Many of those same fans were under the presumption that newly extended superstar Mookie Betts would cement himself atop of the Los Angeles lineup, finally offering a solution to the uncertainties the Dodgers had at the leadoff spot over the last several seasons.
But, although Betts hit first against lefty Tyler Anderson in the second game of the season on Friday, the not-so-much fleet of foot Max Muncy led off in the other two games against the right-handed starters of the Giants.
Lineup design certainly isn’t what it used to be. Decades ago, a true speedster was always seen at the top of the order, while an established contact hitter with superb bat control was likely found in the two-hole. Today, however, offensive success is found with getting runners on base—period.
Sacrificing runners, small ball, and base-stealing aren’t highly prioritized (although they still seem to sometimes have effectiveness when executed properly), as OBP is now the king of all run-producing statistics.
Breaking it down even further, with today’s technology, techies take into consideration hot and cold zones, as well as a player’s success against a specific pitcher, or at least the percentage of certain pitches they throw, when they make their daily lineup recommendations to the skipper.
I’ve always believed that there’s a big difference between producing runs and manufacturing runs. Producing runs—in the case of the Dodgers—could be viewed as the result of having a well-oiled machine already in place, with the pieces fully functional and fine-tuned, ready to spit out an endless stream of runs. In other words, producing runs is the result of players consistently reaching base and turning the lineup over.
Manufacturing runs—and I’m not saying the Dodgers will abandon this tactic completely—might be viewed as a player grinding out an AB to draw a walk with nobody out, moving to second by stealing the base, advancing to third on a bunt down the first base line, then scoring on a deep sacrifice fly to right-center field. A perfect scenario in a deciding postseason game amidst a classic pitcher’s duel.
Anyway, very few people realize that Muncy had the team’s second-best OBP last season at .374, second only to Cody Bellinger‘s ridiculous .406. These figures fit nicely into the theory about putting runners on base ahead of the biggest sluggers of the order.
The left-handed hitting Joc Pederson had an excellent OBP of .339 last season and spent quite a bit of time batting first against opposing right handers, but the fact that Muncy had much more success reaching base supports the logic of him hitting leadoff this year. What’s more, Muncy, also a left-handed hitter, hits opposing southpaws extremely well. In 2019, Max hit .242 in 408 plate appearances against right handers while hitting .268 in 181 PA against lefties. To balance this out from an OBP perspective, he drew an impressive 71 walks against righty pitching.
Pederson slashed .224/.240/.265 in 50 PA against southpaws last year. Again, the logic for hitting Muncy first fits.
Here’s the crazy thing, though: Betts’ OBP last season was .391, 17 points higher than Muncy and just a few ticks behind Bellinger, who had a season most big league players dream about. Furthermore, in 2018, Betts posted an insane .438 OBP, second in the majors to only Mike Trout, who coincidentally drew a monstrous 122 walks that season.
What’s even more impressive about Betts is that his splits are absolutely outstanding. As much as front-office boss Andrew Friedman advocates pitching/hitting matchups, it’s easy to see why he didn’t hesitate on signing Betts long term.
In 2775 PA against righty pitching, Betts has a career slash line of .300/.370/.515. Against lefties, he has hit .302/.382/.528 over 865 PA.
It doesn’t get more balanced than that.
Roberts has claimed that he likes using Muncy at the top of the order against opposing right handers, allowing him to set up a left-right-left-right pattern throughout the lineup. The skipper claims that for as much as opposing teams might change pitchers in the early part of the games, his lineup will remain balanced regardless of who’s throwing for the other team. The logic of leading off a lefty hitter against an opposing righty is that the Dodgers might have that matchup advantage for one extra AB before any opposing pitching change.
Regardless, in the long run, if the Dodgers want a better mathematical chance of scoring—at least in terms of the OBP theory—Betts is the man to bat leadoff on a daily basis. It should not matter the handedness of the opposing pitcher. The fact that he has stolen double-digit bases in each of the last five seasons is icing on the cake.
As proven by his fantastic OBP last season, Muncy would probably fit well into the leadoff slot for any other team who may abide by the strategies of run production and reaching base.
However, in the case of the Dodgers, Betts is the better option in every single angle you might look at it—traditional or contemporary.