From “Kershaw Dealing” to “Dealing With Kershaw”

What to do when the ego of a superstar begins to outshine his talent…

By now, we all know about Clayon Kershaw’s incredible resume, but by The Internet Laws of Criticizing Beloved Superstars, I will be sure to repeat it here.  He is-

  • The best regular season pitcher of his generation.
  • A likely first ballot Hall of Famer.
  • A world class philanthropist.

So, now that I’ve acknowledged his undisputed greatness, let’s get to the matter at hand…

Players getting booed, or getting criticized when they don’t do well, comes with the territory.  But there is a certain type of player, a superstar among superstars, that achieves a sort of transcendent status, in terms of reputation.  Part of it is societal- how else can to explain Andrew Luck being applauded as a profile in courage for retiring right before the season, taking an extra $25 million with him on the way out the door?  Can anyone with a straight face say that Cam Newton would receive the same type of response, had he done the same thing under identical circumstances?  Similarly, how is it that Dodger Stadium reigns down with boos towards a struggling Kenley Jansen, the greatest closer in Dodger history, while giving Clayton Kershaw, still very good overall but past his best days, considerable slack?  That question alone can account for a blog post- not just for baseball but for human behavior in general.  But this post will deal with Clayton Kershaw specifically, and the need for the Dodgers (and Dave Roberts specifically) to do what’s right for the team first, regardless of who it upsets.

Only Vin Scully has enjoyed a higher standing in the Dodger universe this decade than Clayton Kershaw.  On the field, no one else has come close.  Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig and a few others certainly had their moments, but it’s been Kershaw who has sat atop throughout.  For the most part, that’s been a good thing, but it hasn’t been as smooth as legend would have us believe.  We can go all the way back at least to 2012, still fairly early in Kershaw’s career but already achieving elite status, when he was having hip issues towards the end of the season.  There was speculation that he might need to have surgery.  Many thought that at the very least, he would have to be shut down for the remainder of the year.  Luckily, the problem wasn’t as bad as it initially seemed, and Kershaw continued to pitch effectively for the Wildcard-chasing Dodgers.  Some still criticized the Dodger organization, for putting the team’s short term aspiration ahead of their young star’s health.  That last point is critical, given what happened on the second to last game of the season, the night the Dodgers got eliminated.  Hanging on for dear life, the Dodgers had slated Kershaw to pitch the next day against the Giants, hoping that the last game of their season would mean something.  Ultimately, it didn’t, but that didn’t stop Kershaw from publicly declaring that he was determined to start the game- a game that meant little more than one in spring training, outside of individual stats.  The Dodgers ultimately won with a stellar performance from Kershaw, and no one made a peep about the unnecessary risk that Kershaw had taken.  Given that some had wagged their finger at the Dodgers for having him pitch when the games did matter, it seemed curious that no one would say anything about Kershaw, for pitching in one that didn’t.  A 24 year old making a public declaration, not to be questioned, was highly unusual.  In fairness, Kershaw didn’t suffer any further injury, and the whole thing was quickly forgotten about, to the extent it was ever acknowledged at all.  But it had become clear, even with “only” one Cy Young award at that point, that Clayton Kershaw was largely responsible for calling his own shots.

As the years went on and Kershaw continued to pile on the hardware- two more Cy Youngs and an MVP- his reputation grew, as did his control of it.  And while we all know about the subsequent postseason failings, Kershaw was almost as untouchable to the critics as he was to hitters, at least relative to other pro-athletes.  Don Mattingly, whose shortcomings as a manager have been well documented, took the brunt of the blame for Kershaw’s October performances, culminating in a 2015 New York Times headline that summed it all up- “Clayon Kershaw Takes The Loss, But Don Mattingly Takes The Criticism“- this site’s pleading earlier that day notwithstanding.  (For a trip down memory lane, click here.  In there is another recollection of Kershaw’s ultra-competitive nature, reaching levels that bordered on counterproductive.)  Mattingly certainly had his faults, but the way boos eventually reigned down for him and ONLY him, as Kershaw came up short, seemed excessively harsh.  Of course, that’s well in the past now, as Mattingly now finds himself managing the Marlins at the bottom end of the east coast- not to mention the bottom end of the NL East.  But as we find ourselves well into the Dave Roberts era now, Kershaw’s stubbornness, if not outright selfishness, might be a bigger issue than ever.

Each of the first three seasons of Dave Roberts’ season brought incredible regular season success- thanks largely to Kershaw- followed by decent but underwhelming postseason success- also thanks largely to Kershaw.  Particularly jarring was Game 5 of the 2017 World Series, when the Dodger Ace blew a four run lead, and couldn’t redeem himself when the Dodgers scored an additional three runs.  Finally, after nearly a decade of October performances that didn’t come close to his regular season ones- yes, 2009 counts, too- the narrative of Clayton Kershaw’s postseason failings went beyond Cardinal fans, Giant fans, and so-called “haters” at large, and started to seep into the mainstream.  Yet still, much of the baseball world wanted to somehow lay the primary share of blame at Dave Roberts’ feet.  Because Kershaw pitched so brilliantly in relief during Game 7 after Yu Darvish got shelled and the game was practically out of reach, Roberts got retroactively criticized for not lining up Kershaw to pitch Game 7.  Never mind there would have likely been no NEED for game 7, had he done his job in Game 5.  Never mind that Yu Darvish had been acquired, in part, because the Dodgers had been criticized for relying so heavily on Kershaw in the past.  Somehow, once again, the superstar among superstars had to be protected by a group of people that acted more like his own PR team, than impartial analysts.

After the Dodgers lost the World Series again in 2018, some speculated that Kershaw, who had been absolutely shelled in the World Series by the Red Sox, was on his way out of LA.  Many were resigned to the idea that he’d never be a postseason hero for the Dodgers, and perhaps it was time to go elsewhere.  Once he opted out of his contract, it seemed like the door was likely about to close on his Dodger career.  Not so, it would turn out.  Andrew Friedman’s front office, with a well-earned reputation about making cold, calculated decisions if it made sense for the Dodgers long term (Dee Gordon, AJ Ellis, Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp twice, etc.), uncharacteristically offered Kershaw MORE guaranteed money than the contract option would have given.  Just to be clear, this might still BE the right baseball move- time will tell.  But it’s certainly a riskier one than Friedman normally makes.  (See: Greinke, Zack)

All this history brings us to Friday night, September 6th, with Clayton Kershaw pitching an uncharacteristically subpar game against the Giants.  Recall nearly seven years ago, and however many paragraphs ago in this blog post, how a potentially less-than-healthy Kershaw insisted on pitching against the Giants, during a game that meant nothing.  Some things, it seems, never change.  Friday night’s game didn’t quite mean nothing, but with the NL West wrapped up in all but name, and the Dodgers likely to be the highest seed in the National League, there wasn’t any extra pressure in the air, either.  Yet when Dave Roberts went to take Kershaw out, understandably, to preserve him for more critical situations, the pitcher, visibly annoyed, openly questioned his manager’s decision.  Nothing new there.  What was knew was after getting to the dugout, Kershaw threw a quick but unmistakable tantrum, pointlessly kicking the cooler as hard as he could, and risking a foot injury that he didn’t need, and one that his team couldn’t afford.

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What was the reaction to this outburst, which could have put him on the IL yet again?  Well, for starters, here’s what it wasn’t- no one in the public eye griped about an entitled baseball player, showing up his manager in public.  There was no lamenting of “today’s athletes”, making all the money without the accountability.  Nothing about selfish antics, putting his team at risk.  Nope- just a few jokes on the Internet about Kershaw getting into “postseason form” and a few additional laughs, on account of the cooler winning the battle.  (Dave Roberts wouldn’t even go THAT far, saying the cooler was going to be going on the IL.  He knows his players.)  And honestly, this might be less of a “Kershaw getting a pass” moment, than a “he was lucky he didn’t get hurt” moment.  But for someone who is constantly lauded as not just a great pitcher, but a great leader, and someone achieving an iconic status that even most stars with a championship seldom reach, he should be held to a higher standard.  But it seems like no one wants to have that discussion.  If anything, given that the Dodgers are STILL in search of their first title since Ronald Reagan was in office, he certainly should go out of his way to be as publicly supportive of Dave Roberts as possible.  If not?  It shouldn’t matter- the Dodgers need to do what’s right for the Dodgers first, even if that means risking the alienation of their franchise’s most recognizable player.

There may have been a time that Kershaw’s incredible stats gave him the “right” (for lack of a better word) to be given the benefit of the doubt.  But given all the postseason shortcomings, his less reliable performances lately and all the innings of wear and tear, those days should be over.  And if Clayton Kershaw pitches like the “real” Clayton Kershaw again?  Great.  But if not, Roberts should have no problem with using an early hook whenever he feels appropriate, regardless of what the media, the fans, and even Kershaw himself think.  Besides, if Kershaw is left in for too long, we all know who will be getting the blame for the decision.  But Dave Roberts should take comfort in knowing that Billy Martin famously benched Reggie Jackson in the middle of a game in 1977, much to Jackson’s chagrin, yet the Yankees were no less for it.  Also, between the Dodger superstar and the Dodger manager, only one of them has a World Series ring.  And it’s not Clayton Kershaw.

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Bums, No More- At the All Star Break, The State of The Dodgers is (Still) Great…But How About Baseball Itself?

bellingerThese days, I live more than 50 times closer to where Ebbetts Field used to be, than to the current home of the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Fortunately, thanks to all this newfangled technology, I can keep track of how things have been going for the Boys in Blue.  And honestly, it doesn’t even take that much attention to realize that things have been going quite well for them, an almost unheard of 3-game losing streak going into the All-Star Break notwithstanding.  Corey Seager, thought of to be the next face of the franchise not long ago, has been injured most of the past two seasons, yet barely been missed.  Clayton Kershaw, the greatest regular season pitcher in at least a generation, is not quite what he used to be, which is actually fine.  Still a very good pitcher, Kershaw is somehow probably the Dodgers’ current number THREE starter.  ALL the starters have actually been very good, at least when healthy.  In a year with a ridiculous amount of offense, thanks to a tightly wound ball that has turned baseball into a de-facto homerun derby (more on that in a bit), all five starting pitchers in the Dodgers rotation have an era under 4.00.  And speaking of de-facto homerun derby, how about that Cody Bellinger?  And Max Muncy?  And Joc Pederson?  The “worst” hitter with at least 200 at-bats, Kike Hernandez, still has a slugging percentage over .400.  Even going into the All-Star game in a bit of a slump, the Dodgers have the best record in baseball, and EASILY the best record in the National League.  The Boston Red Sox might be the reigning champions, but the Dodgers are currently the team to beat.

I guess what I’m saying is that this team is quite good, and even the surliest members of the fanbase- you know who you are- have been in a good mood.  Oh, and Vin Scully’s successor, Joe Davis, has been receiving nearly universal praise, when you just KNOW people were looking for an excuse to pounce on whomever replaced the man they renamed Dodger Stadium’s address after!  So for now, all is well in Dodgerland.

Now, About MLB In General…

For years, perhaps decades, there have been a contingency of doomsayers to tell us that “baseball is dying”.  Throughout my lifetime, there’s just something about the sport that has brought out the grumpy old man in many of us, thinking back to “our” era, and lamenting that it just ain’t what it used to be- too much offense, or increasingly overpaid underperformers, or not enough offense, or soulless ballparks (in the Astroturf era), and on and on it went.  But overall, baseball was still considered “America’s Pastime”.  Then, in 1994, something truly shifted, and not for the better.  Bud Selig managed to do what World War II could not, cancelling the remainder of the season, including the World Series.  Fans became very cynical, but contrary to popular opinion, were at least coming back gradually.  Then, we had the 1998 home run race between McGwire and Sosa, heralded as some sort of cultural turn of the tide for the ol’ ballgame.  Once THAT turned out to be “fake”, fans became even more cynical, capped off by Barry Bonds shattering of what many consider the TRUE home run record overall.  And quite honestly, baseball’s reputation hasn’t recovered since.

If someone were to pay me (anyone?  ANYONE??), I could literally write a book about all of this, and how much of it- both the good AND bad- was largely based on myth.  But there comes a point where the myth is so strong it eventually becomes reality.  So here we are in 2019, dealing with most of the same problems that have plagued this game for a generation, and in some ways have multiplied.

As this post is being typed at the end of July 4th weekend in 2019, the stories that dominated the sports news were the US Women’s soccer team, the NBA summer league, and a 15 year old tennis phenom named Coco Gauff.  To the extent that baseball has been mentioned on sports television, outside of the officially designated baseball shows, it’s usually to talk, ironically, about how little talk there is about baseball.  One talking head show on ESPN- I kid you not- debated whether baseball games should end as a tie at a certain point in extra innings, because it was just too boring to watch for that long.  The word “debate” is used loosely here, as everyone on the panel agreed.  Imagine one of these paid yappers on ESPN saying that about the NBA, the NFL, or even soccer- they’d be suspended, if not fired!  (Oh, wait.  Soccer does end in ties.  My mistake, but I digress.)  And I’ve lost track of the number of times that 50-something year old radio hosts mention how young people don’t like baseball anymore, adding without a hint of self-awareness, that THEY stopped watching baseball.  It sounds less like they’re lamenting it, and more like they’re kicking dirt on it, like Earl Weaver used to do at umpires.

So what gives, and what can change this trend?  For one thing, a problem can only be solved if those who have it acknowledge its existence.  Bud Selig had his head…in the sand, yeah, let’s go with that…and his successor, Rob Manfred, doesn’t seem to be much better.  Okay, fine, so baseball doesn’t get the headlines it once did.  It sure doesn’t help that teams actually had the day off on JULY FREAKING FOURTH- a holiday that nearly everyone’s looking to have a beer and a hot dog.

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Seriously- what the hell is up with THIS?!

And how about those Expos…err, I mean Washington Nationals, wearing the old uniform of the beloved franchise taken out of Montreal, by Selig’s old pal Jeffrey Loria?  They even invited Vlad Guerrero to the festivities.  This would be like the NBA having “Supersonics” night in Oklahoma City, and inviting Shawn Kemp!  I’m not exactly sure what it was supposed to accomplish, other than to possibly taunt Canadians on the United States’ Independence Day.

Anyway, all these are examples of just how poor the marketing is in baseball.  Somehow, we’re supposed to believe that soccer, a game first played when the Neanderthals faced off against the Velociraptors (literal Velociraptors!), is gaining popularity because these cool young kids enjoy fast action…unlike us Gen-Xers, who apparently reveled in watching paint dry when we were kids.  I remember the 1980’s, and nothing could be further from the truth.  Soccer just got its act together, marketed its sport to the American masses, and is probably creating young superstars as this is being typed, while more and more little league fields get paved over.

It’s not all about image, though.  There IS truth that the sport currently has less action now, thanks to the advocacy of “true outcome” baseball- which is to say emphasis on homers, strikeouts, and walks.  Making contact and running the bases aggressively have gone out of style, and with the “perfection” of pitching, it really is harder for batters to make contact than it was in the days where 95 mph fastballs were considered impressive.  Little of this can be blamed on Manfred and Selig, as the evolution of the game took on a life of its own.  And to his credit, Manfred will be adding a rule to limit relief pitching changes starting next year, which should be a relief to fans, as well as participants looking to speed up the game a bit.  But there’s a lot more work that needs to be done.  And while there’s far less illegal use of steroids and PEDs, it’s been hard to tell this year, with the happy fun ball currently being used in regulation this season, making situational hitting more of a novelty than a 400+ foot home run.

Look, I enjoy home runs as much as anyone, but seeing games that look more like batting practice just cheapens them.  Surely this is to make up for the fact that hitters are striking out more than they are getting hits, but more homers don’t solve that problem.  There are exceptions, though, such as DJ LeMahieu and Jeff McNeil, who are bucking the all-or-nothing trend, and putting up MVP type seasons while doing it.  (Justin Turner, as always, is also having a very nice season with this approach.)  This isn’t to say that what they are doing is EASY- far from it.  It just demonstrates that there’s still a place for these type of hitters- if anything, now more than ever.

Last but not least, is the marketing of stars, or lack thereof.  For years, those who have ignored baseball’s decreasing relevancy in our popular culture have cited players’ ever increasing (as well as increasingly obscene) salaries, to demonstrate the “health” of baseball.  Technically, this is true- looking at Fortune’s 100 highest paid athletes, and baseball is well represented with 15 active players- 3rd most behind the NBA and NFL.  But in terms of endorsements, the amount of money baseball players receive, relative to the other major sports, is laughable.  Of all the sports with at least five athletes on the list, here’s the percentage received from endorsements, relative to total income-

Tennis – 81.4%

Golf – 75%

Basketball – 24.8%

Soccer – 24.7%

Football – 9%

Boxing – 7.4%

Baseball – 3.9%

In terms of market appeal, this low number has to be alarming for MLB.  On top of that, half of the money from endorsements comes from just two of the fifteen players- Bryce Harper, and to a lesser extent (believe it or not), Mike Trout.  Harper, who had the biggest chance at being “the face of baseball” with his larger-than-life personality, didn’t even perform well enough with the fans to be on the FINAL BALLOT for All Star voting, let alone IN the All-Star game itself!

Oh, and one other thing about the All Star game- why does baseball have so many players represented in the game to begin with?  It’s supposed to be about marketing stars, not making sure everyone who had a good first half gets an affirmation.  It’s hard to highlight the greatness of a few, when the roster looks more suited for a college football game.

On The Bright Side…

With this massive laundry list of issues- my apologies for the length, it’s been years in the making- baseball is still a great game to watch, to go to, and to appreciate.  And the sport does have some young stars to look forward to.  Mike Trout is certainly the greatest player now, but Cody Bellinger absolutely has a chance to give him a run for his money- and, as we’ve noted, he’s got a lot of it- with a better arm, on a better team, in a bigger market.  We have some time before that happens, but with a possible Dodgers vs. Yankees October matchup, Major League Baseball might soon have more going for it than I’m currently giving it credit for.

Now THIS Is A Bargain!

Mike Trout was praised for signing the biggest individual contract in North American team history, for handling it “with class” and giving the Angels a “club friendly deal”. By those same standards, Ronald Acuna Jr. should be thrown a parade and have a building named after him.  $100 million for 21 year old with tons of upside, and a club option to keep him around until he’s 31 years old?  THIS, my fellow baseball fans, is TRULY a club friendly deal.

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Photo: Mike Zarrilli (Getty)

No disrespect intended for Mike Trout, who by all accounts IS a classy guy, and likely the best player in baseball right now.  He’s also going to very likely be in decline for at least half of his contract, which is far, FAR more expensive than Acuna’s.  Trout, who is more than six years older than Acuna- or, in baseball terms, roughly half a career older- is already in his prime years.  Acuna hasn’t even started his.  And, even if the 2018 Rookie of the Year doesn’t pan out the way it appears he will, $100 million over eight years, incredibly, isn’t that much money in Major League Baseball terms.  The Braves- who also have a more competitive team than the Angels- can afford the risk, given the potential reward for this very team friendly contract.

All in all, this is a great move for both sides.  In particular, Ronald Acuna Jr. deserves a tip of the cap- sure, $100 million is more than he’ll need to spend for the rest of his life.  But with all the whispers of how much MORE he could have made had he just waited longer, he showed that he values economic security over ego, not concerned at how much he’s making, relative to his peers.  Instead, he’ll let his numbers ON the field do the talking.

The Contrarian Take- Why Mike Trout’s Contract Is Ridiculous

Dr_Evil(After becoming Mike Trout’s agent,
Dr. Evil finally got the payout he’d been searching for.)

Seeing the overwhelming consensus on Mike Trout’s contract from the now-well entrenched stats community in Major League Baseball, one would think it would be silly to even mention the POSSIBILITY that the Angels made a big mistake today.  With a headline that seems to imply HE’S taking the contrary position, The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh writes, “Mike Trout Isn’t Worth $430 Million—He’s Worth Much More“.  A blogger for Nate Silver’s 538 website assures us that Trout’s contract is “a bargain”.  ESPN’s Sam Miller goes full Dr. Evil, telling us Mike Trout is worth one BILLION dollars.  And never lacking for confidence, Keith Law suggests anyone with lazy (aka “different than his”) opinions should smash their “phone with a strong hammer“.  (I wrote mine on a computer, so I guess I’m safe.)  Opinions like this can be seen all over the Internet, as the old school types that would shake their heads at such an absurd guaranteed contract for a single player have been virtually ridiculed out of existence.  Fortunately for them, however, I’m still here!

Before continuing on about just how ludicrous this contract will likely end up seeming in a few years- I’ve been wrong enough times in my life to add qualifiers- let me acknowledge several facts, so I don’t seem like a COMPLETE Internet troll.  For one thing, Mike Trout is almost unarguably the best player in baseball these days, and likely has been throughout nearly his entire career.  Relative to Manny Machado and Bryce Harper’s recent $300+ million deals, Trout’s $460 million is a bargain.  And, for what it’s worth, he does come across like a genuinely good, down-to-earth human being, not someone who’s been carefully crafted by some PR firm to seem like “just one of the guys”.

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You’d be smiling, too

“What it’s worth”, though, is a whole let less than $460 million.  For starters, Trout’s being praised for handling his extension with “class”.  Come on.  As a human being, he appears to be the real deal, but his quiet handling of this contract is hardly evidence of this- only someone with no restraint whatsoever would go blabbing to the media if they were negotiating the most expensive contract in North American team sports history!  But that’s neither here nor there.  The problem is that there is far more to consider, when making such a huge financial commitment, than the reasons given for why Mike Trout is worth all of this money (or more).  There’s no need to understand the fancy WAR stats to acknowledge the greatness of Mike Trout. (Full disclosure- I do not understand the fancy WAR stats.)  The problem with today’s advanced stat valuation is that it puts more worth into wins “above replacement” than it does into ACTUAL winning- something the Angels have not been particularly good at in recent years.  I’m not blaming Mike Trout for Anaheim’s lack of winning in recent years- far from it- but that’s exactly the point.  What good is paying so much money for one single player, without building a team around him? It’s not Mike Trout’s fault the Angels have been woefully absent during postseason baseball- well…outside of his one and only playoff appearance a few years back, which was pretty lousy.  But giving him all this money is not going to do much good, if the rest of the guys in his clubhouse get to visit their homes during the All Star break.

Even if the Angels do have success in the early part of Trout’s contract- unlikely as that may be- what are they going to do with all those years at the end of it?  (“Adjusting for inflation” with baseball contracts is a hot topic these days, but if I’m right about ONLY one thing, it’ll be this- that will be coming to a halt sooner, rather than later.  It HAS to!)  And as great as Mike Trout is, let’s not act like he, nor the “experts” praising him, are infallible.  In the former category, we have Clayton Kershaw as a recent example of the last baseball player who could do no wrong, being deemed worth any amount of money given to him.  While he has led the Dodgers to numerous postseason appearances, he has come up short repeatedly- as has been well documented- and is now injury-prone and on the wrong side of 30.  (The Dodgers may regret extending HIS contract this offseason, although that’s for another discussion.)  In the latter category, we have Jason Heyward, another young outfielder (supposedly) in his prime a few years back, who the stats community deemed a “steal” for the Cubs at the time.  Never had the WAR stats and the traditional stats been so at odds, but the sabermetric community, who by then had fully infiltrated baseball’s front offices, INSISTED that Heyward was more than worth it. As it would turn out, the most well known sports professional who turned out to be correct about Heyward was…Joe Buck!  Of course, the Cubs famously won the World Series in 2016, but to the extent Heyward was a key contributor, it was due far more to his “locker room talk” (no, not that locker room talk) during a rainout, which motivated the Cubs to victory. Irony of ironies- he DID have a unique skill, after all, but it was one that not even the stat guys could measure- the gift of gab.

So as of now, the Angels don’t appear much closer to postseason appearances, let alone success, than they were prior to Trout’s massive contract.  And without winning, the Angels’ marketing department will not be able to make up for his massive paydays- all 12 years of them- as MLB doesn’t have the kind of marketing ability that the NBA does for individual players. Not even close.  And, while baseball might not be “dying”- regardless of whatever Bud Selig was doing during his feckless time at the helm- it’s certainly not healthy enough to continue handing out these contracts, which are enabled by the cable bubble, that is enabled by the financial bubble, which is due to burst any day now.  But that’s also for another discussion.  (For those interested, click here.  Or here.  Or here.  Or)

Update- Not even a full three hours after this was posted do I have to issue a modification.  I shouldn’t have JUST labeled the sabermetric community as being so in favor of this deal.  Their onetime arch-nemesis, Bill Plaschke, has fully endorsed it, as well.  The unconditional love for Mike Trout is even MORE transcendent than I originally stated.  It’s truly incredible that no one of prominence will even acknowledge the POSSIBILITY that this deal is risky.

What Is It About Clayton Kershaw?

Given that Clayton Kershaw has received a one year extension on an already seemingly-bloated option- the total price tag is $93 million for 3 years- it’s somewhat baffling.  When Friedman traded Matt Kemp in 2014, it was “business”- they thought he was on the wrong side of 30, injury prone and overpaid. Kershaw has virtually the same baggage, but the Dodgers decide to reward him for what he HAS done. (At least through each September.) What gives??

kershaw1We all know Clayton Kershaw is a great guy, and one of the greatest regular season pitchers of all time.  We also know that AT TIMES, he’s just as great in the postseason.  But we are now at a point where for the past DECADE- and yes, 2009 counts- he has been considerably worse in October than he is in the prior six months.  We also know that he has back problems, and those don’t tend to get better at age 30.

To be sure, Kershaw has an increasing number of detractors, but nothing close to what just about every athlete on earth of his stature would receive, for continuously coming up short when it mattered most.  Chad Billingsley (remember him?) became persona-non-grata with most Dodger fans in 2008, after one bad postseason series against the Phillies.  (He did have some fervently loyal fans in the blogging community at the time, but it was a comparatively small portion of the fanbase, especially back then.)  With Kershaw, though?  With a still impressive number of defenders/apologists, it’s always someone or something else- the Cardinals, the 7th inning, the manager, bad luck, poor defense, poor offense, etc. etc..

And for the record, none of this is “hating”- Kershaw is likely a first ballot Hall of Famer, and deservedly so.  If not for him, the Dodgers wouldn’t HAVE all these opportunities to reach the postseason to begin with.   It’s just very peculiar that in the often overly critical world of sports, Kershaw continues to receive pass after pass from so many in the fanbase, in the media, and apparently, even in the Dodger front office.

goodbyeSo we’ll see what the future holds for Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers.  And hey, it’s entirely possible that the Dodgers WILL win a World Series with Kershaw as a part of the rotation- but at best, he will probably no longer be leading it.  That honor should now go to Walker Buehler.  And $30+ million a year for a #2 starter is an awful lot of money.  Lucky for the Dodgers, they can afford to find out.

When “Going For The Jugular” Goes Wrong

Alex Cora Throws Everything But The Kitchen Sink At The Dodgers- Max Muncy Throws It Right Back At Him.

More than any other sport, baseball involves a lot of luck.  Someone can hit a weak ground ball that gets past the infield, and he will be praised for “not trying to do too much.”  On the flip side, someone can hit a scorching line drive right to the second baseman, with a runner on second that immediately gets doubled off the base.  Fans will then complain about a lack of “hitting in the clutch”.

That kind of mentality is even more extreme when it comes to managers.  Alex Cora is a perfect example of this.  A first year manager who’s “pushed all the right buttons,” he gets the kind of leeway rarely seen in baseball, let alone with rookies.  And to be fair, the record is on his side- a 108 win season and a trip to the World Series will do that for a guy.

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Still, contrary to what you’d believe from the media, both old and new, he’s far from infallible, and he proved that in Game 3 of the 2018 World Series.  While not the main reason the Red Sox lost, he didn’t help matters, and unnecessarily put them in an even worse position going forward.  He managed as if he were down two games, instead of up two.  In fact, if I didn’t know better, I would’ve thought yesterday was an elimination game!  He practically emptied his bench barely after extra innings began, had THREE starting pitchers in the game- poor “losing” pitcher Nathan Eovaldi, the previously assumed Game 4 starter, threw more innings in Game 3 than the ACTUAL starting pitcher, Rick Porcello- and reduced rising star left fielder Andrew Benintendi to a meaningless pinch hit at bat.  He also decided to pitch to Yasiel Puig instead of dependable but light hitting Austin Barners.  (In fairness, Puig got considerable help from Ian Kinsler, 2018’s version of Bill Buckner.)   Alex Cora will be AL Manager of The Year, but he didn’t look like it last night.

But enough about the Red Sox manager already.  The Dodgers, playing comeback kids all year- really almost all decade- toyed with their fans’ collective hearts once again, coming to life at the precise moment when everyone gave up on them- particularly Max Muncy.  Barely on the Dodgers’ radar at the beginning of the year- STILL barely on their radar in terms of payroll- Muncy would end the game with the most famous Dodger home run since Kirk Gibson.  But even more incredibly, Muncy showed highly alert baserunning- something sorely lacking in the Dodgers’ era of analytics- by ending up in scoring position, getting to second base on a foul popup catch by Eduardo Núñez, who subsequently ended up in the stands.  (On a sidenote, Núñez is taking WAY too much heat, IMO. Had Muncy not alertly tagged up, fans would say what a great catch it was. CLEARLY he was playing on a bad ankle, and seemed to be going with his momentum, rather than make a halting stop.)  With postseason-saving baserunning and game-ending hitting, Max Muncy was Dave Roberts and Kirk Gibson rolled into one!

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Finally, it would be criminal to recap Game 3 without mentioning Cody Bellinger’s amazing throw at the plate, gunning down- you guessed it- Ian Kinsler.  And then there was the starting pitcher Walker Buehler, the Dodger rookie who has pitched as well as he did in the regular season, and at times even better.  Going 7 innings in an era when managers give starters the hook before the game is even halfway done- well actually, in this case it ALSO wasn’t halfway done, but you know what I mean- the Dodgers would be dead in the water without his efforts.  When Clayton Kershaw has yet another attempt at redemption in Game 5, the fans don’t need to see all kinds of excuses, disguised in the form of stats,  showing how great he truly is- they need him to perform like Clayton Kershaw.  If a young rookie making the league minimum can do it on a consistent basis, then so can one of the greatest (not to mention one of the highest paid) regular season pitchers in the history of baseball.

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Before getting to Game 5, though, the Dodgers have a golden opportunity to even the series tonight, against a depleted Boston team.  Although still a game behind, after almost literally playing two games last night, the series FEELS tied.  With the momentum on the Dodgers side, it just might be soon enough.

Opening Day Expectations for the Dodgers Are At A Decades-Long High. But Why?

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Before answering the question of this admittedly loaded subject title, it’s worth saying that the Dodgers certainly appear to be one of the best teams in baseball, as has been the case for nearly four years.  Corey Seager will probably get even better, Clayton Kershaw is still the best, and after a brief offseason scare that they might land somewhere else, underappreciated Kenley Jansen and Justin Turner are back in LA for 2017, and probably beyond that.

The rest of the team looks pretty good, as well.  At least for the spring, Chase Utley seems to have discovered the fountain of youth.  Even if not, he won’t be the primary second baseman, anyway- Logan Forsythe, the only major acquisition for this year’s Major League roster, also had a great spring.  The outfield has the now-familiar core, anchored by centerfielder Joc Pederson.  The pitching is a bit of a question mark- we’ll get to that in a second- but Rick Honeycutt and company always seem to get the best out of them.

Arguably, the best thing the Dodgers seem to have going for them is the same thing they’ve had going for quite a while now- the rest of the NL West.  Do you even remember the last time someone besides the Dodgers or Giants won the NL West?  (Actually, the Diamondbacks did in 2011, but that was the only time in the past 9 seasons.  Also, for the current Diamondbacks, 2011 might as well have been 1911.)  That trend is likely to continue for 2017.  So when the regular season competition is almost exclusively between two teams, winning the division at worst should be like a coin flip for the Dodgers.

However…

None of that justifies the overwhelmingly and exceptionally high marks the Dodgers are getting for 2017, with Opening Day just hours away.  The talented Grant Bisbee, an SB Nation blogger for McCovey Chronicles, refers to the Dodgers as “the class of baseball”. This isn’t TOO surprising, as Bisbee’s loyalties towards the SABR ideology is about as strong as his loyalty to the Giants.   However, when seeing how Bill Plaschke- household curmudgeon and perennial whipping boy for The New School- has also gotten onboard, it’s clear that something is amiss.  ESPN’s baseball department, such as it still is, is not quite as overly optimistic on the Dodgers, with The Boys In Blue “only” the third favorite pick for champions, right behind the 2016 participants.  Still, the team receives very high marks all around, from people who do this sort thing for a living.  Which leads us back to the original question, “Why now?”

Before examining 2017 further, consider what happened at the end of 2016.  This is a team that made it past the Nationals by the skin of their teeth in the NLDS, and while they were competitive against the Cubs in the next round, there is no question who the better team was.  What has happened since, to create this surge in optimism?  Other than Logan Forsythe, the most significant signing has been Sergio Romo.  While Dodger fans can be forgiven for abandoning their hostility towards the flamboyant 3x World Champion for San Francisco- being a sports fan these days requires short memories about these sorts of things- there should be no forgetting of Romo’s contribution towards the Giants collapse last year.  Don’t let that 2.64 ERA fool you- part of the reason the Dodgers incredible, Kershless late-season comeback was a success, was because of the failures of the Giants bullpen.  Romo was every bit a part of that failure.  Does the 34 year old have enough left to turn it around?  Possibly- if he even stays healthy enough.  But this can’t justify the reasoning that the Dodgers have gotten that much closer to the Cubs, or perhaps even the Nationals.

romo.pngAnd speaking of bullpens, this seems to be a compelling reason- for some, anyway- as to why the Dodgers will repeat, perhaps even surpass, their success of last season.  But keep in mind that until the 2016 squad came along, there was no precedent- NONE- for a bullpen that was used so heavily, to have an even winning record, let alone one that ended up in the postseason.  In fact, there has never been a bullpen that was used so heavily period- probably the main reason why Dave Roberts deservedly won NL Manager of the Year.  For the 2017 Dodgers to live up to their reputation, though, they will have to get some length out of their starters, as opposed to repeating the unprecedented late season success of last season’s bullpen.  That, above all else, is going to be the key to whether or not the Dodgers even make it to October, let alone how far they make it into October.

And just how likely is it that this team WON’T overuse their bullpen this season?  One of the more curious aspects of the Friedman/Zaidi era is the much rosier (or should we say blue colored) interpretation of the facts, versus the glass-is-half empty recollection of the Colletti era.  What used to be seen as question marks and logjams are now seen as “depth”.  Sure, the Dodgers have lots of starting pitchers to choose from, but how many of them, not named Clayton Kershaw, can be relied upon?  Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda, the guys who couldn’t be asked to go more than 5 innings per game in the postseason?  Brandon McCarthy and Hyun Jin-Ryu, with their injury histories?  The promising Julio Urias, who won’t even start at the Major League level this year?

And once they get to the bullpen, what can the team expect at that point?  Middle relief is fickle, in general, so how about we just skip to the 9th, and talk about Kenley Jansen.  Although arguably the most dominant closer in Dodger history- at least in terms of longevity- we still don’t know the effects of last October on him.  Kershaw got most of the accolades for his surprise save against the Nationals, but it was Jansen who was asked to save the team- literally and metaphorically- time and time again, including the game that Kershaw closed out.  Whether that can continue, given his past usage, remains to be seen.

Back To The Brightside…

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In just a few hours, it will be Time For Dodger Baseball once again.  There is too much past history and too much future promise to dwell on the questions and concerns brought up in this blog.  It’s just that with glowing reviews this offseason, it was at least worth CONSIDERING the kinds of things that will pop up eventually, especially seeing how few bloggers, journalists, and baseball analysts HAVE looked at the downside.  But during the spring, Justin Turner hit like Ted Williams, Clayton Kershaw pitched like Clayton Kershaw, and everyone else should be just about ready for the season now.  Who knows- maybe Yasiel Puig can remind us why we were so excited about him a few years back.  Maybe.  We’ll see.

 

’til next time…