Should We Be Concerned About The Dodgers’ Infield Defense?

Examining a major flaw of a preseason favorite.

To get the obvious out of the way, the 2024 Los Angeles Dodgers are going to be an awesome baseball team. The 2023 iteration won 100 games and the 2024 squad should only be better. Shohei Ohtani is now in tow, and although he won’t be pitching this year, he’ll join forces with Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman to form a hilariously potent big three at the top of the lineup. A fully healthy season from Max Muncy, the free agent addition of Teoscar Hernández, and the return of Gavin Lux from a torn ACL will only further lengthen the lineup. Big ticket pitching additions Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Tyler Glasnow give the starting rotation a formidable top end, and Walker Buehler’s return from Tommy John Surgery and the continuing development of young stud Bobby Miller provide strong depth below them. Even with the Diamondbacks coming off a World Series appearance, the Dodgers appear to pretty clearly be the class of the NL West, and the National League as a whole.

Yet despite the overall strength of the roster, there is one glaring weakness to this team: the infield defense, especially on the left side. It may sound like a minor concernand for a team so stacked from top to bottom in almost every other way, it probably isbut if I were Andrew Friedman and the rest of the Dodgers’ front office, I would be a little nervous about the potential for this small crack in the machine to continue to gnaw on the team throughout the season. The question is exactly how nervous should they be?

Before getting too into the weeds about the scenario the Dodgers face in particular, I should note that defensive evaluation is one of the trickiest aspects of baseball analysis. Pitching is relatively simple to evaluate because the pitcher is always on offense, dictating every plate appearance with the unique location, velocity, spin, and movement profile they impart on ball. All of these pitch qualities are measurable, and we can neatly categorize the result of each pitch (a ball, a called strike, a swing and miss, or some type of contact). Hitting is slightly more complicated to analyze because the batter is always reacting to whatever the pitcher throws at him, but we can still neatly quantify the batter’s swing decisions (whether they swung or not), ability to make contact on their swings, and how fast and hard they swing. We also have clear outcomes from each of the batters’ plate appearanceslike a “single” or a “ground out”that we can identify as a success or a failure.

Defensive evaluation is so challenging because we do not have the same easily quantifiable events that we have with pitchers and batters. Unlike the batter, who knows they will have the ball thrown to them on each pitch, the fielder does not know when they will have to make a play on the ball. The distribution of fielding opportunities they get, unlike the hitting opportunities for the nine batters in a lineup, is not equal. Neither is the degree of difficulty to field the balls hit their way. We also lack a way to quantify success for a fielder other than the binary “safe” or “out” call on each batter. This isn’t very good for evaluating defense because not all outs are equally easy to make. Sometimes it’s clear that a fielder made a mistake, like on a drop or a bobble or a throwaway. But sometimes it’s less obvious, like when they lack the range to get to the ballthey didn’t muff the play per se, but maybe a better fielder can make the play.

All this is to say that the defensive metrics we have, while very good, should not be taken without a grain of salt. However, we will be relying heavily on them in evaluating the Dodger’s infielders, because they are the best data we have. I believe that Runs Above Average (RAA), the runs based derivation of Outs Above Average (OAA) is the best metric we have because of its use of Hawkeye tracking data to look at the precise positioning of the defender, but I will also be referencing Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) frequently because RAA isn’t perfect and when all three metrics agree is when I have the greatest confidence in their accuracy. Here’s how they rated the Dodgers’ infielders last season.

As a note, all three metrics evaluate how many runs a player saved his team compared to a league average defender at their position; a score of 0 means average performance for the position while anything positive is above average and anything negative is below average.

Dodgers’ Infield Defense Performance: 2023

Position DRS DRS League Rank UZR   UZR League Rank RAA RAA League Rank
1B -7 26th 2.2 7th 3 2nd
2B 5 8th -1.5 19th -7 27th
3B -6 21st -7.8 29th -14 29th
SS 15 4th -0.3 19th 3 11th
Total 7 10th -7.5 23rd -12 25th

Overall it’s a mixed bag, though it leans more bad than good. DRS felt pretty positive for the most part, while UZR and RAA had less glowing reviews. However, that was last year, and the 2024 Dodgers infield mix will look a little different, and likely worse.

If there’s one position in the infield that the Dodgers shouldn’t worry about too much, it’s first base. Barring an injury, Freddie Freeman will be getting almost all of the playing time; last year he started all but one of the Dodgers’ games. Though DRS was really down on his performance last season, believing he was nine runs below average in the field, that is an outlier season from the rest of his career marks and the other metrics had positive things to say about his 2023 glovework. I wouldn’t be too concerned about Freeman going forward and think he should be a perfectly serviceable option, especially considering that on the other side of the ball, he is among the elite of the elite.

Second base is where things get interesting. The Dodgers used nine different second basemen in 2023, and the player with the most innings played at keystone last season was Miguel Vargas. Vargas opened the year as the team’s starter but he really struggled, putting up an unsightly -7 RAA (the other metrics agree he was decidedly a negative glove). In the second half of the season, most of the second base reps were taken by midseason trade acquisition Amed Rosario, who rated out relatively favorably, and star right fielder Mookie Betts. Betts was originally a second baseman coming up through the minors but had moved to the outfield during his Red Sox days due to the presence of Dustin Pedroia and was so excellent patrolling the grass at Fenway that he remained an outfielder when the Dodgers acquired him. But with the Dodgers desperate for infield help, Betts returned to the dirt and posted solid numbers. Though his 1.0 UZR and -1.0 RAA suggest he was about average, his DRS believed he was even better than that, pegging him at six runs saved above average. By my personal eye test, I feel like he looked pretty solid.

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Heading into this season, manager Dave Roberts has stated that Betts will be the Dodgers full-time second baseman. It will be interesting to see how Mookie performs at second given a larger sample size, but I personally think he will be at least average there this season. With more consistent playing time at the position he should grow more comfortable and continue to improve, making it possible he ends the year as a plus glove. Above all else, not having Vargas cough up runs will be a net positive from last season. That being said, there is some serious downside. Adjusting to a full-time workload at second base could end up being challenging for Bettsthere’s not enough track record here to count on him being a plus glove.

Even with reservations about Betts, that’s not a terrible start. A solid first baseman and an improving defender at second gives the team a solid foundation on the right side of the infield. Where things get a bit more garish, however, is on the left side.

The Dodgers’ issues start with third base, where their defense ranked near the bottom of the league in 2023. Those inept third base defenders were headed by Max Muncy, who played 72.75% of the team’s innings and struggled mightily. Muncy posted the fourth worst Statcast Fielding Run Value out of all third basemen with at least 500 innings played at the position. The negative metrics reflect Muncy’s limited range at the position. Watching him play defense, you can see Muncy struggling to react to contact, both moving side to side and forward. He routinely watches balls roll past him into left field without coming close to getting any leather on them, or slowly dribble down the third baseline and become infield hits before he can get a handle on the ball.

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Muncy has never been a defensive savant, but his metrics fell off a cliff in 2023. Part of Muncy’s defensive decline can be linked to the new rule eliminating of the infield shift, which the Dodgers frequently used when Muncy was on the infield dirt. By shifting, the Dodgers could bank on the ball getting hit in a certain direction and have more infielders covering less space, putting Muncy in a position where he didn’t have to rely on his range so much. Without the shift aiding his defense, Muncy no longer had the luxury of only having to cover a tiny sliver of the field, exposing his lack of range. At 33 years old, it seems unlikely that his range will suddenly improve. Muncy is still a dangerous hitter but the ideal role for him at this point of his career in a shift-less society would be playing first base, or better yet DHing. But The Dodgers have the best first baseman (Freeman) and DH (Ohtani) in baseball, meaning that if they want to get Muncy’s bat into the lineup, it will have to be at third.

If prime Andrelton Simmons was the team’s shortstop, he might be able to cover for some of Muncy’s deficiencies. Last year, while no Simmons, the Dodgers had Miguel Rojas playing the lion’s share of the time at short, manning the position in 65.95% of the team’s defensive innings. Rojas has a strong reputation with the glove, and last season the metrics bore that out. Rojas posted a strong 12 DRS and a 4 RAA providing almost all of the positive defensive value the Dodgers got out of the position. Notably, both in 2023 and throughout his career, Rojas especially excelled moving forward and towards third, rating as 6 and 2 OAA, helping cover some of the areas Muncy is also responsible for.

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However, despite being a plus in the field, Rojas really struggled with bat for the second year in a row, slashing a mere .236/.290/.322. The type of offense for a full-time starter is not really tenable on a team with expectations of contending. With Lux returning from his Achilles injury, the Dodgers will be happy to stash Rojas on the bench and let Lux take the everyday shortstop at-bats. The problem is that there are a lot of question marks about whether Lux can capably handle the position, which is the most challenging defensive spot in the infield. While Lux was drafted as a shortstop, he began to struggle defensively at the position as he rose through the minors. Though our minor league defensive data is limited, by Clay Davenport’s publicly available DTS metric, he was -6 runs below average at short between three levels in 2019, his last full season in the minors. Upon being promoted to LA, Lux only saw time at second base until the 2021 season, where he primarily was used at short as Corey Seager’s backup. Once again, he struggled at the position; though DRS thought he was totally average, he had -2.1 UZR and -3 RAA. In particular, he had difficulties when moving towards third base, being worth -3 OAA moving in that direction. By 2022, the Dodgers decided to pull him off short and move him back to second base, but with Betts entrenched as the starter, Lux will have to reprise his role at short.

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A left side of the infield made up of Mucny and Lux does not promise to be very good. Considering that Lux has rated particularly poorly moving towards third, a lot of balls might trickle into the left field at Chavez Ravine in 2024. Coming off a lost 2023 and without significant playing time at shortstop since 2021, Lux is likely to have to shake off some additional defensive rust as well, allowing for the possibility of both he and Muncy being well below-average gloves. That gives the tandem the potential to form the worst left infield defense in the sport. Throw in the possibility that Betts could struggle and things begin to look even bleaker. Betts and Lux will additionally have to develop their double play chemistry from scratch, as the two haven’t previously played the infield together. It doesn’t help that Vargas remains as a primary backup at both second and third, further weakening the defense when he is called into action.

Clearly, the Dodgers’ infield defense, particularly on the left side, is a potential point of concern. You never want to rate among the worst in the league in just about anything. But how big of a deal is it that the infield defense will be a mess? Will it really sink the Dodgers, or is it a small weakness that can mostly be overlooked?

There is a case that the fielder is less relevant than ever before in the era of the three-true outcomes that the game is currently in. Those “true outcomes”strikeouts, walks, and home runsrefer to the baseball events that do not rely on the fielder to contribute to the outcome, essentially any event that is not a “ball in play.”1 Looking back over the past few decades, the Three-True Outcomes% (TTO%) has risen significantly.

1 This is not entirely true because of events like catcher pitch-framing, the dropped third strike rule, and home run robberies, but that is getting very nitpicky.

Decade HR% BB% K% TTO% BIP%
2020s (2020-2023) 3.15 8.55 22.85 34.55 64.55
2010s (2010-2019) 2.81 8.15 20.55 31.51 68.49
2000s (2000-2009) 2.78 8.65 16.98 28.41 71.59
1990s (1990-1999) 2.48 8.88 15.92 27.28 72.72
1980s (1980-1989) 2.12 8.45 14.06 24.63 75.37

**HBP totals are included win BIP% to differentiate them from TTO events

Yet even though the fielder may have fewer opportunities to impact the game than in the past, 65% is still a lot of the time! Baseball is a sport where one hit every ten at-bats separates someone being a Mendoza Line hitter or being in contention for the batting title, so even seemingly small differences in performance on balls in play can have a significant impact on a team’s success. A defense’s ability to take away a hit or prevent extra bases or hold a runner from scoring, while seemingly minute, makes a difference when it comes to wins and losses.

Here we’re focussing not on defense in its entirety, but specifically infield defense. Infielders do make up a large share of total defensive output since they are responsible for ground balls and in many cases line drives as well. Last season, 42.5% of batted balls were grounders and another 20.0% were liners, meaning that the majority of defensive responsibility was in the hands of the infield. Looking at 2023, I totaled each team’s infield DRS, UZR, and RAA and converted the unit from runs to wins (for those interested all I did was divide each team’s total by the 2023 runs/win number). The resulting numbers can serve as an estimate for how many wins a team’s infield defense netted them compared to the number of wins a team with an average infield defense would have. For all three metrics, no team was more than 3.5 wins above or below what average infield defense would yield. If we view this as a rough upper and lower bound, that’s about a seven-win swing from a very elite infield defense to a putrid one.

2023 Infield Defense: Most Wins Gained/Lost

Metric  DRS UZR RAA Average
Top Rated Team 3.49 (Cubs) 3.12 (Orioles) 2.19 (Royals) 1.99 (Brewers)
Bottom Rated Team -3.49 (Athletics) -3.00 (Tigers) -2.99 (Red Sox) -2.10 (Tigers)
Net Win Difference 6.98 6.12 5.18 4.09
Dodgers 0.70 -0.75 1.20 -0.42

** Average refers to the average of the three metrics combined

Based on my evaluation of the Dodger’s infield defense, I would expect their 2024 unit to perform well below average. But even if they are the worst defensive infield group in baseball, we’re likely looking at it costing them no more than 3.5 wins compared to an alternative universe version of the team with average infield defense. For teams that are fringe playoff contenders, where every win means a lot in terms of their playoff chances, failing to have at least an average infield defense could be the difference between playing October baseball and watching the postseason from their couches. For a team as loaded with offensive and pitching talent as the Dodgers are, they occupy a spot on the win curve where a potential 3.5 swing matters a lot less. It clearly doesn’t seem to be causing projection systems any reservations.

Another factor the Dodgers have protecting them from themselves: bringing Tyler Glasnow into the fold. Last season, Glasnow had a BB+K% of 41.03%, well above the MLB average of 32.08% among pitchers with a least 50 innings pitched. In fact, only four pitchers primarily used as starters had a higher rate: Blake Snell. Spencer Strider, Edward Cabrera, and new teammate Shohei Ohtani. 2023 wasn’t even a banner year for Glasnow in this metric; since 2019 he has a 42.7% BB+K%. The Dodgers should feel confident that with Glasnow on the mound, batters will rarely put the ball in play, providing a layer of armor for the weak underbelly of the Dodgers’ infield gloves. And even though walks are inherently bad, when you strike out batters as often as Glasnow does the pain of the additional baserunners can be mitigated. Glasnow isn’t alone in the Dodgers’ rotation as a preventer of balls in play. Emmet Sheehan, who figures to feature considerably more prominently in the Dodgers’ pitching mix during his sophomore season, posted a 36.29% BB+K% last season and has a strong minor league track record of striking out a lot of guys (and walking a lot of them too). Perhaps in the short term, it makes sense for the Dodgers to prioritize these types of arms and make themselves as non-reliant on their infielders as possible.

So to answer our initial question, should we be concerned about the Dodgers’ infield defense? I would say yes (because it projects to be really bad), but also not really (because the bottom-line impact on the standings should be relatively minimal). The infield defense was rough last year, and an aging Muncy, plus Lux taking over for Rojas at short, plus the potential for Betts having a tougher readjustment to full-time infield duty than anticipated creates the potential for it to be significantly more ugly in 2024. But ultimately this is a small blemish on an excellent roster. If you can sign Shohei Ohtani and have to play Max Muncy at third base as a result, you do it every single time. Even if they leave two to three wins on the table because of it, I certainly won’t be selling my 2024 Dodgers stock anytime soon.


One response to “Should We Be Concerned About The Dodgers’ Infield Defense?”

  1. DCN says:

    This is a looong winded analysis. Sure, “infield defense” may be a weakness for the Dodgers. But Freeman, Betts, Lux and Muncy could hit 100+ homeruns, score 400+ and get 400+ rbi combined. Sure they aren’t the most sophisticated stats, but games are determined by scoring more runs than the other team, and how well they hit has as much or more to do with that than defense. Any of the WAR calculations discount defense and baserunning compared to batting.

    If you had the choice between the Dodgers infield and say, Matt Chapman, Jose Iglesias, Kolten Wong and Ty France (a superior defensive quartet, but vastly inferior with the bat) , I’d think anyone would take LAD 4 every time.

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