So You Want to Fire Your Manager

brandon_league_april2013_vs_piratesBrandon League was again awful last night, walking the leadoff man in the ninth and then giving up a two run home to Paul Goldschmidt to break open what had been a 3-3 game when he entered. League has been atrocious, and it certainly looks like Ned Colletti’s three-year deal that was panned by just about everyone outside of Los Angeles is meeting those sad expectations.

So there’s a conversation to be had about what’s wrong with League, especially after the Dodger coaches were able to find and fix a mechanical flaw that made him so dominant late last year, and whether Kenley Jansen should be the closer. Fine.

Yet when I woke up this morning — and no, of course I didn’t stay up late to watch this mess of a team right now — I didn’t have a hundred tweets about how terrible League was waiting for me, or about how Josh Beckett was again mediocre, or about how the offense could manage three single runs against a somewhat shaky Brandon McCarthy.

No, the conversation was once again, “Fire Don Mattingly,” and it’s getting to be a bit much. This is starting to kill me because all logic has gone out the window here. If you think he’s making a mistake by keeping League as the closer, that’s a reasonable argument to have, and that seemed to be the tenor of many of the complaints.

But it’s difficult to see how that’s relevant in last night’s loss, because League, as lousy as he was, didn’t even blow a save. He was brought into a tie game, and he performed poorly. If he and Jansen swapped roles, League could have just been awful in the eighth inning of a tie game and the runs still would have been on the board. That’s not even considering the wrongful assumption that Jansen would be infallible as the closer, which he wouldn’t be, because he’s a human being going against the best hitters in the world.

If there’s an argument to be made against Mattingly last night, it’s his refusal to send up A.J. Ellis in place of the completely cooked Ramon Hernandez in the eighth, with one out and Matt Kemp & Andre Ethier on. Hernandez & Skip Schumaker each failed to drive home runs, and the threat was over. Mattingly’s post-game quote to Ken Gurnick of “it didn’t seem like the right spot,” is infuriating, and on that point I couldn’t be more in agreement with you — though again, we don’t have all the information. We don’t know if Ellis was sore, or on the toilet, or just terrified by certain interpretations of himself as Rocky Balboa.

I’ll admit it’s probably none of those, and that Mattingly was just being stubborn, but no one can really say they know. Still, you look at why last night’s game was lost, and you point to League. You point to Hernandez’ 0-4, and those are both on Colletti more than anyone else. You point to a team that once again went 1-10 with runners in scoring position, and you point out that for all the grief Kemp’s been given, Ethier is hardly doing better.

You want to fire the manager? Fine. But don’t act as though it’s some silver bullet that’s suddenly going to make Hanley Ramirez & Zack Greinke & Mark Ellis & Chad Billingsley healthy, or Luis Cruz or League or Beckett less awful. Don’t forget also that it could actually hurt, because a great way to lose a clubhouse is to fire a manager who remains very popular among his players. The game is won with talent on the field, and regardless what the payroll is, the Dodgers just don’t have enough of it right now.

Giants 10, Dodgers 9: Yeah, That’s a Gut Punch

magill_sanfran_2013-05-04You might be wondering why, after all that happened tonight, I’m using a picture of Matt Magill to lead this post. Why? To remind you that Magill even appeared in this game, because it seems like it was about four weeks ago.

wpa_chart_sfg_2013-05-04

If you were lucky enough not to sit through this entire thing, just check out the FanGraphs WPA chart to the right to realize what an endless cardiac event this was.

I suppose we could look at the positives here, including the fact that at least the club showed a lot of life in even coming back from the 5-0 deficit the obviously overmatched Magill put them in.

You can look at the homer A.J. Ellis hit in the fourth to even get the club on the board, one of his two hits, and you can absolutely look at Paco Rodriguez, who came into a bases loaded, zero out mess handed to him by Javy Guerra and struck out two, allowing only one run to score on a wild pitch. And you can definitely look at Dee Gordon, who offset some shaky defense with #spark, collecting two hits (including a triple) and two steals, as well as dashing home to score a run few players could have managed. One game doesn’t substantially change my opinion on any player, but that was unquestionably a good start for Gordon. Every Dodger starter had at least a hit, actually, with Ellis, Gordon, Skip Schumaker, Carl Crawford, Juan Uribe, and Jerry Hairston all getting two.

But other than Gordon, we’re not going to remember the good. We’re not going to remember that Brandon League got Buster Posey to ground into a double play with the bases loaded in the ninth, we’re going to remember that he allowed Guillermo Quiroz (!) to hit a walkoff homer in the tenth. We won’t remember that Matt Kemp drove in two with a big hit in the wild fifth, we’ll remember that he went 1-6. We’ll definitely remember that Hairston had to leave early with what appeared to be yet another injury.

For me, I think you all know exactly what I’ll remember. In the bottom of the eighth, after the two sides had traded runs in the seventh to make it a 9-9 tie, Andre Ethier led off with a walk. Ellis came up — remember, he’d already hit a homer and he’s been probably the most consistently productive Dodger all season long — and Don Mattingly ordered him to bunt.

I need to reiterate that here. Mattingly preferred the idea of one out with a man on second, the risk of getting the bunt down, and the generally awful Schumaker at the plate, followed by the pitcher’s spot, than he did having the reliable Ellis up with a man on first and no outs.

If you’re wondering why that sounds familiar, may I present to you the infamous Game #161 that ended last season…

“Please tell me that Don Mattingly didn’t force A.J. Ellis to bunt in the bottom of the ninth in a misguided attempt to have Elian Herrera or Bobby Abreu swinging away instead of one of your better hitters, right? Right?!

It didn’t work then; it certainly didn’t work now, as Ellis bunted into a double play. Put some blame on Ellis for the poor execution if you must, but that’s not the point here. This isn’t second-guessing; an entire army of fan voices came up in unison as soon as the call was made.

I try to defend Mattingly, because everyone who calls for his head either can’t answer the question of “who is obviously better and available” or places far too much importance on what impact a manager does and does not have. I didn’t even mind sending League out for a second inning, because he hadn’t pitched since last Sunday and the bullpen was nearly exhausted after Magill’s short outing screwed the team.

But that? That’s game management of the worst kind, and we all know he’ll defend it. I’ll remind us all that the bunt call was just one moment of hundreds, and let’s not forget that A) Magill screwed the pooch and B) the Dodgers had no business being in this game anyway. But at the end of the day, this team has lost another game to a division rival, and perhaps another player to injury as well. The last thing they need is to be shooting themselves in the foot, too.

2012 Dodgers in Review #51: MGR Don Mattingly

86-76 C+

2012 in brief: Infuriated us all with bunting and lineup choices but generally kept a steady hand over a roster constantly in flux due to early injuries and late trades.

2013 status: Will return for his third season at the helm with much to prove thanks to a roster that is suddenly stuffed with expensive talent and high expectations.

******

When I look back at Don Mattingly‘s 2012, I try to remember what he was handed at the beginning of the season and how much the composition of the entire organization changed over the year. This was a roster that was originally patched with low-budget options by Ned Colletti, a club meant less to win in 2012 more than it was to simply survive while the ownership transition was completed. The rotation was full of question marks behind Clayton Kershaw. The offense had exactly two accomplished hitters in the lineup in Matt Kemp & Andre Ethier, surrounded by a whole bunch of “maybes” and “cross your fingers”. Catcher and shortstop were manned by unproven players with limited experience and no backup plan. Second base featured a veteran import coming off an awful season. There was no left fielder to speak of. And lest you forget, Mattingly was forced once again to rely on James Loney & Juan Uribe at the infield corners.

(I can’t really overemphasize that last point enough, by the way. When Mark Ellis was hurt and the Dodgers at times had to play a foursome of Loney/Juan Rivera, Adam Kennedy/Elian Herrera, Dee Gordon, & Uribe, it might have been the worst infield in the last 30 years.)

Despite all that, Mattingly got the team off to an unexpectedly great start — a completely unsustainable one, of course, which hurt later in the season because it raised expectations to an unreasonable level — before they were besieged by a string of injuries unlike anything I think I’ve seen before. I know I’ve mentioned this in the past, but it’s worth noting again: the only players who made it through the entire season on the active roster without being disabled, traded, suspended, or otherwise moved were A.J. Ellis, Matt Treanor, Kershaw, Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang, & Jamey Wright – and Kershaw & Treanor only barely qualify for that list considering that each dealt with late-season injuries that may have required DL trips if not for expanded rosters.

Between May and July, Mattingly lost Kemp, Ethier, Mark Ellis, Jerry HairstonDee Gordon, Scott Elbert, Javy Guerra, Matt Guerrier, and most of his bench; at one point late in the season he was without his original top three starters in Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, & Ted Lilly. When things got really bad in late June & early July, he was routinely having to roll out lineups that had only A.J. Ellis as a legitimate major league hitter. (Lest you forget, Scott Van Slyke, who merits such little notice that teams wouldn’t even pick him up for free when he was DFA’d after the season, started in the #3 or #4 spots seven times due to all the injuries. There were days when Van Slyke, Loney, Tony Gwynn, Elian Herrera, Adam Kennedy, Juan Rivera, & Gordon were all in the starting lineup at the same time.)

The team survived that low period in the summer, barely, and then Mattingly was immediately handed a new challenge: take a roster that was suddenly about 40% different due to three imports from Boston, two from Philadelphia, two from Miami, and one from Seattle, and make them into a team. Immediately. In a pennant race. With no spring training, and with the national media spotlight on the club like never before. While it took longer than we would have liked – call it “jelling”, “meshing,” “random statistical variance,” whatever you like – it eventually did come together, with the team finishing hot over the last week despite the injury-limited contributions of Kemp & Kershaw to fall just short of the final playoff spot.

Through all that, Mattingly took a team which was expected to do very little and guided it to 86 wins, a six-win improvement over 2011, and that’s not to be taken lightly. In fact, that’s good enough work that you might expect Mattingly to get an A grade.

Well, Mattingly doesn’t get an A. He gets a C+. Here’s why:

First, he’s getting knocked down a full letter grade for the bunting. Good holy lord, the bunting… the endless, painful, bunting. I could probably find dozens of examples to illustrate this, but I’ll go with May 8 against San Francisco, the day that Uribe had one of the worst bunts of the year. To be honest, it wasn’t even that bunt that killed me, it was one later in the game — and Mattingly’s complete refusal to acknowledge how foolish the call was after the loss:

The next inning, Mattingly called for another bunt with men on, and while this one worked, it merely opened up first base ahead of Matt Kemp. Kemp was of course walked intentionally, and San Francisco lefty Javier Lopez retired lefties Andre Ethier, Loney, & Tony Gwynn to end the threat. Mattingly later said he wouldn’t have changed his decision in either case, even after the fact… and all of a sudden I’m wondering if this post should have been more about Don Mattingly than Juan Uribe.

So that takes him down to a B. He drops another half-grade because of his adventures in lineup construction, particularly when it came to A.J. Ellis. That’s another horse we continued to beat to a pulp all season long; as the offense continued to stagnate, I could take no more in early September:

As you probably also know, Ellis has been stuck in the bottom of the order for most of the season, mainly the 8th spot, and that’s a fact we’ve been bemoaning all year as inferior options like Dee Gordon & Shane Victorino have eaten up outs in front of the supposed ‘heart of the lineup’. That’s a big problem, because instead of having a guy who is great at getting on base out there for Matt Kemp and friends, you’ve been wasting that skill by having him on base ahead of the pitcher and whatever crappy leadoff man happens to be following him atop the order at any given time. (That’s mostly been Gordon, Victorino, & Tony Gwynn, and it’s been ugly: Dodger leadoff men have been atrocious, with a .598 OPS there, ahead of only Cincinnati for worst in baseball.)

It’s just an appallingly inefficient use of resources, and with the Dodger lineup struggling terribly, it’s not like there isn’t reason to change things. (Believe me, if the Kemp / Adrian Gonzalez / Hanley Ramirez / Andre Ethier core was healthy & hitting like it was supposed to, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.) Hell, even if you don’t think it makes strict sense, simply changing things up for the sake of change makes a ton of sense considering how things are going these days.

Now as I noted above, Mattingly rarely had a consistent lineup to work with because of the injuries and trades, and that should be noted. But to consistently put your best OBP man in Ellis 8th while letting out machines like Gwynn, Gordon, & Shane Victorino waste opportunities in front of the heart of your lineup is unforgivable  When you finish one game out of a tie for the wild card, it’s hard to not think this continued decision alone had an impact.

That gets Mattingly to a B-. The final demerit? Game 161. I know, it’s subjective, it’s emotional, and there’s plenty of other Chris Capuano-, Matt Kemp-, & Mark Ellis-based reasons why the Dodgers lost that game, which was just one game over a six-month season. Yet in case you’ve forgotten…

After a quiet eighth, there was hope in the ninth… briefly. Ethier, somewhat miraculously, singled up the middle against lefty Jeremy Affeldt. A runner! The move seemed clear: bring Gordon off the bench, let A.J. Ellis try to repeat his magic or possibly hit one into the gap that Gordon might be able to score on. If Ellis failed, then let Gordon try to steal ahead of Herrera (or his pinch-hitter, Abreu.)

No. Of course not. Mattingly sent in the bunt signal without sending in Gordon, and while it’d have been nice if Ellis could have made it work, it almost didn’t matter. What was the end game there? Twice-DFA’d Bobby Abreu with your season on the line? Elian Herrera? You’re taking the bat out of the hands of one of your best hitters for… what, exactly? Moving Ethier up 90 feet that Gordon probably could have (and eventually did) steal anyway? It’s stunning. Ellis struck out after failing to bunt twice, Abreu flew out, and Mark Ellis failed to redeem himself.

Mattingly was hardly alone in costing the Dodgers that game, of course. But these grades are meant to be subjective, and months later I still can’t get over it.

So that puts Mattingly at a C+, and that’s honestly about right. If you had asked me before writing this how I thought of him compared to other major league managers, I’d have said “about averageish overall,” and that’s how it came out. So while you might be expecting me to call for his head thanks to all the bunting madness, it’s not that simple. Unfortunately, other than Joe Maddon and maybe one or two other guys, every manager pulls this garbage. It’s just how baseball works, for the most part, and it’s infuriating. You can say you want Mattingly gone, fine, but who is clearly better? Without an answer to that question, it’s not worth the move, and he’s proven himself to be an adept clubhouse leader — and considering all of the off-field insanity this organization has seen since he’s been in charge, that’s not to be minimized.

All that being said, I’m fine with Mattingly in charge, though I’ll admit that 2013 seems pivotal for him. He’ll no longer have the excuse of McCourt-related shenanigans or underfunded rosters, and while it’s unfair to expect any manager to win the World Series, if they’re not playing in October, Mattingly’s going to have a lot to answer for.

******

That’s it for the 2012 Season in Review pieces — no, I’m not going to do Colletti, though unofficially I’d give him a B+ — and it’s now time to focus on the upcoming season. Thanks for sticking with this through the John Elys and Elian Herreras.

There Is Just Nothing Juan Uribe Can’t Do Poorly

Over at FanGraphs, Matt Klaassen has been going through the best and worst plays of 2012 based on WPA. (For those not familiar, that’s “Win Probability Added”, and is a context-based stat which shows how each play in a game added or subtracted from a team’s chance to win. It’s based on situation, so a two-run homer, for example, is far more valuable when you’re down one in the ninth than when you’re up six in the fourth. You can read a full definition here.)

A few days ago, Klaassen looked at the worst bunts of 2012 by WPA; that is, the bunts which did the most damage to a team’s chance of winning. (The correct answer here is probably “all bunts”, but still.) Who’s the very first name on the list? Oh, this is just wonderful:

Worst Bunt into a Double Play

One would think that a bunt into a double play would be the worst overall bunt of the season, but that is not true this year, at least. On May 8, Brett Pill homered off of Clayton Kershaw in the top of the second inning to put the Giants on top of the Dodgers 2-0. By the bottom of the seventh, the Dodgers were still down 2-1, but Ryan Vogelsong, who had been dealing all game, was on the hill. The Dodgers started a nice rally with singles from Juan Rivera and James Loney. It was a nice situation to have — two runners on with no outs. Juan Uribe came to the plate and bunted. It made sense — Uribe’s hitting has totally gone into the tank since making the move from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Maybe he’s a double agent. Buster Posey fielded the bunt and the Giants managed to get both Uribe and the lead runner, costing the Dodgers -.228 WPA. It wasn’t the Dodgers last shot — Andre Ethier‘s double play ball with the bases loaded in the eighth was even more devastating — but Uribe’s bunt was very bad.

I didn’t have a recap of that game, but the disastrous call was not lost on others at the time…

Eric Stephen, “Dodgers Sacrifice Chance To Win In Loss To Giants“:

The Dodgers offense could only manage one run in their 2-1 loss to the Giants Tuesday night, as the Dodgers’ demise was hastened by a pair of ill-fated bunts.

Down one run, the Dodgers threatened in the bottom of the seventh inning off Ryan Vogelsong when Juan Rivera and James Loney opened the frame with singles, but a Juan Uribe sacrifice bunt attempt turned into a 2-5-3 double play that effectively neutered the rally. Uribe has one successful sacrifice bunt attempt in the last three seasons.

Chad Moriyama, “Don Mattingly Regrets Nothing About His Bunting, I Regret Watching The Game“:

In the bottom of the seventh inning, with the Dodgers down one run, the team basically hit the lottery by somehow managing to get Juan Rivera and James Loney to not make outs.

That brought up Juan Uribe in what was clearly a traditional sacrifice situation, especially considering that Uribe sucks. However, while he does have 60 sacrifice bunts in his career over 5121 plate appearances, he’s had only one sacrifice bunt in the last three seasons over the course of 941 plate appearances. As such, it’s safe to say that he’s not exactly accustomed to bunting.

Uribe executing a successful sacrifice is anything but a foregone conclusion, then you add that you’re actually lessening your chances of scoring runs by bunting, and it’s just an overall terrible decision.

Mattingly though, of course, called for the bunt anyway, and it worked out SPLENDIDLY

The next inning, Mattingly called for another bunt with men on, and while this one worked, it merely opened up first base ahead of Matt Kemp. Kemp was of course walked intentionally, and San Francisco lefty Javier Lopez retired lefties Andre Ethier, Loney, & Tony Gwynn to end the threat. Mattingly later said he wouldn’t have changed his decision in either case, even after the fact… and all of a sudden I’m wondering if this post should have been more about Don Mattingly than Juan Uribe.

Either way, bunting is the worst. The. Worst.

Dodgers Call it Quits With Excruciating Loss

Choose the more appropriate caption for Shane Victorino being shocked:

1) “What do you mean none of us could hit Barry F’ing Zito?
2) “Chris Capuano really made it only three lousy innings in his biggest game of the year because he hurt himself with a donut??
3) “Matt Kemp had two on and two outs in the fifth and couldn’t get runs home?”
4) “Matt Kemp had two on and two outs in the seventh and still couldn’t get runs home?!”
5) “Don Mattingly really intentionally walked Angel Pagan to get to Marco Scutaro with men on, even though Scutaro has been blazingly hot and the exact same maneuver didn’t work a few weeks ago?”
6) “Mark Ellis did WHAT?!?! Get the hell out.”
7) “Please tell me that Don Mattingly didn’t force A.J. Ellis to bunt in the bottom of the ninth in a misguided attempt to have Elian Herrera or Bobby Abreu swinging away instead of one of your better hitters, right? Right?! AND that Dee Gordon wasn’t brought in to run for Andre Ethier yet? RIGHT?!”

Frankly, I’m exhausted from watching that game. Just drained. It was alternately thrilling and excruciating, and I’m not sure if I actually even enjoyed the experience or not. The Reds did their job, including a good inning from old friend Jonathan Broxton, to put the Dodgers in a position to head into the final day of the season still alive. And for a minute there in the seventh, you couldn’t help but believe.

After Zito hit Andre Ethier with a pitch to lead off the frame and was relieved by Guillermo Mota, A.J. Ellis followed with one of the most impressive at-bats of the season, a nine-pitch affair that ended with a blast over the wall that fell just out of the reach of center fielder Pagan to bring the Dodgers within one. Dodger Stadium wasn’t full, but it sure sounded like it at that point. Just when you think the legend of A.J. Ellis can’t get any larger… well, there you go.

They weren’t done. Mark Ellis doubled to deep right and… we won’t talk about that. It was a hard-hit ball for extra bases. Victorino followed with a similar hit, this time making it to third, and with three extra-base hits in the inning and Kemp coming up down one, everything was in place for magic. But it wasn’t to be. Kemp went fishing for a low-and-away slider, the kind that we saw him go after constantly back in the 2006-08 era, and the threat was over.

After a quiet eighth, there was hope in the ninth… briefly. Ethier, somewhat miraculously, singled up the middle against lefty Jeremy Affeldt. A runner! The move seemed clear: bring Gordon off the bench, let A.J. Ellis try to repeat his magic or possibly hit one into the gap that Gordon might be able to score on. If Ellis failed, then let Gordon try to steal ahead of Herrera (or his pinch-hitter, Abreu.)

No. Of course not. Mattingly sent in the bunt signal without sending in Gordon, and while it’d have been nice if Ellis could have made it work, it almost didn’t matter. What was the end game there? Twice-DFA’d Bobby Abreu with your season on the line? Elian Herrera? You’re taking the bat out of the hands of one of your best hitters for… what, exactly? Moving Ethier up 90 feet that Gordon probably could have (and eventually did) steal anyway? It’s stunning. Ellis struck out after failing to bunt twice, Abreu flew out, and Mark Ellis failed to redeem himself.

And with that… it’s over. The Reds did their part. We could have had an absolutely rocking Dodger Stadium for a late afternoon game tomorrow with Clayton Kershaw on the hill, especially since the game is to start earlier than the Cardinals game.

But it wasn’t to be, and there’s no shortage of reasons why.

And I’m spent.