The Dodgers’ New-Look Outfield Has Been a Hit So Far

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The 2023 season is only a week old, but the Dodgers have to be quite satisfied with the early returns from their outfield. Mookie Betts aside, the unit entered the season full of question marks, and those only got larger once manager Dave Roberts had to start moving players around to cover for Gavin Lux’s season-ending ACL tear. Yet through the team’s first six games, rookie James Outman, holdover Trayce Thompson, and newcomer Jason Heyward have each produced some impressive performances that offer hope they can help to offset the team’s notable offseason departures.

Lux was supposed to be the Dodgers’ regular shortstop, and while the team soon traded for Miguel Rojas to be the regular, his loss pulled Chris Taylor into the mix to a greater degree than expected. In turn, the Dodgers have brought Betts into the second base mix; recall that the future Hall of Fame right fielder — you heard me — began his professional career in the middle infield, and spent the last two weeks of his 52-game rookie season filling in at the keystone for the injured Dustin Pedroia.

Given the anticipation that both Taylor and Betts would spend more time on the dirt, the Dodgers found room for both Heyward, a 33-year-old non-roster invitee who was released by the Cubs last year, the penultimate one of his eight-year, $184 million contract, and Outman, a 25-year-old prospect who entered the season with four games of major league experience. Both lefty swingers are on the roster in addition to the righty-swinging Thompson, who enjoyed a nice little breakout in the second half of his age-31 season, and lefty David Peralta, a free agent whom the Dodgers signed to a one-year, $6.5 million deal mid-February.

Through the first six games, Roberts has written out five different outfield combinations — five different lineups in all, in fact. His Opening Day nine included an outfield of Peralta, Outman, and Betts, which was repeated the next day, but each successive game offered a new look. Here’s a breakdown by innings played among the outfielders, including their time spent in the infield as well:

Dodgers Defensive Innings in 2023

Player 2B SS 3B LF CF RF
Chris Taylor 18 11 7
Mookie Betts 17 31
James Outman 12 35
Trayce Thompson 3 13 8
Jason Heyward 6 15
David Peralta 22

Just about every day, one or more of those outfielders has stepped up for the Dodgers with a big hit or two. The team beat the Diamondbacks 8-2 on Opening Day, with Outman going 2-for-3 with a walk and three runs scored, including a sixth-inning homer off Cole Sulser. They lost 2-1 the next day, with Betts’ solo homer accounting for the only run, but on Saturday, Thompson made his season debut with a three-homer, eight-RBI game.

Sunday was another 2-1 loss, with Betts accounting for the only hit among the outfielders, but in Monday’s 13-4 romp against the Rockies, Outman tripled twice and drove in three runs, while Heyward, in his first start with the team, went 2-for-3 with a two-run home run and three RBIs. Heyward crushed another homer, a 112.7-mph scorcher, in Tuesday’s 5-2 win over Colorado.

In all, the Dodgers outfielders have hit a combined .267/.352/.700 in 71 plate appearances; their SLG, seven homers, and 1.2 WAR lead the majors, while their 172 wRC+ is second at the position behind the Rays (178). For as impressive as it is, that performance is (checks notes) not sustainable, but it does illustrate the upside the Dodgers see from this group, which not only has to help offset the loss of Lux but also free agent departures Justin Turner, Trea Turner, and Cody Bellinger — the last of whom remained an exceptional center fielder even as his offense collapsed — as well. No pressure, guys.

As for what is sustainable, it’s worth taking a closer look. Outman was a seventh-round 2018 draft pick out of Cal State-Sacramento who got his first cup of coffee from the Dodgers last year, hitting .462/.563/.846 in 16 PA, all from a four-game stretch from July 31-August 4. Despite that showing and continued strong work in the minors (.294/.393/.586 with 31 homers but a 27.2% strikeout rate at Double-A and Triple-A), he didn’t get another big league look. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe he couldn’t have outhit Bellinger (.210/.265/.389, 83 wRC+) or Joey Gallo (.162/.277/.393/, 91 wRC+) even if he cooled off.

Outman, who turns 26 on May 14, entered the season rated as a 40 FV prospect by Eric Longenhagen, no. 26 on FanGraphs’ Dodgers’ list, though it’s worth noting that The Athletic, Baseball America, and MLB Pipeline all included him within their organizational top 10s based on higher grades for some of his tools. Outman has plus speed, a plus arm, and above-average raw power; the differing assessments hinge on his hit tool and the extent to which his future is in center field. On the former, Longenhagen graded at a 30 present value and 40 future value while noting, “His uppercut swing helps him hit the ball in the air regularly… and his ball/strike recognition helps him hunt pitches he can damage. A lack of barrel control and in-zone vulnerability against letter-high fastballs means he will likely end up with a 40-grade hit tool at best, and one source was also bothered by his breaking ball recognition.” To that point, Outman is 0-for-6 with six strikeouts against breaking balls in his young major league career. As for the middle pasture, Longenhagen wrote, “Outman’s feel in center field is only fair, and while he can play out there in a pinch, he’s better suited for right field, where he played all but a few times during the back half of 2022.” By contrast, Baseball America noted that many teams believe he can be an everyday center fielder, at least as part of a platoon.

Outman has enough power to provide league-average production even with a low batting average, and enough defensive value to be worth around two wins if he does. Via Dan Szymborski, here’s his ZiPS percentile projection, based on 534 PA:

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – James Outman (2023)

Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 31 35 .280 .356 .558 140 4.8
90% 29 31 .266 .347 .527 130 4.2
80% 26 27 .252 .329 .487 120 3.5
70% 24 25 .241 .318 .462 110 2.9
60% 23 23 .233 .312 .439 102 2.3
50% 21 21 .226 .303 .423 95 1.9
40% 20 20 .218 .296 .404 90 1.6
30% 19 18 .210 .288 .389 84 1.1
20% 18 16 .200 .276 .363 75 0.5
10% 16 14 .185 .260 .338 64 -0.2
5% 15 12 .177 .252 .323 59 -0.6

If Outman is still something of an unknown, then so too is this version of Heyward. He hit for just an 88 wRC+ with 8.2 WAR in seven seasons with the Cubs, including a dismal .204/.278/.277 (61 wRC+) with one homer in 151 PA before going on the IL with right knee inflammation last June. He finished the season on the 60-day IL and drew his release in November. The Dodgers signed him to a minor league deal in December and helped him rebuild his swing with the help of hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc, who’s known for having revitalized the careers of Taylor and J.D. Martinez, the latter of whom the Dodgers signed to be their full-time DH.

Van Scoyoc has worked with Heyward to lower his hands and move them further away from his body, reduce his movement once the pitcher starts his delivery, and find a more direct path to the ball. “We worked on his lower half, his legs, how he uses his back side, hand position, bat path, sequencing – all of it… getting [him] into a position where he’s more balanced, more athletic, holds the ground with his back leg,” Van Scoyoc told the Orange County Register’s Bill Plunkett recently.

Though Heyward has called his swing “a work in progress,” already the effort has paid dividends; after all, he’s already doubled last year’s home run output, and his 112.7-mph exit velocity in his home run off Germán Márquez matched the second-highest of his career (or at least the Statcast era portion of it), surpassed only by a 115.3-mph double on May 14, 2021 off the Tigers’ Tarik Skubal.

Given his recent performances, ZiPS isn’t terribly optimistic about Heyward, though he did hit .265/.392/.456 (131 wRC+) in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. His percentile breakdown, based on 358 PA, eyeballs as giving him about a 25% chance of being a league-average hitter:

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Jason Heyward (2023)

Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 21 16 .283 .366 .489 124 2.4
90% 20 15 .272 .353 .460 117 2.0
80% 17 12 .259 .340 .434 106 1.5
70% 16 11 .247 .328 .410 98 1.2
60% 15 10 .241 .318 .389 90 0.8
50% 14 9 .231 .310 .372 85 0.6
40% 13 8 .222 .300 .360 79 0.3
30% 12 7 .213 .295 .343 73 0.0
20% 11 6 .205 .286 .324 66 -0.3
10% 9 5 .190 .271 .303 57 -0.6
5% 8 4 .182 .258 .288 50 -1.1

Remarkably enough, Thompson is the most established of the three, a reclamation project who has already paid off; I delved into his journey in detail last September, so here I’ll hit the highlights. The son of former NBA star Mychal Thompson and the brother of current star Klay Thompson played for the Dodgers in 2016–17 after being acquired in a three-team trade by the White Sox in December 2015. After a strong start in 2016, he slumped through a lower back injury before it was finally diagnosed as a pair of fractured vertebrae. He spent 2017-22 bouncing around, passing through the hands of the Dodgers, Yankees, A’s, White Sox (again), Indians, Diamondbacks, and Cubs, for whom he whacked four homers in 35 PA in September 2021.

Thompson began last season with the Padres but played just six games before being released. He caught on with the Tigers but didn’t make it out of Triple-A, and was sold to the Dodgers for cash on June 20. Injuries to Betts and Taylor soon opened up playing time for him, and he just kept hitting, finishing at .256/.353/.507 (142 wRC+) with 13 homers in 255 PA, a huge step up from the .208/.283/.405 (85 wRC+) he hit in 624 PA from 2015 to ’21. His 153 wRC+ in 239 PA with the Dodgers trailed only Freddie Freeman, and his 2.8 WAR with the team ranked sixth among position players despite his PA total ranking 10th.

Thompson is another player who remade his swing, and in his case it was with a cavalcade of Remembered Guys who helped him, including former Oklahoma City hitting coach Shawn Wooten and former All-Stars Marlon Byrd and Grady Sizemore, with an assist from former teammate Joc Pederson.

His resulting performance was one of extremes. When Thompson made contact, he hit the stuffing out of the ball, with a 92.2 mph average exit velocity, 16.4% barrel rate, and 46.9% hard-hit rate; he did not have enough batted ball events to qualify, but if he had, the exit velo would have placed in the 93rd percentile, the barrel rate in the 97th, and his .496 xSLG in the 94th. In the limited amount of bat speed data that’s Mike Petriello premiered in midseason, he had the fastest average swing of any Dodger, and trailed only Julio Rodríguez, Luis Robert Jr., Giancarlo Stanton and Franmil Reyes among an admittedly limited selection of qualifiers.

On the other hand, Thompson struck out an alarming 36.5% of the time, the sixth-highest mark of the 317 players with at least 250 PA. Of the 15 players who struck out at least one-third of the time, only four others had a wRC+ of 100 or better, led by J.D. Davis‘ 119 in 365 PA. Thompson had a massive reverse platoon split, hitting for a 78 wRC+ against lefties (.174/.260/.360 in 96 PA) and a 182 against righties (.308/.409/.602 in 159 PA), and was particularly flummoxed by four-seamers from southpaws (.156 AVG/.375 SLG, with a 40% whiff rate).

As you might infer from his overall strikeout rate, maintaining such strong production required a high BABIP; Thompson’s .374 mark was indeed the highest of those 317 hitters, six points above the highest official qualifier for the batting title, NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt. So… that’s probably not sustainable, either. As for what is, here’s his ZiPS percentile projection, based on 395 PA:

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Trayce Thompson (2023)

Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 21 31 .268 .346 .566 142 3.5
90% 21 29 .254 .333 .539 131 2.9
80% 18 25 .244 .321 .500 119 2.4
70% 17 23 .234 .313 .480 112 2.0
60% 16 22 .225 .305 .458 104 1.7
50% 15 20 .218 .299 .442 98 1.4
40% 14 18 .210 .291 .421 93 1.1
30% 13 17 .201 .284 .400 85 0.8
20% 12 15 .192 .272 .372 74 0.3
10% 11 12 .177 .260 .344 67 -0.2
5% 9 10 .167 .248 .311 56 -0.7

Given his solid defense at all three outfield spots, that’s about a 50% chance of league-average production.

In all, the emergence of this unlikely trio and the presence of the versatile Betts and Taylor has given Roberts the chance to mix and match in ways that can help conceal some of their weaknesses, and while each player’s track record offers reasons for skepticism, by now the Dodgers’ success in rejuvenating stalled careers should afford them at least some benefit of the doubt. The successes of Heyward, Outman, and Thompson alone won’t make this team a powerhouse; myriad other question marks abound, from both ends of the pitching staff to Martinez, Taylor (who really struggled late last year), and rookie Miguel Vargas. Still, the past week has suggested that this team could offer its share of surprises, which should put the NL’s other contenders on notice.

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