LOS ANGELES — When the Dodgers traded for Mookie Betts, they acquired one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball.
But they haven’t used him that way.
In spring training, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said he would — “That’s where he feels comfortable and that’s where we’re at right now,” he said in February.
Betts himself made it clear that was his preference.
“That’s kind of been my whole career,” he said accurately — 567 of his 794 career starts in the big leagues have been at the top of the order. “I don’t foresee hitting somewhere else. If there’s a need then I’m always ready if it needs to happen.
“I’d like to hit in one spot. I don’t like moving around. … I think it’s just a comfort level for me. I can only speak for myself, to know that every day I’m going to be in the lineup, batting first.”
But Betts has started as the leadoff hitter just five times in the first 18 games since signing a 12-year contract extension with the Dodgers. Instead, Joc Pederson (seven) and Max Muncy (five) have appeared there more often with Betts batting second as Roberts seeks a “left-right” lineup that makes it more difficult for opposing managers to make pitching decisions (particularly with the new three-batter rule for pitchers).
The results have not been good. Despite overall good production that puts them near the top of the National League in most offensive categories, the Dodgers’ lineup has had some soft spots and the leadoff spot is one. Going into Tuesday’s game, the Dodgers’ leadoff hitters had combined for a .188 average and .685 OPS.
“Obviously having Muncy in there at times, he’s a traditional on-base guy and he’s just not swinging the bat well,” Roberts said Tuesday. “Right now, he’s just in a little bit of a funk. He’s going to get out of it. I don’t think the leadoff spot is the reason. Joc has hit leadoff many times over for us in years past. And he’s just not swinging the bat well.
“It’s just more magnified. These guys have taken 40, 50 at-bats. I absolutely understand that it’s a shorter season. But they’re going to get going.”
A career .303 hitter with a .911 OPS in the leadoff spot, Betts has gone 7 for 21 with a .417 on-base percentage in his five starts there this season while batting .250 (10 for 40) with a .286 on-base percentage batting second.
But Roberts doesn’t believe in trickle-down economics. Moving Betts into the leadoff spot wouldn’t be a panacea for the Dodgers’ other offensive woes, he said.
“Certainly you talk about the leadoff hitter, the role, the spark — I absolutely understand that,” Roberts said. “But you look up and down our lineup, there’s really not anyone swinging the bat considerably well. So just to have Mookie in the leadoff role I don’t think makes everybody in the order get hot.
“When you’re talking about one player and lineup construction where he hits leadoff once a game, the numbers to last year are very similar as far as (Betts’) production. Now you’re taking in eight other players in a lineup that particular game that matter as well. So when you potentially give them matchups and make it a little more difficult for the opposing managers, I think that has some value too.”
For the second consecutive day, injured shortstop Corey Seager tested his back by doing agility drills, running, swinging a bat and playing catch.
“He came out of it feeling good,” Roberts said. “It’s just going to be a slow progression. I don’t know when he’s going to get on the field and take batting practice, take grounders at full speed. Then we’ll know more.”
Roberts said the Dodgers still do not feel it’s necessary to put Seager on the injured list despite playing shorthanded for a fourth consecutive game Tuesday.
“Right now we’re OK with the versatility we have to just stand pat,” Roberts said.
Going into Tuesday’s games, the batting average for all major-league games this season was .233 (the lowest in history) and the collective on-base percentage was .312 (the lowest since 1972).
Increased defensive shifting and the torrid analytical love affair with the longball (leading to more strikeouts) are seen as two significant contributing factors. But Roberts has his own theory to throw into the mix.
“I think the hitting is down because they’re matching up more and there’s more power arms at managers’ disposal,” Roberts said.
“The short answer is starters are not going as deep. There’s more guys in the ‘pen so managers are matching up more. There’s a lot of big power arms in ‘pens across the league. So I think getting to see guys the third time through — managers have 10, 11 guys in the pen these days. I think that’s probably a big part of it. And also I would assume typically pitchers start a little ahead of hitters and then they start to catch up.”
Roberts said he thinks “it’ll right itself in the next couple weeks.”
Reliever Joe Kelly did have the hearing for his appeal of an eight-game suspension on Monday. The Dodgers are awaiting word on the decision.