The Perfect Dodgers Team for this Time and Place
It’s a weird time to be a Dodgers fan, especially if you live in Los Angeles. This is an opinion I have and other longtime fans who are friends of mine share. I don’t think it’s unique, perhaps it’s even widespread, but it doesn’t seem to affect the crowds who still go to Chavez Ravine and cheer nightly. The not-so-new ownership group appears happy that the gate is still successful. Less interested, it seems, is how the brand has held up within Los Angeles and most likely nation and worldwide. The games, as anyone in Los Angeles knows, are not on television for most of the city for a second straight season. That should be appalling and big news considering how the Dodgers always billed themselves as affordable and family-friendly entertainment. Yet, due to apathy and other options, the fans have resided to the fact. I imagine those that want to see the Dodgers attend games live and those who are tired of the mistreatment that dates back to the end of the O’Malley era, have given up. I know for myself and most of my friends who have been Dodgers fans all of our lives, it’s the latter.
The current Dodgers are the perfect team for this time and place in our history. Years ago I started writing and then tweeting about the Dodgers. I began Dodger Therapy as a place where frustrated and abused fans could share like opinions on the constant tragedy surrounding being a Dodgers fan. Of course our pain is not quite what say a Chicago Cubs fan has endured, but nonetheless it’s been a painful journey. My therapy “business” thrived, especially during the comically awful and dangerous days under Frank McCourt’s ownership. Fans enjoyed my taking McCourt to task and took their spots on my virtual couch to vent. Eventually the team was sold to an investment group that used famous smiling local hero Magic Johnson to make the medicine go down more easily. The Guggenheim group won back fans who were frightened to go to games for fear of bodily injury and death and promised a return to Dodgers greatness. It all sounded very good and even the more cynical – like me and my friends – were excited by the possibilities of deep pockets, free-agent signings and a return to the “Dodgers way” of doing things.
My business on Dodger Therapy slowed as there were less “patients” who felt like venting. I wasn’t unhappy to lose them since perhaps the purpose of my endeavor was over and my “patients” got better and were happy. Along the way, I cheered with the rest of them but occasionally would point out what seemed like obvious truths to me but were less obvious to people probably with more well-rounded lives that spent far less time analyzing their local baseball team. My geek friends understood the points I was making and the on field moves management was making. Of course when Stan Kasten orchestrated a massive trade with the Boston Red Sox, infusing the withered Dodgers lineup with stars and large salaries, it was exciting and a statement maker. It told all of Major League Baseball that the Dodgers had arrived and the team in the country’s 2nd largest market was no longer the bankrupt, pathetic and crucified in the press punching bag it had become under previous ownership.
Fans flocked through the gates to watch the team again and pretty instantaneously things seemed more legitimate. The fans and the team got a swagger that was perhaps welcome after years of gloom and lawsuits but premature considering the team hadn’t won anything meaningful since 1988 and even that magical year was an anomaly. I always point to the rust beginning following the breakup of the great 70s team after the 1981 World Series victory. There were nondescript seasons with forgettable players and Peter O’Malley letting the farm rot a bit while he tried to get an NFL team onto the Dodger Stadium grounds. Then of course was the sad sale to corporate entity Fox, who admittedly didn’t care at all about baseball or the fans, they just wanted to leverage the team to launch a new all sports television network in the area. Under Fox’ reign a poorly chosen general manager, Kevin Malone, spent ineffectively on a roster of expensive, aging and ill-conceived players which quickly turned off Fox and the Dodgers payroll spigot. A smart general manager, Dan Evans (who most don’t realize was a data-driven “Moneyball” genius before anyone heard of the term), came in and cleaned up Malone’s mess, constructing a well-rounded roster of good chemistry players, strong pitching, great defense but was a little short on hitting. Fox was already over the baseball business; their TV network launched, and didn’t want to waste any more money on players. Evans’ teams were great fundamentally and fun to watch but always needed that extra bat or two that never came. Evans had to dumpster dive for players like Jeromy Burnitz or an aged Robin Ventura, instead of more prime cutlet.
In that synopsis I glossed over other events of crucial change, such as the nightmarish Mike Piazza trade Fox executives made, etc. Perhaps at another time I could go into things like that but my purpose is to focus on what happened to the Dodgers and their fans. Flash ahead once more to where we sit today. If you attend the games, it’s as exciting as any time in Dodgers history. But that’s only to the 40-50,000 fans at the stadium any given home game. I think beyond that, the brand has definitely been tarnished. Social media due to everything bad about it, allows for lots of bluster and bold commentary due to the availability of sending out one’s every thought conveniently as well as anonymity. I have shut down my therapy “business” as it became wearisome to argue what seemed obvious points about the current state of affairs with those likely too young to have much perception on things before 2015. Occasionally I will still blog and write out long-form takes on what’s wrong with the Dodgers. I get nice feedback and direct messages but it’s like screaming out in the forest with no one around to hear you.
Today’s fans are as bold and cocky as they initially became under Guggenheim. To read Dodgers fans tweets and comments during and after games, one would think they were the team that has won 3 recent championships, and not the hated San Francisco Giants. They strut and talk trash as if they’re St. Louis Cardinals or Boston Red Sox fans. It’s nice to be passionate about your team but when your team’s last World Series win was before most of the current fans were even born, perhaps a little humility and dare I say class is in order. It made me happy to see the long-suffering Kansas City Royals fans – a better blue and white colored team than the Dodgers – finally get over the hump. Ironically, the exciting and well-rounded Royals played winning ball in the manner Dan Evans earlier Dodgers teams used to. The strong rotation, the incredible and deep bullpen, the timely hitting and wonderful defense. I watched through a time machine prism and recalled those fun days of Evans’ incredible middle infield glove work of Cesar Izturis and Alex Cora. The Royals are a great team with terrific chemistry, deserving and classy fans and the story of 2014 was a great one for anyone who claims to be a baseball fan.
The Dodgers, on the other hand, and their fans, thrilled in pre-game musical concerts, dancing players, general merriment and bubble machines. It was like watching Rocky III where Rocky Balboa had gotten comfortable and lazy and mugged for the camera with adoring fans cheering, while hungry and street wise Clubber Lang went about business in a very serious and determined manner. I say the current Dodgers are the perfect team for this time and place because their superficiality serves to feed the younger and less history bound fans. Dancing and mugging players are easily identifiable because they fit in nicely with the fans’ day to day interests, which includes an overabundance of time spent on social media, taking selfies and pseudo celebrities such as the Kardashian/Jenners, Miley, Bieber, Ariana Grande and so forth. “Hot” Matt Kemp dancing and flexing his biceps, dating a pop star and posting photos of himself in GQ clothing made him the perfect sports celebrity – forget the fact he hadn’t done much on the field in years. Yasiel Puig showboating and ignoring veteran players and coaches comments to settle down while acting like one of Bieber’s posse was great. Hanley Ramirez phoning it in and taking 20 minutes to walk to the plate while music played thrilled everybody. To older and fans weary of years of bullshit, it was merely annoying.
The Guggenheim gang obviously must have agreed in some way as they pushed bald and formerly dubbed “genius” Stan Kasten aside, as well as thickly mustached 2nd fiddle Ned Colletti and brought in young Tampa Bay Rays Andrew Friedman to take over. Friedman, a data-driven sort to say the least, hired a group of like-minded young whiz kids to help remake the Dodgers. There were more executives hired over the winter than new players. The Dodgers front office became as bloated with needless levels of executive control as the fattest corporations in the country. One wonders what each of these hires do since obviously Friedman runs the show. And if Kasten was not the answer, why is he still on the payroll? Why is Colletti? It would seem Guggenheim has money to burn and prefers to not admit having made a mistake by hiring Kasten to run their new and exciting baseball team.
Over the winter I was suspicious since I had already seen the newish ownership group promise the moon and deliver a bubble wafting dance party instead. I was impressed though when Friedman, like me, obviously saw that Kemp and Hanley were part of the team’s on field problem, as well as likely off field. Those two were sent packing – I think a year too late – but Puig remained. His incredible athletic talent, and perhaps without the enabling shenanigans of more senior stars Kemp and Hanley, should fall in line. Of course one could have argued (I did) that Puig’s trade value while his statistics were high would have meant a great opportunity to deal him. To think, at one time Puig probably could have netted Giancarlo Stanton straight up in a trade. Puig has had a challenging season so far with injuries and the admission by players (buy Molly Knight’s new book, “The Best Team Money Can Buy”) that his antics are not well-received in the clubhouse. On a team that smartly doesn’t want to deal its star minor leaguers, Puig offers a huge trade chip that could help fill holes in Friedman’s pitching rotation and bullpen. Oh, about that…
Friedman’s reign has been a mixed bag so far. I commend him for initially doing exactly what I suggested hundreds of times in my blog posts and tweets. He pushed out a couple of the obvious clubhouse rotten eggs and played the kids. I suggested as much all of 2014 and was mocked by the new brand of Dodgers “fans” who liked their bubble dancing and cocky stars. After all, they were perfect examples of Los Angeles celebrities and such behavior, where once embarrassing on a baseball field, was now social media gold. So for me to suggest Kemp and his model looks and Hanley with his lack of interest in hustle and defense should be gone, made me a villain to many. I argued any decent shortstop and Joc Pederson replacing Kemp in the outfield would make for a much better defensive team that would save runs and therefore be more valuable than the offensive-minded and often not so productive stars the team currently had. Friedman came in and said he valued defense and thought saving runs was as valuable as scoring runs, plus the chemistry boost of adding young Joc and old man Jimmy Rollins would boost the chemistry of the team that had been suffering. Hmm, sounded vaguely familiar. I also argued all of last year that rather than aging and ineffective relief pitchers, the Dodgers should call up some of the lively young arms in their farm system. When Friedman went with Yimi Garcia, Paco Rodriguez, Pedro Baez, etc., he was deemed a genius. Another one that sort of smarted for a non-Moneyball old “therapist” who just uses common sense to guide his baseball opinions.
Where Friedman lost me however was in his approach to the pitching staff as well as his return in many of his off-season moves. Quickly, Dee Gordon was a young All-Star second baseman who led the league in steals and exciting moments on the base paths. He also was a good defender at second base and surprisingly suddenly a fan favorite to the nouveau fans who made it seem like they discovered him sitting at the counter of Schwab’s Drugstore (an old reference the vaping, selfie taking young fans won’t understand). I was very happy for Dee, who I rallied behind before he was called up originally, all through his various shortstop experiments that never took off and during the winter prior to 2014 when he was reinventing himself diligently as a second baseman. His winter regiment was impressive, his spring training amazing, and it carried over through the majority of 2014 where the bandwagon got full of supporters. Of course the minute by minute Dodgers fans who don’t understand baseball is a 162 game journey and shouldn’t be scrutinized daily as say a Sunday NFL game is, got on Dee when he had some bumps. Ultimately, he was clearly the best thing about the 2014 Dodgers not named Clayton Kershaw. He excited the fans, the team, and the city and made one see a connection between the great Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers way of the past.
Friedman, like all Moneyball types, doesn’t value the running game and probably also believed Dee was a great sell high candidate. Dee’s 2015 so far has proven he was not a flash in the pan at all but a great young second baseman who has the most hits in baseball at the break and is on pace for a huge year in stolen bases. I have minor problem with Friedman moving the team’s leadoff hitter who wreaked havoc with opposing pitchers, catchers and managers, but if Friedman felt he could get something great for Dee and honestly believed he would come back to Earth, I can see the argument for trading him. But the Florida deal that also threw in reliable bottom of the rotation starter Dan Haren, plus about $13M in salary, did not net nearly what Dee and Haren are worth. Supporters of the trade point to veteran Howie Kendrick, who has been very good for the Dodgers. Kendrick obviously was more of a middle of the order run producer that Friedman valued and you can also argue has certainly done more than an adequate job so far in 2015. The problem is he is a walk free-agent and Dee is young and controlled so for that reason alone, not to mention the hole at leadoff for the Dodgers, the deal wasn’t great. I would think you could do more if you wanted to move a young All-Star second baseman than Friedman did.
The acquisition in the deal of relief pitcher Chris Hatcher was supposedly what really would make the deal great. Hatcher was seen as a Kansas City Royals type flamethrower who could come out of the pen and set up for closer Kenley Jansen. He’s been a major disappointment and stayed on the roster longer than he should have to save face for Friedman. He throws hard, but he’s erratic and his fastball straight. Older Dodgers fans will recall straight throwing guys like Antonio Osuna as basically pitching machines. Note to Friedman – big league hitters can hit fastballs that don’t move well. No matter how hard they are thrown.
Losing Dan Haren – and paying his $10M salary to boot – has proved to be a blunder. Friedman obviously did not respect the numbers of Haren’s and treated him as if he were a piece of trash. Ironically, the Dodgers would love to have a Haren type in their shaky bottom of the rotation, just not Haren. Perhaps if Haren changed his name, Friedman could take a victory lap if he acquired him. But no, better to try out a string of AAAA guys in the rotation and bullpen, costing the Dodgers games. Haren was replaced with always injured Brandon McCarthy and also gimpy Brett Anderson. Anderson has been very solid but McCarthy, predictably, was not. He is out for 2015 and won’t factor in much in 2016, rehabbing a Tommy John surgery. McCarthy was a player to avoid anyway, but Friedman generously signed him to a 4-year contract based on a successful second half last year in New York. The numbers, unlike Haren’s, must have appealed to Friedman.
Friedman’s risk of signing two mostly injured starting pitchers was a gamble, but more ludicrous given the fact #3 starter Hyun-Jin Ryu was clearly not long for the mound. His 2014 included several serious shoulder concerns that lo and behold sent him to the DL for the season. Shoulders, for those who don’t know much about pitching injuries, are notoriously bad. Ask Jason Schmidt, whose career was cut short due to shoulder problems. Ryu never was going to stay healthy for 2015, which I wrote about endlessly during the off-season. When he got hurt, and McCarthy went out, fans and Dodgers management played it that it was a surprising thing no one could have expected. Again, read my blog posts and tweets – all of this was called well in advance like Babe Ruth’s famous shot.
Unlike Dan Evans who could look beyond the numbers, Friedman clearly believes some statistical blip he sees makes pitchers more valuable than they actually are. To me, someone who isn’t a mathematical genius but who has closely followed baseball too much for too long, being healthy and taking the mound are sorely undervalued traits. Dan Haren had value because he took the ball and mostly gave you a chance to win ballgames. Wins in today’s atmosphere of fans and fantasy baseball devotees, is a term that means nothing. If you mention a pitcher’s wins or even say “gives you a chance to win”, you are immediately pounced on like the new boy in prison. In reality, winning a game and giving your team a chance to win a game by throwing a quality start are hugely important. Not to mention health. I would rather have a healthy pitcher than an unhealthy one, almost regardless of some mathematical equation. Haren staying healthy in 2015, winning games for a less than spectacular Miami Marlins team, and giving them the chance to win in others, has proved to be a valuable commodity. The Marlins are talking about trading Haren – who again, the Dodgers are paying for in full – and getting prospects in return. So it could work out that Friedman paid $22M this year for Haren and McCarthy, neither having an impact for the Dodgers, while the Marlins get players in return. And Friedman has to find someone like Haren to fill out the bottom of the rotation for the summer, just not Haren. And of course to acquire this not-Haren pitcher, it will cost the Dodgers talent – likely younger players they’d like to keep.
As it is now, the Dodgers are in first in the West and often mentioned as one of the likely World Series contenders coming out of the National League. The record supports this. But a fan that is more honest can see the Dodgers have not done well in 2015 against good baseball teams. They have fattened up on bad teams, which is nice, but done poorly against the rest. Their division, where they are sitting on top, is very weak. The Giants have one of their lesser performing teams in recent years and unless they make deals this month to change that, are the closest thing to a challenge the Dodgers have. As usual, the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres are not contenders. One has to wonder if the Dodgers were in the National League Central, where they might sit.
Fans took their victory laps when a group of Dodgers were selected to the All-Star game. To many, this is their World Series. Winning the West or putting their heroes into the All-Star festivities are enough. Like more disciplined teams, I prefer what happens in October, which for recent Dodgers teams hasn’t been much to crow about. Though – oddly – the fans have. They have rewritten history that Clayton Kershaw did not collapse twice in a row vs. the Cardinals and they took glee that Scott Van Slyke won a standing in place contest against former Cardinals pitcher Joe Kelly. To me, the October series against the Cardinals the past couple of years were supremely embarrassing and no reason to boast on social media. That fans would like this is troubling, but that the Dodgers themselves camped it up on the cusp of being eliminated from the post-season, is deeply concerning and indicative of everything wrong with the Dodgers. i.e. fans like things they should be mad about and players laugh it up when a better team – in this case, the Cardinals – just went out and won important games.
Again, it’s hard to be a Dodgers fan in a city where you can’t even turn on your television and watch a game. It’s hard to express an opinion and get attacked for it because it’s not about GQ photo shoots and bubble machines. I think the Dodgers have their work cut out for them and we will see pretty quickly as their post All-Star break schedule is chock full of top National League opponents. It’s quite possible they will rise to the occasion and continue to stay atop the National League West. If that happens, I was not wrong. They will still need to do better in October, and that includes Clayton Kershaw who is one of the best pitchers alive but so far has not done what great aces in recent years have done – put the team on their back and won important October games. Earlier this year it was said how Kershaw had surpassed former Dodger great and current Dodgers broadcaster (who few can see or hear due to the incompetence of Guggenheim’s TV pact with Time-Warner Cable) Orel Hershiser in Los Angeles strikeouts. It seemed the note was to suggest Kershaw is better than even beloved Orel Hershiser was. Until Kershaw mans up and guts out October contests and wins a title for the Dodgers, Hershiser is still the better pitcher in my opinion. Yes, there’s something to be said for winning. One could say, no matter the sport, ultimately that’s all that matters. Data be damned.