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

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

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

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

However…

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

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

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

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

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

Back To The Brightside…

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

 

’til next time…

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.

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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?

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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!