This is it! The series we've all been waiting for. Finally, the Mets have made it out to Los Angeles to face the Dodgers and dastardly second baseman Chase Utley for the first time since last year's National League Division Series. In Game 2 of what would turn out to be a five-game affair, Utley slid hard and late into second base while breaking up a double play attempt. He crashed into Ruben Tejada in the process, breaking the shortstop's leg and knocking him out for the remainder of the postseason.
Mets fans have been looking forward to their team getting revenge on Utley, especially after his two-game suspension penalty for the nasty play was overturned. That decision probably had something to do with the slide being ruled legal on the field, although a rule adjustment by Major League Baseball during the offseason would certainly make the play illegal and worth two outs if it happened again.
Even though the Mets prevailing in the NLDS should have been plenty on its own, there are no doubt fans who still wish to see Utley hit with a pitch this week in the rematch of pennant contenders. The problem (besides that whole eye-for-an-eye nonsense) is that the man the Mets would be avenging now plays for the St. Louis. And Tejada wasn't traded, nor did he leave as a free agent. He was deemed unworthy of the roster and unceremoniously waived. So is there still a reason to throw at Utley, a man who isn't shy about throwing his body in the way of fastballs during his leisure time?
Fortunately, that's not my decision. I have enough trouble figuring out whether FIP or xFIP is more representative of a pitcher's true worth. What I can decide on, though, is that Utley has been a surprisingly valuable player for the Dodgers this year. After a dreadful start to the 2015 campaign in his longtime home of Philadelphia, Utley was dealt to Los Angeles in August in order to help off the bench and ended up hitting .212/.286/.343 for the season with a strikeout rate of just 15 percent.
Now playing regularly against right-handed pitchers as part of a platoon with Howie Kendrick, Utley is hitting .298/.405/.436 as one of the Dodgers' top players. It's not just the platoon that has helped him, though. Utley's BABIP has risen from .230 last year to .355 this year to go with a nine-percent increase in line drive rate. If the second baseman continued hitting like this, it would make for a career high in line drive rate, so he's bound to cool off as the season wears on, but Utley still looks more like a productive player than the guy who saw way too many of his batted balls turn into outs in 2015.
When Utley is absent from the starting lineup on Monday night, one might think it's because manager Dave Roberts wants to protect him from the avenging Mets, but it will more likely be because he's one of four players that the Dodgers regularly sit against southpaws like Steven Matz. The other three are catcher Yasmani Grandal, veteran outfielder Carl Crawford, and young outfielder Joc Pederson.
Pederson in particular is an interesting case, because he probably needs more exposure to left-handed pitching if he is going to develop into a big league regular. He looked like a rising star when he got off to a blistering start to the 2015 campaign, but then he tailed off significantly in the second half due to a drop in power that didn't mesh well with a strikeout rate that approached 30 percent. Pederson finished his rookie season hitting .210/.346/.417 with 26 home runs, 20 of which were hit before the All-Star break.
In 2016, the script could be rewriting itself, as the 24-year-old slugger is hitting .275/.379/.563 with six home runs despite a strikeout rate of 34 percent. If that holds up, it will be the fourth straight season (majors and minors) that Pederson has increased his strikeout rate, but if he continues to take walks and hit for power, he'll be plenty useful in the majors. Whether or not he get those swings and misses under control will decide if he can be a superstar.
If only Pederson were the only potential superstar on the Dodgers. Nope. The front office, led by former Tampa Bay general manager Andrew Friedman, has collected an impressive trio of youngsters to go with productive vets like Utley and Adrian Gonzalez. One of those is Yasiel Puig, who like Pederson, looked like a surefire stud during his rookie year, when he was worth four wins above replacement. Puig was nearly as great during his sophomore campaign, but last year the production dropped off due to hamstring injuries and a decreasing walk rate. He's healthy again this year, but he's also hitting just .243/.294/.396 with a five-percent walk rate. Puig's Twitter feed, on the other hand, has never been better. It's also important to note that Puig is 25 years old and built like a brick house. He still has plenty of time to reestablish himself as a baseball star.
Pederson and Puig have plenty of upside, but in five years the biggest star in Los Angeles might be Corey Seager, the 22-year-old shortstop who debuted towards the end of last year. It's not every day that you see a shortstop with the kind of left-handed power that Seager boasts, and he's been quite adept at making contact as well. That rare combination of skills gives this kid the chance to become west coast version of Derek Jeter... provided that the Dodgers are able to win multiple titles during his career.
One thing holding the Dodgers back from those multiple titles (or at least a 2016 title), is the pitching staff beyond Clayton Kershaw. Before the season even started, Los Angeles saw Brett Anderson, Mike Bolsinger, Brandon McCarthy, and Hyun-Jin Ryu all land on the disabled list, which caused the team to scramble and hand Ross Stripling the ball every fifth day. The right-hander has surprisingly been pretty decent compared to what we've seen from former Mets prospect Scott Kazmir. The southpaw from Texas is still striking out opponents at a solid clip with 30 in 31.2 innings so far, but he has also allowed multiple home runs in three of his six starts.
Speaking of multiple home runs, Alex Wood allowed three to Tampa Bay in his most recent outing. That's a little odd since the former Atlanta lefty has an outstanding 57-percent ground ball rate so far. Wood has a couple of quality starts in 2016, but he's otherwise been shaky, making him a great test for the Mets-can't-hit-lefties trend that we're waiting to be broken.
If the Mets are going to hit against a lefty this week, they should plan to do so before Thursday when Kershaw takes the hill and looks to build on a terrific start to what could be another legendary campaign for him. Over his last four starts, he has totaled 44 strikeouts and one walk to reach a season-long 1.62 FIP. No, Kershaw has not faced the best offenses in baseball in 2016, but his 10 strikeouts and zero walks with two runs allowed in seven innings during his most recent outing in Toronto were impressive.
The amazing thing is that Kershaw might not be the hero of the Los Angeles rotation. I mean, he's still the best by far, but the way Kenta Maeda has pitched as an unpredictable Japanese import has been just as important to keeping the team afloat. The 28-year-old right-hander only allowed one run total during his first four starts and most recently pitched six innings with two runs allowed against the Blue Jays. Maeda's strikeout and walk rates don't quite match his impressive 1.66 ERA, but his ability to limit walks and pitch deep into games should serve the Dodgers well all year.
The Mets appear to have the advantage on the mound early in the series with Matz coming off of two straight scoreless outings to face the struggling Kazmir on Monday. The edge the Mets have on Tuesday could be in name only as Jacob deGrom has failed to impress recently and has yet to shown the dominant strikeout stuff that made him such an attraction in 2015. Combine that with the possibility that the New York lineup scuffles with the left-handed Wood on the mound, and the matchup could be quite close in reality.
|Date||Time||Television||Mets Probable Starter||Dodgers Probable Starter|
|May 9, 2016||10:10 PM||SNY||Steven Matz||Scott Kazmir|
|May 10, 2016||10:10 PM||SNY, MLBN||Jacob deGrom||Alex Wood|
|May 11, 2016||10:10 PM||SNY||Noah Syndergaard||Kenta Maeda|
|May 12, 2016||10:10 PM||SNY||Bartolo Colon||Clayton Kershaw|
Wednesday and Thursday are going to attract more of a national spotlight as the baseball world has been fascinated by both Syndergaard's and Maeda's early success. Both guys have appeared human recently, but both also have the chance to reestablish their dominance against a marquee opponent. The real show, however, will be on Thursday night when Kershaw and his must-see stuff take on Bartolo Colon in the right-hander's first appearance since his magical home run in San Diego over the weekend. Colon's bat may have stolen all the headlines lately, but it's his consistent pitching that has been the real asset for the Mets. Hopefully he's good enough to keep the Mets in the game during the lineup's toughest challenge of the season.
Prediction: banana split.
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