I wrote about Don Mattingly potentially getting fired on May 8, then again on May 11, and once more on May 20 – and those were just the posts dedicated to it, since I’m sure mentions were made within other posts many times. Lord, wasn’t May fun? There were road trips where we weren’t sure that Mattingly would even be getting back on the plane to Los Angeles, and the question seemed only to be when he would be replaced, not if.
Fast-forward to the end of July, and Mattingly isn’t gone, or close to it. He’s here, now leading the hottest team in baseball, and if they keep up even a semblance of this pace, he’s going to be receiving Manager of the Year votes come October. He’ll probably not win, because Clint Hurdle would seem to be a lock if he can get the Pirates across the line into the playoffs for the first time in over 20 years, but Mattingly’s worst-to-first routine would be almost certain to get him some consideration.
From “dead man walking” to discussion of award worthiness in the span of just a few weeks. It’s amazing what a healthy and talented roster can do, isn’t it?
Really, that’s what this winning streak is all about. The Dodgers are on fire because Mattingly has Hanley Ramirez rather than Dee Gordon or Justin Sellers. Or because he has Yasiel Puig rather than anyone on the planet who isn’t Yasiel Puig. Or because he has Zack Greinke & Ricky Nolasco rather than Josh Beckett & Matt Magill & Ted Lilly. Or because Luis Cruz & Matt Guerrier are nowhere to be found. Or because Ronald Belisario & Andre Ethier remembered that hey, they used to be good at one point. Or because players who are hurt actually find their way to the disabled list now, cough cough Mark Ellis. Or because he no longer has to throw out lineups that have Ramon Hernandez, Jerry Hairston, Nick Punto, & Alex Castellanos all starting at the same time.
The point, as it always is, is that talent wins games, not managers. As I argued at the time, Mattingly was never as atrocious as his last-place team made him seem, because the never-ending run of injuries along with the disappointing performance of Matt Kemp made for a team that wasn’t going to win no matter who was in charge. I also wasn’t saying he was outstanding, of course, but you look back now and you really wonder what he could have done differently at the time. Yes, I would have loved to see him replace Brandon League with Kenley Jansen sooner, though you understand the instinct not to make your boss — the boss who still hasn’t given you a contract extension — look bad by tossing aside his shiny new toy. Yes, I would have liked to have seen Cruz gone sooner, but that’s more of a Colletti thing, really, and Mattingly did send him to the bench quickly. You complain about some game management choices as far as pinch-hitting or -running, and sure, those still look bad, but probably don’t make a big difference overall.
Nor, I would argue, is Mattingly suddenly a great manager now. He still infuriates beyond belief with bunts (though less often, lately, since the lineup has fewer guys you’d really want to bunt with), the rate of double-switches is a sore spot for many, and yesterday’s Schumaker-for-Hairston defensive switch was confusing, to say the least. I’d say we’ve seen some small improvements — increasing confidence that Paco Rodriguez is more than a LOOGY, for example — but for the most part, he looks like the same manager we’ve always known him to be, and that’s a good clubhouse manager and a mediocre in-game tactician. Considering the amount of attention on this team, you might almost prefer that rather than the opposite, and it’s rare to find someone who is great at both.
If anything, I’m mostly glad he didn’t get fired back then, because as the healthy and talented pushed out the old and busted on the roster the team was likely to start improving anyway, and then we’d all have been subjected to an endless amount of proselytizing “the new voice of Tim Wallach” or whomever would have been placed in charge.
As always, talent wins. Managers play a role, but not nearly to the level that people like to think they do. Right now, this team has gone from last place to a legitimate discussion over whether they can catch St. Louis for the best record in the National League, and that is largely thanks to the guys on the field. If Mattingly ends up catching some credit for it, well, good for him that he kept the train from going completely off the rails in the darkest times, I suppose.