The Los Angeles Dodgers’ recent success — two National League pennants, six straight division titles (with a seventh on the way) and MLB’s best record since 2013 — has been built around smart trades, an impressive player-development pipeline and exceptionally deep pockets. But L.A. is also good at gaining advantages around the edges, from overshooting their allotted budget under the old international signing system to exploiting the injured-list rules in the name of roster flexibility.
And one of the best tricks these current Dodgers have up their sleeve is versatility. It’s how they can roll out a different defensive configuration practically every game, and still have one of the top defenses in baseball.
So far this year, Los Angeles has seen seven players — Max Muncy, Chris Taylor, Alex Verdugo, Enrique Hernandez, Joc Pederson, Cody Bellinger and Matt Beaty — log at least 10 games at multiple positions, and five of them played 15 or more games at different positions. Still others could be on the way eventually: First baseman David Freese has played 86 percent of his career defensive games at third base despite only logging two games there so far this season for L.A.; third baseman Justin Turner hasn’t played much second base in years but about 15 percent of his career games are there; catcher Austin Barnes has played nearly 20 percent of his career games at second base as well. The Dodgers have obliterated the old-fashioned notion of positional redundancy by building a roster of hybrid fielders who can move around wherever the team needs on a given night.
As my colleague Travis Sawchik wrote last year, this is part of a trend sweeping across the majors in recent seasons. Modern baseball’s downturn in balls in play — thanks to an increase in the Three True Outcomes of walks, strikeouts and home runs — means fielders have less to do with their gloves than ever, thus mitigating the cost of shaky defense, as long as a player can hit. (And, boy, can the Dodgers ever do that — they rank first in the National League in OPS.) The prevalence of defensive shifts has helped in that regard, too, making it possible to get more outs with the same (or less) collective defensive range by smartly positioning fielders before the pitch in areas where the batter is most likely to hit the ball. It’s another sneaky way to squeeze more hitting talent into a lineup without sacrificing very much defensively.
The Dodgers have embraced these various trends and ideas, and are at the forefront in all of them. They rank third (behind the Orioles and Twins) in total shifts against balls in play and third in the share of opposing balls in play with a shift on. They also rank fourth in outs converted per shift on balls in play, getting the out 70 percent of the time. Overall, L.A. ranks second in MLB in total defensive wins above replacement1 this season, trailing only the Arizona Diamondbacks. And they’ve done it with the most unstable defensive configuration in the sport.
In a typical Dodger game this season, manager Dave Roberts has penciled an average of 1.4 names into different positions from where they played the previous game, per Baseball-Reference.com’s lineup data.2 That alone is the 10th-most of any team — but it’s also no coincidence that each of the nine clubs ahead of L.A. are in the American League, where the designated hitter affords teams another slot to stash various players coming from different positions. (The AL average in this statistic is 1.5 players per game; the NL average is 0.7.) If we account for both this and the slight tendency for bad teams — such as the Orioles — to experiment more with weird lineups,3 the Dodgers are the club with the biggest difference between its actual positional changes from game to game and what we’d expect from an ordinary team:
|Average changes per game|
|1||Los Angeles Dodgers||National||1.39||0.65||+0.74|
|3||Tampa Bay Rays||American||2.21||1.52||+0.69|
|4||New York Yankees||American||2.03||1.50||+0.53|
|6||Toronto Blue Jays||American||2.01||1.57||+0.44|
|10||San Francisco Giants||National||0.77||0.69||+0.09|
|11||San Diego Padres||National||0.77||0.69||+0.08|
|18||Kansas City Royals||American||1.50||1.57||-0.07|
|21||New York Mets||National||0.49||0.69||-0.20|
|22||Chicago White Sox||American||1.31||1.55||-0.23|
|25||St. Louis Cardinals||National||0.34||0.68||-0.34|
|28||Boston Red Sox||American||1.13||1.52||-0.39|
|29||Los Angeles Angels||American||1.05||1.53||-0.49|
While the Oakland Athletics have been solid as a rock in that department, using just 57 total defensive combinations all season despite the DH, the Dodgers have used 77 — second-most in the NL behind the rebuilding Marlins — and only six combos more than twice all season.
Perhaps no Dodger better personifies L.A.’s restless approach to lineup building than Hernandez, who so far has started games this year at first base, second base, shortstop, left field, center field and right field.
During one stretch in late June, Hernandez started four consecutive games for the Dodgers at four different positions (SS, LF, CF and 2B), then took a couple of days off before embarking on another stretch of four straight starts where he changed position every game. All the while, Hernandez has checked in as a cumulative 4.0 runs above average on defense4 across all of his many positions, which themselves carry a total defensive adjustment of 1.5 runs above average. That versatility has given Hernandez plenty of value — he’s on pace for a solid 2.2-WAR season — even in a comparatively down year with the bat (his OPS+ is down 24 points from last season’s 118 mark).
All of this would be of marginal help if Los Angeles weren’t also brimming with ridiculous talent, from Cody Bellinger and his historic numbers to a fearsome rotation headlined by the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Walker Buehler and Kenta Maeda. But the Dodgers’ positional adaptability is one of the important ways they’ve been able to build such impressive depth around their stars — and one of the reasons why Los Angeles is the best team in baseball right now.
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