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MLB trends: Dominant Dodgers’ lineup flaw, White Sox’s one bright spot and where Mets can improve

The 2024 MLB season is nearly three weeks old now, which isn’t so many games that we have to stop saying “it’s still early,” but it’s also enough games that we can start to read into a few things. With that in mind, here are a few early season trends worth knowing as we reach April’s halfway point.

The Dodgers’ top heavy lineup

Twenty games into the new season, the Dodgers look almost exactly as expected. The star-laden top of the lineup is fearsome, the rotation is good enough, and the bullpen has some weak spots but is solid overall. More than anything, the Dodgers need some of their injured pitchers to get healthy. Walker Buehler and Bobby Miller can’t get back soon enough.

It is no surprise Los Angeles boasts the most productive 1-2-3 lineup spots in the game. I mean, they have Mookie Betts, Shohei Ohtani, and Freddie Freeman atop the lineup in that order night after night. Here is how their 1-2-3 lineup spots compared to the MLB average for the 1-2-3 lineup spots entering Tuesday’s game:

Dodgers MLB average

Batting average

.326

.249

On-base percentage

.412

.331

Slugging percentage

.567

.409

OPS

.979

.740

The Dodgers rank first among the 30 teams across the board. The Betts/Ohtani/Freeman lane is a nightmare for opposing pitchers. Add in Will Smith, Max Muncy, and Teoscar Hernández, all of whom are off to strong starts and typically occupy the 4-5-6 lineup spots in some order, and this lineup just grinds down pitchers.

The bottom of the lineup though? It’s not quite as formidable. It’s even something of a reprieve for opposing pitchers. The Dodgers have the most productive 1-2-3 spots in baseball and also among the least productive 7-8-9 spots. Here now are the numbers for the 7-8-9 spots:

Dodgers MLB average

Batting average

.162

.230

On-base percentage

.222

.295

Slugging percentage

.229

.350

OPS

.450

.645

On a given day, those 7-8-9 spots are occupied by some variation of Enrique Hernández, Gavin Lux, James Outman, Chris Taylor, and (when healthy) Jason Heyward. None are off to an especially good start to 2024. Because the 7-8-9 spots have been so unproductive, Betts has batted with a runner(s) on base in only 27 of his 91 plate appearances, or 30%. The MLB average for the leadoff spot is 34%.

“(They) are considerably below where they have performed,” manager Dave Roberts said about the underperforming players in the 7-8-9 spots over the weekend (via the Los Angeles Times). “You have to play it out. You can’t just react to 15-16 games.”  

Outman (.605 OPS) and Lux (.395 OPS) are good bets to perform moving forward given their youth, though Lux did miss last season with a torn ACL, so there’s some rust to knock off there. Taylor (.184 OPS) and Hernández (.414 OPS) are in a multi-year decline, however, and players in their 30s typically don’t get better. There is at least a little concern with those two. Perhaps the recently called up Andy Pages can get the bottom of the order on track?

Starting your lineup with three MVPs can overcome a lot of deficiencies, though watching them play, it’s clear the Dodgers do not have the same sort of deep offensive attack as, say, the Braves and Rangers. One through nine, those teams can put runs on the board in the hurry. Against the Dodgers though, there are outs to be had at the bottom of the lineup. 

Crochet a bright spot for ChiSox

As explained in these very internet pages, the 2024 White Sox are depressingly bad. We need not dwell on their poor play any further. Instead, let’s focus on a positive: Garrett Crochet. The reliever-turned-starter owns a 3.57 ERA through four starts and 22 2/3 innings, and he’s struck out 31 batters against only four walks. Opponents are hitting .183/.227/.293 against him.

“In my mind, things are returning back to normal. This is how I have always viewed myself. Go out and pitch and play like it’s just another day,” Crochet said about the move into the rotation last month (via MLB.com). “… Just going one (game) at a time, but I intend to pitch how I’ve always pitched.”

Still only 24, Crochet dazzled as a short reliever in 2020 and 2021, but he missed 2022 with Tommy John surgery, and returned late in 2023. This year, he became the ninth pitcher to make his first career start on Opening Day and the first to do it since Tanner Scheppers for the 2014 Rangers. Before Scheppers, the last to do it was the great Fernando Valenzuela for the 1981 Dodgers.

Crochet was a fastball/slider pitcher with the occasional changeup as a short reliever. To aid his transition into the rotation, he’s picked up a cutter this season, and the early returns are promising. Batters have hit .158 with a .211 slugging percentage against the pitch, and they’ve missed with 36.7% of their swings. The MLB average for cutters is a 22.6% whiff rate.

Through four starts, Crochet is going fastball/cutter against righties and fastball/slider against lefties. He’s thrown six changeups all year. I imagine refining that changeup and turning it into a more reliable weapon is on the to-do list later this season. Point is, Crochet has picked up a needed third pitch in the cutter. That’s one reason to believe he has staying power as a starter.

Crochet has an arm injury history dating back to college and his career high is the 65 innings he threw at Tennessee in 2019, the year before he was drafted. He’s already thrown 22 2/3 innings this year, so the White Sox will have to monitor his workload in the coming months. They have to keep him healthy. Crochet is pretty much the only positive development for the 2024 White Sox.

“At least, in the interim, we’re gonna let this guy go,” GM Chris Getz said about Crochet’s workload last week (via NBC Sports Chicago). “It’s been outstanding so far with Garrett. Every time he takes the mound I think everyone feels like we’re in a good position to win. I’m always interested in how he’s gonna navigate lineups. At some point, I would imagine that we’re gonna have to be a little bit more measured. But we’re not at that point right now. We appreciate the heck out of what Garrett’s providing to this team right now.”

Mets struggling to control running game

Following their 0-5 start, the Mets worked their record back to .500 on Monday, and they are beginning to look like a team that could make noise in the wild-card race. Maybe they can even make a run at the NL East title now that the Braves are without Spencer Strider, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s way too early in the season to seriously discuss postseason races.

Anyway, as well as the Mets have played since their 0-5 start, there is one area they are sorely lacking: preventing stolen bases. Lacking as in they literally cannot stop runners. Opponents entered play Tuesday a perfect 24 for 24 stealing bases against the Mets this year. They’re the first team to allow 24 successful stolen bases to open a season since the 1987 Expos. 

Here are the lowest caught stealing rates entering Tuesday’s games:

  1. Mets: 0 for 24 (0%)
  2. Pirates: 0 for 13 (0%)
  3. Astros: 0 for 12 (0%)
  4. Cardinals: 1 for 13 (7%)
  5. Red Sox: 1 for 10 (9%)

There are a few other teams that have yet to throw out a basestealer, though those clubs at least limit stolen base attempts to some extent. Opponents are running wild against the Mets. They’re averaging 1.5 stolen bases allowed per game! This is not new either. With the same catchers last year (Francisco Alvarez and Omar Narváez), the Mets had an MLB-worst 13% caught stealing rate.

“We have to get better at it,” catching coach Glenn Sherlock said last week (via Newsday). “All around, as a team. It’s something we worked on hard in spring training and we haven’t been able to put it into play in the games yet. But we’re working on it, we’re talking about it. We’re gonna get better at it.”

According to Statcast, Mets catchers are middle of the pack in pop time and near the bottom of the league in arm strength, but this isn’t just about the catchers. The pitchers aren’t holding runners well either. Veterans like Edwin Díaz, Jorge López, and especially Adam Ottavino have been susceptible to stolen bases throughout their careers.

“We have to continue to hold the ball, mixing our looks, slide steps,  and things like that,” manager Carlos Mendoza said last week about his pitchers failing to hold runners (via SNY). “It was a priority of this team in spring training. We saw good results but here we are getting tested in the early going.”

Bring unable to prevent stolen bases is not a fatal flaw, but is a flaw, and it can be exploited. Giving up those extra 90 feet can cost you a few wins here and there throughout the summer. With their current personnel, the Mets are unlikely to be even an average stolen base prevention team, but they must figure out a way to be better than they have been.

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