29 May 2008

Give Me Character in the Gap and Over the Fence

When Saito walks multiple batters in an inning it's certain trouble. He was so wild and had so many 3 ball counts that it seems like he walked the tying and winning runs in, even though he didn't. Maybe we should remember it that way. It's more poetic that way, more cruel, more vengefully satisfying. Goodness knows I feel like being cruel after watching the Dodgers get swept. Just as Bill Buckner allowed four runs to score and simultaneously lost games 6 and 7 of the 1986 World Series when he let the ball get through his legs, so can we heap greater shame upon Saito in retrospect. Or perhaps the mountain of shame belongs to Kemp striking out with the bases loaded in the top of the eighth. Someone is going to get it. Where is the character on this team? These young players don't have the will of a warrior. They have the will of a Care Bear.

Now, character and the will of a warrior are tricky concepts. What do they really mean? Aren't these just lazy excuses to rip on young players in a patch of slump or ill luck? No, I will tell you exactly what character is. Character is hitting home runs. Character is pulling a ball into the stands. The Dodgers are last in the National League in home runs, with just 33. Even the Giants are 4 ahead of them. That's LA for you, first in beach balls, last in character. Grit is whacking a ball into the gap and steaming into second. The Dodgers are last in the league in doubles, with 80, 8 behind the woeful Padres. Determination is going the other way deep down the foul line for a shoes-on-fire triple. The Dodgers are not last in triples, the freaky, frisky cousin of the double, but their modest total of 12 isn't enough to pull them out of last in extra-base hits in the National League. Congratulations, Dodgers. The team mascot should be "Losing-with-grace" Bear, the gentlest and softest Care Bear of them all, so soft he has no teeth or claws.

See, it's hard to score runs when all you do is dink singles and draw walks. You've got to have 3 of those events in one inning just to score a run, or even 4 if the walk comes third, as it so often does. It's not a lack of character keeping the Dodgers from scoring and getting clutch hits, it's the difficulty of piling up 4 positive offensive events in one inning. If three out of five ( or four of six ) Dodgers can't avoid making outs in an inning, then they won't score. Is it any wonder that the Dodgers appear to lack character? The degree of difficulty in scoring runs is extreme when you can't skip ahead to second or third or even home on your base hits.

What's the solution? I don't know, something boring and unsatisfying like patience? Maybe some of these young players aren't that good. Maybe they are still a year or two away. Maybe they should close their eyes and swing as hard as they can. I don't know. Do something. The season is still not lost. The Snakes are a mere 3.5 games ahead. If the Dodgers can just start to hit for a little more character they'll be right back in it.

25 May 2008

Kershaw Day

Last Tuesday I bought tickets to yesterday's Saturday Dodger game. At the time I knew the starter would be Penny, and that gave me pause, because I feared another poor start from him, but I went ahead with it anyway, since the game time worked well for the rest of the persons coming along. There was a time when I would have targeted a Penny start to attend a game, of course. The last two years he has been the ace, or near enough, except for some late season troubles. But now? He appears to be another once good Dodger pitcher becoming mortal very quickly. I fear we are seeing a repeat of Jeff Weaver or Odalis Perez in him. In my less fearful moments I think he's just regressing to the mean after some seasons when his results were a little above his abilities. And he's had that arm stiffness. That worries me more than anything about Penny. It's both a fear and a rational concern. Pitchers are so fragile. All it takes is one body part out of alignment for a pitcher to start turning in bum performances. And all that is needed for a bum performance is just one inning when the pitches just aren't quite right.

It was so last night in the third inning. All of Penny's great work in the other 6 innings of one-hit ball was rendered moot by his 10 ball, 2 walk extravaganza with two outs in the third. That was made even more frustrating by the generous strike zone the umpire appeared to have. From where I sat he appeared to be calling a lot of outside balls strikes, but Penny couldn't take advantage of even that in the third inning. You could say he got unlucky with some of the hits in the third inning, but it's his own damn fault for putting himself into a position for bad luck to sting with those two walks. After those walks he needed a strikeout to end the inning and he didn't get it. The clutch strikeout is what separates the true ace from the false ace.

When the rumors of Kershaw coming up started Thursday, one of the early theories was that he would pitch on Saturday because of Penny's arm stiffness. I eagerly seized upon this theory as potential truth, because then I would get to see Kershaw's debut in person. I already had the tickets! It seemed like fate.

Now why should I be so excited at the possibility of seeing Kershaw's debut? The truth is given his inning limit and youth he's not likely to help the Dodgers that much this year. He might give them an extra win or two over the innings he pitches that would have gone to some other pitcher instead. Or he might give the Dodgers no extra wins. He's only 20! Well, it's about seeing the start of a great career. But he might not have a great career. It's more likely than not that he won't. He could get injured in the next few years. Just look at what happened to Liriano of the Twins. There is something deeply foolish about my desire to witness in person Kershaw pitch in his first major league game.

It is inconvenient that in baseball any observation made of a team over a single game can be dismissed as meaningless since it was just one game. There are so many, after all. I acknowledge that, but I will still draw significant conclusions from the game I saw in person last night. The Dodgers are a barely-above-0.500 team. Maybe an 84 win team. And it's the offense that's the problem. It disappears in way too many games. It goes away for entire series. Look at Kyle Lohse's stats, his ERA and strikeout rate, and ask if this is a pitcher who should be able to shut down the Dodgers with no runs. I don't want to hear about the Dodgers being unlucky against him or something. Unlucky is losing 4-2 to Kyle Lohse. Bad is losing to him 4-0. Yeah, the offense will come back and look great in some future series. But then the starting pitching may disappear. This isn't a great team, and it doesn't seem like a particularly good team either. The Dodgers seem to be a year away. A year to get rid of more of the old deadwood players, a year for the young players to get even better.

So, if I think I'm watching a barely-above-0.500 team, it's even more important to find joys other than those associated with winning lots of games during the baseball season. It can't always be about winning lots and lots of games, not even if you're a Yankees fan. There have to be victory-neutral joys as well. One of those, for me, is watching the young players blossom. My favorite is Matt Kemp, though that didn't work out too well last night, when he struck out about 6 times and just missed a great diving catch in the ill-fated third inning. My wife teases me about my enthusiasm for Kemp, calling him the golden boy. Even the golden boy will have some leaden days, I guess. And then there's Clayton Kershaw. He's the next big thing, they say. I like to say it too. And it's not just words --- we saw the possibilities in Spring Training.

I was disappointed when it came out that Kershaw would be the Sunday starter rather than the Saturday starter. If I had known that I would have bought tickets to the Sunday game instead. Going to a Dodger game at the stadium isn't a trivial thing for me, since it's a two hour drive to get there. Going to a night game means getting home at midnight or later, usually. So if I was already going to the Saturday game, I couldn't go to the Sunday game, right? I said as much to my wife, who replied that I should just go ahead and buy tickets for the Sunday game. And I did. We're going. We get to see Kershaw make his debut, unless my secret fear comes true and he's scratched at the last minute. I had to slightly reschedule a barbecue we were supposed to have with my mother and sister today because of this. When I called my mother to explain why I changing already set plans and driving back Sunday for a game after we had driven down to see the Saturday game, the best way I could explain it was with something that is probably not true but is also honestly how I feel about today. Seeing Kershaw's debut is like seeing Koufax make his first ever major league start.

21 May 2008

I still want him back

So Mike Piazza has retired. I read about it on Dodger Thoughts. I feel like it's 1998 again. The wound is back, reopened. How could this happen? How could the Dodgers let him go into the history books as a New York Met? How could those other Dodger fans boo him when he returned? He was the best we ever saw! It is so senseless, to take out the frustration on the one we loved. But it does make horrible human sense. I think people were angry at him for him existing and thriving after he left. If we can't have him no one can. BOOOOOOOOO! TRAITOR! Obviously he wanted to hurt us. And so let's hurt him back.

I think of Johan Santana. The Mets stole another great one this year from the team that raised him and fans that loved him. Everyone loses when things happens this way. The legend of the player is diminished. Memories become divided. The sweetness and joy is tainted with anger and regret. Piazza and Santana have come to Mets fans as legends already. Yes, I'm sure Mets fans appreciated and loved Piazza. The same will happen with Santana. Both players will go in the Hall as Mets. But it's not Mets fans who saw Piazza and Santana become Hall of Famers. Those Mets fans are getting less than half the experience, really. As much as they may appreciate Piazza and Santana it will never compare to how they feel about David Wright, I'm guessing.

I worry that the Dodgers will let Russell Martin or Matt Kemp get away. Have we learned from our mistakes? No, the truth is even worse. It's not seen as a mistake. The only things that matter are money and winning. No matter what an organization may talk about, almost every decision made is based on some combination of money and winning. If you're lucky, it's mostly about winning. But in the case of Piazza it was money. Piazza wanted to be paid like the player he was. You can argue that he asked for too much if you want. Just don't argue that he asked out. The Dodgers made no good faith effort to keep him. They turned on him, and at the same time turned on the fans.

I doubt that the Dodgers will get a chance to repeat the same magnitude of mistake they made with Piazza. We won't likely see a hitter as great as he was pass our way soon again. We have a lot of good young players now that I don't want to see get away. But they aren't as good, not yet, anyway. None of these guys can hit .360 with 40 home runs. None of them seem like sure Hall of Famers yet. Piazza did by his third year.

What I am left with is sadness. I wish I could get over it. Well, I have, mostly. But it all came back today. It's just that Piazza's retirement hit me in a way I didn't expect. I know why. It's because, secretly I always hoped he would come back. Even if it never really made any sense, even if he would never do it, even if he had moved on and was beloved by a new set of fans, I desperately wanted to see Piazza back in a Dodger uniform. Even after he was a shadow of his former self, when his defense behind the plate had become truly atrocious and his once elite hitting had declined to mortal 0.800 OPS levels, I wanted him back. Even now, my mind spins with crazy theories, that he could be lured out of retirement to be Martin's backup.

I remember the time Curt Schilling openly marveled at the high fastball Piazza had hit for a home run against him --- he couldn't believe Piazza had gotten around on the pitch --- it was the ultimate tip of the cap from an opposing pitcher. I remember the balls Pizza hit out of Dodger stadium, impossibly far and high, off the roof and into the parking lot. I remember the Fox Saturday game when he was pelting balls to every corner of the ballpark for doubles, and the announcers were beside themselves talking about how good Piazza was. I remember when as a rookie Piazza helped end the Giants season, and at the same time brought the Dodgers to a .500 record after they had sunk to 99 losses the year before. Those are memories --- what I want is a future with Piazza as a Dodger. Future memories.

I want to see Piazza in a Dodger uniform again. It's ten years and seven days since his last game in a Dodger uniform and I still want it. And I won't get it. Piazza will never wear a Dodger cap again. Not even on his Hall of Fame plague. And the truth is he shouldn't. The organization and the fans don't deserve it.

The sadness now is that hope is gone. Piazza is retired. The story is done. He never came back.

19 May 2008

I want to play

He got me. I struck out. I guess I could say now that I was fooled by the pitch, but at the time, when that 0-2 pitch was coming, my mind was just filled with desperate haze, and all I knew was that it was time to swing. See, you can't fool a man who's about to swing out of some primitive instinct. That pitch might as well have been the mythical gyroball, because I guess I never had a shot of hitting it.

I want to go back up. I want another chance. I love the moment when the crowd is all staring at me, when it's like waves of pressure coming in at me. They want me to hit the ball somewhere special. But it's also the thrill of not knowing. They don't know what they'll see. I don't know what I'll do. I'm competing against that guy on the mound. I'm better than him. I'm better than you. That what I'm trying to say with every swing. I'm alive. I'm striving. And then when I'm not up anymore, I'm invisible. The crowd stops watching me after I strike out. They forget about me! I need to get back to that place. I need to get up off the bench, and walk up to the plate, into the pressure again.

The bench is the worst. All I can do is watch and imagine it's me up there. Imagine what I could do, while those other guys are alive. Those lucky bums, swinging, striving. With fierce smiles when they reach first base. That should be me! I know I could do it. It will be different next time.

The eternal bench is the dread that I can't even acknowledge. It's the terror behind the blank expression you see on my face when I'm not in the game. The eternal bench is the one you never leave. No more swings. No more exhilaration at the hits and despair at the strikeouts. All that I will feel is white noise forever. I will do anything to keep that away. I must play.

They told me I can't play anymore. Look at your stats, they say. Look at all these strikeouts. No! That's just me striving. Let me get back up just one more time, and I'll show you something different. They shake their heads sadly. You're done, old man. I can't believe they called me old man. I feel like I'm being measured for my coffin.

Maybe Jeff Kent has reached the moment of the eternal bench. Maybe not. He's far away from the point when they come for him, and tell him he's done. Is he the sort who is at peace with not playing? He would say that, wouldn't he? He almost didn't come back this year. But he did come back. And I wonder. How badly does he want to play, to swing? Will he resist if they come for his job? But would they come for his job? Maybe in a few months. No one is safe, not really.

What about Nomar? His body is telling him it's time. His body is dragging him to the bench. This time it's his calf. Next time it will be something else. Is he wondering if this could really be all there is of his once wonderful career? How could it end this way? Oh, he can probably drag it out for years. Join the Rangers next year, maybe. Then the Padres. Then the Giants. Or maybe he just decides it's time. Sometimes they do. How do they walk away?

16 May 2008

I'm trying to quit

What a gift it is to have good young players, guys you can root for, win or lose. Guys who you want to see grow and learn and thrive, who will bring frustration but also promise and exuberance and excitement. And what a waste it is to squander this gift. To let Andy LaRoche linger in AAA. To threaten Blake DeWitt with Nomar Garciaparra. To make both Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier have to look over their shoulders at Juan Pierre. I don't want to write about this anymore. I'm so $#^&@!& tired of it. It's boring and depressing to read the complaints about who the Dodgers play and the young players they screw around with and block.

So, yeah, I guess I just conceded that the last paragraph was boring and depressing. This is a lot like recent Dodger games. That five game losing streak, in particular. I can take the losing if the best, most promising players are the ones doing it. But if I have to watch them lose with Juan Pierre leading off? Forget about it. Really, my interest in the Dodgers has dropped so low in this last week --- you could almost call me a fair weather fan now. I blame Colletti and Torre. Sheesh, I almost typed Little. I can't even get my head in the right year.

But deep down I'm not a fair weather fan. I tried to boycott Wednesday's game, but eventually I came back, turned it on, saw the Dodgers down 4-3. I was sort of defiant at that point. Like, is that as bad as you can suck, Dodgers? If you're going to lose six in a row you might as well get blown out. But really a one-run loss is better: more painful for the fans who foolishly think the team ever had a chance. And then the Dodgers went ahead and scored three runs. I remember watching Pierre and hating myself for rooting for him to get a hit and then being stunned when he hit that ball in the gap. It's really messed up to be upset about rooting for a player, isn't it? I don't hate Pierre --- I hate his contract, and I hate how managers can't see how bad he is. But I don't hate Pierre. If I did that would make me a jerk, and I'm trying to quit. Insert obligatory sentence about what a nice guy Pierre is. Follow up with sentence about how hard he works. ( Query: if he's such a hard worker how come he can't bunt worth %$&#? )

Thursday's game I mostly missed because of work. I hear rumors of Billingsley pitching a gem. Yeah, could be. I also hear rumors that Bennett, Kent and Jones hit home runs in the same inning. Yeah right. I think some beat writer is having everyone on.

Thursday was a day for the Dodgers to show what they haven't had a whole lot of this year. Power and pure pitching. I mean they have guys who are capable of pitching a gem, but rarely do they actually do it. Everyone in the rotation is capable of greatness except for Chan Ho Park who sucks. Maybe if I keep saying how bad Park is he'll keep proving me wrong. I'd be okay with that.

Truthfully I'm much more excited to watch the Lakers play tonight than the Dodger game. The thing I love about watching the Lakers is that they don't have any overpaid vets who steal playing time away from the young, promising players. Even when someone like Farmar is out there screwing up at least I know that he's learning from this and should get better. It's so great not to have to watch Kwame Brown play center and fumble passes out of bounds anymore. Lordy loo that was excruciating. It was even worse than seeing Pierre pop out on a 3-1 pitch or seeing Pierre bloop a throw to the infield. It's too bad the Dodgers can't trade Pierre's expiring contract for something good. I wish baseball had an NBA-style salary cap. The beauty of the cap is that even horrible contracts end up having a good side because they eventually become expiring contracts that can be traded for good things ( unless you're Isiah Thomas ) or held onto to give you new cap space that lets you sign a new overpriced bust free agent. Baseball could use that. It would really help me deal with the Pierre situation.

09 May 2008

Park Place

The One Who Got Away

After the 2000 season the Dodgers signed their own free agent pitcher Darren Dreifort to a 5-year, 55 million contract. Given Dreifort's injury history and only occasional stellar pitching it seemed at the time a horrible move. It was. Dreifort only pitched in 205 innings during the five year (or)deal, for an ERA of 4.53.

After the 2001 season pitcher Chan Ho Park of the Dodgers was a free agent. Like Dreifort he was represented by Scott Boras; unlike Dreifort Park had put together several stellar seasons, and he had no significant injury history. And yet the Dodgers passed on signing Park, who instead went to Texas on a 5-year, 65 million contract. It was a questionable contract, to be sure, but not an obvious disaster from the beginning.

Well, it became a disaster. Park struggled with injuries every full year he was with the Rangers, and when he was healthy he was plagued by home runs and walks. His ERA was over 5 every year he was with the Rangers. Park was as much a bust as Dreifort. Fortunately for the Dodgers, they only signed one of the two. Before this season, my first thought whenever the name of Chan-ho Park was mentioned was thank goodness the Dodgers let him get away.

The Attractive Nuisance

What first drew Joe Torre and the Dodgers to Chan-ho Park? Who can say for sure --- attraction is so often a mystery that even those involved cannot adequately explain. I think Park's experience was alluring. But it must also be said that maybe the Dodgers and Torre were feeling a little desperate. Desperation breeds lowered standards. Park's lowest ERA since 2001 was 4.81, and that came when his home park was Petco. By any objective standard Park is not an attractive pitcher, and yet --- he is here --- why? Well, Park's an old flame. That's my gut feeling, that more than the Dodger's desperation or Park's experience, the basis for the attraction to Park is just a simple feeling that we've been here before, and wasn't it good? Of course Torre himself can't be personally feeling that, since he wasn't a Dodger in 2001, but the organization bleeds into you. This may seem irrational, but consider this: there were a lot of washed-up pitchers out there who were once good for a desperate team to fixate on, and yet the Dodgers picked which one? --- the guy who they used to be with.

And now that the Dodgers have Park, he seems more attractive then ever. His ERA is 2.46! It's like Park and the Dodgers just picked up right where they left off, so long ago, when Park got away. Oh, it's mostly been in long relief that Park has done so well, but now --- it's looking as though he will start again. May 17. On that day the Dodgers need a fifth starter again, and with Loaiza on the DL, and Kuo stuck in the bullpen because he's a lefty who can warm up quickly --- it looks like Park will get the call. And then the love affair between the Dodgers and Park can really begin again.

There's only one problem. Park is not a good pitcher. Yeah, I know, the great ERA. But first, and this is the least of it, when I watch him pitch he looks awful. Park pitches like Andruw Jones hits. He gives up a lot of hard hit balls, and he really doesn't have a strikeout pitch. Second, and this is really where it becomes clear that Park is a nuisance --- in 22 innings pitched, Park has given up 4 home runs, 10 walks, and just 9 strikeouts. You don't have to be into sabremetrics to know that a 1:1 strikeout to walk ratio is bad news for any pitcher. And the one home run every 5 innings thing is what got him into so much trouble in Texas, where they called him Chan-ho "out of the" Park. Park has given up 4 home runs but only 6 runs so far. Park has allowed 26 non-home run base-runners, and only 2 of them have scored. That's astonishing. I guess a person could think he'll keep that up, that the home runs will keep coming when no one is on, that the lucky double plays will keep coming, that Park won't be burned by his difficulty in striking anyone out, that the last 6 years of putrid pitching by Park don't mean anything for this year --- I guess the Dodgers can and do believe all this.

The Long Goodbye

How long will it take? I figure that Park's ERA needs to at least go above 5 before the Dodgers can see Park as he really is. If Park pitches in the future as he has for his first 22 innings ( but without all the great luck ) then he'd have an ERA of 5.73. That's his fielding independent pitching number provided by hardballtimes.com. And ERA of 5.7 is also right in line with what Park has done in years when he wasn't pitching half his games in Petco. ( Dodger Stadium is no longer a great pitcher's park, by the way. ) If we assume that Park pitches every remaining inning this year with an ERA of 5.7, it will take 80 more innings until his year-long ERA gets above 5.0. Of course he might do worse than 5.7 in the near future, and reach 5.0 on the year more quickly. And he might still keep getting chances as his ERA climbs above 5.0 because everyone remembers how good he was at the start of the year, and maybe he can recapture that. Right now it looks like we'll be stuck with Park for most of this year.

I wish I could see in Park whatever Torre and the Dodgers see in him. But all I see is future pain. The Dodgers avoided getting burned by Park six and a half years ago, but I guess they couldn't avoid it forever.

06 May 2008

Four Choose Three

The Dodgers have not started anyone other than Ethier, Pierre, Kemp or Jones in the outfield this year. Since three of those four are always in the starting lineup, a simple and revealing way to show the Dodger starting outfield game by game is to list the outfielder who has not started each game.

Here they are, the starting benchwarmers so far this year:


Here are the number of starts each player has missed of the 32 Dodger games so far:

Pierre -- 14
Kemp -- 9
Ethier -- 5
Jones -- 4

I will give Torre some credit here --- Pierre does have the most non-starts in the first 32. I don't expect that Kemp will add many more to his too-high total of 9 non-starts this year. But --- if we have learned anything about Torre the manager in the first month and change of this season it is that he loves to fiddle and adjust, like Nomar in the batter's box. No one should ever feel too safe in that outfield.

Instead of looking at the Dodger outfield situation as simply four players competing for 3 slots, we can both simplify and complicate things by attempting to isolate one-on-one battles. It's simpler because now we only have to look at a straight up comparison between two players --- and it's more complicated because it's hard to know which ( if any ) one-on-one competition is really important at any given time. Among the four outfielders there are six possible one-on-one competitions for playing time; I'll examine each one below.

Ethier v Pierre

This was the competition that dominated outfield talk during the latter weeks of Spring Training, and the one that most people thought would dominate the regular season as well. But it hasn't worked out that way. There has been no stretch of the season when Ethier and Pierre have alternated starts and non-starts. When Ethier beat out Pierre to open the season, it appears in retrospect that he leapt over Kemp as well in the depth chart. This probably had something to do with Kemp being right handed: one can have a quasi-platoon situation between Kemp and Pierre, but not between Pierre and Ethier who are both lefties.

Ethier demolishes Pierre in every category of performance except speed. Unfortunately speed is what Torre seems to have fixated on as a major cause of the Dodgers' offensive turn-around, so if the battle for outfield playing time really does come back to being Ethier v Pierre then Ethier is in trouble. It's incomprehensible and maddening because Ethier has been the most complete hitter of the four, with patience, power and a high batting average. Ethier handily beats Pierre in the field as well.

Jones v Kemp

This competition figures to exist in theory only. These are the two center fielders on the club now that Pierre is permanently exiled to left. I think Jones is still the better defender, though it does appear to me that Matt Kemp's ball tracking skills have improved a lot. Kemp is by far the better hitter. Just compare Kemp's opposite field home run and single last night with Jones' mania for trying to pull everything. Jones does have 15 walks to only 5 for Kemp, but when you're hitting 0.330 who cares about walks?

Ethier v Jones

This is the oddball competition of the group, and yet --- over the last five games this appears to be determining battle for who plays and who sits. That doesn't figure to last, but if Pierre is untouchable because of his speed and Kemp is untouchable because of his scorching hitting and all-around awesomeness then it will last, I guess.

Ethier is obviously doing a lot more than Jones right now, but Jones wins since Torre is convinced that he needs to play nearly every day so he can break out of his slump and hit 0.220 again like he did last year. And to be serious about it I'm not sure that I disagree with Torre about Jones needing to play most of the time to see if he can get on track. But not at the expense of Ethier! Why bench a productive outfielder to make a different crappy outfielder more productive?

Kemp v Pierre

It was a kick in the stomach to me when this became the controlling competition at the start of the year. In the first twelve games these two battled for playing time with Pierre winning more often than now --- in the darkest stretch Kemp was on the bench for 6 of 8 games.

Kemp does everything better than Pierre, with the possible exception of tracking down fly balls. But even there I think Kemp has at least drawn even with Pierre this year. There has just never been any good reason to favor Pierre over Kemp. And yet Torre did for awhile, whether based on the platoon advantage, or Pierre being a veteran, or Pierre being paid more, or because Kemp stole Torre's iPhone.

It does appear that this competition did turn. After the first dozen games Kemp has more or less played every day; and for a glorious 15 game stretch Pierre only started 5 times.

Jones v Pierre

This is the competition a lot of people want to see; it's the one I want to see. Let the good hitters Ethier and Kemp play every day while Jones and Pierre battle for the crumbs. Unfortunately there is no indication that this will happen. Torre's own words suggest this won't be the controlling competition.

Jones is better than Pierre defensively, and Jones is at his average a much better hitter as well, unless he's just fallen down a trench and what we're seeing is close to the new Andruw average. Pierre is hitting better right now. If these guys were hitting as they are now in July then I would probably say that Pierre should start most of the time. Right now I think Jones should get two thirds of the starts and Pierre one third of the starts, while Ethier and Kemp start every day. If Jones never breaks out of his extended slump then slowly increase Pierre's playing time.

Kemp v Ethier

This is the nightmare competition. If the shape of the Dodger starting outfield becomes about who will sit between Kemp and Ethier, then all hope is lost. I'll move to somewhere far away from Dodger Stadium and become a monk. It would be contract over performance, veteranship over skill, insanity over reason. This is what we all feared in spring training, and mercifully, miraculously it has not happened yet this season.

There is no indication yet that this will become the controlling competition. And yet, if Torre decides that Pierre must play every day because of how he disrupts the opposing pitcher, and that Jones must play every day to get him going, then won't this become the competition by default?

Who should win between these two, if it comes down to them? I refuse to contemplate the answer while this horrible question is still hypothetical. And if the question moves from hypothetical to real, I will have taken a vow of silence so my answer will be known only to me.

04 May 2008

Third Base Propaganda

There is a difference between what a thing is and the image that thing has in a person's mind. It is rare to perceive something as it truly is. We have filters and biases and preconceptions. What is the gap between image and reality?

Enter LaRoche, last year. He is the spectacular and promising numbers on the page, until he comes up to the big leagues. With the Dodgers he will create his image, either good or bad. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas; only the big league numbers are real. His first game is good; all is well. But then there is a slow slide. His batting average hovers just north of .200, there is no power, and the one positive he brings to the plate, walks ( which are boring and passive enough already ) are discounted because he often bats eighth. The initial image of LaRoche in the mind of many is now BUST. I do not think they would say this, not openly, for it is clearly too soon, too hasty, to judge after fewer than 100 at bats and yet, and yet, this is the image that LaRoche must now fight. How hard is it to dislodge an initial impression?

Enter DeWitt, this year. He is the answer to the emergency. His previous numbers are okay but do not bear close scrutiny --- I do not know how to project minor league numbers into major league expectations but I know that an 0.804 OPS in A and a 0.722 OPS in AA cannot project very high in the major leagues. DeWitt does well his first game. He starts out hot, then cools off, until his average dips to a LaRochian level. But people won't look at DeWitt and see promise unfulfilled if he struggles: they will see, instead, an emergency averted. His defense is competent, and quickly his batting average ticks up toward 0.260, and his hitting seems competent. After his recall his batting average goes yet higher. The initial image of DeWitt in the mind of many is now SAVIOR. Savior of the third base emergency. And it's worth contemplating that half the cause of the emergency was LaRoche getting hurt. Even if it wasn't technically his fault --- well, it could have been his fault, right? He had those back issues last year that were kind of his fault --- things like that linger in the mind.

Of course Torre wasn't around last year. But people talk. Tell me about this LaRoche kid, he asks this spring. Oh, he blew his chance at the end of last year because he didn't take care of his back. And all he did when he did play was draw some walks batting eighth. Never saw his power. He wasn't ready for the big stage. Maybe he'll never be. Kid's got a big head. I hope nothing like this was said, but who knows? Things like this have been said before of young players, unfairly. Of course Torre could watch him in spring training, make up his own mind. But then the injury came, and the emergency started. The rules are always different during an emergency, and DeWitt has benefitted.

Of course, even DeWitt the savior couldn't keep his job when the veteran Nomar returned. All Nomar had to do to convince people that he was ready to be the everyday starter at third was to collect a few RBIs. A few clutch hits and a veteran is golden. A few anti-clutch outs and a rookie is leaden. Is that really true? Probably not, but that's the image of the decision makers that I have in my mind. Biased against the unproven players, ready to give the veterans a mile-long rope. I've seen Loney and Kemp and Ethier jerked around too much not to just dismiss this stereotype of Ned and the Dodger braintrust. How many dimmed prospects have they shipped out for a return of only a few washed-out veterans? It doesn't bear thinking of.

I wish I knew what Colletti and Torre really thought of DeWitt and LaRoche --- and Nomar too. What does it mean that LaRoche was assigned to AAA? Is DeWitt now ahead of LaRoche? If he is, it's all about image, and not reality. The image projected by less than 100 major league at bats, and by differing situations. You compare LaRoche and DeWitt last year and LaRoche comes out far ahead, in raw stats and level of competition. That's reality. What kind of image does that reality make in the minds of the Dodger decision makers?

02 May 2008

Winning Streak Mania

I would say it's time to clone Russell Martin except he's really a one-of-a-kind. I'd like to think that in the inning break after Dewitt made his two errors Martin pulled Dewitt aside and gave him defensive pointers. Was Dewitt psyched out by the great third base Russell played? Did he realize he wasn't worthy to man the position after Martin's brilliance? Russell could probably play anywhere in the field he wanted to. I bet Russell could play a passable center field if he really needed to. He's pretty fast and I think he'd get some great jumps on fly balls. Wouldn't it be great if he could get his "mental days off" by replacing meek hitting Andruw Jones? Of course, even on the days when he's not supposed to catch at all he always finds himself back behind the plate. The other positions on the diamond may woo Martin but in the end they will always be left heartbroken; catching is his true love.

What about pitching? What kind of pitcher would Russell be? He'd be a little wild, but that's okay. He's got a live arm, and sometimes the throws get a little away from him. I see him as a reliever type. Maybe Chan Ho Park is in the game, and Park is really struggling, allowed a few base runners ( in other words a typical Park appearance ), and Russell goes to the mound and tells Park, "Okay, you're done. I'll take the ball and finish it from here. You carry the gear back into the dugout and give it to Bennett, and tell him if he allows a passed ball on any of my wicked curveballs I'll kick his ass after the game."

When your favorite team is going well the best thing to do is assume they will always play that well. It's like the approach hitters are supposed to take at the plate: look for the fastball and adjust to the curveball if it comes. The wins are the fastballs. Look for the wins and adjust to the losses when they come. Be happy while you can. Why let reality get in the way of dreaming about the Dodgers winning every remaining game they play while scoring in double figures? Why think about how unlikely it is that the Dodgers will within a week overtake the Snakes and make them slither around in Dodger dust as is right and proper? Delusion is more fun.

Speaking of the Snakes Micah Owings allowed two home runs today and took the loss. That seems suitable karma for him hitting a pinch hit home run, which is kind of perverted and against the natural order of the baseball universe. Pitchers aren't supposed to be called into games specifically to hit home runs. I hope he learns his lesson. That entire team is due for a squashing anyway. They've got a bunch of strikeout prone hitters over there who aren't going to continue scoring this much. I bet Russell Martin could strike out Mark Reynolds right now, without even warming up. Hell, I bet even Chan Ho Park could strike out Reynolds. Right now the Dodgers can do no wrong, none that lasts, anyway. Everyone on the team is forgiven! Dewitt for his errors, Jones for his strikeouts, Park for his ridiculously bad pitching that somehow gets the job done but is sure to soon blow up in the Dodger's faces, Sweeney for his utter lack of hits, and even Juan Pierre for being so Pierric. Enjoy it while it lasts.