An even better Ohtani? Dodgers lineup may make it happen

February 16th, 2024

should get a little more protection in the Dodgers lineup this season than he’s had in the past, which is a scary proposition for opposing pitchers. After all, he did just hit 44 homers and win his second American League MVP Award. The Dodgers' lineup is deeper than the Angels' lineup. There are going to be more superstars to navigate and less room to avoid them. This isn’t all that complicated.

What’s key here, though, is that we don’t mean lineup protection in the way it's traditionally been used, that having a better hitter behind you gets you better pitches to hit. That never really made a ton of sense – if the point is to avoid letting that good hitter behind you hit with a runner on, why make it more likely to put that first runner on via walk? – and many studies have debunked it as likely either a myth or so small an effect as to be unreliable anyway.

So when we talk about protection, we're not talking about the hitters behind Ohtani, likely to be catcher Will Smith or outfielder Teoscar Hernández. We’re talking about the hitters in front of him, or the ones most likely to be doing any protecting.

That means we’re talking about Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman, who seem like they will be atop the Dodgers lineup with Ohtani likely to hit third. If they are, Ohtani is going to enjoy the great fortune of just a ton of plate appearances with a runner on base; looking at 2024 ZiPS projections, Betts (fifth) and Freeman (sixth) are expected to be two of the truly elite on-base hitters in the game, which tracks with their reputations.

To see why this matters, look at the last two seasons Ohtani played with the Angels, when he bounced around the top three spots in the batting order and had more than 20 teammates batting behind him at various points.

Three of them did so more than 200 times: Taylor Ward, Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon. Look at how Ohtani performed in front of each of them. It's not what you'd expect.

When Ohtani was in front of ...

  • Ward // 235 PA // Ohtani .394 wOBA and 73% in-zone rate
  • Trout // 233 PA // Ohtani .382 wOBA and 67% in-zone rate
  • Rendon // 215 PA // Ohtani .350 wOBA and 71 % in-zone rate

Ohtani performed about the same with either of Ward (an up-and-down player who had a nice 2022 before a down 2023) or Trout (the greatest player of his generation) behind him – and actually saw fewer strikes with Trout behind him. He did hit worse with the declining Rendon behind him, but with more strikes. Pitchers were less likely to challenge Ohtani with Trout protecting him, not more, as compared to the far less established Ward, which goes against the common theory.

It’s not that there’s never any effect – Ronald Acuña Jr. saw more strikes with Dansby Swanson behind him than he did with Matt Olson, for example – but it’s not exactly consistent, either.

(Here's a good example: Who is a more dangerous Houston hitter, Yordan Alvarez or Kyle Tucker? They’re both excellent, yet most would say Alvarez. Even so, Alex Bregman saw far fewer strikes with Alvarez behind him than Tucker from 2022-23. Pete Alonso saw more strikes when Jeff McNeil was behind him than when the lesser Dan Vogelbach was, but he performed much better overall with Vogelbach behind him.)

If we’re looking for an effect that actually benefits Ohtani, it’s probably this one.

With bases empty, 2022-23

  • .276/.354/.534
  • .888 OPS 146 OPS+

With runners on, 2022-23

  • .303/.419/.648
  • 1.067 OPS 179 OPS+

That's the one. That's a huge difference, and all of a sudden, he's going to a lineup that may have two truly elite hitters in front of him.

Not that this is exactly unique to Ohtani; across the Majors, hitters had a better OPS with runners on (.753) as compared to bases empty, (.720). That's likely a combination of A) the added difficulty of holding the runner on and B) the lesser quality of a pitcher allowing runners on base in the first place.

But over those two years, Ohtani hit with runners on just over 40% of the time, which was tied for 256th of the 318 hitters to take 500 plate appearances. Meanwhile, the average Major Leaguer got to do so 43% of the time.

Among all of those Major Leaguers, all 318 of those regular players, only one player got to hit with a runner on base more than 51% of the time .. and that would be Smith, the former Los Angeles No. 3 hitter, who had the good fortune of hitting behind Betts (who led off 151 times in 2023) and Freeman (who hit second 161 times), as well as some Trea Turner in 2022. That's what Ohtani gets to look forward to in 2024.

In 2023, the No. 3 spot for Los Angeles hit with a runner on 53% of the time – the most of any team in the game. Did that help? It sure didn’t hurt. Dodgers hitters in the three-spot saw their OPS jump by nearly 90 points when runners were on base. (Again, that speaks a little to pitcher quality as well, since any pitcher who managed to retire both Betts and Freeman is likely to be harder to face in the first place.)

Dodgers No. 3 batters

With bases empty, 2023

  • .225/.320/.404
  • .724 OPS, 101 OPS+

With runners on, 2023

  • .263/.344/.466
  • .810 OPS, 118 OPS+

Now, imagine that most or all of those appearances will go to the elite Ohtani instead of Smith, who is a good hitter but certainly is not Ohtani. You can see what makes the top of this lineup so exciting – not to mention the secondary benefits of Smith, a 2023 All-Star, hitting in the middle third.

There’s an interesting strategic component to this as well, which is whether having those runners on base all the time will cause Ohtani to defer to the possibility of Betts and Freeman trying to steal – to, perhaps, the team’s detriment. While Betts is more of an average than elite speedster these days, Freeman is an excellent baserunner who stole a career-high 23 bases. You could see Ohtani potentially watching a pitch or two go by if he wanted to give his teammates an opportunity to run.

But that might not be such a good idea, either. We saw this to some extent last year in Atlanta, where Acuña was such a prolific base stealer that Matt Olson, who spent much of the first half hitting behind him, often let hittable early-count in-zone fastballs go by. Before two strikes, with Acuña on first base and second base open, Olson would swing at 59% of in-zone fastballs. With first base open, Olson swung at 68% of those pitches, and those are incredibly valuable pitches – Olson mashed in-zone fastballs before two strikes at a .456/.465/1.088 clip, adding far more value than any stolen base would. In June, he was moved down to fourth, and then had the best four months of his season.

“That [lineup] protection point is going to be fascinating to watch and see how it plays out and how much effect it has or doesn’t have,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman told the New York Post earlier this month.

“The best lineup protection is when Billy Hamilton is on base in front of me,” Joey Votto said a decade ago, “and it’s not about protection, it’s that I get a more predictable pitch to hit — fastball.”

It’s a different game since then, because fastball usage has declined and Ohtani didn’t really see much fastball difference with runners on or not last year. But it probably won’t matter very much to Ohtani whether it’s Smith, Hernández or Max Muncy hitting behind him. It might matter a lot more that Betts and Freeman are likely to hit ahead of him and likely to get on base at a strong rate while doing so.

Just what the rest of the National League needs, really: another way for Ohtani to gain an advantage.