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…

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Dodgers vs Cubs, Game 1 NLCS Recap- What Kind of Manager Is Dave Roberts, Anyway?

Looking at the rosters for the two teams on Opening Night of the National League Championship series, one might wonder how the Dodgers could possibly win Game One, particularly with postseason legend and potential Cy Young award winner Jon Lester going for the 103 game winning “Lovable Losers”.  For those who ended up watching the game, one might wonder how the Dodgers ended up losing.  The team hit into an astonishing six line drive outs, which actually accounted for seven outs total, given that the one which ended the game was a double play off the bat of an unlucky Chase Utley.  That doesn’t even account for the line drive single from starting pitcher Kenta Maeda, ultimately resulting in the fateful out of Adrian Gonzalez at home plate.  But for a short time late in the game, the team who had been beating the odds since Clayton Kershaw’s season altering injury- that is, altering in a good way, somehow- seemed poised to do it again.

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He did this TWICE!

Even with all the bad luck- and great defense, particularly from Dexter Fowler- the Dodgers  appeared to be copying the script from the fateful NLDS Game Five against the Nationals, knocking a potential Cy Young award winner out of a game, scrapping to comeback.  With the Cubs leading by two, but facing a bases loaded and no one out situation in the top of the 8th, Cubs manager Joe Maddon went to closer Aroldis Chapman an inning earlier than usual. (Wait- he’s with the Cubs now? I can’t keep up anymore.  Anyway…)  Chapman made fairly easy work against a sadly struggling Corey Seager, and a sadly declining Yasiel Puig.  Up stepped Adrian Gonzalex, who hit…you guessed it…a line drive.  This one was not caught, and suddenly, we had a tied game and a quieted Wrigley Field.

But unlike the deciding game against the Nationals, this time, the shocking late inning comeback only resulted in a tie, instead of a lead.  In other words, it more closely resembled the setup for NLDS Game Four, when the Nationals tied the game after a Clayton Kershaw exit at Dodger Stadium, only to have Chase Utley put the home team ahead for good.  But this time, the Dodgers were the road team, ending up on the wrong end of the emotional roller coaster ride.  Like the Nationals at Dodger Stadium, they almost escaped the bottom half of the innings unscathed.  Almost.  But a couple of intentional walks would ultimately seal the Dodgers’ fate.  If the Cubs end up in their first World Series appearance since the end of the previous (and hopefully last ever) World War, this series of moves will be discussed for a very, very long time.  But why wait ’til later to try figuring it all out?

Deconstructing Dave

daveWe here at DodgersFYI have made it perfectly clear that the entire staff are fans of Dave Roberts- all one of us!  Of the many, many, MANY roster moves that the front office has made over the past year, signing him has been the best one.  He is at least as good of a “player’s manager” as Don Mattingly was, and certainly superior to him from a tactical standpoint.  The Fox Sports broadcast showed an incredible stat during the course of the game- prior to 2016, of the five teams that had the most single season pitching changes in baseball history,  the MOST wins one of those teams had was 73.  Dave Roberts’ squad had more pitching changes than any of them, and somehow managed to win 91.  This is a man who knows what he’s doing, and if there’s any justice, he will be voted in as National League Manager of the year.

With all that in mind, baseball is more dependent on luck than any other major American sport, and prior to Saturday night, Dave Roberts’ short postseason record has been as charmed as Mattingly’s was snakebitten.  Riding a string of understandable but controversial decisions that worked in his favor over the previous week, the Dodger skipper doubled down in the 8th inning, with a runner already on second base- actually, tripled down, opting to turn one Cub baserunner into three, via intentional walks from Joe Blanton.  The first walk was to Jason Heyward, a guy who crushed a triple against the right-handed Maeda, finally looking like a $20 million man after a subpar season.  Seeing how Heyward was a .207 hitter against lefties in 2016, it’s unlikely that Maddon would have let him hit against the capable southpaw Dodger reliever, Grant Dayton, one of the unsung heroes that’s helped make Dave Roberts look good.  So walking Heyward and sticking with Blanton for the next batter appeared to be the right move at that time.  But then, Roberts ordered another intentional walk, this time to pinch hitter Chris Coghlan, whose batting average on the season was .188.  (To put that in perspective, Madison Bumgarner’s was .186.)  So not only were the Dodgers adding an extra baserunner, but they were advancing the two that were there already!  All this was to get to Chapman’s spot, to force Maddon’s hand, to see if he’d take Chapman out for a pinch hitter.  (Reading all this, can you believe some people want to add the DH to the National League?)

From one perspective and only one perspective, this series of moves is understandable- Chapman is probably the best closer in the game, two blown playoff saves notwithstanding.  Facing anyone else in the 9th inning would be desirable- desirable in a vacuum, as they used to say in Physics class.  However, this situation was the opposite of a vacuum- this was a bases-loaded-in-the-playoffs situation, with an overworked pitcher, now throwing for the fifth time in nine days.  In addition, for all his improvements this year, Blanton still gives up the long ball from time to time.   Seeing that the batter was Miguel Montero, a guy who had an off year but also hits the long ball from time to time, it seemed as likely a time as any for Dave Roberts postseason luck to finally betray him- and betray him it did.  Montero hit an 0-2 pitch way into the right field seats, in what could be the most critical home run in Cubs’ postseason history.  (We’ll know for sure in about a week.)

Considering how instantly visceral fan reaction can get in the age of social media, the hostility towards Dave Roberts was comparatively mild.  To be sure, there was lots of criticism in his direction, but he had a fair share of defenders, and the most heated rage was aimed in Blanton’s direction, for throwing such a lousy 0-2 pitch.  (I can only imagine what Vin Scully, who LOATHED hitable 0-2 pitches, would be saying!)   And really, it would be nice to live in a world where everyone didn’t want to fire the manager after a single move backfires, no matter how critical that move is.  But given how much Roberts has dealt with this season, and how well he’s handled it, no rational person can POSSIBLY consider him a lost cause after this.

At the same time, now that we’ve FINALLY seen something backfire on him, it seems like a good time to scrutinize the Dodgers’ first year manager a little bit.  After listening to the platitudes about how “he does what it takes to win”, it’s worth considering what “it” actually is.  Based on everything we’ve seen so far, it seems that he’s a fan of Russian Roulette, where the payoff is huge and percentage for success is huge, but the consequences of a loss are catastrophic.  In this case, facing a pitcher besides Chapman in the 9th gives his team a far better chance of winning, but in order to setup that scenario to begin with, Roberts has to voluntarily give the other team a shot at scoring four runs with one swing.  This is a calculated risk, but it is a risk all the same.  Roberts was willing to take it, and he paid a heavy price for it.  (Ironically, he was somewhat justified in his thinking, by the fact that the Cubs pitcher in the 9th was far easier for the Dodgers to handle than Chapman.  But with such a large deficit, the point was moot.)

Going forward, the scrutiny of Roberts’ gambles will come into more focus.  Consider how pundits and fans alike have profusely praised his use of Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen as “gutsy”.  Without reliving the entire previous two postseasons, at least recall the 7th inning of the 2014 NLDS in St. Louis, an inning that cemented many (if not most) Dodger fans’ hearts and minds about Don Mattingly’s ineptitude.  With a 2-0 lead, Clayton Kershaw gave up two relatively cheap back-to-back singles to the St. Louis Cardinals.  With Matt Adams at the plate, Kershaw threw the worst curveball of his career to a left handed hitter, and it ended up going over the wall.  But most of the blame went to Mattingly, for supposedly overusing the Dodger ace.  That “overusage” of that NLDS was NOTHING compared to what we’ve seen in 2016, with Kershaw throwing pitches into triple digits on short rest, then coming back two days later to close out the series.

As for Jansen, he threw 51 pitches in that same game, by far a career high.  You have to go back to Joe Torre, leaving Jonathan Broxton to wilt against the Yankees on 48 pitches in 2010, to recall such heavy usage of a closer.  Broxton then got several days off, but the 2016 Dodgers don’t have that luxury- not when they’re already down 1-0.  Luckily, he’s already had two days off, so perhaps he will be ready for game 2.  He’d better be, because while “anything can happen” is one of the most cited mantras of Major League Baseball, it’s impossible- not nearly impossible, but completely impossible- to imagine the Dodgers advancing, without at least decent performances from Kershaw and Jansen, throughout the rest of the series.  To put it another way, the chance of everyone forgetting about the bases loaded gamble, is tied directly to how the (over?)usage of the Dodgers’ two best pitchers effects them, going forward.

In The Bigger Picture

The Dodgers offense was far better than the box score indicates, and the fact that they didn’t give up, even in the 9th, is very encouraging.  But Dodger fans can be forgiven for feeling a little bit concerned, if not downright morose.  For nearly a decade now, in spite of all the roster changes, front office changes, even ownership changes, the Dodger postseason always seems to follow a pattern.  Since 2008, each postseason the Dodgers participate in contains at least one dramatic, “I WAS THERE!” triumph, and at least one gut wrenching, heartbreaking defeat.  Given how this franchise hasn’t won it all since 1988, the heartbreaker always comes last.  It remains to be seen for 2016’s Boys in Blue, whether the heartbreaker that was NLCS Game 1, will also end up being a back breaker.

Some Random Observations

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Isn’t He From Seattle?

The Cubs, for some reason, came out to the “Rocky” theme, which is normally used for Philadelphia teams.  Maybe they’ll come out to “I Love LA” for Game Two…Javy Baez is getting praised for his baseball IQ, yet he still didn’t run right out of the box, on what ended up as a bloop double.  His electric steal of home, which actually started as a baserunning miscue, somehow seems like a microcosm of everything he’s involved in…Cub fans in the first row of foul territory started to go for a popup, then pulled back in horror, realizing they almost “Bartmanned” Anthony Rizzo.  Seriously, how does everyone in the front row not think at the BEGINNING of a game, “If the Cubs are on the field, DO NOT REACH OUT”?!…Seeing Eddie Vedder, Bill Murray, John Cusack (and Chris Chelios) in the crowd was kind of funny, for some reason…Andre Ethier’s home run, which unfortunately no one will remember now, was off of a left handed pitcher.  So all he needed was a few months off to figure out how to do that…

The Dodgers Are The 2016 NL West Champions- But How?!

On June 26th in Pittsburgh, Clayton Kershaw had his worst game of the season.  That isn’t saying too much, given that he only had one bad inning- LITERALLY ONE BAD INNING– the entire season, up until that point.  Not only was he arguably having the greatest season for a starting pitcher ever, but outside of Corey Seager, was just about the only Dodger on the field worth the price of admission.  The Dodgers would end up losing that game.  Far more horrifically, they would lose Kershaw himself, to a back injury.  At 8 games back, it appeared to be an early nail in the coffin for the 2016 Dodgers, who looked absolutely hapless for the 4 out 5 games that the 3 time Cy Young award winner was reduced to dugout cheerleader.  Instead, it became a turning point.

Many baseball journalists had foolishly written the Dodgers off in 2014, after just witnessing a massive midseason turnaround in 2013 that saw the team running away with the NL West.  But in Dodger years, with so much turnover both on the field and off the field, 2014 felt like a lifetime ago.  Anyone who’d written the team off after Kershaw got hurt this season, after seeing such a lackluster performance from anyone BESIDES him and Corey Seager, couldn’t reasonably be expected to conclude otherwise.  And yet…

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The 2016 Dodgers, tipping their caps to the man whose been with the team, since before their parents were born. (Source: Los Angeles Dodgers)

Here we are, in the same spot we’ve found ourselves since 2013- with the Dodgers celebrating a first place finish, by a surprisingly comfortable margin. Coincidence or not, the team really seemed to wake up with Kerhsaw’s injury, particularly the offense.  One of the main contributors, Justin Turner, had also anchored the 2014 comeback, when he came out of nowhere to become the Dodgers best hitter in the second half of that season.  (He didn’t quite reach those heights this season, but he wasn’t far off.)  In hindsight, ironically enough, that game in Pittsburgh seemed to be something of a turning point for his season, personally, providing the only offense in that loss.  Joc Pederson, Adrian Gonzalez and Yasmani Grandal also came to life shortly after.  Promising outfield rookie Andrew Toles picked up where Trayce Thompson left off early on,  while Chase Utley and Howie Kendrick turned out to be smart veteran re-signings.  Even Andre Ethier, as unlikely a Dean of The Dodgers as there ever was, made a cameo appearance in September, after recovering from an unfortunate fluke injury that took him out for nearly the entire season.

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In a somber moment before the game, Puig pays tribute to his friend Jose Fernandez. (Story here: http://wp.me/p1UqDw-9R)

 

And then there’s Yasiel Puig.  I don’t think the writers at Friends brought out the, “Will They Or Won’t They?” storyline for Ross and Rachel, as many times as we’ve seen Puig go from Hero-To-Zero and back again.  After a fantastic first few games this season, Puig spent the next few months largely in oblivion, losing not only his starting spot, but his spot on the Major League roster.  It’s a true shame, not just for the Dodgers, but for Major League Baseball, a sport that NEEDS Puig to be relevant, if not a star.  The good news is that after spending some time in purgatory (aka Oklahoma), Puig seems closer to being a hero again, helping the Dodgers with their final push towards the finish line by unhinging Madison Bumgarner, in a way that only Puig can.  Well…maybe not ONLY Puig can, but no one does it better!

But while the Dodgers offense coming to life somewhat explains their life after Kershaw, the pitching is much more baffling.  Kenta Maeda was good, but rarely got past the 6th inning.  Nobody else achieved a double digit number of quality starts.  The only one who came close- Scott Kazmir with nine- had a 4.56 ERA.  The bullpen, outside of Kenley Jansen, was made up of retreads and no names, yet they got the job done consistently, particularly Joe Blanton- and they were relied upon A LOT.  It sounds inconceivable, but the Dodgers second half steamroll came in an environment where more than half the games were bullpen by committee.  It was such a mess, Rich Hill became the first Major League pitcher ever to be pulled while throwing a perfect game (!) after 7 innings, because that’s just how fragile the Dodgers’ starting pitching situation was.

And how about Dave Roberts, the man in charge who made that controversial but understandable decision?  (It wasn’t even his first one this season.)  If anything, he deserves a bonus for the arrows he took for his tough decision making, and ultimately should be rewarded by being named NL Manager of the Year.  Everyone knows how great Joe Maddon is, but he had a far superior roster.  Giving the award to the Cubs skipper would simply be a recognition for the guy who helms the team with the best record, without any regard to the circumstances.  Dave Roberts managed to deal with one of the most injury-plagued teams in franchise history, and he did so in his first year with the team.  He had to make CONSTANT adjustments, and he met the challenge brilliantly.  We have a few extra weeks before the ink dries overall, but the fact that he even got the team THIS far is already something that he should be proud of.

As for the front office?  That’s a tough one.  Their methods are controversial and often maddening to those of us who appreciate a more traditional, simple approach to baseball.  The smug attitude of some of their defenders can be even MORE maddening.  But it can’t be denied that after two years of constant roster moves, their formula has been successful more than not, even when many of us were convinced that it would fail.  This season, in particular, has been a real triumph for them, not shelling out 9 digit contracts to Zack Greinke- or Johnny Cueto, for that matter- yet finishing with far better records than those teams who did.  Of course, that’s not to count out the Giants for the postseason- it IS an even year, after all.  But in a 162 game schedule, half of which was played without Kershaw, credit needs to be given where credit is due.  So well done, Andrew Friedman and Fahran Zaidi.  Two cheers for them each.  We’ll see what October brings.

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Does this really need a written description? (Source- Los Angeles Dodgers)

And finally, saving the best for last, we have the man who gets to leave Dodger Stadium on a high note.  It is impressive for anyone to be working full-time at 67 years, but to be working full-time for 67 years is unheard of.  Absolutely unheard of.  But for Vin Scully, the voice of the Dodgers since they played on the other side of the country, whose career has spanned well over half of the ENTIRE HISTORY of “modern” Major League Baseball (counting from about 1901 or so), it was truly a wonderful tribute to have him call one more final walk-off that will go down in Dodger history- courtesy of Charlie Culberson, a man who hadn’t hit a home run all season.  (Naturally.)  And, to top it all off, Mr. Scully managed to share with the world one last talent that he possesses- he can sing!  (There is far more to say, but this post is long enough, and Keith Olbermann can say it much better than I can, anyway.)

Three games remain in San Diego, then another three in San Francisco, in a series far more crucial to the Giants than the Dodgers, before the REAL fun begins…

Game 2 NLDS Recap- Utley Being Utley Helps Save The Dodgers Season

For Many Reasons, This One's Going To Remembered For A Long Time (Sean Haffey, Getty Images)

For Many Reasons, This One’s Going To Remembered For A Long Time (Sean Haffey, Getty Images)

No one who is familiar with Chase Utley should be all that surprised at what he did in the seventh inning of game 2 at Dodger Stadium, because he has been doing that sort of thing throughout his career.  In the current climate of outrage, that is probably seen as an insult, but it is actually anything but.  It is almost a rite of passage for older generations to complain about younger generations being too soft, too pampered, and too rich to really care about anything.  Chase Utley, while not exactly a young man at this point, is still young enough to play professional sports, but old enough that he no longer has to prove anything to anyone.  And yet, here he was, with the season on the line for the Dodgers, doing what it took to keep them alive this October, regardless of his OWN safety.  Lost in all the outrage over the unfortunate injury to Ruben Tejada was the fact the Utley sacrificed HIMSELF in the process, as well.

There is no sugarcoating here about what Chase Utley did.  His slide was definitely late, and by his own admission, was designed solely to prevent Tejada of making the throw to first base, to double up Howie Kendrick.  But it also needs to be said that part of the reason WHY Tejada got hurt was because he pivoted away from the baserunner, putting himself in a VERY awkward position to try making a throw to first.  Colliding with Utley in the air, Tejada crumpled to the ground and broke his leg.  It was an ugly sight, but like Buster Posey before him, the injury had as much to do with awkward positioning of the guy who got hurt, as it did with the collision itself.  However, outside of Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and the traditional old-guard baseball community, most people do not see it that way.  To them, Chase Utley is the villian.

Having Their Cake And Eating It Too

Ruben Tejada getting hurt was unfortunate, and Met fans and players are understandably furious.  The New York media is going to have a field day with this.  The Dodgers should be prepared for retribution.  Surely, many will cheer if/when it happens- not just Met fans- which is another thing to think about.  If Utley’s ultra-aggressive baserunning is so deplorable because it led to an UNINTENTIONAL injury, why in the world would it be a GOOD thing to cause an INTENTIONAL one?  If the answer is, “Because Utley started it,” then what if retribution will be on someone besides him?  (It probably will be, seeing how Utley barely even plays now.)  Would it be okay, just because the guy was wearing a Dodger uniform?  How is that any more acceptable in a civilized society than what Utley did?

Moral posturing in everyday civilization is hard enough, let alone in professional sports.  In one clip of many we see in modern day America, sadly, wondering “what’s wrong with baseball these days”, Keith Olbermann laments the lack of “menace” in today’s game.  He made some good points about things that have been lost along the way, in well-intended but misguided efforts to make baseball safer.   He states, with sincerity, that he does not advocate violence, yet also looks back wistfully at a Cubs-Mets game, where players DID get hurt in a game of beanball, while no one complained about it, nor demanded rule changes.  And this points to where we are today.  In our American sports, and probably sports throughout the world, we demand hard fouls, brushback pitches, and vicious tackles.  When our team is losing and not doing these sorts of things, we scream that they are “soft” and have no heart.   But then, on the occasion something DOES go wrong, we demand rule changes, and tsk-tsk at this sort of brutish behavior.  So which one is it?  Because on some level, sports IS sort of brutish- sometimes VERY brutish- as professional athletes have been trained throughout their lives to do what it takes to defeat their competition.

As for what happened to Ruben Tejada, perhaps something should be done on SOME level, but what, exactly?  Are we really going to start calling automatic double plays whenever a baserunner takes a hard slide into a fielder?  How exactly do we define hard slides?  We saw what happened when “The Buster Posey Rule” was first implemented, ironically to PROTECT catchers, yet ultimately resulted in awarding runs for players that were nowhere NEAR home plate when the ball arrived in the catcher’s mitt.  Rules that create safety often diminish competition.  (Think about the frequency that pass interference has been called in the NFL during recent years.)  Major League Baseball will need to think hard about this, before coming up with yet ANOTHER rule that could further diminish its “menace”.

What Else Happened In The Game?

Clearly, Daniel Murphy misses Justin Turner (source: Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA Today)

Clearly, Daniel Murphy misses Justin Turner (source: Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA Today)

Too bad there’s so much focus on one play, because so much else went on during Saturday night’s exciting Dodger victory.  Adrian Gonzalez looked like an amateur against Mets’ flamethrower Noah Syndergaard for three at bats, then delivered the go-ahead, two out double in the seventh inning.  Howie Kendrick, Kiké Hernandez and Chris Hatcher yet again served as a reminder that life after Dee Gordon might not be so bad, after all, while Justin Turner served as a reminder to the Mets on what they missed out on.  For the second night in a row, Corey Seager looked like a rookie at the plate, but made a catch in the field that would make one think otherwise.  (Sort of a role reversal of what we were expecting.)  Zack Greinke pitched well, in spite of allowing two home runs, but he truly missed out on what could have been the signature moment of the evening.  After Terry Collins elected to intentionally walk the #8 hitter AGAIN, after almost getting burned by Kershaw in game one, he stuck to the same strategy.  And once again, he almost got burned.  ALMOST.  AGAIN.  Greinke crushed a ball into the gap, but it hung up just long enough to be caught in right field.  Too bad, but at least in THIS game, it didn’t matter much in the end, thanks to that 7th inning rally.

Finally- and BLISSFULLY- there is nothing to discuss about Don Mattingly’s managerial decisions.  Oh, what the heck, we’ll do it anyway, but just for a few sentences.  Everything he did was nearly spot on, as evidenced by the result.  But pinch hitting for Andre Ethier with a three run lead, especially given Ethier’s RBI double early on, seemed excessive.  But at least nearly everyone got in the game.  Even Puig was brought in at the end, to a nice ovation.

What Next?

Brett Anderson versus Matt Harvey is a mismatch on paper, but regardless of the outcome, there will be a game 4.  The first two games of this series were eerily similar to the first two of last year.  Hopefully, the script flips from this point forward, although Dodger fans need to temper their expectations for game 3.  At the very least, the vibe from Dodger Stadium after this year’s game 2 versus last year’s was much more positive.  Hopefully, that will continue, as the team plays in a place that was built to look like Ebbets Field.  If that isn’t good karma, I don’t know what is!

Don Mattingly Should Be Held Accountable For A Lot, But Not For Clayton Kershaw’s Performance

Watching Clayton Kershaw shout down Don Mattingly must have been the thrill of a lifetime for the many Dodger fans that double as Mattingly detractors.  (It got so nasty at times this year, it felt more like Mattingly detractors were doubling as Dodger fans!)  For anyone that doesn’t remember, it was a hot day, Kershaw wasn’t pitching all that well- at least by his standards- and the Dodgers were very close to wrapping up the division.  Taking Clayton Kershaw out of the game at that point seemed like one of the more defendable, if controversial, strategic moves that Don Mattingly has made.  Ironically, the main reason that Mattingly would later give for removing Kershaw DIDN’T seem justifiable, claiming that the Dodgers needed offense.  The pinch hitter they decided on, Austin Barnes, is barely a better hitter than Kershaw.  Regardless, the Dodgers ended up winning the game, and Kershaw pitched a complete game shutout against the Giants, to clinch the NL West, in his very next start.  All-in-all, everything worked out fine.

Sept. 24, 2015 - Los Angeles, CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA - Pitcher Clayton Kershaw (22) and manager (8) Don Mattingly talk to each other during the game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Dodgers Stadium on Thursday 24 September 2015. Los Angeles Dodgers won the game 6-3.ARMANDO ARORIZO (Credit Image: © Armando Arorizo/Prensa Internacional via ZUMA Wire)

Sept. 24, 2015  – Clayton Kershaw REALLY wanted to stay in this game.  Imagine how he’d feel about being given an early hook in the playoffs!  (Credit Image: © Armando Arorizo/Prensa Internacional via ZUMA Wire)

But getting back to the dugout argument, Kershaw’s contentious attitude towards Mattingly- along with his curt postgame answers AFTER A WIN– should give pause to any Dodger fan still seething about Kershaw being left in games 1 and 4 of last year’s NLDS, each time with a 2 run lead that would ultimately be coughed up.  Up until each respective knockout blow was delivered, all the hits that Kershaw gave up were singles, many that were barely more than seeing-eye groundballs.  Try to imagine Kershaw’s reaction to being taken out of THOSE games, along with the image of him watching in the dugout, as JP Howell coughs up his lead.  You think fan reaction was furious with Kershaw left IN?  I really think that Don Mattingly might have needed police protection under those circumstances.  If anyone thinks I’m exaggerating, I was at game 2, when JP Howell DID cough up Zack Greinke’s masterpiece.  The whole stadium was irate, but several fans in particular openly wished harm on Mattingly, along with JP Howell. It was a small number, and even amongst them, they probably wouldn’t have acted on it, if given the chance.  But the fact that such sentiments could even be openly expressed in public without being questioned, shows just how toxic the situation can get.  And if anyone thinks that fans would have gone easier had it been KERSHAW, there’s really no point in reading further, because they can’t be reasoned with, anyway.

But for anyone that can think beyond their own negative biases about Don Mattingly as a manager, Clayton Kershaw’s posturing during and after that Diamondbacks game shows just how determined he is to stay in ballgames.  If he is going to get THAT animated during a fairly insignificant game in September, just imagine how determined he will be to stay in a postseason ballgame.  This is a common attitude for an ace to have.  During a managerial visit to the mound in the AL Wildcard game, we saw Dallas Keuchel TURN HIS BACK on his manager.  How do you think it would have been received if Keuchel, the likely Cy Young award winner, would have been taken out at that point?  Anyone with that pedigree earns the right to pitch out of their own jams, with very rare exceptions.  (Got that, Grady Little?)

As for what we’ve seen from Kershaw in his postseason career so far, we’re getting very close to the point where we can’t chalk it up to small sample size anymore.  He’s had a few outings where he’s looked like Kershaw, but all too many where hasn’t.  So what gives?  We can’t call his heart or determination into question.  Is there anything we CAN call into question?

The One Issue With Kershaw

The dugout confrontation against Mattingly got a lot of coverage, for obvious reasons.  But something else happened in the game that got NO coverage, which might be even more noteworthy.  In the bottom of the third inning with two outs and the Dodgers down by 2, Kershaw was on second base.  Justin Turner hit a line drive, which had a chance to drop in, but not a very good one.  Ultimately, the centerfielder made a nice but unspectacular running catch to end the inning.  Over at third base, Clayton Kershaw was charging for home, like his life depended on it.  The Dodgers’ third base coach had to jump in front of Kershaw to get him to stop.  While such hustle is normally appreciated, this was a very hot day, it was early in the game, and Kershaw was about to take the mound again.  As amazing as Clayton Kershaw is, he is a human being, with all the same restrictions as the rest of us mortals.  It would be hard to argue that this sprint didn’t take at least a LITTLE bit out of him, and even harder to argue after the very first batter Kershaw faced afterwards, hit a home run.

Friday is going to be another hot day.  Among the many things that Kershaw is justifiably praised for, he always gets high marks for being a complete ballplayer, as opposed to just a pitcher.  Zack Greinke is a complete ballplayer, too, yet always seems to know when it’s wise to ease up a bit.  Any little bit of an edge that might be gained by busting out of the batter’s box every time, could easily be lost (and then some) by the edge opposing hitters will gain, once that same pitcher doesn’t quite have it in him to, say, get out of the seventh inning on a hot day.  Perhaps it would be best for Kershaw to not even put the ball in play again Jacob deGrom, so long as the other eight guys do.

And with that, we transition to something that Don Mattingly IS responsible for.

The Lineup Card

What Don Mattingly has on his hands is a nice problem to have, but it is a problem, nonetheless.  With no clear cut superstars besides of his two aces on the mound, Mattingly has a deep and talented roster, but no one who is really head-and-shoulders above the rest.  So at least for the NLDS, with the Mets’ righty-heavy starting rotation, the Dodgers will focus on getting as many lefties in there as possible.  The only problem with that is…well, keep reading.

Don't let the bubblegum fool you. This kid is as serious a threat as anyone else in the Dodger lineup. (source- Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Don’t let the bubblegum fool you. This kid is as serious a threat as anyone else in the Dodger lineup. (source- Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Since it goes without saying by now that Corey Seager needs to be in there, the only question is whether he starts at shortstop, or third base.  Shortstop seems the most likely, since that appears to be his most comfortable position.  The other reason is that Justin Turner is a superior hitter to Jimmy Rollins right now.  It also appears likely that Howie Kendrick will start of Chase Utley, simply because Kendrick is at the end of his prime, while Utley is well passed his.  This is how the Dodgers might put a starting lineup together against the Mets, without two legendary Met killers penned in.

Equally controversial is centerfield.  Joc Pederson was a fan favorite, complete with all kinds of fawning press for months, even well after cooling down considerably.  Meanwhile, Kiké Hernandez quietly proved to be the more professional, polished ballplayer, with better baserunning skills, more consistent at-bats, and defense that was actually pretty close to Joc’s.  So, in spite of a righty-heavy starting rotation, Hernandez should be the one to start.

The final controversy should not be a controversy at all.  From May to July, Yasmani Grandal was incredible, proving us detractors wrong about him.  However, he ended up getting injured in early August.  Whether the injury lingered or he just developed bad habits, Grandal was historically bad the final two months of the season, while AJ Ellis looked revived.  We really don’t need to discuss any further than that.  Quite simply, AJ Ellis should start every game, and that should be that.  For the few that still believe in Grandal, screaming “pitch framing!” at the top of their lungs- Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Kenley Jansen should not need help with pitch framing.

All this amounts a lineup that looks like this:

  1. Howie Kendrick 2B
  2. Carl Crawford  LF
  3. Adrian Gonzalez 1B
  4. Justin Turner 3B
  5. Corey Seager SS
  6. Andre Ethier RF
  7. AJ Ellis C
  8. Enrique Hernandez CF
  9. Clayton Kershaw P

That sums it up.  Let’s just hope that this NLDS ends up better than the last one.

Will The Dodgers Front Office Truly Prove To Be Moneyball With Money? Let’s Hope Not

All things considered, the Dodgers managed to hold their ground fairly well in recent weeks, as the July 31st “Treadline” (thank you, Alanna Rizzo!) drew nearer and nearer for them*.  For their part, the front office has done a nice job holding THEIR ground so far, not making any panicky decisions, in spite of this somewhat desperate situation. However, they don’t deserve to be commended, until we see what they DO have planned, especially seeing how they’ve let at least one good opportunity to bolster their depleted starting rotation, in the form of Scott Kazmir, pass them by.  By the end of this week, we’ll have a lot more to talk about.  But speaking of Scott Kazmir, with the A’s coming to Chavez Ravine and considering the men who currently occupy the Dodgers’ front office, this seems like the perfect opportunity to examine the Moneyball reality- more accurately “Billyball”, but we’ll stick to the more well-known name association- how it relates to the Dodgers.

For whatever reason, it doesn't appear these two have talked much recently.  (Source: Michael Zagaris/MLB)

For whatever reason, it doesn’t appear these two have talked much recently. (Source: Michael Zagaris/MLB)

First because of Moneyball the book, then compounded by Moneyball the movie, Billy Beane has been given latitude by fans and critics that no other GM has gotten.  To the hard core SABR crowd, he is a beacon of light against the cranky, condescending Bill Plaschkes of the world. (Never mind such condescending remarks FROM Moneyball about “stupid” General Managers, who went for high school pitchers like Zack Greinke and Matt Cain, while “card counting” Billy Beane gunned for Joe Blanton and Jeff Francis. But I digress.)  For that reason, the praise is always louder when things work, while the criticism is always muted or covered in qualifiers when it doesn’t.  Never was this more evident than last season, when Beane took an enormous risk with lasting consequences, trading the A’s flashy, cleanup-hitting outfielder, Yoenis Cespedes, for Jon Lester, a rental.   (Granted, an OUTSTANDING rental, but a rental nevertheless.)  Any other GM who trades their cleanup hitter for a rental player, with anything short of a World Series appearance- let alone losing THE WILDCARD GAME- would have gotten destroyed in the press, not to mention by legions of fans, perhaps even getting fired in the end.  But while there were a fair number of grumbles, Beane’s defenders- of which he has many- mostly drowned them out and shrugged, stating that Cespedes was overrated and that Billy had to “go for it”.  This, of course, runs counter to EVERYTHING that Billy Beane supposedly stands for, famously stating that the playoffs are a “crapshoot”.  And I’ll say this for Beane- he didn’t back down from that after the 2014 late season meltdown, claiming that Jon Lester helped the team win games.  This is true, but it’s also true that Cespedes’s presence in the lineup very well could have helped them win more, avoiding a position where the A’s were forced to play in the wildcard game AT ALL.  The final insult of this midseason trade occurred AFTER the season, when the A’s didn’t even get a DRAFT PICK after Lester walked, seeing how he was a midseason acquisition.

From there, it got even worse for the A’s.  Famous for using the “small market” excuse in good times and bad, Beane still somehow managed find $30 million under the couch cushion to sign Billy Butler, a designated hitter in decline.  He then flipped Josh Donaldson, a budding, cost controlled star first acquired by Beane while Donaldson was still in the low minors, for four comparatively low-impact players- the ultimate “quality-for-quantity” exchange.  By any measure, the whole sequence of events was a debacle, except for the one used by Beane’s army of apologists, who actually use the Pythagorean Theorem to “prove” the A’s are simply unlucky, claiming that their run differential shows they are a much better team than their record would otherwise indicated.  A’s fans who don’t feel enamored with the “genius” of Billy Beane might think otherwise. (For the record, citing a Math theorem, normally taught in 10th grade Math, is more surreal than any caricature that a critic of sabermetrics could ever conjure up.)

If history is any guide, Beane’s fans will counter that the Donaldson deal has not played out yet, that we will have to wait a few years to see how it truly plays out. We could be charitable and grant them this point, especially seeing how Donaldson HIMSELF was one of those low-minor prospects that ended up working out. But that’s also part of the problem- even if someone from the Donaldson trade DOES work out long-term, he won’t be with Oakland long enough for the fans to enjoy the fruits of his labor.  Such is life as an Oakland A’s fan, with Billy Beane and his fans/defenders/apologists/whatever-you-want-to-call-them claiming victory, while the team on the field cannot.  And therein lies the difference between Beane and Andrew Friedman.

Okay, Let’s Get Back To The Dodgers Now!

Many within baseball’s inner circle(s) regard Andrew Friedman to be just as sharp and effective as Billy Beane himself, if not more so. But outside of those circles, he is regarded as someone who has been handed the keys to MLB’s most expensive kingdom.  Many have claimed that if Friedman can take methods first made popular by Beane WITH a real budget to work with, there’s no stopping him.  It is far too early to evaluate what he’s done with any certainty, but the early results so far, while certainly not bad, are also a little bit underwhelming.

There is no denying Friedman’s success in Tampa, but that was a place where almost nobody cared about baseball to begin with.  Oakland may indeed be a “small market”, but they have a team that has had a fair amount of historical success since the early 1970’s, which has helped paved the way to a dedicated fanbase. Andrew Friedman got his team in Tampa further in the postseason than Billy Beane ever did with his in Oakland.  However, Brad Pitt never played Andrew Friedman in the movies, so Friedman’s lasting legacy has yet to be written.  It’s fair to assume that a significant part of it will be in the next few days. Since all we can do until July 31st is speculate, how about the job that he’s done so far?

The Dodgers are in first place, but after a relentless surge by the always streaking Giants- partially thanks to an assist from Beane’s hapless crew- it is just about a virtual tie at this point.  Besides, contrary to the conventional wisdom that he inherited a mess, the increasingly maligned and misremembered 2014 Dodgers won 94 games.  So it’s not like he was inheriting what’s left of the Philadelphia Phillies. And while the two extremely controversial, franchise-changing winter meeting deals have so far worked out far better than many of us Dodger fans imagined (particularly the Kemp for Grandal & Rollins deal), the lack of starting and relief depth has really taken its toll on the team.  Friedman and his defenders have often hinted at bad luck as to the reason for this, but that seems a little too convenient, especially seeing how James Shields is pitching fairly well for the Padres, while Dan Haren does the same for the Marlins, while still on the Dodgers payroll.  It’s unfair to claim clairvoyance for Matt Kemp’s regression and Yasmani Grandal improving in every major category, while shrugging off Brandon McCarthy, a sabermetric favorite who was signed for $48 million, claiming Friedman couldn’t be blamed for an injury that was different than many had previously anticipated.  (We still don’t know how Brett Anderson, who has pitched well but seems like a potential ticking time bomb, will rebound after HIS latest mishap.)

So we’ll see how it all plays out over the next three days. The one thing that we DO know is that Fahran Zaidi, Friedman’s top lieutenant and official general manager of the Dodgers, did not successfully use his Oakland connection to bring Scott Kazmir to Los Angeles, if he even tried.  Should this be commended, or criticized?  We’ll probably know by the end of the week.

So Who Do The Dodgers Get, And Who Do They Trade?

Well, we know who the Dodgers SHOULD get, above all others- a #3 starter worthy of a championship-aspiring team, and an 8th inning guy.  Tyler Clippard, ANOTHER guy who played for Oakland, is heading to New York now.  Is Jonathan Papelbon REALLY that bad of a guy that the Dodgers can’t show a LITTLE bit of interest in him?  And please hold off on the, “Too much remaining on the contract” stuff- not with the way THIS ownership and front office have spent money.   Maybe he just refuses to be an 8th inning guy.  Who knows?

As for starters, we DO know that it will probably come down to Cole Hamels and David Price, seeing how we can scratch Johnny Cueto and Kazmir off the list.  But what will it take to get one of them to call Dodger Stadium home, and will it be worth it?  Corey Seager and Julio Urias appear to be off limits. Generally speaking, “Prospects are suspects until proven otherwise”, as radio talk show host Ben Maller likes to say, but these two are not ordinary prospects.  Corey Seager is the number one prospect in baseball, even if his recent hitting in AAA hasn’t reflected that.  (He did move very quickly through the minor league system.)  Julio Urias is fairly close behind, a fact that’s all the impressive given that he’s still a teenager.  Sure, these guys might not pan out, but then again, neither may Cole Hamels!  Ultimately, it would probably be best if the Dodgers would trade a couple of top prospects BESIDES those guys, throw in an established Major Leaguer and pay for the bulk of his salary (hey, what’s one more to the Guggenheim group?), and call it a day.

Hopefully, Yasiel Puig is just drowning out the noise.  (Source: Christian Peterson/Getty Images)

Hopefully, Yasiel Puig is just drowning out the noise. (Source: Christian Peterson/Getty Images)

Of course, no trade talks would be complete this year without discussing Yasiel Puig. Forget his attitude- if things continue the way they have been going over the past few weeks, it may start to look like the Dodgers would have been better off keeping Matt Kemp!  (For the record, I’m not actually saying this. It’s just striking how a mere three weeks ago, it was a foregone conclusion that the Dodgers dodged a bullet by trading Kemp, while his numbers are now within striking distance of Puig’s.)  Nevertheless, the Dodger experience without Kemp, Dee Gordon, and Hanley Ramirez has lost some personality.  I’m all for professionalism, but this year’s team, quiet honestly, has been a little bit dull at times. I’m not arguing to keep Puig based on THIS, but sports is, ultimately, entertainment.  There’s still too much there to give up on the guy so (presumably) early in his career.  Having said that, the Dodgers would be ill-advised to NOT trade him for the right price. But what IS the right price? In my mind, it’s not anyone over 30, not even Cole Hamels.  This front office already gave up too early on one potential young star in Gordon. If they’re going to trade another one with such a high ceiling, this time, they’d better get one back with a similar profile.  (On a sidenote, how crazy would it actually be for the Dodgers to trade Yasiel Puig on his bobblehead night?)

Meanwhile, On The Field…

The Dodgers finally return home, clinging to their lead by a thread, facing the same hapless A’s we’ve already spent so much time discussing in this post.  Unfortunately, the first game is anything but favorable, with ace Sonny Gray taking the hill.  Wednesday is looking a little bit better, with Clayton Kershaw on the mound, facing…somebody.  I’m not sure who it is, and I’m not interested enough to check.  The only thing I know is that it’s not Scott Kazmir.

*I started writing this post at the beginning of the weekend, and I’m not letting what happened the past few days change that first sentence!