Jon Weisman ponders:
I don’t actually expect this to happen. But if the Dodgers lose Saturday and Sunday, I’m not sure Don Mattingly will be managing the team Monday.
While we’ve spent weeks talking about how unlikely it is that a managerial change would make much difference — it’s not like Zack Greinke or Hanley Ramirez or Mark Ellis or Chad Billingsley or Jerry Hairston would magically have remained healthy had Tim Wallach or anyone else been calling the shots — I do agree with Jon that at some point, public perception is going to overwhelm the very reasonable excuses Mattingly has. If they drop the next two, they’ll not only have been swept by one of the worst teams in baseball at home, they’ll have tied the atrocious 1992 club for the longest losing streak in Los Angeles Dodger history.
If that happens and Mattingly goes, I won’t have any cause to argue with the move, though I’ll stand by my opinion that it alone is not going to make much of a difference. (Actually, with Greinke just about ready to return, that will then set us up for months of arguing of whether the team’s likely-improved performance is due to a managerial change or simply better available talent, a fate I’m eager to avoid.)
Still, it got me thinking. When a managerial change does happen in-season and things turn around, what makes that happen? It’s not something that happens all that often, because generally if a team is so bad to fire their manager in the middle of a season, that team has enough problems that they continue being bad for the rest of the year. A good example of this is last year’s Houston Astros club, who fired Brad Mills on August 18 at 39-82, then continued limping along by dropping nine games further under .500 with Tony DeFrancesco at the helm. Teams win with talent, not because of managers.
That said, there has been at least one case in the last few years where a club has changed leadership and seen a drastic improvement in performance. That would be the 2009 Colorado Rockies, who fired Clint Hurdle on May 29, with the team sitting at 18-28. Under Jim Tracy, they became red-hot, going 74-42 and making it to the playoffs.
Nevermind that Tracy is well-known to be an atrocious tactical manager who quickly wore out his welcome in Los Angeles, Colorado, & Pittsburgh over the last decade. The narrative goes that Tracy brought “a new voice,” and that suddenly motivated his team to play better. Right?
Well, not exactly. That Rockies club turned around because of real, actual moves that were made…
He improved the defense by making Stewart the third baseman and Barmes the second baseman.
Gonzalez, a versatile player with the range of a center fielder, was promoted from Class AAA in June and took over in left field, teaming with rookie center fielder Dexter Fowler to cover the expansive Coors Field outfield.
…and because a star performer who had been struggling got his game together…
Tulowitzki was hitting .227 when Hurdle was fired and since then is hitting .304 with 18 home runs and 52 RBI in 74 games.
…and because of improved pitching:
Of course, it has also helped the Rockies immensely that their pitching, the bedrock when it comes to success or lack thereof, has been superb. The rotation has solidified with the starters going 19-5 with a 3.51 ERA and averaging 6.6 innings per start in June.
So are there similar moves that Mattingly or any other manager could make? The Dodgers don’t have a Carlos Gonzalez type at Triple-A ready to step in; the closest comparable is Yasiel Puig, and we all know the reasons why he isn’t ready yet. (Even if you don’t care about the attitude issues, he’s slumping in May, hitting .182/.289/.333.)
There isn’t really anyone on the bench who we’re clamoring to jump into the starting lineup in the way that Ian Stewart replaced Garrett Atkins, and the rotation is certain to improve once Greinke replaces Matt Magill. The batting order, which Tracy also tinkered with, is not something I’ve had much cause to complain about with Mattingly this season. The options, no matter who is in charge, are limited.
I’ll grant that the linked stories contain less-tangible praise of Tracy’s approach, though there’s always going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy of good things being said about winning teams. What I mean by that is that Tracy could have come in and changed the style of the clubhouse in the exact same way as he did, but if the performance didn’t happen on the field, no one would have cared about it. But if there is anything in there that I will say that I can completely buy into, it’s this:
When Hurdle was twisting in the wind, Rockies players say that after every loss at home, they would be in the clubhouse and would think, upon seeing O’Dowd or assistant general manager Jeff Bridich pass the clubhouse on the way to the manager’s office, that the moment had arrived, the ax was going to fall and, with that done, the team could go out and play.
We’re not in the clubhouse, and Mattingly is known to be very popular among his players, so we can’t say with any degree of certainty if this is happening in Los Angeles, but I would believe it if it were. If the losing streak continues, the questions about his status — particularly in the last year of his contract — are only going to continue, and it’s hard to argue that it won’t be a distraction in and out of the clubhouse.
As Jon says, I still don’t think the team will fire him, just because there’s about 300 other reasons why the club is struggling. If they get swept by Miami and let him go, so be it — you’ll get no argument from me. We’ll just need to keep in mind that no managerial change is ever a silver bullet, and if this team is going to win, it’s going to be on the strength of better health, no matter who is in charge.