April 8th, 2016- We’re Not In San Diego Anymore

What a difference two days makes.  What a difference two PITCHES makes!  After dominating the Padres in historical fashion, the ’27 Yankees 2016 Dodgers took their roadshow up north. Initially, it seemed to be more of the same, as the Dodgers took a 4-0 lead into the 5th inning at AT&T Park, a mere one inning away from the MAJOR LEAGUE RECORD for pitching the most innings of shutout ball to start a season. Ultimately, the team missed its mark. Boy, did it ever.

Dave Roberts got his first taste of what it truly means to be a Dodger manager, in the post-Gagne era. With the team looking comfortably ahead against the Giants, Alex Wood suddenly became hittable, as we often saw in 2015. Rather than give him the early hook, Roberts stuck with his starter, only to watch the once comfortable lead become a deficit in the 6th inning. The somewhat debatable move of leaving Wood in too long was made moot by an all too familiar site- the Dodger middle relief, throwing gasoline on the fire, leading to the Dodgers’ first loss of the season.

But those managerial decisions and pitching performances pale in comparison to what happened the next game, the fifth of the season for the Dodgers overall. Ross Stripling had an impressive minor league career halted by injuries, leading to Tommy John surgery. With the Dodgers’ rotation in dire straits, Stripling won out the #5 spot, albeit with little expected from him. That changed Friday night, in a game that will no doubt go down in Dodger infamy.

stripling

He’s earned another start.

It all started ordinarily enough, with the rookie battling command issues, rookies often do. When he DID get the ball over the plate early on, the results didn’t seem anything special. Sure, he hadn’t allowed a hit, but that was largely thanks to spectacular plays by Joc Pederson and a newly revived Yasiel Puig.  But as the game continued and Stripling settled down, his performance got stronger, to the point where Stripling did something that hadn’t been done since a previous century.  That’s a previous century, not THE previous century, as in the 19TH century- in front of friends and family, including his fiancee, Ross Stripling had taken a no hitter into the 8th inning.  The whole thing seemed surreal, as Dodger fans wondered if the 26 year old could really do it.  We’ll never know.

The Fire, Or The Frying Pan?

just_one_of_those_days

Just one of those days.

One of the great ironies of the night, for an organization that seems to specialize in irony these days, is that the move to take Ross Stripling out of the game wasn’t as controversial as it initially seemed.  He was at 100 pitches on a cold, rainy night, still recovering off of a potentially career threatening surgery.  Had he been at 100 pitches in the 9th inning, it would have been a different story.  But given that there were 5 outs left, new manager Dave Roberts was in an extremely tough spot- imagine if Stripling had gotten another 2 or 3 outs, but needed 20 pitches to do it.  At that point, he’s in the 9th inning at 120 pitches, at a point where Dave Roberts REALLY has to make a brutal decision- take him out, to preserve Stripling’s career while denying a chance at Major League history, or leave him, and risk another Johan Santana situation, minus Santana’s financial security.  Roberts’ deserves credit for making a difficult decision, and not being phased by public pressure in doing so.

You Don’t Have Don Mattingly To Kick Around Anymore

The initial reaction of Twitter was actually fairly supportive of Roberts, given the circumstances, along with the fact that Roberts is a new manager, with a certain Doc Rivers-style gravitas that his predecessor seemed to lack.  However, the result of the decision seemed all too Mattinglyesque- on the second pitch from reliever Chris Hatcher, the Giants did something they hadn’t done in the previous hundred against Stripling- they not only got a hit, they got a hit over the fences, tying the game at two.  After working so hard to get out of the doghouse last season, Hatcher managed to get right back in it, on one lousy pitch- and we do mean lousy!

hatcherHatcher seemed to realize it, too.  After being squeezed by the home plate umpire on the next pitch, he lashed out in a way that probably had little to do with the pitch.  Dave Roberts came rushing out of the dugout, protecting his pitcher, getting himself ejected from the game in the process.  It’s just as well, because he probably didn’t want to be in the dugout at that point, anyway.

At that point, the  baseball gods turned against the Dodgers quite viciously.  A couple of well struck fly balls in the top of the 9th died at the warning track.  Against Joe Blanton in the 10th, Dodger nemesis Brandon Crawford’s did not.  Game over.

What Next?

As this move has historic consequences, Dave Roberts is going to have to answer it, and he should.  The case for what he did was strong, but that hardly makes it a “no-brainer”, as some of the new-age baseball folks appear to believe.  (Many of these are the same people who have no problem with THIS play ending a game, but that’s for a whole other discussion.)

kenleyMany fans are also seething about Kenley Jansen not ever being brought into the game.  The argument about bringing closers into tie games on the road has gained serious traction in recent years, which is the height of second guessing.  Making this move at the “right” point is totally arbitrary, because it guarantees that either the manager will be bringing in middle relievers later in the game, or will be wearing out the closer’s arm.  If this philosophy had been embraced for this game, Jansen would have been brought into the 9th inning, meaning those middle relievers that have everyone fuming would have been seen in extra innings, anyway.  It is a no win situation.  Literally.

Less second guessing goes into the argument about Joe Blanton.  He should not be on the roster, let alone in this game.  Watching sabermetric bloggers convince themselves that the Blanton signing was a good one, supposedly based purely on analytics instead of loyalty towards Andrew Friedman, was either amusing or infuriating, depending on one’s point of view.  (I’d highly recommend seeing it as amusing- it’s much healthier that way.)  Keep in mind this conclusion was based on two admittedly outstanding months from Blanton with the Pirates at the end of the 2014 season.  Also keep in mind that this is from the same group that dismissed- to the point they even acknolwedged- two outstanding months from Matt Kemp in 2014, with a much larger sample size than Blanton’s…not to mention an overall career far more distinguished, as well.  Some of Friedman’s moves might be vindicated at the end of the season.  This one almost certainly won’t be, and if the Dodgers need to go to Blanton in other critical, non-Kenley situations, they’re in trouble.

Mr. Brightside

In spite of two losses in San Francisco, every bit as dispiriting as the three wins in San Diego were dominant, there are a lot of good signs for the Dodgers so far.  Stripling and Kenta Maeda are the obvious ones.  The “good” Scott Kazmir showed up for his Dodger debut, and Alex Wood at least looked decent through most of his start.  Nearly everyone is hitting, and quietly, Yasiel Puig has returned to from- an amazing feat, considering Yasiel Puig doesn’t usually do ANYTHING quietly.  Oh, and Clayton Kershaw will be pitching the next game for the Dodgers.  So, there’s that.

We’ll need to see the rotation a full 3 or 4 more times before we can reasonably conclude what this team is capable of, but the earliest indications seem to be that the 2016 Dodgers will be a force to be reckoned with.  Just don’t get too comfortable, until you hear this song playing in the 9th inning!

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Dodgers Opening Series Recap- I Can’t Even…

maedaI’m not a millennial, but I don’t really know what else to say.  The level of dominance shown by the Dodgers, along with the futility of their “opponents” to the south, is something that is difficult to comprehend.  Such a historically lopsided display renders any talk about the Matt Kemp trade moot for the time being, other than to say I feel kind of sorry for him.  (I’m sure he’ll get over it.)

We’re used to Adrian Gonzalez tormenting his former team.  But watching Yasiel Puig becoming Yasiel Puig again, Clayton Kershaw CONTINUING to be Clayton Kershaw, Kenta Maeda doing this IN HIS MAJOR LEAGUE DEBUT, and pretty much everything else go right for these guys was something really special.  I’d say something facetious at this point about wishing the Dodgers could start the season against the Padres EVERY year, but that already seems to be the case, doesn’t it?  Usually, it seems to go pretty well for the Boys in Blue, if not quite THIS well.

Just to be clear, it’s still very, VERY early.  We still have spots #4 and #5 in the rotation to look at.  And roughly 90% of the remaining 159 games will NOT be played against the San Diego Padres.  Nevertheless…WOW.

As for the Padres, should anyone from that organization be reading this post, here’s a helpful tip from a few exits up the 5- find out which of the fans in attendance are from San Diego county, and offer them a discount to the next series with the Dodgers.  Or a coupon.  Or SOMETHING.  Because if you think there were too many Dodger fans at THIS series, wait ’til you see what happens if this kind of play continues…YIKES.

 

 

Opening Day 2016- The Andrew Friedman Project Is Now On Full Display

Once again, Opening Day is upon us.  Once again, two thirds of Los Angeles will not get to listen to Vin Scully and company broadcasting most of the games on television.  In a certain way, the ill-advised Time Warner cable deal has become a microcosm (or macrocosm?) of the Guggenheim-Era Dodgers so far as a whole- promising, expensive, yet ultimately misguided.  The channel as a whole is often terrific, but when the majority of fans can’t experience it for themselves, the quality of the channel takes a back seat to the quantity of people that can enjoy it.

On the field, the Dodgers have earned a similar reputation.  A team that has fielded such talent has such little to show for it.  That really was reflected by the mood in the stands in 2015, as Bill Plaschke correctly labeled it as “joyless”.  There are a few reasons to believe 2016 will be better, but more than a few to believe it will be worse.

The Good News

Justin Turner has quietly become one of the best hitters in baseball, and if not for injuries that dramatically slowed down his production at the end of 2015, he may have even gotten some MVP points in the voting.  (He did have a torrid NLDS, which was sadly forgotten after Daniel Murphy almost singlehandedly prevented the Dodgers from moving to the next round.)  It was a huge relief when the front office (finally!) realized that Turner was the 3rd baseman of future right now for the Dodgers.  Hopefully, that will continue to be the case for several years, so long as he stays healthy.

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The brightest non-Kershaw spotlight will be shined on this guy (Lenny Ignelzi/AP)

To the right of the Turner (as well as this paragraph) is one of the few pieces of great news for the team’s future- Corey Seager.  Too many times we’ve touted some hotshot kid as “The Next So-And-So”, but after watching Corey Seager for a month last season, one suspects that the phrase “The Next Corey Seager” might truly become part of the baseball lexicon one day.  Unlike Joc Pederson, Seager instantly showed the kind of maturity at the plate that indicates pitchers will not be able to adjust to him, as much as he will adjust to them.  His fielding could use some work, but he’s young enough that one can expect this to happen.

The best news of all for the Dodgers is that Clayton Kershaw will be starting one out of every five games, meaning that they will be favored to win, at least one out of every five games.  It’s the other four out of five games that we need to worry about.  And with that, we bring you…

The Bad News

Every day that Clayton Kershaw doesn’t pitch will be a question mark, though in fairness, Kenta Maeda pitched far better than many expected in spring training.  If he can continue that into the regular season while staying healthy, this could be one  of the few moves by Andrew Friedman that can be applauded by people outside of Friedman’s unofficial fan club.  But even if that is the case, spots 3, 4 and 5 look very troubling.  Scott Kazmir and Alex Wood, who have had success at times in their careers, had disastrous spring trainings.  It’s tough to even contemplate the #5 spot, when the #3 and #4 are such question marks, at best.

Meanwhile in the bullpen, the situation is the same as it ever was, only now with a possibly disgruntled Kenley Jansen.  After the Dodger front office was shamed into revoking what looked like an outstanding trade for Aroldis Chapman, the team never found a backup plan.  (The Yankees ultimately acquired Chapman with little backlash, while the public outrage almost completely dissipated.)

The Los Angeles Dodgers have traditionally been built on pitching, while this year there isn’t much of a foundation.  With so many unanswered questions on Opening Day, the team will likely not get very far, until they have more answers.

Beyond the team’s troubling pitching situation, there are some other questions marks that have a little bit more hope.

The Unknown

The right side of the infield to start the season is Adrian Gonzalez and Chase Utley.  In 2009, this would have arguably been the best right side in baseball.  In 2016?  It really depends on how much of their “old selves” they still have in there.  Gonzalez, while being more streaky than most analysts realize (or own up to), is still young enough to put up good numbers, perhaps even enough for another All Star appearance.  He has been great at the start of each season for the Dodgers, and with torrid hitting this spring, 2016 shouldn’t be an exception.

Chase Utley might be a different story, as he hasn’t looked good in several years, although he did have a very good spring- by contrast to Enrique Hernandez, a surprising star of 2015, who had an atrocious spring.  Howie Kendrick should be the starting second baseman once healthy, but the vastly underrated former Angel has been less dependable in recent years.  Jose Peraza looked pretty good, but he was shipped off to another team for other moving parts, as is done with regularity these days on the Dodgers.

Catching is going to be a problem.  AJ Ellis got a late start to his Major League career, and unfortunately, it looks like he’s close to the end of it now.  Yasmani Grandal was misused last year, when it was clear to all with eyes that he was hurt.  The man who proved so many naysayers wrong (myself included) now looks like damaged goods.  Until he can come back and look like the guy we saw from May through July, the book has NOT been closed on the Matt Kemp trade just yet- particularly the way Kemp has been hitting this spring.  While you’re at it, and while we’re on the subject of catchers, check out Tim Federowicz’s spring training numbers sometime.

Last but not least, we have the outfield, now in it’s fourth full season of flux.  Truth be told, it SHOULDN’T be as much of a question as it’s been in the past, although it probably is at the moment.  With Andre Ethier’s unfortunate fluke injury, Scott Van Slyke has stepped up, and shown that he DESERVES the starting spot in left field.  Unfortunately, the Dodgers appear to be moored to the “platoon” philosophy, even though Carl Crawford has mostly been awful for some time.  Seeing how the majority of pitchers are right-handed, Crawford will also likely get the lion’s shares of at-bats.  Perhaps Van Slyke’s performance- assuming he can continue to show what we’ve seen this past March- will force the Dodgers’ hand, much like Justin Turner did at third base.

In centerfield we have Joc Pederson, who shows great instincts for running down fly balls, but so far, very little else.  Yes, he hit some mammoth home runs, and drew a fair share of walks.  But even with his gaudy numbers early on, it was apparent he had holes in his swing, that were eventually exploited.  Has he fixed them?  Early indications are that he has not.  (His baserunning game needn’t be discussed, until he develops one.)

But the burden of proof on Pederson’s shoulders pales in comparison to the other young gun in the outfield, former phenom Yasiel Puig.  Another offseason marred in controversy, followed by another pedestrian spring training, has the few people still paying attention to him wondering what’s to come next.  It wasn’t that long ago whether pundits openly questions whether he was the next Roberto Clemente, or the next Raul Mondesi.  At this point, Mondesi would be a considerable upgrade. As Mike Trout and Bryce Harper run laps around Puig, the “he’s still young” excuse won’t last much longer.

And Off The Field…

With all the controversial moves Andrew Friedman and his lieutenant Fahran Zaidi made last offseason, it seemed fair to expect that results for 2015 would fall on his/their shoulders.  That didn’t happen.  Don Mattingly was blamed for nearly everything that went wrong, and was even criticized at times for moves that worked out!  (Anyone remember all the questions about Kershaw being taken out too early in game 4 of the NLDS, after the Dodgers WON THE GAME?!)  Mattingly made his fair share of mistakes, but he also led 3 first place finishes in a row, gaining little credit while taking in nearly all of the blame.

Now, Donnie Baseball is gone.  Dave Roberts is brand new, and very well-liked.  (One prediction I can nearly guarantee- this season, we will be reminded by Charlie Steiner of The Stolen Base on multiple occasions.)  The results of this year TRULY will fall on Friedman’s shoulders, and there will be plenty to question.  One question already worth asking is what would the mainstream Dodger bloggers be saying if Ned Colletti had let Zack Greinke go to a team within the division, while spending tens of millions of dollars on Brett Anderson, Scott Kazmir, and Joe Blanton.  (The favorable parsing of Blanton’s small sample size by the blogging community has been particularly amusing.)  If this plan doesn’t work, no amount of sabermetric wizardry will be able to save Friedman from the media and fans.

Ending On A High Note

There is still a lot to like about this team, even with the many issues it faces.  They have some young arms in the minors, who might be able to help down the road.  At least half their lineup looks like a real threat, and teams have gotten by with much less offensive firepower than that.  And hey- if Alex Wood and Scott Kazmir can find their better selves within, and Chris Hatcher can keep his confidence up, while Kenley Jansen puts his bitterness aside, there just might be hope yet.

And of course, we can all still appreciate Vin Scully one more season- not having Time Warner is no excuse, as the airwaves are free (for now).  And with that…

It’s Time For Dodger Baseball!