Say this about the Dodgers over the past decade or so- even though they’ve always had the decency to get eliminated anywhere from fairly early on to VERY early on, they nevertheless find new, creative, and increasingly painful ways to break the spirits of their fanbase. Late inning meltdowns, close plays that don’t break their way- and yes, questionable managerial decisions that come back to haunt them later. But this? A guy stealing third base on a WALK?! That’s a new one.
It’s a shame that all of the great Dodger narratives from 2015 will now be largely overlooked, if not completely buried- Justin Turner’s revenge against his former team in the NLDS, the greatest 1-2 punch in a starting rotation since Koufax and Drysdale, the emergence of a potential superstar shortstop for years to come- even the historic nature of Chase Utley’s slide will be far less impactful than originally thought, outside of some possible rule changes/enforcements to come. It’s hard to imagine there will be even the slightest bit of, “Aw shucks, at least we made it,” sentiment after this season’s end, especially seeing how surprisingly joyless the fanbase generally seemed much of the time, even though the team itself was pretty successful.
There will be two narratives that probably WILL survive the 2015 season- one of them complete nonsense, the other debatable. First, the idea that the Dodgers “should” win because of their gaudy $300+ million payroll was ridiculous. Outside of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, most of that money was going to solid but overpaid, aging veterans (Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford), pitchers that ultimately did not justify their value (Brandon McCarthy and, to a lesser extent, Brett Anderson), guys that weren’t on the team anymore (Matt Kemp, Dan Haren), or even guys that were NEVER on the team to begin with (Bronson Arroyo)! However you may feel about these transactions, the fact that all this money was being doled out shouldn’t make ANYONE feel more entitled to Dodger wins, than if that money was being spent on you and me. From the beginning, the 2015 Dodgers were a good team, but they were NOT a superteam.
The second narrative has to do with how the Dodgers scored their runs throughout 2015- relying on the home run, while disregarding aggressive but smart base running. They did improve on the base running later in the year, with the addition of Ron Roenicke as third base coach, and Chase Utley as backup second baseman. But ultimately, this team did not know how to play “smallball” very well, even with those late season improvements. A lot of people dismissed this theory, but it’s exactly what played out in the NLDS. Against the Mets’ young power arms, they could not hit the ball over the fences (with the exception of game 3, and only after they were already being blown out), and ultimately ended up stranding A LOT of baserunners.
But don’t forget to give credit to the Mets, too. They had deeper starting pitching, and as hot as Justin Turner was, Daniel Murphy was hotter. Almost symbolically, Turner’s shocking steal of third base was one-upped by Daniel Murphy’s steal of third on a WALK, a play that will go down in Mets lore and Dodgers infamy for years to come. The Dodgers’ fate was then sealed when Murphy hit the go-ahead home run (of course he did) in his next at-bat, against Zack Greinke. Although the game still had a long way to go at that point, it sure didn’t feel that way.
And speaking of fate, what of Don Mattingly’s? Right now, it doesn’t look good for him. Is he willing to be a so-called “lame duck” manager in 2016, something he was unwilling to do a couple of years back? He’d better be, because he sure as heck isn’t getting an extension. And even if he IS willing to be a lame duck, would Andrew Friedman’s crew be willing to allow it? DodgersFYI discredited game 1 rant notwithstanding, nothing Mattingly did was particularly egregious this series, even though the endless second guessing will only be amplified at this point. (Until I heard analysts and talking heads criticizing him for taking Kershaw out of game 3 on short rest after a WIN, I assumed unhinged criticism of Mattingly was limited to Dodger fans.) However, the perception of Mattingly as someone who has strategic shortcomings seems to be justified at times. Even if the front office admires Mattingly as a person and former playing great, it’s not hard to imagine that they are looking to install a boss on-the-field, who is more like-minded to the bosses off-the-field.
But what of the minds of these front office guys? They made a lot of moves and spent a lot of money, ultimately resulting in several less wins in the regular season, and one only more in the postseason, than the squad that Ned Colletti put together one season earlier. They gave up a young, rising star in Dee Gordon, and traded a sometimes disgruntled franchise player in Matt Kemp to a team within their own division. It worked out for 2015, as Howie Kendrick was solid as always, Kiké Hernandez was a surprisingly good player, and Yasmani Grandal was the best hitting catcher during the 1st half of the season. But none of that matters now, as the team is going home early, again. These trades will be judged in what happens in the years to come.
Already etched in stone is the pitching situation. Brandon McCarthy was hurt early on, as he has been throughout his career (although this was a new injury), and Brett Anderson, in spite of some good stretches during the season, was nothing special overall- not for the amount of money the Dodgers spent on him, while still paying Dan Haren to pitch elsewhere. There was some high praise for these moves early on from the analytics crowd, but in the end, left the Dodgers with a shallow rotation.
You’ll have to forgive this post for being so grim, but as it’s being written, this is not exactly a time to reflect on the positive. Big changes are coming, and if the people that Guggenheim hired to make those changes do their jobs right, the team will be better for this in the long run. And the foundation isn’t all that bad, with Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Corey Seager and a few others to build around. Most important of all, though, they better figure out a way to make sure that the rest of Los Angeles actually gets to WATCH this team after these changes are made- hopefully, with a fully recovered Vin Scully at the mic, to let us know about it all as it happens.
Until next season…
After Yoenis Cespedes’s fluky, swinging bunt single to lead off the 7th inning, it really did feel like we were watching a rerun. Not only had everything played out uncannily similar to last year’s NLDS to that point, but the stage was set for that to continue beyond, with Clayton Kershaw, pitching masterfully on three days rest (again), looking like he was about to get into some unlucky trouble (again). Even more uncanny was the fact that Lucas Duda, a power hitting lefty who normally can’t hit lefties all that well, was just 2 batters away, exactly as Matt Adams had been the year before. But this was a different year, and the Dodgers were facing a different team. The next batter, Travis d’Arnaud, fouled out to first base, and that alone gave a feeling that Kershaw, as well as the rest of the Dodgers, might have different luck this year. At least for one night, that proved to be the case.
It wasn’t easy from that point forward, which made it all seem that much better when it was over. Duda would hit the ball pretty well to centerfield, but it was tracked down by Kiké Hernandez. Wilmer Flores, Met fans’ hero-in-waiting, crushed the ball down the line, as Justin Turner, the hero-in-action, snared it and threw to first, for an easy out. (As if the Mets needed ANOTHER reminder on “The One That Got Away”, Turner also hit what would be the deciding blow, a two run double, in the third inning.) And even Don Mattingly, the manager who can do no right, even when he does, would be able to live for another day or two, as all his pitching moves worked out perfectly.
But this night wasn’t about Don Mattingly or Justin Turner. It was about Clayton Kershaw, saving the Dodgers season and quieting the critics, if not silencing them completely. The fact of the matter is, as Ron Darling pointed out on the TBS broadcast, much of Kershaw’s postseason “implosions” were due to bad luck. Even in game 1 this year, when he walked 3 batters in the fateful 7th inning, most of the pitches were pretty close. Baseball, more than any other sport, has a random quality to it that can almost be cruel at times. While Matt Carpenter and Matt Adams delivered the knockout blows squarely on Kershaw last year, everything up until both of those points were ground balls and soft line drives. It still amazes me that of those five singles prior to Carpenter’s epic (and for Dodger fans, TRAGIC) at bat, not ONE of them could find a fielder’s glove. This time, fate would be a little bit more kind to Kershaw, in no small part because Kershaw himself was incredible.
Now, For The Other Ace
The difference between Game 4 being “a nice little story” versus “one for the ages” for Kershaw, now lies with Zack Greinke. Facing Jacob DeGrom, a man who the Dodgers have done absolutely NOTHING AGAINST EVER, Greinke will probably have to be every bit as good as Kershaw was on Tuesday night, and perhaps a little bit better. Chris Hatcher and Kenley Jansen will probably be relied upon again, at least if everything goes according to plan. There are eight guys in the lineup, so there’s no point in singling any one of them out for a breakout performance. And while I hope this next sentence serves as a jinx, don’t expect Corey Seager to suddenly stop looking like a rookie, against one of the best pitchers in the game. But no matter what happens, at least we know that this season will not end like 2014. Hopefully for the Dodgers at this time next week, it will not have ended at all.
No one who is familiar with Chase Utley should be all that surprised at what he did in the seventh inning of game 2 at Dodger Stadium, because he has been doing that sort of thing throughout his career. In the current climate of outrage, that is probably seen as an insult, but it is actually anything but. It is almost a rite of passage for older generations to complain about younger generations being too soft, too pampered, and too rich to really care about anything. Chase Utley, while not exactly a young man at this point, is still young enough to play professional sports, but old enough that he no longer has to prove anything to anyone. And yet, here he was, with the season on the line for the Dodgers, doing what it took to keep them alive this October, regardless of his OWN safety. Lost in all the outrage over the unfortunate injury to Ruben Tejada was the fact the Utley sacrificed HIMSELF in the process, as well.
There is no sugarcoating here about what Chase Utley did. His slide was definitely late, and by his own admission, was designed solely to prevent Tejada of making the throw to first base, to double up Howie Kendrick. But it also needs to be said that part of the reason WHY Tejada got hurt was because he pivoted away from the baserunner, putting himself in a VERY awkward position to try making a throw to first. Colliding with Utley in the air, Tejada crumpled to the ground and broke his leg. It was an ugly sight, but like Buster Posey before him, the injury had as much to do with awkward positioning of the guy who got hurt, as it did with the collision itself. However, outside of Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and the traditional old-guard baseball community, most people do not see it that way. To them, Chase Utley is the villian.
Having Their Cake And Eating It Too
Ruben Tejada getting hurt was unfortunate, and Met fans and players are understandably furious. The New York media is going to have a field day with this. The Dodgers should be prepared for retribution. Surely, many will cheer if/when it happens- not just Met fans- which is another thing to think about. If Utley’s ultra-aggressive baserunning is so deplorable because it led to an UNINTENTIONAL injury, why in the world would it be a GOOD thing to cause an INTENTIONAL one? If the answer is, “Because Utley started it,” then what if retribution will be on someone besides him? (It probably will be, seeing how Utley barely even plays now.) Would it be okay, just because the guy was wearing a Dodger uniform? How is that any more acceptable in a civilized society than what Utley did?
Moral posturing in everyday civilization is hard enough, let alone in professional sports. In one clip of many we see in modern day America, sadly, wondering “what’s wrong with baseball these days”, Keith Olbermann laments the lack of “menace” in today’s game. He made some good points about things that have been lost along the way, in well-intended but misguided efforts to make baseball safer. He states, with sincerity, that he does not advocate violence, yet also looks back wistfully at a Cubs-Mets game, where players DID get hurt in a game of beanball, while no one complained about it, nor demanded rule changes. And this points to where we are today. In our American sports, and probably sports throughout the world, we demand hard fouls, brushback pitches, and vicious tackles. When our team is losing and not doing these sorts of things, we scream that they are “soft” and have no heart. But then, on the occasion something DOES go wrong, we demand rule changes, and tsk-tsk at this sort of brutish behavior. So which one is it? Because on some level, sports IS sort of brutish- sometimes VERY brutish- as professional athletes have been trained throughout their lives to do what it takes to defeat their competition.
As for what happened to Ruben Tejada, perhaps something should be done on SOME level, but what, exactly? Are we really going to start calling automatic double plays whenever a baserunner takes a hard slide into a fielder? How exactly do we define hard slides? We saw what happened when “The Buster Posey Rule” was first implemented, ironically to PROTECT catchers, yet ultimately resulted in awarding runs for players that were nowhere NEAR home plate when the ball arrived in the catcher’s mitt. Rules that create safety often diminish competition. (Think about the frequency that pass interference has been called in the NFL during recent years.) Major League Baseball will need to think hard about this, before coming up with yet ANOTHER rule that could further diminish its “menace”.
What Else Happened In The Game?
Too bad there’s so much focus on one play, because so much else went on during Saturday night’s exciting Dodger victory. Adrian Gonzalez looked like an amateur against Mets’ flamethrower Noah Syndergaard for three at bats, then delivered the go-ahead, two out double in the seventh inning. Howie Kendrick, Kiké Hernandez and Chris Hatcher yet again served as a reminder that life after Dee Gordon might not be so bad, after all, while Justin Turner served as a reminder to the Mets on what they missed out on. For the second night in a row, Corey Seager looked like a rookie at the plate, but made a catch in the field that would make one think otherwise. (Sort of a role reversal of what we were expecting.) Zack Greinke pitched well, in spite of allowing two home runs, but he truly missed out on what could have been the signature moment of the evening. After Terry Collins elected to intentionally walk the #8 hitter AGAIN, after almost getting burned by Kershaw in game one, he stuck to the same strategy. And once again, he almost got burned. ALMOST. AGAIN. Greinke crushed a ball into the gap, but it hung up just long enough to be caught in right field. Too bad, but at least in THIS game, it didn’t matter much in the end, thanks to that 7th inning rally.
Finally- and BLISSFULLY- there is nothing to discuss about Don Mattingly’s managerial decisions. Oh, what the heck, we’ll do it anyway, but just for a few sentences. Everything he did was nearly spot on, as evidenced by the result. But pinch hitting for Andre Ethier with a three run lead, especially given Ethier’s RBI double early on, seemed excessive. But at least nearly everyone got in the game. Even Puig was brought in at the end, to a nice ovation.
Brett Anderson versus Matt Harvey is a mismatch on paper, but regardless of the outcome, there will be a game 4. The first two games of this series were eerily similar to the first two of last year. Hopefully, the script flips from this point forward, although Dodger fans need to temper their expectations for game 3. At the very least, the vibe from Dodger Stadium after this year’s game 2 versus last year’s was much more positive. Hopefully, that will continue, as the team plays in a place that was built to look like Ebbets Field. If that isn’t good karma, I don’t know what is!
This is the kind of thing that can give those who blog from their mothers’ basements a bad name. Watching the game on television, all I saw was a manager taking out one of the best pitchers in baseball, at the most critical point in the game, without so much as a consultation. It turns out there was a reason for that- this particular pitcher was done. Finished. He had nothing left in the tank, so there was nothing left to discuss. If anything, a prolonged conversation might make things worse. Either the pitcher would have to act tough, and talk his way into a game that he had no business continuing in, or the manager would have been forced to look like he was not respecting his pitcher’s input. Either way, Don Mattingly did the right thing, in spite of popular opinion, which is completely consistent with the way he has led his team from day one.
Make no mistake, though- his job is still very much on the line, and he will be judged by some very difficult standards, particularly with his team losing the first game of yet another playoff series.
NLDS Game 1 Recap- Faced With A Tough Situation But An Easy Choice, Don Mattingly Makes The Wrong One
“Anyone with that pedigree earns the right to pitch out of their own jams, with very rare exceptions.” -DodgersFYI, October 8th, 2015
If I could have seen into the future about 36 hours after typing that sentence, I would have continued with, “…and bases loaded, down by one, with two outs in the 7th inning, isn’t one of them.” If the Dodgers don’t make it out of the 2015 NLDS, Friday night’s removal of Clayton Kershaw may go down as one of the most infamous managerial blunders in LA Dodger history, one which will deprive Don Mattingly the chance to make any more. (Or at the very least, not beyond next week.) He also invalidated my entire last DodgersFYI post, although that is the least of my worries here, let alone his.
Giving Credit Where It’s Due
It’s not really the job of a Dodger blogger to give credit to the opposing pitcher, but let’s face it- Jacob DeGrom was awesome. Corey Seager picked a really bad time to finally look like a rookie, and if Adrian Gonzalez’s first three at bats were the first three at bats you ever saw from him, you would never believe what a great clutch hitter he has been throughout his career. Carl Crawford? Well…we’ll always have the 2013 NLDS. But that should be attributed more towards DeGrom’s outstanding performance, than the Dodger hitters’ futility. The one chance that the Dodgers really had to mount a threat (I’m not counting anything after Wright’s hit, because it FELT LIKE the game was over at that point) was when Clayton Kershaw himself crushed a ball to centerfield with two runners on, but Yoenis Cespedes did a great job of tracking it down for the final out of the inning. (If only he’d hit it to Michael Cuddyer, instead.)
The Rest Of The Story
But none of that is really going to be remembered much, because many ongoing Dodger narratives converged in the top of the 7th inning. Trailing 1-0, Clayton Kershaw loaded the bases on 3 walks, but also managed to get two outs in between. He was clearly laboring and did throw 113 pitches. But he had also struck out 11 and only allowed 4 hits. And, most important of all, HE IS CLAYTON KERSHAW. With all that going on, Don Mattingly did not even give Kershaw the courtesy of pleading his case to stay on the mound. Signaling for the bullpen before looking Kershaw in the eye, the 50,000+ at Dodger Stadium let out a shocked, angry roar. Pedro Baez came in, and the outcome was all too predictable. Quite honestly, as David Wright delivered the dagger with a line drive, 2 run single to centerfield, the whole thing felt like a rerun. A really, really old rerun.
Before continuing on with just how disastrous Don Mattingly’s decision actually was, it’s worth noting that those who feel vindicated for lambasting him for LAST year’s NLDS have it completely backwards. The idea that removing Kershaw was “obvious” during last year’s game 1, after allowing 5 mostly groundball singles, as though 3 walks is somehow less of an offense, is revisionist history, to say the least. It’s even more absurd when you consider that Kershaw was working with a 2 run lead prior to facing Matt Carpenter, and had struck out the previous batter on THREE PITCHES. If you want to know how you would have felt had Kershaw been removed at THAT point, just see how you feel tonight, and multiply it by 2. Also, keep in mind that many claimed it was even MORE obvious that Kershaw should have been taken out in the 7th inning of game 4, after giving up two singles. Two fairly weak singles are greater evidence of a pitcher getting tired, than three walks in one inning? Anyone with that philosophy would make quite an unconventional pitching coach.
But inconsistent rants from angry fans with hindsight and soothsaying analysts do not BEGIN to justify what Don Mattingly did to Clayton Kershaw on Friday night. Given Kershaw’s pedigree and the way he had pitched throughout most of the game, he more than earned the opportunity to try getting out of the jam that he created on the bases. At the very least, Mattingly owed him the courtesy of a full discussion at the mound. Mattingly’s supposed strength is his calm demeanor, and his ability to drown out the noise. By removing Kershaw without allowing him the chance to plead his case for one more batter, Mattingly panicked at best, disrespected Kershaw at worst. The message seemed to be that he didn’t trust Kershaw, made all the more insulting by the fact that Kershaw was about to be relieved by THAT bullpen. Would many fans have ranted and raved, had it been Kershaw who allowed the hit to David Wright? Absolutely. And the only appropriate response to that is…SO WHAT? Mattingly never seemed to care much what fans and media thought before, so why pick now to fear the very thing that he was about to cause, anyway? Was it really that Mattingly just didn’t trust Kershaw? Because if THAT’S the case, he really should not continue being the Dodger manager, regardless of how much longer the 2015 Dodgers play into October. Losing Matt Kemp’s respect was one thing, but if Mattingly cannot maintain a good relationship with Clayton Kershaw from this point forward, he’s probably not going to have one with the rest of the team, either, let alone the fans.
Today’s Another Day
As he tried to do last year, Zack Greinke will be entrusted to save the Dodger season. When Don Mattingly’s name is announced, it will get ugly, but hopefully, things will get better from there. (Having Kiké Hernandez in the starting lineup might help, too.)
Update: After reading some of Clayton Kershaw’s postgame comments, this entire post may be way too harsh. Ironically, he seems to endorse the sentiment of the PREVIOUS DodgersFYI post, taking responsibility off of Mattingly’s shoulders, and putting it on his own, by implying he had nothing left in the tank. If that’s the case, then Mattingly was in an even MORE unenviable position than previously thought, being the guy who had to take the great Clayton Kershaw out of a game that all Dodger fans wanted to see him continue pitching in. It is also possible Kershaw was merely covering for Mattingly, but past history does not seem to indicate this is likely.
And Kiké Hernandez should still be starting in centerfield.
Watching Clayton Kershaw shout down Don Mattingly must have been the thrill of a lifetime for the many Dodger fans that double as Mattingly detractors. (It got so nasty at times this year, it felt more like Mattingly detractors were doubling as Dodger fans!) For anyone that doesn’t remember, it was a hot day, Kershaw wasn’t pitching all that well- at least by his standards- and the Dodgers were very close to wrapping up the division. Taking Clayton Kershaw out of the game at that point seemed like one of the more defendable, if controversial, strategic moves that Don Mattingly has made. Ironically, the main reason that Mattingly would later give for removing Kershaw DIDN’T seem justifiable, claiming that the Dodgers needed offense. The pinch hitter they decided on, Austin Barnes, is barely a better hitter than Kershaw. Regardless, the Dodgers ended up winning the game, and Kershaw pitched a complete game shutout against the Giants, to clinch the NL West, in his very next start. All-in-all, everything worked out fine.
But getting back to the dugout argument, Kershaw’s contentious attitude towards Mattingly- along with his curt postgame answers AFTER A WIN– should give pause to any Dodger fan still seething about Kershaw being left in games 1 and 4 of last year’s NLDS, each time with a 2 run lead that would ultimately be coughed up. Up until each respective knockout blow was delivered, all the hits that Kershaw gave up were singles, many that were barely more than seeing-eye groundballs. Try to imagine Kershaw’s reaction to being taken out of THOSE games, along with the image of him watching in the dugout, as JP Howell coughs up his lead. You think fan reaction was furious with Kershaw left IN? I really think that Don Mattingly might have needed police protection under those circumstances. If anyone thinks I’m exaggerating, I was at game 2, when JP Howell DID cough up Zack Greinke’s masterpiece. The whole stadium was irate, but several fans in particular openly wished harm on Mattingly, along with JP Howell. It was a small number, and even amongst them, they probably wouldn’t have acted on it, if given the chance. But the fact that such sentiments could even be openly expressed in public without being questioned, shows just how toxic the situation can get. And if anyone thinks that fans would have gone easier had it been KERSHAW, there’s really no point in reading further, because they can’t be reasoned with, anyway.
But for anyone that can think beyond their own negative biases about Don Mattingly as a manager, Clayton Kershaw’s posturing during and after that Diamondbacks game shows just how determined he is to stay in ballgames. If he is going to get THAT animated during a fairly insignificant game in September, just imagine how determined he will be to stay in a postseason ballgame. This is a common attitude for an ace to have. During a managerial visit to the mound in the AL Wildcard game, we saw Dallas Keuchel TURN HIS BACK on his manager. How do you think it would have been received if Keuchel, the likely Cy Young award winner, would have been taken out at that point? Anyone with that pedigree earns the right to pitch out of their own jams, with very rare exceptions. (Got that, Grady Little?)
As for what we’ve seen from Kershaw in his postseason career so far, we’re getting very close to the point where we can’t chalk it up to small sample size anymore. He’s had a few outings where he’s looked like Kershaw, but all too many where hasn’t. So what gives? We can’t call his heart or determination into question. Is there anything we CAN call into question?
The One Issue With Kershaw
The dugout confrontation against Mattingly got a lot of coverage, for obvious reasons. But something else happened in the game that got NO coverage, which might be even more noteworthy. In the bottom of the third inning with two outs and the Dodgers down by 2, Kershaw was on second base. Justin Turner hit a line drive, which had a chance to drop in, but not a very good one. Ultimately, the centerfielder made a nice but unspectacular running catch to end the inning. Over at third base, Clayton Kershaw was charging for home, like his life depended on it. The Dodgers’ third base coach had to jump in front of Kershaw to get him to stop. While such hustle is normally appreciated, this was a very hot day, it was early in the game, and Kershaw was about to take the mound again. As amazing as Clayton Kershaw is, he is a human being, with all the same restrictions as the rest of us mortals. It would be hard to argue that this sprint didn’t take at least a LITTLE bit out of him, and even harder to argue after the very first batter Kershaw faced afterwards, hit a home run.
Friday is going to be another hot day. Among the many things that Kershaw is justifiably praised for, he always gets high marks for being a complete ballplayer, as opposed to just a pitcher. Zack Greinke is a complete ballplayer, too, yet always seems to know when it’s wise to ease up a bit. Any little bit of an edge that might be gained by busting out of the batter’s box every time, could easily be lost (and then some) by the edge opposing hitters will gain, once that same pitcher doesn’t quite have it in him to, say, get out of the seventh inning on a hot day. Perhaps it would be best for Kershaw to not even put the ball in play again Jacob deGrom, so long as the other eight guys do.
And with that, we transition to something that Don Mattingly IS responsible for.
The Lineup Card
What Don Mattingly has on his hands is a nice problem to have, but it is a problem, nonetheless. With no clear cut superstars besides of his two aces on the mound, Mattingly has a deep and talented roster, but no one who is really head-and-shoulders above the rest. So at least for the NLDS, with the Mets’ righty-heavy starting rotation, the Dodgers will focus on getting as many lefties in there as possible. The only problem with that is…well, keep reading.
Since it goes without saying by now that Corey Seager needs to be in there, the only question is whether he starts at shortstop, or third base. Shortstop seems the most likely, since that appears to be his most comfortable position. The other reason is that Justin Turner is a superior hitter to Jimmy Rollins right now. It also appears likely that Howie Kendrick will start of Chase Utley, simply because Kendrick is at the end of his prime, while Utley is well passed his. This is how the Dodgers might put a starting lineup together against the Mets, without two legendary Met killers penned in.
Equally controversial is centerfield. Joc Pederson was a fan favorite, complete with all kinds of fawning press for months, even well after cooling down considerably. Meanwhile, Kiké Hernandez quietly proved to be the more professional, polished ballplayer, with better baserunning skills, more consistent at-bats, and defense that was actually pretty close to Joc’s. So, in spite of a righty-heavy starting rotation, Hernandez should be the one to start.
The final controversy should not be a controversy at all. From May to July, Yasmani Grandal was incredible, proving us detractors wrong about him. However, he ended up getting injured in early August. Whether the injury lingered or he just developed bad habits, Grandal was historically bad the final two months of the season, while AJ Ellis looked revived. We really don’t need to discuss any further than that. Quite simply, AJ Ellis should start every game, and that should be that. For the few that still believe in Grandal, screaming “pitch framing!” at the top of their lungs- Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Kenley Jansen should not need help with pitch framing.
All this amounts a lineup that looks like this:
- Howie Kendrick 2B
- Carl Crawford LF
- Adrian Gonzalez 1B
- Justin Turner 3B
- Corey Seager SS
- Andre Ethier RF
- AJ Ellis C
- Enrique Hernandez CF
- Clayton Kershaw P
That sums it up. Let’s just hope that this NLDS ends up better than the last one.
Whatever else happens for the Dodgers in 2015, one thing is for sure- the 2015 clincher against the archrival Giants will be looked at far more fondly than the one in 2014. Other than an amazing behind-the-back maneuver by Clayton Kershaw and the neat-o fireworks at the end of the game, the videos have largely disappeared from public consciousness. But unlike the 2014 Giants, the 2015 Giants will not live to see another day past the regular season. (It IS an odd year, after all!) The Dodgers can celebrate, knowing that this time, the Dodgers and ONLY the Dodgers, survived the NL West past game #162.
There’s a lot to say about this incredibly unconventional season, some good, some bad. But at the end of it all, this IS a team that finished in first place, for the third year in a row, for the first time in franchise history. (Got all that?) So for today, we will focus on the positive and ONLY the positive*.
Taking over a franchise from a rogue who had drained the once-proud franchise nearly dry, the Guggenheim Baseball Management restored the team, the farm system, and the stadium to levels of health not seen in years. Starting by locking up surprising franchise cornerstone Andre Ethier, then locking up unsurprising franchise cornerstone Clayton Kershaw, ownership showed a clear commitment to keeping the core of the team intact, while moving forward where necessary. In Molly Knight’s excellent book, “The Best Team Money Can Buy,” detailing many of the behind-the-scenes inner workings of the Dodger organization, she talks about Stan Kasten’s brilliant maneuvering in Colorado, landing Adrian Gonzalez (and others) in a caper story worthy of Ocean’s Eleven. They have spent a lot- and I mean A LOT of money- but we know that in sports, that guarantees nothing. The Dodgers winning ways over the past three seasons seems to indicate that at least on some level, they have spent pretty wisely. Best of all, they have spent on the farm system, as the results on the field are starting to show.
The Front Office…Now AND Then
There will be plenty to discuss later, I have certainly not always been their biggest backer. But look- this is a team that underwent a lot of changes, SOME of them were necessary, and the large, revolving door of players brought in did pretty nicely overall. That has to be credited to Andrew Friedman, Fahran Zaidi, and their constant state-of-motion. While the departure of Dee Gordon remains a sore spot for many, they received four players who contributed to this season’s success, to varying degrees, and one sleeper in Kiké Hernandez, who may actually still salvage this trade beyond 2015.
They also signed a lot of veterans- the kind which Ned Colletti used to get ridiculed for mercilessly, incidentally- but it must be said that they all brought something to the table- Jimmy Rollins with his professionalism, good humor and lack of panic, Howie Kendrick with his always-consistent, under-appreciated smart and steady play, Chase Utley with a few timely hits and some sorely needed, savvy baserunning, and Justin Ruggiano, who not only exists, but hits left handed pitching really, really well. It only lasted a few weeks, but while he wore #27, he wore it well, as he wore out southpaws.
Also to Friedman’s credit, he did not surrender to the masses, demanding that the Dodgers sell the farm for a Hamels, or a Price, or a Cueto. We may have to visit this one again in a few weeks, but the bottom line is, no matter what happens, I’d rather have Corey Seager here for years, then have any of those other guys for months.
And speaking of Seager, for all the ridicule Ned Colletti DID take in, he drafted pretty well over the years, and can claim victory for Seager, Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, and a few others. With an enormous assist from Stan Kasten, he also signed Zack Greinke, for what was seen as a ridiculous amount of money at the time. In hindsight, it was an absolute bargain.
The Coaching Staff, Led By You-Know-Who
A coaching staff will get too much of the blame for the bad times, and not enough credit for the good times. Rick Honeycutt has drawn the praise of Dodger pitchers and catchers for a full decade now. The staff ERA and his longevity, particularly with changing faces all around him, show that this isn’t just lip service.
The biggest major weakness of 2015 for much of the season- do I really have to type out WHAT that weakness was- was addressed by the addition of Ron Roenicke as third base coach. Along with Chase Utley’s arrival, this was instrumental in turning this critical aspect of the game around.
Tim Wallach very well might be a manager now, but has been a loyal bench coach for two years now, and seems to have really taken to his job. It is probably only a matter of time before he gets his first shot as a Major League skipper, perhaps even with the Dodgers.
But as for the CURRENT Dodger manager? While I have seen fanbases turn on a manager (or coach) more strongly than Dodger fans turned on Don Mattingly in 2015, I have NOT seen is a fanbase turn so brutally on a guy who had led his team to first place finish, let alone THREE YEARS IN A ROW. As we’re focusing on the positive today, I’d rather talk about HIS reaction to that pressure. In a previous baseball life with his previous franchise, Don Mattingly showed he could not be cowered easily, often going toe-to-toe with George Steinbrenner. Steinbrenner was quite a bully, but he showed respect when someone earned it from him. Decades later, Don Mattingly has shown this fortitude again and again, with fans, with media, and even with some of the best players in the game. Unlike a certain soon-to-be FORMER manager in Washington DC, Donnie Baseball would not let his ace intimidate him into making a decision he might not be comfortable with, during a hot day game against Arizona last week. Fans howled (what else is new?) but Clayton Kershaw’s arm was preserved for a much more important game, that being the one-hit shutout clincher in San Francisco, as well as a 13 pitch at-bat which shortly led to the early exit of his mound rival, the incomparable but irritating Madison Bumgarner, who will (THANKFULLY) not be able to add to his October lore this year.
But enough about what went on BEHIND the scenes. The guys who actually executed the plan, and it did it quite well, were
It wasn’t always pretty, with 3 or 4 (I lost count) fairly lengthy losing streaks in the second half, an often slumping bullpen and/or lineup. And we STILL don’t quite know who the #3, #4 and #5 starters were in the rotation. But…umm, where was I Oh yes- this is a team that had 2 of the best 3 starting pitchers in the National League, one of the best closers in baseball, and a lineup that, from top to bottom- sometimes even INCLUDING the pitcher’s spot- was a threat to hit the ball out at any time. How that happened without Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez is beyond me, but it happened!
Speaking of Kemp, there was a very divided feeling amongst Dodger faithful about his departure, particularly to a team IN THE SAME DIVISION. However, almost nobody- including the front office who ultimately did trade Kemp- would have picked Andre Ethier as the one of the two to stay. However, that is exactly what happened. THANK GOODNESS that is what happened, because not only did Ethier have his best season in years, he was a FAR BETTER fit than Kemp would have been. Though Yasiel Puig did unfortunately miss half the year, having Kemp and Puig in the same outfield AGAIN would have been a nearly impossible situation. Ethier was a much better fit, playing left AND right field without complaining, and if he was irritated by how many times he sat against left handed pitching, he did not show it publicly. The same cannot be said of Matt Kemp, who was often visibly annoyed sitting on the bench. So at least for 2015, it all worked out.
And let’s not forget the guys who came to L.A. as Kemp took the bus (train?) to San Diego. Jimmy Rollins was a nice stopgap prior to the arrival of Corey Seager, and his mere presence should put a knot in the stomach of Met fans, if not Met players. Yasmani Grandal was great during May, June and July. At the time that Grandal faded, probably due to injuries, AJ Ellis recaptured some of his old glory, which hopefully continue into his surprisingly stellar postseason record so far.
And of course, there’s Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. Who will be Cy Young winner this year? Hard to say. Perhaps it will be Jake Arrieta. But these two amazing Co-Ace-of-Spades are nearly as valuable as all the other players combined, which is really saying something, considering how good all those other players are. (Also incredible, because there were SO MANY of them this year! Seriously, can you even remember half of them?! But I digress.) Kershaw will be here for years, and hopefully we can say the same for Greinke. But one thing is for sure- Los Angeles has not seen a lefty-right punch like this since Koufax-Drysdale.
Just One Thing To Take Issue With
*Okay, I lied. Even as the champagne is still cold and everyone’s feeling pretty good at the moment, it’s at least worth mentioning that more than half the Los Angeles greater area could not see most of the games. Much of the goodwill the new ownership bought- literally and figuratively- has been squandered by the disgraceful blackout of The Blue, about to conclude its second season. Some fans have even lost interest in the team- out of sight, out of mind. Hopefully, they can get it back with a strong, memorable (for the RIGHT reasons) postseason run. But if they do, the Dodgers better figure out a way to capitalize and get Time Warner to concede on their disastrous contract. Heaven help this organization if Vin Scully’s final season cannot be witnessed by all.
Ending On A High Note
At least we know that the team WILL be seen by all starting October 9th, hopefully with a better marketing plan from MLB than last year’s channel surfing extravaganza. NY-LA postseason matchup ALWAYS create buzz, and there will be lots of intriguing storylines to cover. So while it’s onto New York for next week, it’ll be all about tuning up and trying to get home field advantage for this one. For now, though, just enjoy the fact that the Dodgers will be playing past this upcoming Sunday. Not a lot of teams will be able to say that.
For a group that seemingly shrugged off the “small sample size” of Matt Kemp’s red-hot 2014 ending, the Dodger front office sure have put a fair amount of stock into 31 at-bats from Chase Utley. To be fair, it’s been a GREAT 31 at-bats since the longtime Phillie icon came back from his latest stint on the disabled list. Plus, there are thousands and thousands of previous Utley at-bats coming into this season, which will unquestionably put him on a Hall of Fame ballot one day, if not the Hall of Fame itself. However, it’s those at-bats in between the first 6,000+ and the last 31 at-bats- more specifically, the 218 of them where he was batting .179 prior to going on the DL- that could be troubling.
Name recognition aside, the potential for this move to make an earth-shattering difference either way doesn’t seem to be all that likely. Regardless of how Chase Utley plays for the duration of 2015- or even IF he plays for the duration of 2015- his success is not critical to the Dodgers’ success. Of course, it would be NICE if he can play somewhat like his old-self instead of like an old man, but if not, Kiké Hernández has shown that he is more than capable of holding down the fort in Howie Kendrick’s absence. In fact, Kiké’s performance has been so solid, it makes this move rather curious to begin with, though not as curious as the deafening silence from the media, old and new, about the initial trade last December, which ultimately led to this latest move being made.
There’s no need to rehash the whole Dee Gordon saga again, at least not right now. But it would be negligent to not at least MENTION that the former Dodger and current All-Star starter has emerged as the player many of Dee Gordon’s fans always suspected he could become. By contrast, the Dodgers have now added a SECOND second base veteran to the mix, before the first season without Gordon has even been completed. And they’re doing so at a considerable cost, both on the field and in the payroll. (Did we mention that the Dodgers are also still paying Dee Gordon, as well?!) All of this seems to have gone unnoticed by most, outside of the few Dodger fans not currently fuming at Don Mattingly for causing global warming. Bloggers, print writers, and those that generally spend a lot of time thinking about the Dodgers seem to have overlooked how unnecessary this would all be, had Friedman’s crew not been so busy calculating how quickly Gordon would “regress to the mean”. So whether this Utley trade works out or not, the reaction to it is already quite different than the kind that Ned Colletti would get for a similar move, even moves that, in hindsight, seem more understandable than the one that sent Dee Gordon to Miami.
Attempting to get past the water under the bridge- which is hopefully sturdier than the one to Kenley Jansen– there could still be some upside to this deal. The fact that Utley HAS shown some life in his bat very recently could be a well-timed bandage for these wounded Dodgers. Plus, there’s potential for a nice storyline to come out of this, as well. If there is one guy where “clubhouse presence” isn’t a myth, it would be this guy. Winning over a notoriously surly fanbase with his blue collar appeal, Utley now gets to wear the blue color of the team he rooted for as a kid. Dodger fans have forgiven Jimmy Rollins rather easily for his past “sins”. Should Utley even RESEMBLE his former self, as he has done over the past two weeks, Rollins’ former-former double play partner should also be easily embraced by a fanbase that he once belonged to as a kid, growing up in Southern California. (Utley was even drafted by the Dodgers in high school, prior to attending UCLA.)
The latest chapter of this grand experiment begins in Houston, where the Dodgers take on a team roughly equal in talent, if not payroll. With a mere month and a half to go in the regular season, it’s unlikely there will be yet ANOTHER chapter added by this all-too-active front office, but if so, let’s just hope it’s one that deals with the bullpen.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before- a versatile, energetic but unspectacular infielder is discarded by his lowly team. In a move that barely registers on the radar, the Dodgers acquire the player in question, rewarding him with a salary that doesn’t constitute 1% of the team’s gaudy overall payroll. Early in the season, the young player struggles with the limited playing time he’s given. This doesn’t bother the fans much, though, seeing how most of them don’t even know who the guy is! Then, injuries to starters change his fate. Quietly at first and then with increasing fanfare, the player flourishes. The player goes from expendable utility player, to super-utility player, to potential star player.
It’s pretty incredible that a team with so many well-known (and well-paid!) players can find such great fortune with someone so low-cost, whom hardly anyone ever heard of. Even more amazing is the fact that it happened two years in a row. With Hector Olivera’s departure to Atlanta, Justin Turner had finally been assured his rightful place in the Dodgers’ everyday lineup- in the MIDDLE of it, in fact! Being exactly one year behind Turner, Kiké Hernandez might have to wait a little bit longer. But if he keeps this up, it’s only a matter of time before he finds himself completing that final transition to everyday player, as well.
Hernandez’s evolution this season has been fun to watch. Starting out as a quirky fan favorite- kind of a modern-day Mickey Hatcher- Hernandez gradually became a force to be reckoned with. Probably the least heralded player of the seven involved in what was essentially a 3-way trade between the Dodgers, Marlins, and Angels, Hernandez has probably been the most productive zsince the All-Star break. This has to be a relief for Andrew Friedman and company. It was always an extreme risk to trade Dee Gordon, a budding star, for one year of Howie Kendrick. (Giving up Dan Haren without a dollar of compensation didn’t help, either.) No matter how good Howie was going to be this season- and to be fair, he has been quite good- it was all going to be about whether he could get the Dodgers to, if not THROUGH, the World Series. (Those aren’t terms that I came up with- that’s how the trade was set up from the day it was made. We’ll leave Chris Hatcher and Austin Barnes out of the equation, until given reason to do otherwise.) When Howie went down with a somewhat serious looking hamstring injury last week, it looked like the short-term nature of the trade might have gotten that much shorter.
Enter Kiké Hernandez. After spending the first few days of Kendrick’s injury looking at newly acquired prospect Jose Peraza, the Dodgers made Hernandez the everyday second baseman. (Peraza was sent back to Oklahoma, to make room for Turner’s return from the disabled list.) Hernandez continued to do what he had been doing for some time, both in the field and at the plate. The only difference is that now, he gets to play the same position on an everyday basis. While it’s only been a few days at the time of this post, the results have been head-turning, especially his 435 foot homerun into the left-field pavilion on Saturday. Of course, a few games isn’t enough to make ANY kind of meaningful judgment on what someone can do at the big league level. But at the time of this posting, Hernandez has 147 at-bats this season, or roughly the amount that Justin Turner had last year, before people started taking him seriously. Unlikely as it may seem, for the second year in a row, we are starting to see the same thing happen again.
Perhaps the most convincing evidence that Kiké Hernandez is for real, is the fact that HE says he is for real. When asked about his super-utility player status, the young man who has gained a reputation as a goofball becomes as serious as a military commander. (During high school, Hernandez attended the American Military Academy in Puerto Rico.) To whomever asks him the question, Hernandez responds- without a hint of sarcasm- that he is NOT a utility player, has never been one, and does not intend to be one now. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) He is also quick to point out that he is only 23 years old, and while respectful of the fact that Howie Kendrick is the team’s second baseman if healthy, being someone else’s understudy is not part of his long-term career plan.
This is all very impressive stuff, let alone from a 23 year old, playing in his first (almost) full Major League season, with a brand new organization. In spite of all this, it is too early to know if he’s for real. But with such a unique combination of poise, perspective, and confidence without arrogance, it should give Dodger fans, along with ALL fans of baseball*, reason to hope that he is.
*Okay, maybe not Giants fans.
You’re not making this easy on me, Don Mattingly.
Already falling back on old bad habits in New York last week, by having Scott Van Slyke sacrifice bunt on a 3-1 count during a tie game on the road, the fifth year Dodger manager managed to one-up himself on Monday night in Philadelphia. With the Boys in Blue yet again finding themselves in a tie game on the road, only this time with the home team up to bat, it was more critical than ever to keep the bases as cleared up as possible. However, with the go-ahead runner already on 2nd base in Alex Wood’s Dodger debut, Mattingly elected for him to walk Cesar Hernandez.
Look, I will readily admit that I don’t know enough about the current Phillies to tell you anything useful Cesar Hernandez, which is exactly the point. If a player is not easily identifiable outside of his own fanbase, he’s probably not worth a free pass. Moreover, any time a manager DOES order an intentional walk, it should be in an urgent situation- a franchise player at the plate, or last licks with an open base, or the pitcher on deck with two outs, and so forth. What it should NOT be is for the SOLE purpose a lefty-lefty matchup, particularly when the guy at the plate is more than capable of getting himself out.
It gets worse. Not only is Cesar Hernandez a considerably less worthy hitter than Mike Schmidt, he is also a considerably less worthy hitter than the guy batting two spots behind him in Phillies’ CURRENT lineup. At the time the intentional walk was issued, there was only one out.
A tie game, the lineup’s leadoff hitter just walked intentionally, only one out. Do you see where I’m going with this? (If so, that puts you one step ahead of Don Mattingly here!) Even if the next hitter, Odubel Herrera, batting with two on is somehow preferable to Cesar Hernandez batting with one on, only the improbable double play ensures that the number three hitter, Maikel Franco, does not get an at-bat in this inning. Franco is a rising star on a team desperately in need of one, and easily a superior hitter to Cesar Hernandez. Not only did Herrera NOT hit into a double play, he managed to get on base, setting the stage for Franco to do this against reliever Joel Peralta. (Well, at least that’s ONE WAY to keep the bases as clear as possible!)
In his playing days, Don Mattingly received respect and admiration from fans, players and coaches alike, not just because of his superior play, but also his work ethic, determination, and a seemingly impossible combination of modesty and confidence. Many of those traits have helped him succeed as a manager, for the most part. But we’ve also witnessed some troubling things from him that we HADN’T seen as a player- most alarmingly, an inability to learn from some of his worst strategic blunders. It’s not just his handing out baserunners to the other team, or his handing out outs to his own during close games. It’s also the surrounding circumstances that have made these moves so head scratching, and quite possibly led directly to Dodger losses. At certain times, it feels like a time warp, as though we’re reliving those close 2013 playoff losses all over again. (2014 wasn’t his fault, no matter how differently many Dodger fans feel about it. But that’s for another discussion.)
The hope here is that because these mistakes are being made in July and August, perhaps they can be prevented in October. I’m often at odds with self-proclaimed stat gurus, but I do appreciate much of their in-game approach, particularly their aversion to intentionally giving up outs, or intentionally awarding baserunners. Hopefully, Andrew Freidman’s crew is on it, because someone’s going to need to get through to the man known as Donnie Baseball before the postseason, should the Dodgers be good enough and lucky enough to get that far.