The Dodgers have been the talk of the baseball world this season, with the $2 billion sale of the organization and their league-best 17-8 record. However, as well as the team has played, they actually stand to improve their offense with a simple lineup tweak: Move Dee Gordon in front of the pitcher and bat A.J. Ellis near the top of the lineup.
By batting him eighth, the Dodgers are not optimally utilizing Ellis’s on-base proficiency.
Sure, some of his ability to draw walks so far is tied to his lineup spot. He’s a patient hitter regardless of where he bats — but batters in that position tend to get intentionally walked or unintentionally-intentionally walked more often than those in other spots. Even so, the difference in on base percentage between Ellis and Gordon is still substantial after accounting for those lineup effects.
The Dodgers are leaving runs on the table by batting an OBP-sinkhole in front of Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that their eighth hitter has a .449 OBP and projects to finish at around .390.
While the overall effects of lineup optimization are negligible over the course of the season, effectively swapping Ellis and Gordon will help increase their scoring output and stave off some offensive dropoff when Kemp and Ethier regress.
First things first, an apology to Ellis is in order. I ranked the Dodgers dead last in our positional power rankings, and while the reasoning wasn’t entirely driven by Ellis, I had little confidence in his ability to sustain a .350+ OBP at the major-league level.
At the time, the Dodgers were seemingly going to split time between Ellis, Tim Federowicz and Matt Treanor. There was plenty of uncertainty surrounding Ellis and Federowicz, and Treanor is no longer an effective major leaguer.
I still consider my reasons somewhat valid, but the Dodgers definitely don’t have the worst catching situation, and would probably rank in the upper half if those rankings were done today. Ellis legitimately seems capable of posting a very high on base percentage in the major leagues this season, and ZiPS has taken notice.
The projection system forecasts a .372 OBP for Ellis the rest of the way, which would have him finish the season with an impressive .388 rate. Gordon, on the other hand, has a putrid .263 OBP right now and a .305 projection from here on out. It isn’t even close, and by batting Gordon at the top and Ellis at the bottom, Don Mattingly is reducing his team’s odds of having runners on base for the meat of the order.
Further, the case could be made that the eighth spot in a National League lineup is perfect for a player with Gordon’s attributes. If he manages to get on, he can utilize his speed by stealing second base. The pitcher can theoretically then sacrifice him over to third base. The Dodgers would then find themselves in a much better position to score a run, as Gordon could cross home plate on a grounder as well as on a sacrifice fly.
Ellis doesn’t offer the same advantage at the bottom of the order, as the difference in speed between he and Gordon is likely similar to the effects of their OBP differential. Not that Gordon’s speed is equally valuable but rather that the gap between the players in each category is similar. Ellis probably wouldn’t be able to steal second in this scenario — or even score from second on a single. While he clearly helps the Dodgers more at the top of the lineup, Gordon helps them more at the bottom, further justifying the swap.
The Dodgers have scored 103 runs, good for sixth in the National League. Just imagine how much better the offense would have looked in the early going with a .380 OBP to .400 OBP player in front of Kemp and Ethier, rather than one with a sub-.300 mark. Sure, the effects of lineup optimization are typically negligible — but in this case the effects could be greater, given the sheer difference in Ellis’s and Gordon’s rates of reaching base and the MVP pace on which Kemp is currently performing.