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

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

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

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

stripling

He’s earned another start.

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

The Fire, Or The Frying Pan?

just_one_of_those_days

Just one of those days.

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

You Don’t Have Don Mattingly To Kick Around Anymore

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

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

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

What Next?

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

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

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

Mr. Brightside

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

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

Dodgers Opening Series Recap- I Can’t Even…

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

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

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

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

 

 

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…

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!