Betts, Freeman threatening records atop LA's lineup

2023 Dodgers are tied for best 1-2 performance in AL/NL history

August 15th, 2023

That the Dodgers are having a successful year – first place, on pace for 98 wins, highly likely to gain one of the NL’s two first-round byes and still with a possibility of catching Atlanta for the best record in baseball – is hardly news. They have the most wins in baseball over the last decade, when this current run of excellence began, and second place isn’t really close. By multiple looks, their recent regular-season performance is something unlike anyone alive has ever seen.

Instead, what’s notable is that this particular group of Dodgers is faring so well, because the 2023 team just finally seemed vulnerable, given an uninspiring offseason that saw more notable departures than arrivals and a spring that got off to a bad start when Gavin Lux injured his knee – in addition to all the moves the flashy, win-now Padres made. Prediction after prediction boldly stated: This is the year. This is when the Dodgers finally run into trouble.

It was, as it turns out, not the year. "This is my favorite team I've ever had," manager Dave Roberts told USA Today.

The Dodgers are all but certain to win their 10th division title in 11 years (remembering, of course, that they won 106 games the one year they came in second), but unlike many of those previous seasons, where they’ve worn down opponents with their never-ending depth, this year looks a little different. This year, it’s because of the stars, more than anything. It’s because of , and because of .

It’s because the top of the Dodger lineup isn’t just the best in baseball, though it is that. It’s because the top of the Dodger lineup is carrying a larger share of the load than just about any top-two duo in recent history. (While that’s overwhelmingly Betts and Freeman, it’s not entirely so; 13 other Dodgers have taken at least one plate appearance there, mostly via scattered late-game entries.)

Betts has a .968 OPS with 31 homers. He’s fourth in the Majors in Wins Above Replacement. Freeman has a 1.005 OPS, the best full-season mark of a career that's on a Hall of Fame trajectory. He’s second in the Majors in WAR, with a growing case to claim the NL MVP that for so long seemed safely in Ronald Acuña Jr.’s trophy case.

How good are the top two spots in the lineup here, compared to the rest of the lineup? This might make it a little clearer.

Based on OPS, they’re 183 points better than the other 29 teams in the leadoff spot. They’re 233 points of OPS better than the other clubs at the No. 2 spot.

They’re all of 20 points above average in spots three through nine combined, though some of that looks worse than it is thanks to a worst-in-baseball performance from the No. 9 hitters, primarily Miguel Rojas and Austin Barnes. (This year’s Dodger No. 9 hitters have combined for a .524 OPS. In 2021, the final year where pitchers still hit in the National League, Dodger No. 9 hitters combined for a .463 OPS. It’s not that different.)

So Betts and Freeman are doing far better than any other 1-2 atop the lineup. They’re doing far better than the rest of their lineup, with no disrespect intended to Will Smith and J.D. Martinez, who are each having strong years. But maybe we’re limiting ourselves by looking just at this year. What if we go back through history?

How strong are the top 2?

One way to answer that is just to look at the gap between the production from those two spots and the rest of the lineup, which, for the Dodgers, is 230 points of OPS between the .970 at 1-2 and the .740 from everywhere else.

It is, at the moment, the largest gap between top two and everything else in the history of AL/NL baseball, by quite a bit.

Largest OPS gaps between top two lineup spots and rest, AL/NL history

  • 230 points // 2023 Dodgers  (.970 vs .740)
  • 194 points // 2022 Angels (.835 vs .641)
  • 182 points // 1973 Reds (.853 vs .671)
  • 177 points // 2022 Yankees (.886 vs .709)
  • 175 points // 1932 Pirates (.860 vs .685)

It’s probably not stunning to see tremendous recent years of Aaron Judge and Shohei Ohtani on this list, and the ‘73 Reds had two of the top four MVP finishers in Pete Rose and Joe Morgan. You may not remember the 1932 Pirates, but they had a pair of Hall of Fame brothers at the top in Lloyd “Little Poison” Waner and Paul “Big Poison” Waner.

If you’re surprised that three such recent teams are here, it's probably not a coincidence, given that teams have increasingly changed the No. 2 spot in their order from “strong contact hitter who can get the runner over” into “one of their two best hitters.” Freeman himself hit third for large chunks of his Atlanta career, actually.

Looking at the top 25 largest gaps, a full 12 – nearly half – have come since just 2018. In fact, if you just look at the Major Leagues combined, this year’s 1-2 OPS is the fourth-highest ever, while spots 3-6 are 93rd, and 7-9, excluding pitchers, are 49th. Teams seem to be doing a better job of letting the better hitters hit more.

Which, conveniently, leads us to this notable list, which simply shows that the top two spots in the Dodger order are hitting better than any top two spots for any team, ever. (At least among full seasons; we're excluding the partial-season 2020 Yankees here.)

Best OPS+ from top two lineup spots, AL/NL history

  • 150 // Dodgers, 2023
  • 150 // Reds, 1976
  • 148 // Reds, 1969
  • 145 // Reds, 1972
  • 145 // Reds, 1968
  • 145 // Yankees, 1985

Let's pause for a moment to acknowledge what that list is currently saying -- "various iterations of the Big Red Machine and also the year that Don Mattingly and Rickey Henderson both finished top 3 in the AL MVP voting, and now, decades later, potentially also Betts and Freeman" -- and realize exactly what we're seeing here. Two all but certain Hall of Famers, at or near their prime, together, at the same time.

It’s not that three through nine for the Dodgers are poor, to be clear, as they’re a solid enough seventh, all of which has helped the club score the third-most runs in baseball. The up-and-down pitching staff is approximately average, in terms of runs allowed per game. It’s not only Betts and Freeman who are fueling this run; the team did have five All-Stars, after all.

But in a baseball world where depth is viewed as increasingly vital, it’s the pair of superstars here who are all but forcing the team to perhaps its most surprising great season of the decade-plus run it's still on.

“To have those two guys as locked in as they have been for such a long time, I haven’t seen it,” said Roberts, as reported by The Athletic, earlier this month. “I don’t think I’ve seen it from any duo in recent memory.”

He hasn’t, because he couldn’t. No pair of hitters have carried the lineup in the way Betts and Freeman have, not quite like this.