Dodgers Dugout: What should be done about Cody Bellinger and Kenley Jansen?
Hi, and welcome to another edition of Dodgers Dugout. My name is Houston Mitchell, and, the Dodgers-Giants four-game series is over, we have a lot to unpack, so pull up a chair and spend some time with us.
There’s something wrong with Cody Bellinger. Perhaps not physically, but something somewhere isn’t working.
When it comes to things like this, for some reason my brain always thinks about the movie “Apollo 13". There’s a great scene not long after the explosion that damages the spacecraft. Flight Director Gene Kranz, played by Ed Harris, is trying to get a handle on what just has happened and what can be done. He says “Let’s look at this thing from a ... um, from a standpoint of status. What do we got on the spacecraft that’s good?”
So, with Bellinger in the midst of a horrendous slump, let’s take a look at what’s good.
1. He still plays Gold Glove defense in center, which is very important.
2. He still has his speed and hustles around the bases, scoring two runs during the series that wouldn’t have been scored by most other Dodgers.
Other than that, I’ve got nothing.
Bellinger has been horrible at the plate this season. He is hitting .152/.269/.255 and his OPS+ is 48, meaning he is 52% worse than the average major league hitter.
Bellinger came up in 2017 and was a revelation. It felt for a while like he was homering in every game. He finished the season hitting .267/.352/.581 with 39 homers and a 143 OPS+. He was the unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year. The next season he dropped off a little, hitting .260/.343/.470 with 25 homers and a 120 OPS+. Still a very good player. Then he had his MVP season, when he hit .305/.406/.629 with 47 homers, 115 RBIs and a 169 OPS+. He won the NL MVP award. Mike Trout of the Angels won the AL MVP, and it looked like the L.A. area had the two best players in baseball.
But a troubling trend began in the second half of 2019: His numbers began to dip. In the second half of his 2019 MVP season, Bellinger hit .263/.371/.546. Still good. But his strikeouts began to climb a bit, going from 56 in 377 first-half plate appearances to 54 in much fewer plate appearances (284) in the second half.
Bellinger decided to tinker with his swing. It didn’t work. In 2020, he hit .239/.333/.455 with 12 homers in 56 games. Not horrible numbers (he still had a 113 OPS+), but not Bellinger numbers. Then there’s this season. He tinkered with his swing again nd there’s no good news anywhere, hitting-wise. He’s hitting .167 against righties, .128 against lefties. Hitting .161 at home, .153 on the road. Hitting .147 with runners in scoring position, .137 with the bases empty. Hitting .117 with two out and runners in scoring position. He has struck out 46 times in 145 at-bats. He is eight for his last 81, good for an .099 batting average.
Over the last two seasons, he’s hitting .206/.310/.379. That’s not a slump, that’s a trend.
What can be said in Bellinger’s defense? Well, he has been hurt a lot this season. Broken leg, offseason shoulder surgery. I never understood the desire to tinker with a swing that won him a Rookie of the Year and MVP award. What does Dave Roberts have to say?
“The game’s not easy. He’s working tirelessly… he’s just trying to compete,” Roberts said. “Really… I don’t have an answer. I wish I did. The defense has been next level. As far as the offense — that elevated fastball at times is getting him. I still think he controls the zone really well, it’s just when he does get pitches in the zone, he’s got to move them forward.
“I think for me, for Cody, when he was really good in 2019, he was a hitter first and the slug followed. He was using left-center, he was using the middle of the field, right-center field. And then breaking balls in the zone, he would slug those to the pull side. If he could go back to being a hit collector, using both gaps. I think that’s a great start. But the game is not easy, hitting is not easy. But I expect him to get to that point.”
The question is, what do the Dodgers do with him until then? The main options:
1. Let him work his way out of the slump by playing every day.
2. Come up with a convenient “injury” to hide him on the IL and let him work fulltime with the coaches with no pressure.
3. Send him to the minors.
Well, No. 2 is probably out because he has already been on the IL more than once this season and it didn’t help. No. 3 is easy to say, but, that could just destroy his confidence even further and, who are you going to put in center field that plays near the level of defense Bellinger plays? You need Chris Taylor to cover for injuries in other places. The Dodgers don’t really have a true center fielder other than Bellinger. If someone like DJ Peters had come up and hit the cover off the ball, then maybe you could get away with it. But Peters, Zach Reks and Luke Raley haven’t looked like world beaters at the plate
That leaves No. 1. But I’d drop him in the order. Put him down in the seventh or eighth spot where he hopefully won’t feel the pressure to hit homers all the time. Good managers put their people in the place they have the best chance to succeed. I don’t think the Dodgers are doing that with Bellinger right now. Because as Gene Kranz also said in Apollo 13, “Let’s work the problem people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.”
There comes a time in a baseball pitcher’s career where home fans give up on them. I remember the late 1970s, when Charlie Hough was the main closer for the Dodgers. In 1979 he pitched poorly and the Dodgers had a bad season. Dodger fans were tired of seeing Hough and started booing him, and it continued the next season. Tommy Lasorda, in his book, “The Artful Dodger” talks about how he knew Hough needed to go to another team, because once the fans give up on you, it’s over. He called a friend of his on the Texas Rangers and said if they traded for Hough, he guaranteed Hough would be a good pitcher for them. The Rangers purchased Hough from the Dodgers, converted him into a starter, and Hough won 139 games for them over the next 11 seasons.
Have we reached that point with Kenley Jansen?
Jansen blew a save against the Giants on Wednesday and was basically booed off the mound. He blew a save against the Giants on Thursday, but it was hard to tell if the fans were booing him or the bad umpiring. OK, that runner at second was safe, but usually they don’t overturn calls that close (note to Sheldon Neuse: You are allowed to stretch to get the ball. It’s not an alligator arms contest). And yes, Darin Ruf did swing, but, the plate umpire also gifted Jansen a strike earlier. A lot of people were blaming the umpiring, but the umpires didn’t give up four hits and two walks.
However, don’t expect Roberts to change Jansen’s role. “He’ll be off [on Friday night], but I thought the play at second base, if we stretch, he’s out, and the game is over. The check swing, the game is over, and we’re not having this conversation. I’m not reconsidering his role,” Roberts said after Thursday’s game.
When the fans booed Jansen on Wednesday, it drew the following response from Roberts: “Fans certainly have a right to voice their frustrations. I get that. But I do believe that this guy, born and raised as a Dodger, what he does — he cares about the Dodgers, the fan base, and he’s shown that on the field, off the field. No one hurts more than he does, to be quite honest. He’s worked really hard to kind of get back, should’ve been an All-Star this year, and he’s had a fantastic season. … He was looking forward to pitching at home. And so for it to not go well — yeah, I’m disappointed to hear it. Certainly. He’s not gonna say it, but I am.”
And that’s a manager defending a player, like he should. I think the fans have every right to boo, and sometimes it’s not booing the specific player, it’s just booing the general situation. And some of the booing was directed Roberts’ way. Jansen got booed by a few when he received his World Series ring on opening day. That was uncalled for.
Sometimes fans of a team get so involved that they can’t see things clearly. Sometimes you need to step back and look at the big picture. Let’s say that on Tuesday, before any of this happened, the Dodgers acquired a closer who had struck out 41 batters in 37 innings, giving up only 17 hits and six earned runs, , to go along with a 1.45 ERA and 21 saves? And that reliever had a 15% Inherited Runners who Scored percentage, much better than the league average? Most fans would be thrilled that we finally got a closer to replace Jansen.
Except that is Jansen. Those were his numbers before Wednesday’s game.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the frustration. Jansen had been erratic before this season, and he started the season the same way. I still get nervous when he comes in games. But for the last two months, he was locked in. He had three rough outings in a row. Just two weeks ago, most fans were unhappy Jansen wasn’t an All-Star. Now most are unhappy he is even a Dodger.
But, we’ve reached the point where, if Blake Treinen is dealing, let him close out a game. Take some of the pressure off Jansen. Treinen mowed the Giants down two games in a row and then gave way to Jansen, who couldn’t get the job done. How about next time, if Treinen gets the job done in the eighth on only seven pitches, like he did on Thursday, send him back out there in the ninth. Play the hot hand. Don’t just do push-button managing. Use analytics, but let the tempo of each game dictate what you are doing too. Just like the World Series, where Julio Urías was left in to close out Game 6.
Another thing I’d like to point out. I got about 20 emails right after Wednesday’s game ended, frustrated about the loss. Totally understandable. In 17 of them, they mentioned acquiring closer Craig Kimbrel from the Cubs, who is rumored to be available. You know what Kimbrel did Wednesday night? He got the loss in St. Louis’ 3-2 in over the Cubs. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to acquire Kimbrel, just that expect anyone who is acquired to blow some games too. I mean, in 2019, Kimbrel had a 6.53 ERA. In 2020 it was 5.28. This year, he has three losses. Do you think Cubs fans were sick of him? Of course.
Kenley Jansen’s contract expires after the season. I’d be surprised if he was a Dodger next season. I’d like to see Treinen close a game or two. And you have to wonder, if in the deep corners of his mind, Andrew Friedman is thinking, “Great, now I have to get a starter and reliever.”
One good thing Wednesday and Thursday: Roberts got fired up each game, getting tossed from both of them. Maybe these two aggravating losses will set a fire under this robotic team. Maybe it won’t. The Dodgers have three games with Colorado next, followed by three games at San Francisco. Should be exciting. Should be fun. This is what baseball is all about.
The Dodgers could be getting the equivalent of a trade-deadline acquisition soon, as Corey Knebel is ready to begin a rehab assignment and could be back in early August. Knebel has 59 career saves and was expected to be an important part of the Dodger bullpen before a back injury sidelined him early in the season.
Columnist Bill Plaschke talked to Vin Scully recently, and Scully talked about the recent death of his wife in an interview that was part heartwarming, part tearjerker.
Some key quotes:
—“I’m OK, I really am. I’ve been severely wounded, but I’ve also come to grips with it. I believe it’s all God’s plans. I’m just trying to do the best that I can for as long as I have.”
—“I’m all right. I believe it’s God’s plan. We had wonderful times together,” he said. “He’s called Sandi home, and I’m just waiting for the call.”
When that call comes, he said, he is looking forward to a reunion with his bride.
“Oh, absolutely, without a doubt, I’d leave yesterday,” he said.
—“I wouldn’t want to dwell on how I feel much more than, you can imagine, anybody can imagine, when you lose your partner, the loss is overwhelming, and then eventually you come to grips with it. As of right now, I would say that I’m healing to reality, and I will try to do the best that I can for as long as I have.
—“It was all part of life. It’s all part of the plan. We all get born, we live, and eventually we pass on. I’m just hoping that it won’t be too long before I join her, but otherwise I’ll just wait my turn.”
—“With everything else that’s happened, I still feel that I have been tremendously honored. I don’t know why, but the more I think of what I’ve done, actually, the more humble I feel. I don’t feel like I really have done anything except I’ve lived a long time.”
You can read the entire column by clicking here.
Hall of Fame: the catchers
We begin this week looking at who the top Hall of Fame candidates at each position are in Dodger history and whether they deserve entry or not. To determine the top candidates, we will look at two stats, WAR (wins above replacement), which gives us a good idea of how players with long careers compare to each other, and JAWS (Jaffe WAR score system), which is their career WAR averaged with their seven-year peak WAR. It was created by Jay Jaffe and is detailed in his excellent book, “The Cooperstown Casebook.” For example, the top 11 catchers in JAWS are in the Hall of Fame except for Joe Mauer, who isn’t eligible yet. And again, like I always say, no one stat is perfect. But this gives us an easy comparison to make, and, this is supposed to be the fun part of the newsletter. Debating stuff like this should be enjoyable.
Those 11 catchers, with their JAWS score:
1. Johnny Bench, 61.2
2. Gary Carter, 59.3
3. Ivan Rodriguez, 54.3
4. Carlton Fisk, 53.0
5. Mike Piazza, 51.3
6. Yogi Berra, 48.8
7. Joe Mauer, 47.1-x
8. Bill Dickey, 46.0
9. Gabby Hartnett, 43.4
10. Mickey Cochrane, 43.3
11. Ted Simmons, 42.6
x-not in Hall of Fame
There are 19 players in the Hall of Fame as a catcher. Here’s where the other nine catchers rank:
15. Buck Ewing, 39.4
17. Roy Campanella, 38.4
20. Roger Bresnahan, 36.2
28. Josh Gibson, 32.8
29. Ernie Lombardi, 31.0
31. Ray Schalk, 29.5
43. Rick Ferrell, 25.9
59. Biz Mackey, 23.2
459. Louis Santop, 2.5
A couple of notes here:
—Gibson, Mackey and Santop were Negro Leagues players, and their score is based on the limited stats we have available. There is virtually no one who saw them play who don’t believe they all would have been top catchers in MLB. Many experts consider Gibson the greatest catcher of all time. To read more about them, read their Hall of Fame bios. Gibson’s is here, Mackey’s is here and Santop’s is here.
—This series isn’t the place to determine the Hall of Fame qualifications of those already in. We are here just to see if any Dodgers at each position have been overlooked.
Now, let’s look at the highest JAWS totals for those catchers not in the Hall of Fame:
12. Thurman Munson, 42.6
13. Gene Tenace, 40.9
14. Buster Posey, 40.2
16. Bill Freehan, 39.2
18. Wally Schang, 37.8
19. Jorge Posada, 37.7
21. Jason Kendall, 36.0
22. Yadier Molina, 35.0
23. Darrell Porter, 34.9
24. Jim Sundberg, 34.6
And now, the top catchers not in the Hall who spent the majority of their career with the Dodgers:
27. Russell Martin, 33.1
54. Mike Scioscia, 23.9
72. John Roseboro, 20.9
76. Joe Ferguson, 20.3
89. Yasmani Grandal, 18.5
90. Paul Lo Duca, 18.3
103. Steve Yeager, 16.7
We’ll stop there.
I think if you asked most Dodger fans who the best Dodger catcher not in the Hall was, they’d say either Scioscia, Roseboro or Yeager, so to see Russell Martin at the top of the list is a bit of a surprise. Of course, this does count his entire career, and he spent time with Toronto, Pittsburgh and the Yankees.
The best candidate who was pretty much a lifetime Dodger player is Scioscia, who was excellent defensively, a brick wall back when catchers could block the plate, but was an average hitter (career OPS+ of 99). He really wasn’t a Hall of Famer. It will be interesting, however, to see if he makes it into the Hall of Fame as a manager. He is 19th all time in wins and does have a World Series title. Twelve of the top 20 managers in wins are in the Hall, and you have to figure Bruce Bochy will make it at some point, maybe even Terry Francona.
Next week: First base, where it gets really interesting as we discuss Gil Hodges and Steve Garvey.
Fernandomania @ 40
We have a mini-story to share in our “Fernadomania @ 40" docuseries.
Dodgers Spanish-language announcer Jaime Jarrín helped Fernando Valenzuela communicate with the media and grew close to the pitcher. In this miniclip, he recounts a moment at Wrigley Field during the height of Fernandomania that reveals the pitcher’s broad popularity among baseball fans.
You can watch this episode by clicking here.
In case you missed it
These names look familiar
A look at how players from the 2020 Dodgers who are no longer on the team are faring this season (through Thursday):
Pedro Báez, Houston, On the 60-day IL with shoulder soreness
Dylan Floro, Miami: 3-4, 2.77 ERA, 2 saves (39 IP, 33 hits, 18 walks, 36 strikeouts)
Kiké Hernández, Boston: .241/.320/.462 (23 doubles, 1 triple, 14 HRs, 38 RBIs, 109 OPS+)
Adam Kolarek, Oakland: 8.00 ERA (9 IP, 15 hits, 5 walks, 4 strikeouts), in minors
Jake McGee, San Francisco: 3-2, 2.52 ERA, 20 saves (39.1 IP, 27 hits, 7 walks, 44 strikeouts)
Joc Pederson, Atlanta: .230/.297/.417 (12 doubles, 2 triples, 12 homers, 43 RBIs, 95 OPS+)
Josh Sborz, Texas: 3-3, 4.33 ERA, 1 save (35.1 IP, 31 hits, 18 walks, 46 strikeouts)
Ross Stripling, Toronto: 3-6, 5.04 ERA (75 IP, 73 hits, 25 walks, 78 strikeouts)
Alex Wood, San Francisco: 8-3, 3.77 ERA (88.1 IP, 75 hits, 28 walks, 94 strikeouts)
Tonight, Colorado (Chi Chi Gonzalez, 3-6, 5.99 ERA) at Dodgers (*David Price, 4-0, 3.12 ERA), 7 p.m., Sportsnet LA, AM 570
Saturday, Colorado (*Kyle Freeland, 1-4, 5.36 ERA) at Dodgers (Tony Gonsolin, 1-1, 2.83 ERA), 6 p.m., SportsNet LA, AM 570
Sunday, Colorado (Jon Gray, 6-6, 3.68 ERA) at Dodgers (Josiah Gray, 0-0, 9.00 ERA), 1 p.m., SportsNet LA, AM 570
Vin Scully discusses the rivalry between the Dodgers and Giants. Watch it here.