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.

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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.

cora

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…

Clayton-Kershaw-Justin-Turner

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…

2016 Dodgers Recap- A Different Formula Produces A Similar Result

In recent months, we’ve gotten a lot of comparisons to 1988, and they’ve been apt- the Dodger team from this year, like the team from that year, seemed to be powering ahead, against all odds.  In some ways, they seemed an even MORE unlikely winner.  They were also the greatest bullpen-by-committee playoff team in Major League Baseball history, because they were the ONLY bullpen-by-committee playoff team in playoff history.  It is amazing that they got this far, and even more amazing to consider that a few bounced balls here, a blown call there, and it really MIGHT have looked more like 1988, instead of 2008, or 2009, or 2013, or 2014, or 2015.  But alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

But getting back to the similarities between this squad and the one from 1988, in some ways, that is the most concerning thing here- part of the REASON for the Dodgers futility after that season was because the team was not built on a strong foundation.  The very thing that made them so endearing is the same thing that made them so fleeting- they just weren’t built to last.  This team has a little bit more hope for its future, with Corey Seager, Joc Pederson, perhaps Andrew Toles, and a few others.  But will it be enough?  A lot of the guys who have been so good for the past few years are in their mid-30’s.  This team was built by the front office with strong duct tape, but how much longer can that duct tape hold?

Most troubling of all is the starting rotation.  In fact, who is the starting rotation?  The bullpen was incredible for a long stretch of time, but even in today’s era, having to regularly depend on them before the 7th inning is a really bad sign for the long term.  If the 2017 Dodgers have to heavily rely on Adam Liberatore and Joe Blanton again, they are in deep trouble.

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source: LA Times

And I’m sorry, but we have to talk about Clayton Kershaw.  He’s the greatest regular season pitcher in baseball, but how many more years are the majority of Dodger fans going to point their ire in other directions when he comes up short?  It’s the manager.  It’s the lack of offense behind him.  It’s Andrew Toles’ error.  STOP.  A large section of the fanbase never forgave Chad Billingsley, after one ineffective, weak start against the Phillies.  And here we are, after four straight years where Kershaw did not dominate from beginning to end, and most fans want to look everywhere but towards Kershaw himself.  This isn’t to say that Kershaw needs to be roasted like so many before him- not just Billingsley, but Jonathan Broxton, George Sherrill, Brandon League, etc.- but it’s time to mix in some criticism with the endless praise.  He is the most heralded pitcher in baseball, as well as one of the highest paid.  He needs to pitch like it from beginning to end.

As for what next year and beyond hold?  It’s difficult to say, but as of now, it feels like if the Dodgers recipe for success in 2016 is not sustainable.  The Cubs have a young, strong core that should be together for some time, especially by the standards of today’s wheeling-and-dealing environment.  Unlike the Dodgers, the Cubs wouldn’t have had to do much more in the offseason, had they not advanced.  Looking within the NL West, even the Giants, with their awful bullpen, seem to have a pretty good core themselves.  Andrew Friedman and Fahran Zaidi deserve a bit of a mulligan, with the job they did under some trying circumstances, and Dave Roberts looks like he’s here to stay, which is a good thing.  But the front office can’t expect to transact their way to a World Series- their short-term moves worked about as well as anyone could have imagined for the second half of the season, and they STILL came up short.  We’ll see how their plan is for building sustainable success for the future.  And for crying out loud, Guggenheim, get the team on television already!

’til next year…

Recap of NLCS at Dodger Stadium – 1 out of 3 Ain’t Good (…plus, In Defense Of Steve Bartman)

Well, a three game sweep by either team seemed pretty unlikely from the start.  However, with the Dodgers in full control for Game 3 and Adrian Gonzalez coming across the plate for what almost certainly looked like the first run of Game 4, Dodger fans couldn’t help but to wonder.  But alas, their hopes, much like Adrian Gonzalez’s would-be run, were not to be.  That probably-blown call, followed by some poor Dodger defense, combined with a few lucky hits for the Cubs against Julio Urias, seemed to be a turning point in the series so far.  Rather than actually run on Jon Lester, the Dodgers opted merely to try distracting him.  (It didn’t work.)  Joe Blanton could only be the “good” Joe Blanton for so long, particularly given how many times the Dodgers have called upon him this season.  He really looks like he has nothing left in the tank now.  The rest of the middle relief, so incredibly effective for the greatest two-and-a-half month stretch in the history of a bullpen-by-committee, has also fallen apart this series.  At the moment, things are looking sort of bleak.

kershaw

Caption not required. (source: trippingbaseballs.mlblogs.com)

Far from being over, though, there is plenty of reason to think the Dodgers have a reasonable chance of winning two games straight, even going into what is certain to be a rabid scene in the Windy City.  Having a fully rested Clayton Kershaw is a scenario that any team would want, regardless of where they were in the series.  While it’s understandable from an emotional standpoint why fans would be upset that he didn’t pitch in Game 5, this would have been a mistake on several levels.  For one thing, although the box score says otherwise, an already overused Kershaw had nothing left in the 7th inning of Game 2.  Only good fortune saved Dave Roberts from a Mattingly-esque fate, for leaving him in the game, for a batter (or two) too long.  For another, having him on short rest AGAIN would have gotten him into the sixth inning, maybe the seventh.  Then what?  Put Kenley Jansen in for another multi-out save?  And, even if THAT plan works, what happens in Game 6 and 7?

Oh, and by the way, though it’s been a while since Dodger fans experienced it (maybe not as long as Cubs fans, but still), there is a whole other round of playoffs after this.  What happens then, have Kershaw pitch in three games, and hope his arm stays intact?!  The 28 year old Ace-of-Spades has already been used more frequently than Orel Hershiser was in 1988, and while Dodger fans old enough to have fond memories of that October, Hershiser’s career was never the same after that.  (He did manage one more great year in ’89, but his arm gave out after that.)  We haven’t even mentioned that Kershaw missed about two months because of a bad back, and for those not close enough to 30 to understand this, those never go away.  (Kershaw himself will be 29 at the beginning of next season.)  The Dodgers will need pitchers besides Clayton Kershaw to contribute if they are going to win it all, and the massive usage that some are suggesting- to go along with the massive usage he’s already taken on- will not be worth it, if the team “only” goes on to win the National League pennant.

bill_murrayAs for the rest of the team, much like Game One against Jon Lester, the offense looked better than the Game 5 box score suggested.  This time, it wasn’t so much against Lester himself, but against the relievers, Pedro Strop and Aroldis Chapman.   Hopefully for the Dodgers, that’s a sign of things to come, as opposed to two bored relievers in a blowout.  Game 6 on the way Saturday night.  Bill Murray and much of the rest of the country will be watching.

As For Bartman…

bartmanWith the Cubs up 3 games to 2 and headed back to Chicago, the Steve Bartman references were inevitable- and let’s face it, it would be silly not to at least mention him in passing.  However, after 13 years of retrospect, as well as an excellent 30-for-30, with an in-depth look at the vicious scapegoating that he endured (with some stuff about Bill Buckner thrown in for good measure), it would seem that it was well passed time to put the incident in perspective.   Unfortunately, that’s just not how things are done around here, particularly in the media.  It’s a lazy, ready-for-made TV narrative- of COURSE it had to be a poor, clueless schlep, sitting in the front row of “The Friendly Confines” Wrigley Field , extending this “curse”.  Like Ken Bone in recent times (albeit different circumstances), the media were all too willing to make this anonymous man into a household name.

The problem is that it wasn’t true- well, for the most part.  Yes, Bartman reached over and deflected the ball from Moises Alou, but he didn’t do anything different than most of the fans surrounding him, as announcer Steve Lyons pointed out during the broadcast in the very next game.  (As a sidenote, why do fans still do this?!  If there’s one thing the “Bartman incident” should have taught ALL of us, it’s that fans in the first row of foul territory should make a conscious decision, BEFORE the game, to allow their team’s fielders every chance possible to catch a ball.  But I digress.)  Even more damning, the Cubs still had a comfortable three run lead and just two outs to go in the inning, but completely fell apart on their own.  Most notably, Alex Gonzalez’s error- undoubtedly enough to get the runner at second, and possibly even an inning-ending double play- would almost certainly been enough to stop the bleeding.  No one would have remembered Bartman, any more than they remember Yasmani Grandal missing an easy popup in Game 2 of this NLCS.

But none of the surrounding circumstances stopped some very public officials, fanning the flames against the unsuspecting lifelong Cubs fan, although karma would deal some pretty hefty blows to some of most high profile ones.  Then-Governor Rod Blagojevich said that he’d never pardon Steve Bartman, if ever given the chance- a statement that turned out as ironic as it was cruel, in light of where he ended up.  Then-Manager Dusty Baker had no problem assigning much of the blame to Bartman, when prompted to do so by the media.  The journeyman manager has not won a deciding game since.  (Most recently, his ordering of a sacrifice bunt, with the bottom of the order coming up, is about as much of a reason as any why he’s not getting another shot at a pennant at Wrigley, albeit this time in the visiting dugout.  He should take responsibilities for OWN decisions, before assigning blame to fans for his team’s woes.  But again, I digress.)  Even Jeb Bush got into the trolling act a bit, offering Bartman “sanctuary” in the state of Florida.  And, while we’re on the subject of trolling and Jeb Bush…..well, never mind.  This is the wrong site for that sort of thing.

Most of all, though, the media couldn’t wait to run with the story, and the game tonight gives them all the opportunity to rehash the narrative all over again.  It seems to provide them with some sort of weird nostalgia, to think back to one of the most undeserving character assassinations in recent American history.  MLB Network reran a clever-but-cruel (and okay, pretty funny) Bob Costas-narrated mockumentary, reimagining Steve Bartman as the hero, culminating in a *spoiler alert* victory over Barack Obama for a seat in the United States Senate.  I wouldn’t feel so guilty about laughing, or so compelled to be a Debbie Downer about it, if the man didn’t literally have to go into hiding for his “sin”.  (On the flip side, enjoying Will Ferrell’s fictional rendition of the late Harey Carey calling the play can be done guilt-free.)  Bottom line- whatever bit of responsibility Steve Bartman holds for the 2003 Chicago Cubs, pales in comparison to the responsibility held by the 2003 Cubs, as well as all the blame that he took for it.

Ending this post on a more positive note, particularly since I have almost NEVER said anything nice about Bud Selig, he deserves credit for being one of the few public figures to defend Steve Bartman, essentially telling Cub fans to stick to blaming goats, not fans, for their misfortune.  Even more noteworthy, former Cub great (and drafted Dodger) Rick Sutcliffe considered bringing Bartman out for the opening pitch of the 2003 World Series.  It turned out to be a moot point, of course.  The 2016 Dodgers are hoping, seemingly against all odds, that will continue to be the case.