6 11.6% 22.8% .232 .319 .342 86 -0.4
Dodgers 288 8 8.3% 30.6% .192 .272 .318 71 -0.2
Royals 261 8 8.0% 22.6% .202 .269 .349 76 -0.2

The unit now ranks 28th in the majors in wRC+ and 27th in WAR. The team’s center fielders, James Outman and Enrique Hernández (with two games from Pages), have combined to hit just .179/.250/.286 (56 wRC+), a slash line that looks like the second coming of Duke Snider next to their left fielders. Teoscar Hernández, Enrique Hernández, Chris Taylor, and briefly Taylor Trammell, have slashed .090/.240/.103 (18 wRC+) without a homer while striking out a honking 38.5% of the time. In addition to Teoscar’s woes while playing left, Taylor has gone 2-for-35 with seven walks and a hit-by-pitch.

The 33-year-old Taylor did snap an 0-for-31 slump with a two-run single against the Mets on Friday, but he’s been so lost he belongs on the side of a milk carton. A streaky player in the best of times, he’s been striking out a ton since the start of 2022 (35.2% that year, 32.6% in 2023) and has hit just .211/.303/.362 since a foul ball fractured his left foot on July 6 of that season. He’s at .051/.208/.051 (-3 wRC+) with a 39.6% strikeout rate in 48 PA thus far; he’s barreled just one ball and has an average exit velo of 84.5 mph, with a .142 xBA and .210 xSLG. He’s 0-for-15 with a 35.1% whiff rate against four-seamers.

Taylor hasn’t been able to do anything with pitches in the middle of the strike zone, a.k.a. Gameday zone 5, the ones Statcast calls Meatballs. Of the players who have seen at least 150 pitches thus far, his 11.4% Meatball rate is the majors’ sixth-highest, but he’s come up empty:

Hitters Served the Most Meatballs
Player Team Pitch % PA BA xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA Whiff% EV Bar%
Nick Ahmed SFG 14.4 15 .333 .293 .533 .548 .375 .355 20.0 87.8 14.3
Austin Hays BAL 13.4 11 .091 .325 .091 .496 .082 .349 7.1 91.7 9.1
Oliver Dunn MIL 12.1 12 .250 .340 .500 .680 .325 .429 9.1 86.2 8.3
Mike Yastrzemski SFG 11.8 12 .250 .328 .250 .615 .225 .396 11.8 95.1 18.2
Tyler Freeman CLE 11.5 15 .286 .285 .357 .505 .266 .326 4.2 97.2 13.3
Chris Taylor LAD 11.4 5 .000 .067 .000 .071 .000 .073 31.8 93.0 0.0
Jake McCarthy ARI 11.3 8 .500 .265 .625 .348 .499 .266 16.7 87.4 0.0
Anthony Rendon LAA 11.2 14 .308 .287 .308 .544 .258 .331 8.0 95.4 7.7
Matt Vierling DET 11.0 10 .100 .259 .200 .486 .128 .316 18.8 90.8 12.5
Maikel Garcia KCR 11.0 17 .118 .313 .294 .521 .177 .353 10.0 91.6 6.3
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Highest percentage of pitches in Gameday zone 5, minimum 150 total pitches faced.

Taylor has fouled off 54.5% of the 22 Meatballs he’s seen, the second-highest rate of anybody with at least 20 meatballs behind Bo Bichette (58.3%). He could see his playing time reduced with the arrival of Pages, a 23-year-old righty who placed 58th on our Top 100 Prospects list last season but played just 34 games before tearing the labrum in his left shoulder in his first game at Oklahoma City after being promoted from Double-A Tulsa. He slipped out of the Top 100 this spring, downgraded from a 50 FV prospect to a 45+. Eric Longenhagen described him as “an explosive swinger with a very powerful lower body… [whose] bat path is geared for huge lift, with some of the most consistent and extreme launch in all of professional baseball at 22-25 degrees on average.” Like Taylor even in his better days, he’s prone to strikeouts (24.3% in 2022–23) and had gone just 2-for-14 with seven Ks in his first four games before connecting for a double and the aforementioned homer on Sunday, though he did also strike out.

The other Dodger whose struggles are of particular concern is Gavin Lux, who after missing last season due to a torn right ACL was supposed to be the team’s starting shortstop. Throwing issues led the Dodgers to switch him and Betts at the two middle infield spots, which so far has worked out defensively (he has 2 DRS and 2 RAA to this point, not that 146 innings really tells us anything), but he’s hitting .148/.224/.164 (19 wRC+) and hasn’t barreled a single ball. His Stacast expected numbers aren’t as bad as Taylor’s (.232 xBA, .291 xSLG), but that’s not to say they’re good. Though he’s hit the ball harder in his last few games, overall he has a 55.6% groundball rate, 7.6% above his career norm.

Mindful of the rust he has to shake off, the Dodgers are being “extra patient” with Lux, as Roberts told Ken Rosenthal, who summarized their conversation on Saturday’s Fox Sports broadcast. “[Roberts] said normally with a veteran player, you have to give him 100 at-bats before you evaluate his performance. With Lux, because he missed all of last year, they have to be extra patient, 150 at-bats is the number.”

With the expansion of the playoff field to 12 teams, the Dodgers have taken a more patient approach to the early regular season, showing a willingness to wait out problems and to plan around players returning from injuries. It hasn’t yielded the best of results given back-to-back exits in the Division Series, but internally, they’re aware that they’re not close to full strength yet and are evaluating their play accordingly. Still, they have enough flaws that it’s worth keeping an eye on, and it could take awhile before they find their groove.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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1 month ago

Chris Taylor is toast.

1 month ago
Reply to  Francoeurstein

Either that or he’s hurt.

Average EV: 84.5 (last year: 86.2)
Max EV: 104.7 (last year: 110.8)
Hard Hit %: 28.6% (last year: 37.4%)
Sprint Speed: 27.2 (last year: 28.3)

He’s also under contract for 2025.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
1 month ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Obviously I just watch on TV, but he doesn’t look hurt. He looks like he’s guessing and then swinging out of his socks. Could be something to do with his eyesight, I guess.

1 month ago
Reply to  Francoeurstein

Such is the way for a pretty good but not great 2B/UT.