How the Dodgers found the best leadoff men in MLB history

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Mookie Betts was on still on the injured list when he initiated the most consequential conversation of the Dodgers’ 2022 season, walking up to manager Dave Roberts in the dugout during a June game with a question. “What are you going to do with the lineup?” Betts wanted to know, referring to the arrangement of the top three hitters in the lineup.

The next day, Roberts invited Betts, Trea Turner and Freddie Freeman onto the two chairs and the couch in his small office at Dodger Stadium, and he asked for their input. The feedback helped Roberts design what is arguably the most effective 1-2-3 combination for any team — ever.

This is the thrust of the analytics: With Betts hitting leadoff, Turner in the No. 2 spot and Freeman batting third, the Dodgers have three players who rank in baseball’s top 10 in WAR — and, as Sarah Langs of notes, this would be the first time in baseball history that the top three hitters of any particular lineup accomplished that together.

These are the results: In the 65 games since Roberts and the trio settled on the batting order, the Dodgers have averaged 5.8 runs per game and won 75.4% of their games; over a full season, that’s a 122-win pace. Betts leads the National League with 110 runs scored; he has 34 homers. Turner has scored 90 runs, hit 20 homers and stolen 24 bases. Freeman leads the majors with 181 hits, 45 doubles and a .329 batting average. He has scored 104 runs (second in the NL).

“It’s remarkable to watch,” Roberts said over his cellphone the recently, on his trip to the park. “With those three guys, the thing I love about them is that they just love playing the game of baseball; they love competing. In this game, there is so much self-promotion, but with these three guys, it’s about doing whatever it takes to win the game. That’s something for me as a manager, that filters all the way through the clubhouse.”

Freeman sometimes batted second early in the season, and after Betts was sidelined in mid-June by a cracked rib, Turner served as the leadoff hitter. Under that arrangement, the Dodgers’ lineup really started to take off — so with Betts’s return imminent, he was curious what Roberts was thinking about the top of the lineup. This was a question, Roberts felt, that required a conversation with the trio, together. “Because they’ve earned that right,” he said.

Betts mentioned to the three others in the room that he thought of himself as a guy who scored runs — getting on base, spurring action with his speed, maybe hitting home runs. “Mookie felt his DNA was as a table setter,” Roberts recalled.

Turner’s self-evaluation was similar; he said to the others he believed he was best suited as a guy who generated runs by getting on base, challenging defenses, pressing pitchers. “Hearing from Trea, he feels good hitting 1 or 2,” Roberts said.

Freeman described himself as someone who drives in runs, and felt comfortable hitting in the middle of the order. He was concerned, Roberts recalled, about lineup protection — having an effective right-handed hitter batting behind him, to discourage opposing managers from constantly bringing in lefties to face Freeman. They talked about the continued evolution of right-handed hitting catcher Will Smith in the cleanup spot; this year, Smith has a .392 on-base percentage and a .451 slugging percentage against lefties.

In this way, Roberts resolved the placement of Betts, Turner and Freeman, who present immediate quandaries for pitchers and catchers. With Turner and Freeman batting behind Betts, pitchers may be more compelled to attack Betts in the strike zone: the rate of first-pitch strikes he is seeing this year — 62.9% — is the second-highest of his career. One side effect, though: Betts has already set a career high in home runs. As Roberts noted, veterans who regularly hit in the same spot can be more consistent, knowing what kind of at-bats they can expect from those around them. It may be that with Turner and Freeman behind him, Betts can attack with greater commitment — and in fact, he is swinging at 69% of the pitches thrown in the zone to him this year, easily the highest rate of his career.

Similarly, Turner is swinging at the highest percentage of pitches in the zone that he ever has, 74.4%. Freeman has had 629 plate appearances this season, and there has been a runner on base 45% of the time, usually Betts and/or Turner. In those at-bats, Freeman is hitting .366, with an OPS of 1.025. At his current pace, Freeman would finish the season with 323 plate appearances with runners on base, the most in his career.

Each is an excellent player and would likely thrive no matter the lineup, of course. Freeman and Betts have each won MVP awards and seem likely to earn induction into the Hall of Fame. If Turner follows his current trajectory — he could finish his career with more than 2,000 hits, 250 homers and 400 steals — he’ll be a borderline Hall candidate, at least. But together, these pieces have fit perfectly, in the constant high quality of at-bats, and results, in the first three spots in the order.

As Langs notes, the best teammate trios in lineups have usually been separated. Babe Ruth batted third, Lou Gehrig fourth and Tony Lazzeri sixth. On the 1966 Braves, Felipe Alou led off, Henry Aaron hit third and Joe Torre fourth. On the 1976 Reds, Pete Rose led off, while future Hall of Famers Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and Tony Perez batted in the No. 3, 4 and 5 spots. In 1979, teammates Willie Wilson, George Brett and Darrell Porter batted first, third and fourth, respectively, and finished that way in the WAR rankings.

But lineups were mostly constructed with a different philosophy in those days, with managers often choosing to use a lighter-hitting player in the No. 2 spot, in order to bunt or advance runners in some other way. There has been change in the managers’ collective thinking, of course, to a simple mantra of trying to get the best players the most plate appearances over a single season. Hence, Aaron Judge has mostly batted leadoff or second for the Yankees this year. When Roger Maris clubbed 61 homers in 1961, he batted third most of the season, with Mickey Mantle hitting cleanup.

Roberts’ lineup reflects the thinking of this generation. Three great hitters, arranged at the top of the batting order, batting first, second and third — the best 1-2-3 combination this season, and maybe in all seasons.

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