Matt Kemp needs to bat fourth, not third for the Dodgers


Fact: people like me spend way too much worrying about how lineups are arranged. Simulations suggest that only the worst lineups, ones that even Dusty Baker would never conceive of, have a real impact on run scoring. The difference between what a major league manager would typically run out there and a supposed optimal lineup isn’t usually very signifcant.

Fact: Matt Kemp should bat cleanup for the Dodgers this season.

That’s not the plan right now. As Eric Stephen reports on True Blue L.A.:

Don Mattingly said Dee Gordon was his leadoff man and Kemp would bat third, but that the rest of the lineup is not yet fully decided. Mattingly said [Andre] Ethier would likely hit cleanup against right-handed pitchers and that Juan Rivera could hit cleanup against lefties. Mattingly said Mark Ellis will get the first shot at batting second, though Mattingly wouldn’t mind James Loney or even [Jerry] Sands hitting in the second spot in the lineup.

How can it be a good idea to stick maybe the NL’s best RBI guy immediately behind Gordon and Ellis? Gordon had a .325 OBP in 224 at-bats after arriving in the majors last season. Ellis came in at .288 in 480 at-bats with the A’s and Rockies.

Kemp is going to be stepping up to the plate with none on and two out an awful lot in this scenario.

If Kemp has to come up with none on, it’s much better that he does it with none out in the inning. That’s part of why hitting him fourth makes so much more sense. If Kemp is batting fourth and he bats in the first inning, he’s guaranteed to have at least one man on base. If he has to wait until the second, then that’s a better chance the Dodgers are going to have of scoring in the second inning.

Want a little evidence? National League No. 3 and No. 4 hitters were practically identically productive last season. No. 3 hitters hit .280/.353/.457, while No. 4 hitters came in at .269/.352/.455.

No. 3 hitters, though, averaged .127 RBI per plate appearance, while cleanup hitters came in at .139 RBI per plate appearance. No. 4 hitters get to hit behind better hitters, for the most part.

Plus, the Dodgers lineup actually sets up better with Ethier hitting third and Kemp batting fourth. Mattingly is going to want Loney hitting fifth against right-handers, and if Ethier hits cleanup, that puts lefties back-to-back. That’s why Kemp was the Dodgers cleanup hitter last year until Ethier went down.

Of course, Kemp, already an MVP candidate before Ethier was hurt, performed even better after moving into the third slot. I’m sure that’s what’s on Mattingly’s mind here. That and getting him those extra two or three plate appearances every month. But I think Mattingly had the right idea last year.

2018 Preview: Oakland Athletics

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2018 season. Next up: The Oakland Athletics.

The A’s have finished last in the AL West for three straight years. If you believe the folks at Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus and anyone else who makes projections, they’ll either finish in last again or come within a game or two of it. There’s not a lot of suspense to my prediction here — I’ll end up picking them to finish fifth — but the prediction is not really what a preview is about. It’s about the shape of the team and what we can expect in broad brushes.

While I can’t foretell greatness for the 2018 Oakland Athletics, I can’t say the broad brushes are bad. At least if you grade on a curve. It won’t be a good team, but they’ll be worth watching because they have a lot of good, fun and interesting players who are likely to be on that next good Oakland A’s team in the way Stephen Vogt and Brett Lawrie were not.

Their lineup is pretty spiffy for a second division team. Khris Davis, Matt Joyce and new acquisition Jonathan Lucroy are known commodities both inside and outside A’s fandom, but people who don’t pay much attention to the goings on in Oakland may not be fully aware of just how good and promising Matt Olson and Matt Chapman are. Olson hit 24 homers in 59 games last year. That’s not a sustainable pace — the league will figure him out to — but even regression from that will be fantastic. Chapman hit 14 in half a season and played superior defense at third base. He also struck out 92 times in half a season but who’s counting? [editor: everyone counts everything in baseball]. Hey, look, dingers! Yonder Alonso and Ryon Healey are gone from last year’s crew and Stephen Piscotty is new in town. Marcus Semien is a decent bat for a shortstop. All-in-all that’s a lineup that will play, and play very, very well if Chapman and Olson are what they’ve shown themselves to be thus far.

At the risk of criminal understatement, allow me to observe that the starting pitching is not as promising. Sean Manaea and Kendall Graveman are at the top of the rotation. On good teams they’d be in the middle or the back. The rest of their rotation options — Daniel Mengden, Andrew Triggs, Paul Blackburn, who will miss the start of the regular season with a sore forearm — are less-than-impressive. They just signed Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson from the scrap heap hoping, I guess, to recreate some of that, uh, 2010 magic? 2010 was a long time ago!

Jharel Cotton would’ve been in the mix but he’s now out for the year for Tommy John surgery. A.J. Puk, the A’s top prospect would be a nice midseason upgrade, but he’s hurt. Not seriously, but the A’s will probably be more careful with him now than they would’ve been, which still would’ve been careful. All-in-all, there was a lack of quality arms to begin with, but with the injuries mounting, starting pitching could be a trash fire for the A’s.

The bullpen has a new look with newcomers Ryan Buchter, Yusmeiro Petit and Emilio Pagan joining 2017 in-season additions Blake Treinen and Chris Hatcher. That’s a pretty good and pretty interesting group which was going to see a lot of innings as it was in our new bullpenning era, but now that the rotation looks shaky as hell, they’ll see even more. If you’re curious about the limits of leaning on a bullpen, postseason-style are, Oakland will be running a pretty fun experiment to that end in 2018.

I look at this club’s bats — especially the young guys upon whom its so very easy to project so much promise and optimism, because I’m a sucker for hitting prospects — and think that they can outperform those statsy projections and be better than the Rangers and Mariners. Then I think about how the upside — UPSIDE! — for the rotation is 380 innings from Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson and I sorta wanna cry.

If the A’s get some breaks and some unexpectedly good (or average) pitching performances, they could certainly finish above the cellar. Perhaps well above the cellar. For now, though, I’m guessing that they’ll be in 80-win territory at best and finish last in a division that does not have any teams totally punting, making for a competitive and, subsequently, tough year.

Prediction: Fifth place, AL West