Sports

Do the Dodgers (or any 2022 MLB team) have the best lineup ever? Here’s what it would take

When the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Freddie Freeman this offseason, they sparked a conversation: Do they have the best lineup in recent memory? And maybe … ever?

We decided to dig into what it takes for a lineup to be great. Which 2022 teams — L.A. and perhaps others — fit the description?

As a research tool, we developed a formula that mixes five elements: a superstar one-two punch, depth, versatility, balance and bench strength. The metrics are expressed as three-digit indexes, where 100 is average, 110 is one standard deviation above average, 120 is two standard deviations better than average, and so on.

For each, we enlisted ESPN MLB experts Bradford Doolittle, Alden Gonzalez and David Schoenfield to look at notable teams of the past that excelled there, break down how this year’s Dodgers stack up, and look at other teams that might have a case to make.

So how do the Dodgers — and the rest of this season’s contenders — truly rate?


One-two punch

Lineups are deeper and more balanced than they tended to be in, say, the 1930s, when most of the players in even a good lineup were just trying to get on base for the big RBI guys. That’s why someone like Lou Gehrig could rack up 185 RBIs in a season. Still, while teams strive for top-to-bottom balance, having a couple of elite run producers as the foundation of your attack is still a winning formula in baseball. According to Fangraphs, four times in the past eight seasons the team that led the majors in weighted runs created also featured the majors’ top one-two duo by wRC.

The recent standard: Seven teams since 1973 had a one-two punch with an index of 114. The most fascinating of those seven teams was the 1996 Mariners because their one-two punch did NOT include Ken Griffey Jr., who hit .303 with 49 home runs and 140 RBIs. Yes, he was the third-best hitter on that team. (That Seattle club scored 993 runs, second most of any team of the DH era, and did not even make the playoffs.)

The seven dynamic duos:

1989 Giants: Kevin Mitchell (185 wRC+) and Will Clark (174)

1996 Mariners: Edgar Martinez (163) and Alex Rodriguez (159)

1996 Indians: Jim Thome (163) and Albert Belle (150)

1997 Astros: Jeff Bagwell (163) and Craig Biggio (148)

2000 Giants: Barry Bonds (174) and Jeff Kent (159)

2004 Cardinals: Albert Pujols (171) and Jim Edmonds (168)

2018 Red Sox: Mookie Betts (185) and J.D. Martinez (170)

The best team-wide wRC+ (not including pitcher hitting) of those teams is 121 by the 2000 Giants, which puts them tied for 14th overall since 1973. — Schoenfield

How the 2022 Dodgers stack up: The Dodgers have more than a one-two punch — they have a one-two-three punch, one that could produce similarly to the 1996 Mariners team that Dave mentioned. And they all reside at the top of their lineup, a nod to the way modern offenses are built.

In a traditional sense, the top two spots would be occupied by Mookie Betts and Trea Turner, two men who possess blazing speed, surprising power and elite bat-to-ball skills (only four players accumulated triple-digit home runs and stolen bases from 2016 to 2021 — Jose Ramirez, Trevor Story, Betts and Turner). But for the sake of balance, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts prefers to slot the left-handed-hitting Freddie Freeman in between them. So essentially the Dodgers have three table-setters. And those three combined to hit .284/.382/.496 in 2021 — even though Betts battled a troublesome hip for most of it. — Gonzalez

Other 2022 teams that fit: Angels, Braves, Blue Jays. The Dodgers’ combination of elite production and depth of production is a hard one to match. The Angels, for instance, can go toe-to-toe with anyone when it comes to a one-two offensive punch of Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani. Using Steamer’s projections for offensive runs produced, only two teams project to match the Dodgers in having a top-five individual duo (Betts and Freeman) with a top-five overall attack. Those teams are the Braves (Ronald Acuna Jr. and Matt Olson) and the Blue Jays (Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette). — Doolittle


Lineup depth

Simply put, great lineups don’t have glaring holes. And that’s increasingly true in today’s game where teams almost never designate a player as a regular if he can’t put up some modicum of production at the plate and feature enough power to at least reach double digits in homers, given enough playing time. According to the lineup depth metric we developed for this piece, just 16 of 1,373 teams since the DH came into being put up a depth index of 120 or better. The list of those teams includes historically great units like the 1976 Reds, the 2017 Astros, the 2009 Yankees and the 2003 Red Sox. This season’s Dodgers, on paper, figure to join the club.

The recent standard: Our system for evaluating a team’s best nine hitters ends up with two teams tied for the top spot with an index of 125 — the 2009 Yankees and 2003 Red Sox.

That Yankees team, which won 103 games and the World Series and outscored the average AL team by 134 runs, was remarkably healthy with eight regulars batting more than 500 times (catcher Jorge Posada had 438 plate appearances). Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez were the top two hitters; Derek Jeter hit .334 and Robinson Cano hit .320; and Nick Swisher, Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon each hit at least 24 home runs. Melky Cabrera was the only below-average regular.

The 2003 Red Sox featured nine regulars who all batted 500 times. Manny Ramirez, Trot Nixon, David Ortiz and Bill Mueller each posted an OPS over .900. Mueller won the batting title with a .326 average, Manny was right behind at .325, and Nixon and Nomar Garciaparra also hit .300. Jason Varitek often hit ninth and he hit .285/.351/.512 with 25 home runs. Oddly, the two weakest hitters were Johnny Damon (97 wRC+) and Todd Walker (98 wRC+), who often hit 1-2.

We should mention the 1976 Reds, the top lineup overall via wRC+. They come in right behind the ’09 Yankees and ’03 Red Sox with a rating of 121, with Joe Morgan and George Foster leading the attack. Their top nine hitters were all above average, and if Johnny Bench had had a more typical Bench year, the lineup would rate even better (he hit .234/.348/.394 with 16 home runs). — Schoenfield

How the 2022 Dodgers stack up: Let’s start with Freeman, the man whose presence prompted this exercise. In the words of Clayton Kershaw, “He has to be one of the top 3-4 hitters in the game.” Perhaps that’s an overstatement, but Freeman has finished within the top 25 in the sport in wRC+ after eight of the past nine seasons. During that stretch, from 2013 to 2021, he and Mike Trout were the only qualified hitters with a batting average above .300 and an OPS above .900.

So the Dodgers undoubtedly employ one of the best hitting first basemen (Freeman), shortstops (Turner) and right fielders (Betts) in the majors. But you can also add catcher to that list, with Will Smith boasting an .892 OPS in 221 career games. And Max Muncy, who will make appearances at second and third base but perhaps primarily as the designated hitter, is right behind him with an .890 OPS from 2018 to 2021. Freeman (32), Muncy (31), Betts (29), Turner (28) and Smith (27) are still in prime production ages. One man who isn’t, 37-year-old third baseman Justin Turner, is a .298/.379/.498 hitter over the past eight years. That’s elite production (or close to it) in at least six spots. — Gonzalez

Other 2022 teams that fit: Mets, Blue Jays. According to Steamer’s forecast, the Dodgers are one of five teams who have nine players projected to post a wRC+ of 100 or better, minimum of 300 projected plate appearances. They are the only team to also have eight players at 110 or better, and five at 120 or better.

The next team closest to hitting each of those marks is probably the Mets. New York also has nine forecasts at 100 or better. The Mets have seven at 110 or better but just two at 120 and above. Toronto (four) is the only club other than the Dodgers to have four hitters projected to put up a 120 or better wRC+. — Doolittle


Versatility

Versatility can mean a lot of things, but for the sake of defining what makes a great lineup, let’s consider it to mean a team that can beat you in multiple ways. Statistically, that means performing in all three of the major slash categories (average/on-base/slugging) but also adding to that prowess with the stick by creating value on the basepaths. It’s a combination that is hard to find, especially in these times when one team’s attack seems to look so much like every other team’s attack. These Dodgers truly look like a team that can beat you in every way.

The recent standard: The Big Red Machine was the ultimate beat-you-in-every-way club. The raw numbers, especially the home runs (they hit 141), don’t compare to totals of the steroid era or today’s homer-happy era, but they led the National League in home runs, batting average, stolen bases, walks, doubles, triples and fewest double plays grounded into. In other words, they led in everything. Morgan, Foster and Pete Rose ranked 1-4-5 in OPS; Ken Griffey Sr., Rose and Morgan ranked 2-4-5 in batting average; Morgan and Foster ranked 1-2 in slugging percentage; Morgan ranked second in steals and Griffey seventh. Needless to say, they led in runs, scoring 857 runs in a low offensive environment (the league average was 645, and the Reds themselves raised that average so much that only three teams scored that many runs).

A more recent example would be the 1999 Indians — the only team of the DH era to score 1,000 runs (although it came in a very high offensive context). They somehow ranked just sixth in the AL in home runs despite featuring Manny Ramirez (44), Jim Thome (33) and Richie Sexson (31), but they did hit 209. With Roberto Alomar, Omar Vizquel and Kenny Lofton all hitting better than .300, they led in stolen bases and ranked second in batting average with a .289 team mark. It was kind of an old-school, 1930s lineup, with the fast guys at the top and then the mashers, which is how Ramirez drove in 165 runs that year in just 147 games. — Schoenfield

How the 2022 Dodgers stack up: The word “versatility” itself is versatile, and the Dodgers boast it in every sense. Defensive versatility? Of the 10 players who project to play the most, six of them (Muncy, Betts, Bellinger, Gavin Lux, Trea Turner and Chris Taylor, whom we have somehow neglected to mention up until now) can handle at least three different positions, at least one of which is up the middle. That, in turn, gives the Dodgers more opportunities to place their best hitters in the lineup when the inevitability of injury occurs.

Offensive versatility? Betts, Bellinger and Trea Turner boast speed/power combinations that are rivaled by very few throughout the sport, while guys like Freeman, Muncy and Justin Turner can slug with the best of them but also bring elite bat-to-ball skills. That’s what makes this Dodgers lineup so devastating. It’s not just the names and the track records — it’s that so many of them are interchangeable, both on the field and in the batting order. — Gonzalez

Other 2022 teams that fit: Braves, Blue Jays. Rolling up Steamer’s current individual player projections, you find that the Dodgers project to rank in the top three across the majors in each of the three slash stats, but also in baserunning, or at least according to Fangraphs BsR metric, which Steamer projects. It’s a combination no other club can quite match on paper. But there are two other teams that land in the top 10 across the board: Atlanta and Toronto. — Doolittle


Righty-lefty balance

There are two ways to look at this: (1) You want a mix of left- and right-handed batters (or switch-hitters) to create balance throughout the lineup — especially in today’s game where you want to make it as difficult as possible for the opposing team to match up its bullpen; or (2) you just want a lineup that is good against both lefties and righties, regardless of the lineup composition.

In looking at the latter, 22 of the 32 best lineups since 1973 — a wRC+ of 120 or higher — had an index of 100 or higher, meaning they hit lefties and righties reasonably equally. But you can still have a great lineup by mashing one side more than the other. The 2007 Yankees, for example, had a 125 wRC+ with a balance index of 93 as their OPS against right-handers was 55 points higher than against lefties.

The recent standard: Those ’76 Reds featured Morgan, Griffey, Cesar Geronimo and Dan Driessen from the left side; Foster, Bench, Tony Perez and Dave Concepcion from the right side; plus the switch-hitting Rose. Perfect balance. They were also equally effective against both sides with a .782 OPS versus righties and .778 versus lefties.

But two recent examples of great lineups didn’t have righty-lefty balance. The 2015 Blue Jays (127 wRC+) featured Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista, all right-handed batters. Their next three best hitters were part-timers Chris Colabello and Devon Travis, plus catcher Russell Martin. Their top non-righty hitter was switch-hitter Justin Smoak, who hit .229/.299/.470. On the other hand … maybe that’s why they lost to the Royals in the ALCS as Kansas City had all those right-handed relievers.

The 2017 Astros also had 127 wRC+ despite a righty-heavy lineup with Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel (switch-hitter Marwin Gonzalez actually led the team in RBIs, making him a great trivia question). The Astros had great production balance, however, with an OPS 13 points higher against right-handed pitching. — Schoenfield

How the 2022 Dodgers stack up: If the Dodgers bat Freeman in the No. 2 spot, they have a chance to start: righty (Betts), lefty (Freeman), righty (Trea Turner), lefty (Muncy), righty (Justin Turner). Smith, another right-handed hitter, would probably follow in the order. But the next three spots will have at least one left-handed hitter — Cody Bellinger, the 2019 National League MVP — and could often have two if Lux performs the way the Dodgers believe he will. So, basically: right-left-right-left-right-right-left-right-left. It’s not a cheat code in Mortal Kombat; it’s a snapshot of pristine balance — the type that will make it practically impossible to match up with late in games, especially with relievers now forced to face a minimum of three batters. Here’s the kicker: Aside from Bellinger, who has famously struggled against lefties in recent years, and Lux, whose major league sample size is still relatively small, nobody else necessarily has drastic splits in that Dodgers lineup. — Gonzalez

Other 2022 teams that fit: Braves, Yankees and Blue Jays. While the spread between teams in projected balance against both lefty and righty pitching isn’t that large, you do find that the best on-paper offenses tend to feature this trait.

Using Steamer’s projections to derive projected WOBA against both flavors of pitching, we find that the Dodgers currently figure to be within about three points of their overall WOBA figure against both lefties and righties. This is more an observation than a value judgment, as that kind of balance isn’t a prerequisite for posting elite production. (Nor is it a guarantee against not stinking.) However, only three teams join the Dodgers in featuring a projected WOBA of .340 or better with that degree of balance. Those teams are the Braves, Yankees and Blue Jays. — Doolittle


Bench strength

On one hand, you might wonder if NL benches will become marginally less important because of the coming nosedive in pinch-hitting appearances as a consequence of the expansion of the DH rule. But then you see that teams are asking for less from players than ever before, preferring to get peak performance from better-rested athletes over lighter workloads. And it’s not just pitchers. Last season, just 59 big league hitters had at least 600 plate appearances. That’s the lowest total since baseball expanded to 30 teams for the 1998 season, when there were 102 such hitters. Over the past five full seasons, the number has declined annually, from 88 to 77 to 72 to 70 to last season’s 59. You need more good hitters because the true every-day player has become increasingly rare.

The recent standard: We just mentioned the 2017 Astros. The team had 10 position players contribute at least 0.3 WAR. Two years later they were back in the World Series — with 17 players contributing at least 0.3 WAR. Only one player played 150 games, and their depth allowed them to overcome injuries to Carlos Correa (75 games), George Springer (122 games) and Jose Altuve (124 games) and still produce a 122 wRC+.

An extreme example of bench strength would be the 1986 Mets, a team with no lineup stars (defined as wOBA index of 120 or better) but which had 17 offensive contributors and a wRC+ of 121. In addition to the big names like Darryl Strawberry, Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter, the Mets had five bench players produce an OPS+ of 115 or higher (Mookie Wilson, Kevin Mitchell, Howard Johnson, Danny Heep and Lee Mazzilli). — Schoenfield

How the 2022 Dodgers stack up: At full health, the Dodgers, on most nights, figure to have either Bellinger, Lux, Taylor or A.J. Pollock on the bench. Needless to say all four of them are no-doubt every-day players on most other teams. (Pollock, who might draw the short straw more often than most, has batted .290/.342/.547 in 172 games over the past two years.)

The Dodgers’ backup catcher, Austin Barnes, is one of the best in the game. Their utility infielder, Hanser Alberto, puts the ball in play a lot and has hit for a .292 batting average over the past three years. The last bench spot might go to left-handed-hitting corner infielder Edwin Rios, who had a .972 OPS in 139 plate appearances from 2019 to 2020 but had his 2021 season shortened by a torn labrum in his right shoulder.

The Dodgers were hampered early last year by a young, unproductive bench, but it doesn’t seem as if that will be the case this year. — Gonzalez

Other 2022 teams that fit: Twins, Phillies, Mariners and Cardinals. Without going too far into the weeds, we can employ Steamer one last time. Just seven teams have 10 players projected to produce a wRC+ of 100 or better with at least 100 plate appearances. And, yes, the Dodgers are one of them. Four of those teams also project to finish in the top half of the majors in overall offensive production: Minnesota, Philadelphia, Seattle and St. Louis. The Mariners don’t have anybody at the top end of the scale (130 wRC+ or better), but they lead the way with 11 hitters forecasted to at least rate league average (100 wRC+). — Doolittle


What it all means for the 2022 Dodgers

There is one key difference between the 2022 Dodgers and the historically great lineups we’ve mentioned: Those other teams have already done it, while L.A.’s numbers are based on projections.

Forecasts represent a baseline of expectation, yet often don’t translate into reality, for a thousand reasons. The Dodgers could be hit with a spate of injuries too extreme for even their elite depth to cover. They could have key players hit inexplicable slumps, which they saw with Cody Bellinger just last season. They could be unlucky.

All a team can do is build itself with talent and depth, and build that expectation baseline as strong as it can. Right now, the Dodgers look like a club worthy of carrying the highest of expectations. Starting next week, they’ll get a chance to translate elite projection into elite production. –– Doolittle

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