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 Hairston, Dee 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.