I was filling out an award ballot for Howard Cole’s (of Baseball Savvy and the OC Register) IBWAA this morning (fun facts, I placed neither Ian Kennedy nor Prince Fielder in the top five of the NL Cy Young or MVP, respectively), and came upon the “NL Manager of the Year” section. Now, Kirk Gibson is going to get a ton of praise for turning around an Arizona club that lost 97 games last year (including a 34-49 record on his watch) into a runaway division winner this year, and rightfully so. He was my choice, and I imagine he’ll win the actual award. Aside from Gibson, you’ll probably see Milwaukee’s Ron Roenicke garner some support for cruising past 90 wins to a division title in his first year as a manager (despite a clearly superior roster to most of his NL Central competitors), and Charlie Manuel probably deserves some notice for taking a Philadelphia team that everyone thought was going to win 100 games and actually living up to expectations.
And then… well, you could argue that Don Mattingly deserves a pretty large amount of credit, right? Remember, this is a first-year guy who many of us didn’t want to see get the job over Tim Wallach last year, worried as we were about his inexperience, proximity to Joe Torre, and the humiliating “double mound visit” fiasco that helped to blow a game against the Giants while he was filling in for an ejected Torre last July. In addition, he managed in the Arizona Fall League last year, an extremely unusual step for a major league manager.
But he got off to a pretty good start in the spring by naming Clayton Kershaw the Opening Day starter on the first day of camp, rather than letting it linger as Torre had, and (along with Ned Colletti) putting together a coaching staff including Wallach & Davey Lopes that we felt far, far better about than the old-school curmudgeon types like Larry Bowa and Bob Schaefer that Torre had the previous year. Despite another ultimately-meaningless-but-embarrassing gaffe in camp where he filled out the lineup incorrectly, we at least had some hope that Mattingly could be the new, younger leader the club needed after three years of Torre.
And then the season started.
Besieged by injuries, weighed down by awful performances from the Navarros, Uribes, and Cormiers of the world, and assaulted from all sides by the McCourt devastation, the Dodgers sank. They were 14-14 at the end of April, but that was just the beginning. They won just 12 games in May and 10 in June, with 12 more in July. Technically (since they won the season opener on March 31 and went 13-14 in April) they were losers in each of the first four full months of the season. As they reached their low points, falling 14 games under and 14.5 games out in the NL West at different points in July, most of us had all but given up on this team and begged them to sell.
And who could really even blame Mattingly at that point? The roster he’d been given to start with wasn’t a great one, and the injuries and off-field mess eventually made the situation untenable. But, to his credit and that of his coaches, we never saw the team give up. Oh, they were still bad, and oh good lord were they boring for quite a while, but they never quit. We never saw players loafing between the lines, and – other than Andre Ethier‘s annual and completely expected outburst about his contract – we rarely if ever became aware of issues within the clubhouse or with the media. For a team that’s recently lived through Manny Ramirez, Jeff Kent, and popular-if-perhaps-not-totally-accurate suggestions about Matt Kemp, that’s impressive on its face in the light of the outside distractions.
Now that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t really mean too much if the team doesn’t perform on the field, and don’t forget that we all spent the majority of the first four months writing about the potential for the 2011 Dodgers to be remembered on a historically bad level. After a loss on July 22 to Washington, their fourth in five games, the Dodgers had sunk to last place at 43-55, on pace to lose 270 games. (Conservatively.)
But they won the next day. And the next, and the next, and the next. Despite being swept by Philadelphia in the middle of the month, August was the first winning month for the Dodgers, at 17-11. September has been even better, at 15-8, headed into the final three games of the year; all told, the Dodgers are 37-22 since that July 22 game, a .627 winning percentage which would be a 101-61 pace if kept up for an entire season. From the depths of July which few of us had ever seen before, this is a team that needs just one win in the last series to come away with a winning record. There’s not a soul among us who would have believed that midway through the year.
Now let’s be clear, because we talked about this last week when discussing Jeff Pentland vs Dave Hansen: with the exception of the new-and-improved James Loney, this team largely turned around because they turned over their roster. They had more Juan Rivera & second takes of Jerry Sands and Dee Gordon, as opposed to hundreds of plate appearances wasted on the gimpy and useless like Juan Uribe, Dioner Navarro, Marcus Thames, and a less-than-healthy Ethier. A manager, no matter how beloved or despised, can only have so much impact on a game. But had things been allowed to fall apart even more than they had in the middle of the season, there might not even have been the opportunity to rebound.
No, he hasn’t been perfect, because this is the same guy who has killed us with bunts, used Mike MacDougal in big spots, and who once chose Juan Castro over Sands and others to pinch-hit with the bases loaded, which also meant Kershaw came out too early and Lance Cormier had to be used to blow the game. Then again, what manager is? Perhaps I’m colored because I was very vocally disliked Joe Torre, but complaints with managerial decisions seem to be cut by a factor of five this year.
Don Mattingly isn’t going to win the NL Manager of the Year award, nor should he, yet he probably will get some back-end support, and it’s well deserved. If a year ago at this time, nearly to the day, we were worried that with everything else the Dodgers had going on, they’d also have to deal with an inexperienced manager no one could count on, now we’ve seen that Mattingly is capable of keeping the players focused and working, no matter what kind of garbage is coming from the outside. In a season of small victories and big defeats, that’s one to be proud of.
Other news: Kemp, unsurprisingly, won the NL Player of the Week award today, his second such honor. He’s still not going to win the Triple Crown. Mattingly, among others, is featured in a new “It Gets Better” anti-bullying Dodgers video out today. And yes, the rumors are true, the Dodgers have slightly updated their logo, and when I say “slightly”, I mean “slightly”. With an understanding of the behind-the-scenes functional reasons the changes were made, however, it makes a whole lot of sense, even if casual fans may not even notice.