Murphy’s Law Sinks 2015 Dodgers

Say this about the Dodgers over the past decade or so- even though they’ve always had the decency to get eliminated anywhere from fairly early on to VERY early on, they nevertheless find new, creative, and increasingly painful ways to break the spirits of their fanbase.  Late inning meltdowns, close plays that don’t break their way- and yes, questionable managerial decisions that come back to haunt them later.  But this?  A guy stealing third base on a WALK?!  That’s a new one.

It’s a shame that all of the great Dodger narratives from 2015 will now be largely overlooked, if not completely buried- Justin Turner’s revenge against his former team in the NLDS, the greatest 1-2 punch in a starting rotation since Koufax and Drysdale, the emergence of a potential superstar shortstop for years to come- even the historic nature of Chase Utley’s slide will be far less impactful than originally thought, outside of some possible rule changes/enforcements to come.  It’s hard to imagine there will be even the slightest bit of, “Aw shucks, at least we made it,” sentiment after this season’s end, especially seeing how surprisingly joyless the fanbase generally seemed much of the time, even though the team itself was pretty successful.

There will be two narratives that probably WILL survive the 2015 season- one of them complete nonsense, the other debatable.  First, the idea that the Dodgers “should” win because of their gaudy $300+ million payroll was ridiculous.  Outside of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, most of that money was going to solid but overpaid, aging veterans (Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford), pitchers that ultimately did not justify their value (Brandon McCarthy and, to a lesser extent, Brett Anderson), guys that weren’t on the team anymore (Matt Kemp, Dan Haren), or even guys that were NEVER on the team to begin with (Bronson Arroyo)!  However you may feel about these transactions, the fact that all this money was being doled out shouldn’t make ANYONE feel more entitled to Dodger wins, than if that money was being spent on you and me.  From the beginning, the 2015 Dodgers were a good team, but they were NOT a superteam.

The second narrative has to do with how the Dodgers scored their runs throughout 2015- relying on the home run, while disregarding aggressive but smart base running.  They did improve on the base running later in the year, with the addition of Ron Roenicke as third base coach, and Chase Utley as backup second baseman.  But ultimately, this team did not know how to play “smallball” very well, even with those late season improvements.  A lot of people dismissed this theory, but it’s exactly what played out in the NLDS.  Against the Mets’ young power arms, they could not hit the ball over the fences (with the exception of game 3, and only after they were already being blown out), and ultimately ended up stranding A LOT of baserunners.

Who's on third for the Dodgers? Nobody. Absolutely nobody.

Who’s on third for the Dodgers? Nobody. Absolutely nobody.

But don’t forget to give credit to the Mets, too.  They had deeper starting pitching, and as hot as Justin Turner was, Daniel Murphy was hotter.  Almost symbolically, Turner’s shocking steal of third base was one-upped by Daniel Murphy’s steal of third on a WALK, a play that will go down in Mets lore and Dodgers infamy for years to come.  The Dodgers’ fate was then sealed when Murphy hit the go-ahead home run (of course he did) in his next at-bat, against Zack Greinke.  Although the game still had a long way to go at that point, it sure didn’t feel that way.

And speaking of fate, what of Don Mattingly’s?  Right now, it doesn’t look good for him.  Is he willing to be a so-called “lame duck” manager in 2016, something he was unwilling to do a couple of years back?  He’d better be, because he sure as heck isn’t getting an extension.  And even if he IS willing to be a lame duck, would Andrew Friedman’s crew be willing to allow it?  DodgersFYI discredited game 1 rant notwithstanding, nothing Mattingly did was particularly egregious this series, even though the endless second guessing will only be amplified at this point.  (Until I heard analysts and talking heads criticizing him for taking Kershaw out of game 3 on short rest after a WIN, I assumed unhinged criticism of Mattingly was limited to Dodger fans.)  However, the perception of Mattingly as someone who has strategic shortcomings seems to be justified at times.  Even if the front office admires Mattingly as a person and former playing great, it’s not hard to imagine that they are looking to install a boss on-the-field, who is more like-minded to the bosses off-the-field.

But what of the minds of these front office guys?  They made a lot of moves and spent a lot of money, ultimately resulting in several less wins in the regular season, and one only more in the postseason, than the squad that Ned Colletti put together one season earlier.  They gave up a young, rising star in Dee Gordon, and traded a sometimes disgruntled franchise player in Matt Kemp to a team within their own division.  It worked out for 2015, as Howie Kendrick was solid as always, Kiké Hernandez was a surprisingly good player, and Yasmani Grandal was the best hitting catcher during the 1st half of the season.  But none of that matters now, as the team is going home early, again.  These trades will be judged in what happens in the years to come.

Already etched in stone is the pitching situation.  Brandon McCarthy was hurt early on, as he has been throughout his career (although this was a new injury), and Brett Anderson, in spite of some good stretches during the season, was nothing special overall- not for the amount of money the Dodgers spent on him, while still paying Dan Haren to pitch elsewhere.  There was some high praise for these moves early on from the analytics crowd, but in the end, left the Dodgers with a shallow rotation.

You’ll have to forgive this post for being so grim, but as it’s being written, this is not exactly a time to reflect on the positive.  Big changes are coming, and if the people that Guggenheim hired to make those changes do their jobs right, the team will be better for this in the long run.  And the foundation isn’t all that bad, with Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Corey Seager and a few others to build around.  Most important of all, though, they better figure out a way to make sure that the rest of Los Angeles actually gets to WATCH this team after these changes are made- hopefully, with a fully recovered Vin Scully at the mic, to let us know about it all as it happens.

Until next season…

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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.

Kiké Hernandez Breakout Performance Surprises Everyone- Except Kiké Hernandez

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before- a versatile, energetic but unspectacular infielder is discarded by his lowly team.  In a move that barely registers on the radar, the Dodgers acquire the player in question, rewarding him with a salary that doesn’t constitute 1% of the team’s gaudy overall payroll.  Early in the season, the young player struggles with the limited playing time he’s given.  This doesn’t bother the fans much, though, seeing how most of them don’t even know who the guy is!  Then, injuries to starters change his fate. Quietly at first and then with increasing fanfare, the player flourishes.  The player goes from expendable utility player, to super-utility player, to potential star player.

It’s pretty incredible that a team with so many well-known (and well-paid!) players can find such great fortune with someone so low-cost, whom hardly anyone ever heard of.  Even more amazing is the fact that it happened two years in a row.  With Hector Olivera’s departure to Atlanta,  Justin Turner had finally been assured his rightful place in the Dodgers’ everyday lineup- in the MIDDLE of it, in fact!  Being exactly one year behind Turner, Kiké Hernandez might have to wait a little bit longer.  But if he keeps this up, it’s only a matter of time before he finds himself completing that final transition to everyday player, as well.

Don't feel, bad Kiké. Last year, Justin Turner couldn't afford an invisible camera, either.

Don’t feel bad, Kiké.  Last year, Justin Turner couldn’t afford an invisible camera, either.

Hernandez’s evolution this season has been fun to watch. Starting out as a quirky fan favorite- kind of a modern-day Mickey Hatcher- Hernandez gradually became a force to be reckoned with.  Probably the least heralded player of the seven involved in what was essentially a 3-way trade between the Dodgers, Marlins, and Angels, Hernandez has probably been the most productive zsince the All-Star break.  This has to be a relief for Andrew Friedman and company.  It was always an extreme risk to trade Dee Gordon, a budding star, for one year of Howie Kendrick. (Giving up Dan Haren without a dollar of compensation didn’t help, either.)  No matter how good Howie was going to be this season- and to be fair, he has been quite good- it was all going to be about whether he could get the Dodgers to, if not THROUGH, the World Series.  (Those aren’t terms that I came up with- that’s how the trade was set up from the day it was made.  We’ll leave Chris Hatcher and Austin Barnes out of the equation, until given reason to do otherwise.)  When Howie went down with a somewhat serious looking hamstring injury last week, it looked like the short-term nature of the trade might have gotten that much shorter.

Enter Kiké Hernandez.  After spending the first few days of Kendrick’s injury looking at newly acquired prospect Jose Peraza, the Dodgers made Hernandez the everyday second baseman. (Peraza was sent back to Oklahoma, to make room for Turner’s return from the disabled list.)  Hernandez continued to do what he had been doing for some time, both in the field and at the plate.  The only difference is that now, he gets to play the same position on an everyday basis.  While it’s only been a few days at the time of this post, the results have been head-turning, especially his 435 foot homerun into the left-field pavilion on Saturday.  Of course, a few games isn’t enough to make ANY kind of meaningful judgment on what someone can do at the big league level.  But at the time of this posting, Hernandez has 147 at-bats this season, or roughly the amount that Justin Turner had last year, before people started taking him seriously. Unlikely as it may seem, for the second year in a row, we are starting to see the same thing happen again.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence that Kiké Hernandez is for real, is the fact that HE says he is for real.  When asked about his super-utility player status, the young man who has gained a reputation as a goofball becomes as serious as a military commander.  (During high school, Hernandez attended the American Military Academy in Puerto Rico.)  To whomever asks him the question, Hernandez responds- without a hint of sarcasm- that he is NOT a utility player, has never been one, and does not intend to be one now. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)  He is also quick to point out that he is only 23 years old, and while respectful of the fact that Howie Kendrick is the team’s second baseman if healthy, being someone else’s understudy is not part of his long-term career plan.

This is all very impressive stuff, let alone from a 23 year old, playing in his first (almost) full Major League season, with a brand new organization. In spite of all this, it is too early to know if he’s for real. But with such a unique combination of poise, perspective, and confidence without arrogance, it should give Dodger fans, along with ALL fans of baseball*, reason to hope that he is.

*Okay, maybe not Giants fans.

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!

The Return of DonnieBall- For Dodgers at Citi Field, Bunting Strategy Proves To Be The Wrong Strategy

I really had hoped that I wouldn’t have to write a post like this again.

It had been well over a year since I could recall Don Mattingly ordering a sacrifice bunt in a situation that absolutely didn’t call for it.  Specifically, the last one I could truly remember was Andre Ethier, ordered to move Dee Gordon (DEE GORDON!) over to second base- and in a game that the Dodgers were losing!  These days, sacrifice bunting is a controversial strategy in MOST baseball circles, to put it mildly, especially among the sabermetric community.  While I take issue with that group in many respects- wait until my upcoming Moneyball-related post- I’m pretty much with them on this one.  Even so, there are at least a few situations where I can tolerate a sacrifice bunt from someone with a batting average higher than .180.  For the Dodgers, Sunday’s extra inning heartbreaker in Queens, New York was not one of those times.

After mounting an inspired comeback in the 9th inning against the Mets to spare Zack Greinke another hard-luck loss, the Dodgers managed to make it to the 10th, where Mets killer Jimmy Rollins managed a leadoff walk.  The next batter, Scott Van Slyke, struck a pose that struck despair into the hearts of Dodger fans- he squared to bunt, as though he was a relief pitcher who hadn’t picked up a bat since Little League.  Almost as though to show Mattingly how bad a strategy sacrifice bunting was in this situation, Rollins was ambitious enough to steal second.  Didn’t matter.  The Mets’ actual relief pitcher had trouble finding the plate.  Didn’t matter.  With a count of 3-1, Mattingly had Van Slyke hand the Mets an out, on a silver platter, applauding from the dugout as though something good had just happened.  Others didn’t feel that way.  “Wow,” Mets’ announcer Keith Hernandez exclaimed in disbelief.  Sadly, Dodger fans did not, as we’ve seen this all too many times before to be surprised.  (Still, many of us managed to exclaim something.)

This wasn’t even the end of it, though.  The next batter up was Joc Pederson, a man who currently specializes in three things- walks, home runs, and especially and unfortunately, strikeouts.  None of these things are conducive to a “productive out”, the only type of outcome that even REMOTELY justifies sacrifice bunting.  Going for a one run inning on the road in extra innings is bad enough.  Doing so on a 3-1 count?  Even worse.  Doing so with a guy who, under the circumstances, is more likely to produce an at-bat which will produce anything BUT one run?  Inexcusable, particularly for a manager who has been given the occasional nickname “Buntingly”, and supposedly improved his strategic acumen (or at least, surrounded himself with better people).

I have defended “Donnie Baseball” many times, holding onto the belief that his skills in dealing with personnel are more important than his occasional head scratching in-game decisions.  He often gets too much of the blame when his star players come up short, or his front office does not give him the best players to work with.  But this is not one of those times.  Joc Pederson exploded onto the seen, showed a lot of promise, and already does some things very impressively.  But it has become increasingly that against good pitching, he is often overmatched.  In this at-bat, Pederson ultimately did what he does more than anything else- he struck out, and the Dodgers would ultimately strand Rollins on third base.  This is not to give the young Dodger centerfielder a lot of grief- just his manager.

Dodger fans would have hoped the presence of Uribe would remind Donnie of the fallacy of sacrifice bunting.  Dodgers fans would have been wrong.  (source: unknown)

Dodger fans would have hoped the presence of Uribe would remind Donnie of the fallacy of sacrifice bunting. Dodgers fans would have been wrong. (source: unknown)

As for the rest of the game, it was all too predictable from that point.  The Mets would win on a walk-off in the bottom of the inning.  Adding insult to injury, the winning hit was delivered by Juan Uribe, of all people.  Dodger fans will always remember Uribe fondly for hitting one of the greatest post-1988 home runs in team history, against the Atlanta Braves, in the 2013 NLDS.  How did it happen? Uribe failed to get the sacrifice bunt down- twice, no less- at which point Mattingly called off the bunt sign in the nick of time, setting the stage for Uribe to play hero.  It seemed that perhaps the Dodger skipper had seen the light, going so far as questioning why he had put the bunt on in the first place.  That self-doubt didn’t last a single game, as he employed it against the Cardinals in extra innings during the next round.  (The Dodgers didn’t score then, either, and ultimately lost the game.)  And here we are now, nearly two years later, having the same scenario play out right in front of us.  It’s all too predictable, and tiring to talk about.  And if Juan Uribe’s presence wasn’t enough to show Mattingly the fallacy of this, chances are that nothing will.  The Dodgers and their fans should just hope that they are not even presented with such a situation in mid-October, should they be so lucky to make it that far.

All is not lost, though, as the Dodgers have managed to hold onto first place, heading back to Los Angeles.  (Barely, but they have.)  The always streaky Giants have streaked the wrong way lately, from a “blue” point of view, thanks in part to the Oakland A’s, waving the green, yellow and white flag of surrender.  And now the Dodgers face that same pitiful team, hopefully with the same results as the archrivals.  The Moneyball post can’t come soon enough.  I’d better get started on it.

A Tribute to the Dodgers’ 6 (yes, SIX) All-Star Participants

While All Star game participation is not the best indication of a winning team, it’s pretty safe to say that when 1/5th of your team’s roster is heading there, they’re probably in good shape. It’s an even better indication when the manager is joining in on the festivities.

Here is a celebratory look at how these half-dozen Boys in Blue made their way to the hometown of the Reds-

Source: Gary Vasquez, USA Today

Source: Gary Vasquez, USA Today

Joc Pederson – In light of the Dodgers’ most common batting order this season, it seems appropriate to leadoff with Joc here. Normally, a rooking hitting .230 with 105 strikeouts would not be the starting centerfielder of the All Star game, if he’d be there at all. But Joc Pederson is not a normal rookie. Already one of the better defensive centerfielders in Los Angeles Dodger history, along with already being one of the best defensive centerfielders in baseball today, Pederson has anchored an outfield that has needed anchoring for YEARS. His game-saving plays have become regular features on sports highlight shows, as have his Mantle-esque, tape measure home runs. Pitchers have adjusted to him in recent weeks, and he will need to adjust back. For now, though, he has a tailor-made swing for the Home Run Derby, which should serve him far better than it did for his talented but miscast Dodger predecessors, Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig.

Yasmani Grandal– I’m not going to lie. Had you asked me on Opening Day who would be the least likely Dodger to end up in Cincinnati this week, I’d probably go with this guy. Originally drafted BY the Reds as one of the most promising catching prospects in baseball, Grandal was sent to San Diego as a centerpiece of the Mat Latos deal, where he had a very successful rookie campaign in 2012. Then, he got busted in the Biogenesis scandal, tore up his knee, and seemed destined for MLB’s scrap heap. Fortunately for the Dodgers, Andrew Friedman and company saw something there that a lot of us didn’t.After a slow start offensively, Grandal hasn’t looked back since early May, often being among one or two other guys doing ANYTHING in the Dodger lineup, through some rather lengthy team slumps. But as valuable as he’s been at the plate, his game calling behind the plate is what really sets him apart, drawing praise from none other than fellow All-Star Zack Greinke- not a guy who hands out compliments very easily. His pitch framing abilities have been widely praised amongst the sabermetrics community, and his rate of throwing out runners has improved dramatically from last season’s campaign. If “Yaz” can keep up this pace throughout the remainder of the season, he will not just be an All Star- he will be Comeback Player of the Year.

(Special tip of the cap to Rob Neyer for going out on a limb, contemplating that Grandal could be an All Star before the season even began.)

Adrian Gonzalez– As of right now, it’s a bit of a stretch to say that Gonzalez has had a Hall of Fame career. However, he has consistently put up numbers that quietly guarantee he will, at the very least, be on a Hall of Fame ballot. A blockbuster trade by the Dodgers that drew lukewarm praise at the time, also being criticized as too costly to be worth the price, Gonzalez is the only player on EITHER side of that trade, still making key contributions to his team. (No disrespect intended to Carl Crawford, who has been sidelined most of the season.) But not only has he been valuable, he been exactly the player whom the Dodgers envisioned since day one- a steady, middle of the order “gap power” threat, with steady, occasionally spectacular, defense at the corner. Moreover, though he is a mild-mannered guy, he turns up the intensity when necessary, such as when he nearly dove into the stands in the 9th inning of today’s win against the Brewers, narrowly missing a game ending catch. He leads by example, and neither apologizes, nor makes excuses, when things don’t go the Dodgers’ way- just calls it as he sees it. Though he has put on way more different uniforms than a player of his caliber ever should, even in the era of free agency, he will hopefully end his career one day, in the Dodger uniform that he wears now.

Source: J Pat Carter, AP

Source: J Pat Carter, AP

Zack Greinke– Okay, we’re done with the warmup act. Now, we can get to the headliners. Look, we all know how important the three Ohio-bound position players have been for the team, but ten years from now, no one will look back at any of their numbers and say, “Now THAT was a season to remember!” The same cannot be said of the Dodgers’ two phenominal aces, anchoring not just their own team, but the entire National League. When one thinks of the Los Angeles Dodgers historically, one thinks of starting pitching, and that has rarely been more true than this season. If Zack Greinke isn’t starting the game on Tuesday, Major League Baseball will need to open an investigation.

Incidentally, many of the same things said about Adrian Gonzalez can be said about Zack Greinke. Among them, he’s not Hall of Fame bound (yet), but is certainly Hall of Fame ballot bound. He was signed in a deal with measured praise at the time- an upgrade who supposedly wasn’t worth the price, when in actuality, it has been a bargain. Also similar to Gonzalez is his quiet determination- not a very animated guy, to say the least, but as fierce a competitor as one can imagine. (Note the way he takes his at-bats.) And finally, like the Dodger first baseman, Zack Greinke has changed teams far more than someone of his ability should.

On almost any other team, someone of this description would be an Opening Day starter. But not the Dodgers, because of the next guy.

Source: Chris Carlson, AP

Source: Chris Carlson, AP

Clayton Kershaw– Much as it was appropriate to start this player list with Joc Pederson, it’s appropriate to save the best for last, ending it was Clayton Kershaw, as he was the last person to be added to the National League squad, somehow. It’s an annual tradition for a successful fanbase’s team to seethe about their guy(s) getting snubbed, but Dodger fans were primed for once-in-a-generation, next level outrage. I’ll be honest- on some level, I was kind of looking forward to it! The very idea of the Giants’ skipper, so publicly snubbing the best pitcher in baseball (even if that wasn’t his intention), was going to make a fun narrative for years to come. Now, we have Kershaw, making another ho-hum mid-July appearance, something that he might not have even wanted to do! (We’ll never know.) But regardless, if you’re going to leave off someone who is both the reigning Cy Young AND MVP winner, you’d better have a really good reason to do so. Bruce Bochy did not. He is fortunate that circumstances bailed him out.

As for Kershaw himself, yes, he’s having an “off year” by HIS measures, mainly due to lack of run-support, and a few more home run balls than he’s accustomed to giving up. But by any other measure, he is still an Ace-of-Spaces, even on a team WITH Zack Greinke. If past seasons are any indication, he will only get stronger as the summer goes on.

ENCORE!

So that’s the player list, but we promised SIX Dodgers at the beginning of this, so here’s one more:

Don Mattingly– Making his first All Star appearance since 1989- then as a player, obviously- he is a rare controversial selection for many fans of his OWN team. Seeing how the Dodgers have been in first place all season, it’s been puzzling to listen to the fan reaction when Mattingly’s name is announced at Dodger Stadium, prior to the starting lineups. And yes, we all know about his shortcomings strategically, but that’s hardly a reason not to give a polite applause for your first place team’s skipper! (In small but clearly audible cases, there have actually been BOOS.)

The fact is, Mattingly will never be Joe Maddon. But he has always been a high character guy, demanding the best effort from his players while simulataneously supporting them when they give it. He has navigated through ownership scandals, players demanding more playing time, and various other personnel conflicts. We will see what the rest of the season brings, but so far, he has been the right man for this team, and his selection is well deserved.

And Finally..

After what happened in 2002, you never know WHO will be pitching in extra innings!  (source: Claudia Gestro - Baltimore Post Examiner)

After what happened in 2002, you never know WHO will be pitching in extra innings! (source: Claudia Gestro – Baltimore Post Examiner)

With Bud Selig now retired, we hope that we will be able to retire the “This-Time-It-Counts” silliness after this year, as well. But while it’s still with us, let’s also hope that at least this time around, the cause that Greinke, Kershaw and everyone else will be contributing to, will ultimately be their own this October.