D’Backs 2, Dodgers 1: Bunted to Death

uribe_2013-09-16First, the good news: Hyun-jin Ryu was outstanding, really, pitching a complete game two-hitter, even though he’ll take the loss here. At one point, Ryu retired 19 consecutive Diamondbacks, and the only real mistake he made was allowing a first-inning Paul Goldschmidt homer, and how can we really harp on that? Goldschmidt always kills the Dodgers.

(Hold on, I’m getting to it.)

The Dodgers, unfortunately, couldn’t take advantage, as their tattered lineup managed only four hits themselves — half by Nick Punto, believe it or not — off Trevor Cahill and the Arizona bullpen. Since Cahill walked four, that means the Dodgers left eight men on base, with a particular sore spot being the top of the sixth inning when they loaded the bases with none out and scored only a lone run on a Yasiel Puig walk.

(It’s coming, don’t worry.)

The inability to make things happen showed up again in the eighth, when pinch-runner Dee Gordon was desperate to steal second, but could never get it to happen as Adrian Gonzalez kept fouling off pitches, eventually flying out on a clear ball four. Gonzalez really just had a brutal game, and when we look back on why the Dodgers couldn’t capitalize on Ryu’s gem, the continued struggles of the offense (in addition to a still-injured roster missing Hanley Ramirez, Carl Crawford, & Andre Ethier) is why.

So all that out of the way….

What the hell, Don Mattingly? I mean… what the hell. I generally try to defend the manager, because we’ve been over so many times how a manager really has so much less influence on the outcome of a game than people think. He wasn’t an awful manager was the team was in last place in May; he wasn’t suddenly a great one when the team was historically hot in July and August.

So while I try to keep that in mind, remain rational, and know that there’s so many other reasons why the team lost tonight… it’s really, truly difficult to look at that ninth inning as anything but a gift to the opposition. Michael Young hit for the struggling A.J. Ellis and singled, then moved to second when Skip Schumaker singled just past the shortstop.

At this point, things are lined up wonderfully because Juan Uribe is walking to the plate, and while Uribe was 0-3 tonight at that point, he’s actually been phenomenal lately. Over the last 30 days, he’s been a better hitter than Puig, believe it or not.

stop_bunting_kennyAnd Mattingly has him bunt. Of course. Because of course.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this, because it’s Mattingly, and that’s the unforgivable sin he always, always falls into. The thing is, there’s actually a somewhat-okay argument to be made for the bunt in that situation, because if you move the man on second to third with one out, you can score on a sac fly, without needing a hit. I certainly wouldn’t have done it, but it’s not the worst strategy in the world.

Except, it is the worst strategy in the world when you are A) taking the bat out of the hands of one of your hottest hitters B) asking Uribe to do something he’s done four times successfully in the last four seasons and C) doing so to pass the bat to Chili Buss, who shouldn’t even be in the big leagues.

Uribe, after showing bunt and taking, then bunting foul, got the ball down… right to pitcher Brad Ziegler, who nailed Young at third, and that’s the problem with this whole thing. Even if it works perfectly, it’s still barely worth the effort… but you can’t guarantee it’s even going to work. That left it up to Buss to ground out, pushing the runners to second and third with two outs, and Mattingly sent Kemp up to the plate.

Kemp stuck out, he looked bad doing it, and the cavemen on Twitter are just killing him over it, much moreso than they are Mattingly. It’s his first game in nearly two months, and to put him in that spot… well, I’m not sure why anyone would be surprised that he was wildly overeager, swinging at the first pitch and a strike three that was far off the plate.

If the job of the manager is to put his players into the best situations to win, that ninth inning was a clinic on how not to do that. You don’t ask Uribe to bunt there. You don’t let Buss hit there. You probably do send Kemp up, I suppose, but you can’t be surprised at what happened. Like I said, there’s plenty of other reasons why the Dodgers dropped another game, far beyond anything that Kemp or Mattingly had control over. But when you look back on this one, that’s what you’re going to remember… and there’s not a lot I can say to refute it, at least as far as Mattingly goes. That one hurts. Just awful.



You All Know Don Mattingly Is Getting Manager of the Year Votes, Right?

mattingly_ump_2013-07-14I 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 BelisarioAndre 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.

Dodgers 9, Brewers 2: Don Mattingly Gets Angry

hernandez_milwaukee_2013-05-20Ramon Hernandez not only played, he hit a homer and got on base four times. You’re damned right we’re leading with a picture of him, if only just to prove he exists.

On what has to be one of the oddest days in recent Dodger memory — you’ll understand that this not a statement to be taken lightly given that this is a franchise where “Russian faith-healing psychics” were part of a real news story not that long ago — we at least have this, a surprisingly unsatisfying 9-2 victory.

I say that not because the rare outburst of offense wasn’t fun, because it was. Aside from Hernandez, Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp, Nick Punto, & Scott Van Slyke each had two hits and a walk, with Van Slyke’s two doubles and two driven in a welcome payoff for Don Mattingly‘s unexpected decision to sit Andre Ethier against a righty. That righty, Wily Peralta, was bounced out of the game in the midst of a five-run second inning, and Hyun-jin Ryu was effective once again while working into the eighth inning. The fireworks might have been even more had Ryan Braun not taken a home run away from Adrian Gonzalez with a spectacular play in left field.

…and yet, I’m having difficulty enjoying this, because it seems to change little. Mattingly didn’t just bench Ethier, he seemingly went into full “screw you” mode with his pre-game comments:

I don’t know what happened with Ethier behind the scenes, though anyone surprised that he’s got a reputation as being difficult hasn’t been paying attention — and yes, they did try to trade him over the winter.

But whether or not you agree with what Mattingly is saying, it’s hard to look at this as an organization that’s all on the same page right now. I can’t imagine what Ned Colletti’s reaction was to that, and while a 9-2 victory and taking the series is nice, I don’t really see how it changes much — and I’m still far, far from certain that Mattingly is the manager when the St. Louis series kicks off on Friday back at Dodger Stadium.

If There’s One Good Reason to Fire Don Mattingly…

don_mattingly_umpire_april7-2013…it’s because I’m absolutely sick & tired of talking about whether the team is/should/will/are going to fire Don Mattingly.

I feel like I’ve been over this a million times, but just so there’s no mistake about my position, let me offer it in crystal clear terms: though I like Mattingly more than most, I can’t argue that he’s done some sort of phenomenal job, and so if he gets fired, that’s totally fine — just don’t pretend like it’s the magic bullet that will save the season. It won’t. Managers just aren’t that important. Or as I said when we went through this last week

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.)

Can’t wait for that, you guys. It’s going to be fun.

Anyway, this is coming to a head once again not just because of how lousy the team looked in getting swept in Atlanta this weekend, but because Ken Rosenthal is reporting that he is “convinced Mattingly is going to get fired”. This appears to be more Rosenthal’s speculation than any actual reporting, so I hesitate to put too much stock into it, but I do agree that Mattingly’s time is growing short — and I absolutely agree with Rosenthal’s assertion that an off-day before a homestand is the ideal time to make such a move. (Bill Shaikin reports that he has been told there are “no plans” to fire Mattingly, though as much as I respect Shaikin’s work, statements like that from an unnamed official rarely end up being concrete.)

So is tonight the beginning of Mattingly’s final series as manager? I can’t say I know, though I will say that I feel a lot better about a series that will feature Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, & Hyun-jin Ryu than one that had Chris Capuano, Matt Magill, & Ryu (though both of the first two actually performed pretty well). I do know this, though — if the plan is to fire him this week, then that decision better have already been made, because if you’re really making such choices based on one three-game series against a non-divisional opponent, that speaks to a larger problem.

But for all the reasons why it’s not fair to hang this on Mattingly — injuries to the rotation, poor roster construction, injuries, under-performing players, injuries, etc — the fact that we seem to come back to this every few days is not a situation that can continue. I said that a few days ago too, because if he is a dead man walking, then the organization is not putting the team in the best position to win.

So whether or not I think Mattingly should get fired, I have swung to the side that thinks he will, and all that’s left now is when and who steps in. Maybe it’ll be Tim Wallach, or Trey Hillman, or someone from outside the organization (but please lord, not Tony LaRussa); I suppose I’d lean Wallach, though I doubt it really matters all that much. Then we can all spend the rest of the year fighting each other when a roster that has Greinke & Hanley Ramirez performs better than one that didn’t.

The sad part is, we all know who deserves to be the man shouldering the blame, if there is one, and that’s the same man I’ve been wanting to see exiled since at least 2007. But Ned Colletti has a newly-minted long-term extension tucked into his cowboy boots, and a change in the front office seems very far from imminent.

If the Dodgers Fire Don Mattingly…

mattingly_dugout_baltimore_2013-04-20Jon 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.