Puig & Ramirez Need Help in Los Angeles

If it seems like everything is finally going right for the Los Angeles Dodgers these days, that’s only because it more or less is in comparison to how miserable the first three months of the season had gone. After a seemingly endless stretch of injuries and ineptitude, they’ve finally managed to get healthy — or something close to it — and play like the talent-laden team most had expected them to be.

Since a loss on June 20 to San Diego that sunk the Dodgers to a season-worst 12 games under .500 and 9 1/2 games out in the division, they’ve won 19 of 24, and put themselves right on the heels of the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks.

It’s not difficult to see how. Rookie sensation Yasiel Puig has made an enormous splash, hitting .391/.422/.616 through the All-Star break while wowing fans both on defense and on the basepaths. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez was somehow even better, hitting .386/.444/.693 after finally returning from injuries to both his thumb and hamstring. But the fact is Puig and Ramirez can’t keep this up all season, and if the Dodgers are going to make the playoffs, they’re going to need to get their two key performers some help.

In Puig’s case, the downturn has already begun, and while many like to point to the shocking amount of press coverage he’s received — not all of it friendly — there’s no shortage of real-world reasons. Puig isn’t going to contribute all season the way he did in his first few weeks in the big leagues simply because more than 100 years of established baseball history dictates that he can’t.

Over the first month (28 games) of his career, the 22-year-old Cuban was hitting .440 with a .506 batting average on balls in play. It’s just not realistic to expect that pace to last all season long, and the rational laws of nature mean that his next few months are not going to be as great as his first. It’s not a drag on Puig to say that; it’s just the way this sport works.

Of course, Puig has more working against him than merely the inevitable regression back to reality. On July 3, he slammed into the right-field wall at Coors Field, eventually needing to leave the game due to a sore left hip.

That injury bothered him so much that he was pulled out of back-to-back games early on July 11 and 12, and then wasn’t in the starting lineup for either of the final two games of the first half on July 13 and 14. It’s difficult to think that the pain hasn’t had an impact, since he was hitting .440/.466/.743 with eight homers before that game, and just .256/.310/.282 without a home run since.

The final issue for Puig is that pitchers are beginning to realize that his hyper-aggressiveness knows no bounds, and are taking advantage of his propensity to give away plate appearances by feeding him increasing amounts of low-and-away breaking pitches.

For example, in June, only 19.1 percent of the pitches he saw were sliders. In July, that’s up to 27.2 percent. In June, 40.6 percent of all pitches to him were within the strike zone; that figure has dropped in July and is among the lowest in all of baseball. The combination of all these factors has led to Puig’s swinging strike percentage in July coming in at 23.8 percent, the third-worst in the game this month.

Puig is young and undeniably talented, so as his hip heals and he learns to make adjustments, he’ll be fine. But he won’t perform like he did for most of June, so as he and Ramirez (.387 BABIP) inevitably come back to earth, the rest of the lineup is going to need to step up. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez has been steady all season and third basemanJuan Uribe has miraculously not been a black hole for once, so the burden falls squarely on second base and the remainder of the outfield.

Nowhere is that need more acute than in center field, where Matt Kemp has struggled all season to regain his form after offseason left shoulder surgery. After missing most of June with a hamstring injury, Kemp played just 10 games before re-injuring the shoulder on July 5. When he’s been able to play, he’s offered little, contributing a minus-1.1 WAR that ranks among the worst in the game. Kemp is expected to return shortly after the break, and whileAndre Ethier has been surprisingly decent covering in center field, regaining the healthy and fearsome Kemp the Dodgers enjoyed prior to 2012 is crucial.

In fact, despite the apparent problem of having four outfielders for three spots, the limited availability of the fragile Carl Crawford and the absence of Kemp has meant that too often, manager Don Mattingly has had to start backups Jerry Hairston Jr.Skip Schumaker or Scott Van Slyke in the corners. While Crawford has been effective when he can play, it’s now been since late May that he has been both fully healthy and productive.

The other trouble spot is at the keystone, where veteran Mark Ellis, along with the iron-gloved Schumaker and utility man Nick Punto, have struggled on both sides of the ball. Combined, Dodgers second basemen have been below replacement level, making this the most likely spot in the lineup for general manager Ned Colletti to upgrade. It’s difficult to think that this isn’t an ideal landing spot for Los Angeles native Chase Utley should Philadelphia decide to sell.

The fabulously wealthy Dodgers still boast an embarrassment of riches, along with a rotation now reinforced by a healthy Zack Greinke and a newly-added Ricky Nolasco. But they can’t simply depend on Puig and Ramirez all season long, and without increased support from the rest of their lineup, their march back to first place might very well fall short.

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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.

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