Manny Machado’s first 50 plate appearances as a Dodger are now in the books: .400 on-base percentage, .442 slugging percentage. During that time, the Dodgers went 6-4 on a road trip against three playoff contenders, a trip that you could have called a complete success had they won the 16-inning game at Philadelphia and taken all three series.
As it stands, avoiding a no-hitter with a down-to-the-last strike single by Chris Taylor on Sunday at Atlanta provides a nice bounce heading into a homestand that offers Machado’s debut in Dodger whites but hardly any relief: four games against the Brewers, followed by the three-game World Series rematch with the Astros.
That Machado has put only a “1” in the doubles and homers columns (as well as triples) might seem a bit disappointing, but forgivable given the adjustment the 26-year-old is making in changing teams for the first time. (He homered once every 15 at-bats with Baltimore, compared with one in 43 at-bats as a Dodger.) Significantly, Machado has also looked wonderful on defense, moving between shortstop and third base without an issue — all while being on the field for the entire 93 1/3 innings of the trip.
The value of acquiring Machado, even when the Dodger offense seemed to be operating at full tilt heading into the All-Star Game, is underscored by some mini-slumps inflicting a couple of the team’s hottest first-half stars.
Both Matt Kemp and Max Muncy started out hot following the All-Star break. Kemp went 8 for 17 with two homers, Muncy 6 for 15 with a .733 slugging percentage.
However, Kemp is 0 for 16 with four walks in his past six games. In that time, Kemp has only struck out twice, so to say the least, going 0 for 14 on batted balls in play won’t go down as the luckiest stretch of Kemp’s career.
Muncy is faring worse over the past week: 1 for 21 with 10 strikeouts. He has struck out twice in each of his past five starts, an unexpected struggle for someone whose authority with the strike zone has helped define his sudden rise to Dodger fame. According to Baseball Reference, only three Dodgers have ever had a longer streak of double strikeouts: David Ross (seven games) and this pair that you always see linked together, Cody Bellinger and Sandy Koufax (six games).
Combine this with a Dodger bench that had a horrendous week: Austin Barnes, Chase Utley and Logan Forsythe combined to go 1 for 23 with three walks and the requisite Utley hit by pitch. Kiké Hernández, hovering in the netherworld between coming off the bench and starting (not to mention relieving), added a 2 for 20 with no walks. Total for the foursome: 3 for 43, three walks, .120 OBP and no extra-base hits.
The Dodgers find themselves in an interesting predicament with their four-man bench, in that they are more and more frequently having to use Grandal to pinch-hit for Barnes on the days the younger catcher starts, and Forsythe is mystifyingly unreliable at the plate. Utley, the clubhouse leader who should be the weak link statistically, has at least been an exceptional pinch-hitter, going 13 for 29 with a .484 OBP and .621 slugging percentage in that role.
It’s only one month until rosters expand, but when Justin Turner returns from his latest injury to give the Dodgers six capable infielders (Turner, Machado, Taylor, Bellinger, Hernández and Utley), it’s hard to argue that Forsythe provides more value than Verdugo (or, if you prefer, Andrew Toles). In theory, you want Verdugo playing every day at whatever level you find him, but you’re nearing the point in the season where you can’t afford not to maximize value at the big-league level.
In any case, Machado wasn’t alone in picking up the slack for the struggling Dodgers. Yasmani Grandal (1.156 OPS since the All-Star break), Joc Pederson (1.053) and Chris Taylor (.843) excelled, as did the tag team of Alex Verdugo (.984) and Yasiel Puig (homer, two walks and a sacrifice fly in seven trips).
The last thing I want to imply with this piece is that we need to assume the beginning of the end for Kemp, Munch or Cody Bellinger (.543 OPS since the break). Rather, I’d prefer to focus on the beauty of having an additional presence like Machado that, except on fluky days like Sunday’s near-no-no, will help sustain the Dodgers as they enter August, September and, one can certainly hope, October.