Giants 4, Dodgers 3: Swept Right Out of Town

punto_sanfran_2013-05-05I’m glad there’s not a day off between the end of this series and the start of a set against Arizona back in Los Angeles tomorrow, because this is about to get ugly.

What can be said about tonight’s game that couldn’t be said about any of the rest of the season? The starting pitching was good, but not great — okay, I guess you can’t say that when Josh Beckett or Ted Lilly pitch — but a woeful offense couldn’t be counted on to generate any excitement outside of one inning. That’s another 2-12 with runners in scoring position tonight, and in particular another 0-3 for Luis Cruz, who absolutely cannot be on the roster when the first pitch is thrown tomorrow night.

If we’re looking for positives, Kenley Jansen was absolutely filthy in striking out the side in his one inning of work, and pinch-hitting appearances by Adrian Gonzalez & Jerry Hairston should indicate that their woes aren’t serious.

That said, it feels like grasping at straws to try and find anything good from this. It’s only May 5 and the season remains long, but this malaise has to end, and soon. I’m still not on board the “fire Don Mattingly” train — you know why by now — yet I can’t really fault those who are desperate for some sort of change.

Why Can’t Money Hit the Ball?

mattingly_mcgwire_arizona_2013-04-13As we continue what now appears to be a daily series of “what fans think is wrong with the Dodgers,” let’s move away from Dodger blue and into big, stinky Guggenheim green. Yes, for as many people asking for Dee Gordon & Yasiel Puig to come up, there’s a nearly equal amount attempting to point out — whether in disgust or joy — that a team with a $230 million payroll has some holes in it.

While frustration is understandable, it is of course ludicrous to expect that any team, no matter how expensive, is going to win all 162 games. With 93% of the season remaining, the Dodgers are at 7-7, just two games behind the Giants. (Yes, you heard me. The Rockies are 10-4, and they’re not for real. Mark it.) That’s with the handicap of losing their starting shortstop and #2 pitcher, so you’ll excuse me if I’m not ready to raise the white flag yet with a team that doesn’t even have a losing record.

Name
wOBA
$
Gonzalez
.438
$21m
Crawford
.436
$20m
A.Ellis
.358
$2m
Ethier
.337
$13.5m
M.Ellis
.283
$5.25m
Sellers
.244
494k
Kemp
.215
$22m
Cruz
.089
505k

Besides, if this is really about money, let’s look at the regular roster and see which group of salaries is lagging behind, shall we?

Check out the chart at right. Adrian Gonzalez & Carl Crawford, making a combined $41 million this year, are more than pulling their weight. A.J. Ellis is off to a fine start as well; Andre Ethier is somewhat behind his career norms, yet still safely above the current NL average for non-pitchers, which is .324.

It’s the second half of the chart that’s the problem, though Mark Ellis has long been expected to contribute far more on defense than on offense. What you have here is two of the three lowest-paid players doing the worst, while two of the three highest-paid players doing the best — and Justin Sellers is only in the discussion because Hanley Ramirez injured his thumb, a situation which will be rectified in the next few weeks. That seems like basically the scenario you’d expect.

We could do the same for the pitching staff, but the rotation is generally both well-paid and productive, with Chris Capuano‘s injury-shortened bomb last night being the first truly awful outing of the year. (And not only was he in a tough spot having sat in the bullpen for weeks, he was deemed not good enough to make the rotation in the first place, pitching only due to the crimes of Carlos Quentin.)

What this really comes down to are the same two things we’ve been talking about for a while. First, Matt Kemp is off to an atrocious start, and second, Luis Cruz has been awful. Kemp’s struggles have been beyond frustrating, and it seems likely that he’ll get the night off tonight to give him two days free before the team heads to Baltimore (!) to begin an east coast trip. I can’t say I know the answer to what his problem is — though I’ll note, again, how serious his shoulder surgery was and how foolish it was that he continued playing for a full month after being hurt last year — but there’s little we can do other than give him time to work it out. No, you can’t demote him to Triple-A — and yes, that’s a real suggestion I’ve heard, which is insane even if the team could legally do it, which they can’t — and if you must drop him in the lineup that’s fine, but it’s unlikely to have much impact. Whatever Kemp’s problem is, it’s not something related to his wallet.

As for Cruz, well, we’ve spent more than enough time talking about him. He was stuck in the minors for more than a decade for a reason, after all; the Dodgers gave him a chance, and it hasn’t worked out. Even then, I’m not sure what the team could reasonably have expected to do, given the market last winter. Did you really want Kevin Youkilis? Yunel Escobar? To give every non-Puig prospect on the farm for Chase Headley? It’s one thing to have money, and it’s quite another to have a viable option to spend it on.

I know we’re all frustrated by how this season has started off, but it’s really not about how much money was spent. So far, the expensive players have produced — other than Kemp — and the cheaper placeholders haven’t. The offense is still getting its share of players on base (8th best in MLB), so it’s really a matter of getting hits with men in scoring position. That, sadly, is not a tangible skill, inasmuch as a player is no more likely to get a hit with a man on than he is otherwise. It’ll even out. It has to, and simply getting Kemp right and either Sellers or Cruz replaced with Ramirez will go a long, long way towards that.

Four Observations About the Early Season Dodgers

carl_crawford_openingday2013After three games and two losses, people are eager to put forth certainties about the 2013 Dodgers. They can’t hit! They can’t field! They can pitch a little, I guess!

But here’s what we’ve really learned: almost nothing. We’ve learned almost nothing, because there’s not much you can learn about a team by April 4, especially not when Zack Greinke & Chad Billingsley & Hanley Ramirez haven’t even played yet. One bad inning by Justin Sellers hasn’t taught us that he’s suddenly a lousy defensive shortstop; one error by Skip Schumaker hasn’t taught us that he’s a poor infielder, because we already knew that. Anybody who says they know, with absolute certainty, anything more about this team than they did four days ago is either lying or mistaken.

That all being said, these three games all count, and we can take away some early observations from a few days of play. Observations like…

1) I’m starting to get pretty excited about Carl Crawford.

Crawford’s been unquestionably the brightest surprise of the young season, having reached base six times in ten trips to the plate. (I’m going to assume here that we all understand the concept of “small sample size” by now and that I don’t need to repeat it ten times in this piece.) He’s looked comfortable at the plate and on the bases; in the field, it’s a bit more of a work-in-progress, but we expected that. What we had no idea about was how he’d be with the bat, and after a good spring he’s off to a wonderful start. If — and this remains an enormous if — a healthy left arm and a revised stance can get him back to something resembling the threat he was in Tampa, that not only solves the leadoff hole, it completely reshapes the offense. There’s still a long way to go before we can say that, but so far, so good.

2) It’s not time to panic, but it is okay to be a little worried about Matt Kemp.

After a slow spring, Kemp is hitless through his first three games, and fans are noticing. I can’t argue that he looks a little… off. On Opening Day, he had a great at-bat against Matt Cain, fouling off pitch after pitch that helped cost Cain 29 bullets in the first inning and almost certainly contributed to Cain’s relatively short day. Kemp was celebrated for that tough appearance, and rightfully so. Except… what was somewhat lost in that glee is that when he’s right, Kemp doesn’t foul those pitches off. He squares them up, and he crushes them. Obviously, Kemp’s coming off shoulder surgery which limited his workouts, and while he claims he’s fine, I think this is going to take a little time. There’s no action to take here other than to let him work things out.

3) The bench is an oddly-constructed mess.

Sellers can’t hit. Juan Uribe really can’t hit. Schumaker can hit, sort of, but his utility is limited when he’s that much of a downgrade from Mark Ellis with the glove. Jerry Hairston won’t embarrass himself with the bat, but he can only play one outfield corner at once, which means either Crawford or Andre Ethier sees a ton more lefties than they really ought to. Nick Punto‘s not completely without utility in the right situation, but being on a bench with four other guys who basically are Nick Punto isn’t one of them. I don’t know if it’s a trade — Casper Wells, where are you! — an Alex Castellanos recall, or something else, but this is a bench without power or hope. I can’t see this working for too long.

4) So far, so good with the pitching.

No one’s happy about last night’s outing, though I’ll give Josh Beckett some understanding for getting beat on a neck-high ball that Pablo Sandoval had no business swinging at. Still, in 27 innings, Dodger pitching has walked just two and allowed four earned runs. Again, that’s without Billingsley or Greinke, and while you can’t expect Kershaw to be that wonderful every time out, at least Hyun-jin Ryu showed some promise in his debut.

Three games down, 159 more to go.

Welcome to the Most Anticipated Season of Dodger Baseball In Years

via @Dodgers, and *drooool*

via @Dodgers, and *drooool*

Twenty-five years ago this month, the Tommy Lasorda Dodgers were coming off consecutive 89-loss seasons and merely hoping to get back to respectability. Kirk Gibson, Orel Hershiser and friends made sure that the 1988 season would be remembered for far more than that, and that’s the last time the Dodgers have tasted October glory — a full quarter century ago, the longest drought since the interminable wait for their first championship in 1955.

Since then, there’s been some high points (five consecutive Rookie of the Year awards from 1992-96, back-to-back NLCS appearances in 2008-09, for example) and more than a few low points (1992, every three-year deal Ned Colletti has handed out aside from Hiroki Kuroda, Kevin Malone, FOX, and the entire McCourt era). We’ve seen eight managers and 473 different men suit up for the club, from Eric Karros‘ 1601 games to the single appearance by Adam Melhuse and six others.

Yet what we haven’t seen is the team in the World Series, and for the last few years we haven’t even really had much hope of that changing. Sure, you can never count out a team with Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, but few of us really entered the season with much hope. Remember, 2012 was supposed to be just about treading water with Colletti’s myriad back-loaded two-two year deals while the team was finally sold. 2011 was the true low point of the McCourt era, with the most fun game being “is this the week he defaults on payroll?” 2010 had two Ortizii — two! — and the Garret Anderson deathwatch. To say it’s been a tough few years… well, that’s an understatement.

But not this year. This year there’s a full season of Adrian Gonzalez instead of any James Loney at all. There’s hopefully healthy years from Kemp & Kershaw. There’s Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu, & Carl Crawford instead of Ted Lilly, Joe Blanton, & Juan Rivera. There’s not Hanley Ramirez yet, but there will be, instead of Dee Gordon. There’s Yasiel Puig instead of Jerry Sands, and there’s Stan Kasten & Magic Johnson instead of Frank McCourt and his army of scumbag lawyers. There’s a shiny new set of upgrades to Dodger Stadium, and there’s still Vin Scully, thanks to whatever deity you prefer.

It’s been twenty-five years, and that’s far too long. This is the year where we can realistically hope that changes. Game. On.

The Best Team in Baseball…?

gwynn_dodgers_celebrateOver the last few days, Baseball Prospectus has been rolling out their yearly PECOTA projection updates,  and included in that is the initial take on the division standings. The system projects that three teams — Yankees, Tigers, & Reds — will tie for the second-best record in the majors with 92 wins.

Only one team is projected to beat that, with 93 wins. That team is the Dodgers. I’m not sure if that’s fantastic news or the outright kiss of death.

Just like any projection system, PECOTA is to be taken as an educated guess rather than anything set in concrete, although it did famously nail the 2007 collapse of the White Sox to within one game. Personally, I think it’s underselling Washington (88-74) and perhaps Toronto (85-77), though I’m glad to see that it agrees with me that Baltimore (74-88) is going to sink like a rock to the bottom of the AL East. (In Toronto’s case, at least, the entire existence of R.A. Dickey is understandably confounding to projection systems, which hurts the Blue Jay projection.)

Back to the Dodgers, I don’t think anyone here really sees them as being the “best team in baseball,” simply because there’s so many questions here — ones we’ve been over all winter, like health issues in the rotation and in the outfield, a weak bench, Andre Ethier‘s platoon issues, a giant black hole of mystery on the left side of the infield, and the need for comebacks from past superstars like Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, & Hanley Ramirez. In the NL alone, I don’t consider the Dodgers as being better than the Nationals or probably the Reds as well; the Braves & Cardinals each have a case to make there too, and as much as I hate to admit it, you can’t count out the Giants based on what they’ve done over the last three years. (Ken Rosenthal’s look at the NL West today, where he considers San Francisco the team to beat, is worth a read if only because it indicates that Scott Proctor wants to be a starting pitcher now. Please, please, please.)

What’s most interesting here to me is why it is the system likes the Dodgers so much. It expects the Los Angeles offense to be only middle-of-the-road, scoring 713 runs. That’s more than the 637 they actually scored in 2012 or the 644 they put up in 2011, but less than the projections for five other NL teams and every AL team other than Baltimore, Houston, Minnesota, & Seattle. Yet where it really likes this club is in run prevention, pegging them to allow only 601 opposing tallies. That’s within the range of what actually happened over the last two seasons (612, 597) but puts them as the best club in baseball in terms of preventing runs, with San Francisco’s 622 coming in second.

That’s because PECOTA really, truly loves the Dodger pitching, even with the expectation that Chad Billingsley is only going to throw 96 innings. It’s no surprise that Clayton Kershaw & Zack Greinke are highly rated, but I do find it surprising that it thinks Josh Beckett is going to bounce back to a 3.17 ERA. By this projection, the bullpen looks stellar — 11 pitchers are included, from excess starters like Ted Lilly & Chris Capuano down to the less likely guys like Mark Lowe & Shawn Tolleson, and only a single pitcher is projected to have an ERA above Scott Elbert‘s 3.68 — Javy Guerra, at 4.13. While I’m well aware that I’m using ERA here and there’s plenty of problems with that, that’s excellent. That’s on top of an offense that looks to have star level seasons from Matt Kemp, Gonzalez, & Ramirez, a bounce-back from Crawford, but is hurt by the usual projection of awfulness from Luis Cruz (.250/.276/.359).

Of course, there’s a lot of counter-arguments to be made here. It’s one projection system of many. PECOTA whiffed on Baltimore & Oakland last year — as, it should be noted, did everyone on the planet. Games are played on the field, not in spreadsheets, you nerd. Why don’t you go meet girls? …and so on.

As I said, I don’t consider the Dodgers the best team in baseball unless everything goes absolutely right, but you could really say that about every team in baseball. (Except you, Houston. Not you.) I expect them to be squarely in the playoff hunt with an equal chance of greatness as there is of falling apart, Lakers-style. Still, this time last year we were wondering just how mediocre a McCourt-deprived team could be. Even if PECOTA is way off, just the fact that we’re having this conversation is a massive step forward.