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The Dodgers Were Good Enough Already — and Now They Have a Surprise Star

Chris Taylor started the season in the minors, but since getting called up in mid-April, he’s been one of the best players on the best team in baseball

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The Dodgers are 71–31, which is a 113-win pace, and it’s easy to see why: They’ve got the best pitcher in baseball, a third baseman with a 165 OPS+, two enormous home run–smashing children, an elite closer and a bullpen that finally looks like it won’t be a liability in October, and enough rotation depth to sustain injuries — at one point or another — to each of their seven best starting pitchers and keep on chugging.

Clayton Kershaw is out injured for four to six weeks, but no matter. Because of the Dodgers’ immense financial might and strong farm system, they even have the capacity to go out and add another big-name pitcher just for fun.

This team is like a plague of locusts — they swarm around devouring wins, and they’ll keep eating up victories until they can eat no more. But even with all of those advantages, the Dodgers aren’t implacable. They’ve still had holes to plug throughout the lineup as expected starters have been injured or underperformed; even on a first-place team, it’s nice to have people around who can fill those holes while still contributing offensively. Or, in the age of 13-man pitching staffs and the short benches that come with them, one person who can fill multiple holes.

The Dodgers have two such players. Enrique Hernandez has rebounded from a 2016 season in which his 64 OPS+ made him too much of a liability to play much. This year, he’s hitting .225/.325/.480 (108 OPS+) in 238 PA, while playing seven defensive positions, in addition to one appearance at DH.

The other is Chris Taylor, who’s hitting .320/.388/.541 this season. Take two weeks’ worth of WAR totals for what they’re worth, but since the All-Star break, FanGraphs rates him as the most valuable position player in the game. Taylor’s hit .500/.520/.854 in the second half so far.

When he was acquired in a trade with Seattle last June, Taylor was a fringy big leaguer. A fifth-round pick out of Virginia in 2012, he was one of about half a dozen interchangeable college infielders the Mariners burned through earlier this decade. Kyle Seager turned out to be a star, but Dustin Ackley flamed out, Justin Smoak forgot how to hit (before remembering this season), and Brad Miller was fine but nothing special for a couple of years before he was shipped off to Tampa Bay in 2015 as part of a six-player deal.

As for Taylor, he reached the majors within two years, then bounced between Seattle and Triple-A Tacoma. When he was in the big leagues, he hit .239/.296/.296. In his first year in Los Angeles, Taylor hit .207/.258/.362 in 62 plate appearances. You don’t need to hit much when you can play shortstop, but a 70 OPS+, which Taylor posted in 318 PA over his first three seasons, made him a backup at best.

Taylor didn’t break camp with the Dodgers this year, but he found himself back in the majors by mid-April. Since then, Taylor’s put up gaudy offensive numbers while playing all over the field.

Taylor isn’t the Dodgers’ best or most important player, but he’s toted an OPS+ of 141 around to five different positions this year, which is incredibly useful, particularly for a team like the Dodgers, who are always dealing with some nagging injury or another.

Left field has been the biggest need, since Andrew Toles tore his ACL in May, Andre Ethier’s been out all year with a back injury, and Scott Van Slyke and Trayce Thompson haven’t hit well. Cody Bellinger’s played some left field, but when Adrián González got hurt he moved to first, opening up the hole again. Taylor’s started 31 games in left. The Dodgers’ big offseason acquisition, second baseman Logan Forsythe, has an 86 OPS+, and Chase Utley has a 91 OPS+ and is old as hell, which required Taylor to make 19 starts there. Justin Turner missed time with a hamstring injury, and Taylor’s made eight appearances at third base. And Joc Pederson missed two and a half weeks with a concussion, so Taylor made 17 starts in center field as well. He’s played only 20.1 innings at shortstop, his natural position and where he’d be most valuable, because he’s gone where he’s needed and the Dodgers, who have Corey Seager holding down the position, don’t need him there.

The ability to plug in a good hitter anywhere on the diamond is an incredible comfort to a manager, and has been since at least the days of Gil McDougald. The other outlier team in MLB this year, the Astros, has a guy like that in Marwin González, who has a 171 OPS+ and has started at least five games at five different positions this year. Fulfilling a similar function on a similar team, but in a different league and across the county, Taylor is like the bizarro Marwin González — Bizarwin González, if you will.

The simplest explanation for Taylor’s gaudy offensive numbers is that he’s just getting lucky. His BABIP of .427 is not only the highest in baseball, it would be the highest by a qualified hitter in any season since 1911. No. 2 on the BABIP leaderboard is Seattle’s Ben Gamel, who is himself in the middle of a surprisingly good offensive season. There is such a thing as a high-BABIP hitter — fast guys or guys who hit the ball hard — and this year’s BABIP leaderboard has a few of those near the top. No. 3 is Aaron Judge, who hits the ball harder than anyone in history. No. 4 and no. 5 are José Altuve and Turner, two of the best contact hitters in the game. You’d expect Taylor’s numbers to regress some when his BABIP falls.

Except, Taylor’s line drive rate of 27.2 is second-highest in baseball, and his walk rate, 10.1 percent, is a career high. Taylor isn’t a true-talent .427 BABIP guy, or a 141 OPS+ guy for that matter, but given regular playing time for the first time in his career, he’s shown that he can hit.

Even if Taylor’s playing over his head and regresses back to something more like an average hitter, his defensive versatility makes him a valuable player. And even if all of this is a fluke and he turns out to be just another utility guy, the Dodgers still get to bank the three months in which he hit like Kris Bryant. After all, no team is good enough to go 71–31 without at least a little luck.