Dodgers’ left-handed bats are coming to life, as evidenced by homers vs. Mariners
This was the fearsome form with which the Dodgers had grown familiar over the last several years, the left-handed power that too often went silent in this season’s opening weeks.
At the start of Wednesday, Cody Bellinger, Joc Pederson and Max Muncy were mired in early-season slumps, their sub-.200 batting averages telling a story of sputtering production and stalled progress to begin the pandemic-shortened campaign.
By the end of the night, each had hit a solo home run in the Dodgers’ 6-4 loss to the Seattle Mariners, some swagger finally returning to their step as pop once again emerged in their swings.
“The lefties have been taking really good at-bats,” manager Dave Roberts said during an in-game TV interview. Afterward, he added, “I think that’s a sign of good things to come.”
Their home runs Wednesday were as varied as the reasons behind their individual slow starts.
Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes has hit safely in seven straight games. He says new teammate Mookie Betts has helped him with his swing.
Muncy’s season took an early twist when he fractured a finger days into last month’s training camp, an injury he said healed in time for opening day but forced him to miss a week of the condensed preseason camp.
He managed to start the regular season well, collecting two home runs and two doubles in his first two games. But after that, he slipped into a 5-for-43 skid from which he hasn’t fully recovered.
His second-inning blast Wednesday, however, a no-doubter that went about a dozen rows deep to right for his sixth home run of the season, cemented Roberts’ belief that the 2019 all-star is turning a corner.
The infielder has hits in three of his last five games (he drew three walks in another), seven of his past 12 overall and boasts a .698 on-base-plus-slugging that is only slightly below league average.
“Muncy has been getting close,” said Roberts, who was ejected Wednesday for arguing borderline strike calls on Muncy’s behalf (Muncy and hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc were tossed as well). “[He’s] coming out of it.”
Pederson’s solo shot, a line drive to center field he admired all the way, came as agreater sigh of relief, giving the outfielder his first extra-base hit in exactly two weeks.
After setting a career high with 36 home runs in 2019, Pederson said that at the start of this season he felt great physically. He had overcome a spring-training injury to his side with the help of a movement coach, who he said used “some crazy exercises” to strengthen new parts of his body.
He spent the summer working out from home with an artificial-intelligence strength training machine called Tonal. And when he arrived at training camp, pictures of his bulked-up biceps and all-around physique went viral among Dodgers fans on social media.
It didn’t translate to the plate, however, where wary pitchers have thrown Pederson fastballs less than half the time. According to MLB’s Statcast system, the 28-year-old is barreling balls up at a career-low 6.5% rate and whiffing at more pitches (30.1%) than he has since his rookie year.
He’s been better of late, hitting eight of his last 10 batted balls with an exit velocity above 95 mph (Statcast’s definition of “hard hit” contact), including two long fly-outs in addition to his homer Wednesday.
“I thought Joc, in particular, took some very good at-bats,” Roberts said. “Just missed other balls that could have gone out of the ballpark. Used the big part of the field. That homer he hit was really impressive.”
And then there’s Bellinger, the reigning National League MVP, suffering one of the team’s most surprising slumps so far. Several times earlier this month, it looked as if the 25-year-old had finally found a rhythm. On Aug 2-3, he hit home runs in back-to-back games. Against the Angels last Friday and Saturday, he collected two more big flies and four base hits overall.
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Yet, even after his fifth home run of the season Wednesday, a third-inning moonshot that landed just over the right-center-field wall, Bellinger still owns the ninth-lowest batting average (.178) and 20th-lowest OPS (.592) in baseball.
After tinkering with his swing at the start of the season, he has begun belting the ball with more consistency of late, recording a 75% hard hit rate in his last seven games. Yet, as a recent analysis by MLB.com noted, he’s only hitting the ball on the “sweet spot,” according to Statcast’s launch angle measurements, about half as frequently as he did a season ago.
“I think that Cody’s earned the opportunity, the time to figure things out,” Roberts said. “I just want Cody to continue to take good at-bats. And whatever that means, the result, we’re fine with, because, yeah, we have a lot of players that are playing well and a lot of talented players around him.”
Which is true. Even as a triumvirate that combined for 253 home runs the previous three seasons has been slow to rediscover its power stroke, the Dodgers’ deep offense leads MLB in scoring nonetheless.
But to be at its best come October, the team will need those three lefty power hitters to be back on track. Without them, its lineup still lacks a little bit of its bite.
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