Though Chase Utley May Help The Dodgers, He Never Should Have Had To

For a group that seemingly shrugged off the “small sample size” of Matt Kemp’s red-hot 2014 ending, the Dodger front office sure have put a fair amount of stock into 31 at-bats from Chase Utley.  To be fair, it’s been a GREAT 31 at-bats since the longtime Phillie icon came back from his latest stint on the disabled list.  Plus, there are thousands and thousands of previous Utley at-bats coming into this season, which will unquestionably put him on a Hall of Fame ballot one day, if not the Hall of Fame itself.  However, it’s those at-bats in between the first 6,000+ and the last 31 at-bats- more specifically, the 218 of them where he was batting .179 prior to going on the DL- that could be troubling.

Name recognition aside, the potential for this move to make an earth-shattering difference either way doesn’t seem to be all that likely.  Regardless of how Chase Utley plays for the duration of 2015- or even IF he plays for the duration of 2015- his success is not critical to the Dodgers’ success.  Of course, it would be NICE if he can play somewhat like his old-self instead of like an old man, but if not, Kiké Hernández has shown that he is more than capable of holding down the fort in Howie Kendrick’s absence.  In fact, Kiké’s performance has been so solid, it makes this move rather curious to begin with, though not as curious as the deafening silence from the media, old and new, about the initial trade last December, which ultimately led to this latest move being made.

There’s no need to rehash the whole Dee Gordon saga again, at least not right now.  But it would be negligent to not at least MENTION that the former Dodger and current All-Star starter has emerged as the player many of Dee Gordon’s fans always suspected he could become.  By contrast, the Dodgers have now added a SECOND second base veteran to the mix, before the first season without Gordon has even been completed.  And they’re doing so at a considerable cost, both on the field and in the payroll.  (Did we mention that the Dodgers are also still paying Dee Gordon, as well?!)  All of this seems to have gone unnoticed by most, outside of the few Dodger fans not currently fuming at Don Mattingly for causing global warming.  Bloggers, print writers, and those that generally spend a lot of time thinking about the Dodgers seem to have overlooked how unnecessary this would all be, had Friedman’s crew not been so busy calculating how quickly Gordon would “regress to the mean”.  So whether this Utley trade works out or not, the reaction to it is already quite different than the kind that Ned Colletti would get for a similar move, even moves that, in hindsight, seem more understandable than the one that sent Dee Gordon to Miami.

“One day, we shall meet again.” And they have. Pat Burrell patiently waits by the phone.

Attempting to get past the water under the bridge- which is hopefully sturdier than the one to Kenley Jansen– there could still be some upside to this deal.  The fact that Utley HAS shown some life in his bat very recently could be a well-timed bandage for these wounded Dodgers.  Plus, there’s potential for a nice storyline to come out of this, as well.  If there is one guy where “clubhouse presence” isn’t a myth, it would be this guy.  Winning over a notoriously surly fanbase with his blue collar appeal, Utley now gets to wear the blue color of the team he rooted for as a kid.  Dodger fans have forgiven Jimmy Rollins rather easily for his past “sins”.  Should Utley even RESEMBLE his former self, as he has done over the past two weeks, Rollins’ former-former double play partner should also be easily embraced by a fanbase that he once belonged to as a kid, growing up in Southern California.  (Utley was even drafted by the Dodgers in high school, prior to attending UCLA.)

The latest chapter of this grand experiment begins in Houston, where the Dodgers take on a team roughly equal in talent, if not payroll.  With a mere month and a half to go in the regular season, it’s unlikely there will be yet ANOTHER chapter added by this all-too-active front office, but if so, let’s just hope it’s one that deals with the bullpen.

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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.

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.