Manager Dave Roberts called it the breaking point for Hyun-Jin Ryu in the Dodgers’ win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Saturday night. There were two outs in the sixth inning and Ryu was behind 3-1 on pinch-hitter Jake Elmore. The left-hander had given up his first two runs since May 1. His pitch count was over 90. The Pirates had 10 hits against him and No. 11 appeared likely when Elmore cracked a fly ball to right field at PNC Park.
That’s where Cody Bellinger was patrolling. He sprinted back, felt the wall behind him, and jumped to make the catch in front of the green out-of-town scoreboard. It concluded the inning and Ryu’s outing. And it was another example of the Dodgers’ improved outfield defense this season.
“Our outfield defensively, collectively, and obviously I haven't seen every team play, but it is playing as good as anyone I can imagine,” Roberts said.
Roberts said the organization’s internal defensive metrics support his hunch. Publicly available information also indicates the Dodgers’ outfield defense has made a leap from last season. One metric is defensive runs saved. The Dodgers outfield ranked 12th in the majors with 11 defensive runs saved in 2018, according to FanGraphs. This season, they lead baseball with 20.
The difference starts with personnel. The Dodgers traded outfielders Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, two subpar defenders who combined to play 1,480 innings in the corner spots. Bellinger, who started 50 games in center field, has become the Dodgers’ everyday right fielder. He’s totaled five outfield assists and is second in the majors with 12 defensive runs saved.
A.J. Pollock was signed to play center field, but was off to a rough defensive start and accumulated minus-5 defensive runs saved before an elbow infection put him on the injured list April 30. Alex Verdugo has assumed the bulk of the playing time in center field in Pollock’s absence and has compiled two defensive runs saved there. Enrique Hernandez also had two in center field before starting there Sunday against the Pirates. In left field, Joc Pederson and Chris Taylor have combined for four defensive runs saved.
Verdugo’s strength is in his left arm, which he has used for three outfield assists, including two at home plate. On Saturday, the rookie tracked down a flyball in the left-center field gap that most outfielders don’t get to, though the ball bounced off the palm of his glove on his dive.
“You just want to be an all-around player,” Verdugo said. “Not every day you're going to get hits so it's another tool, man. Hey, if I go 0 for 3, 0 for 4 today, but I save a couple runs, I did my job. I helped out the team.”
Positioning is the next layer. Roberts said the club has continued improving on where to put its outfielders as more data on hitters’ and pitchers’ tendencies has become available. The players’ willingness to listen and apply the information completes the process.
“I wouldn't say that it's more aggressive,” Roberts said. “I just think that each year we're getting more information as far as layering onto that particular pitcher and how we're going to pitch him and the counts and tendencies that hitters might have. So all that, as we're learning more, I think we're fine-tuning and we're getting better each year.”