30 April 2008

The Moment When I Knew the Dodgers Had No Shot of Catching the Snakes This Year

How cute, I thought, as I followed the game between the Snakes and the Astros on Gameday. Pitcher Micah Owings is coming in to pinch hit. Yeah, he's a good hitter, but it's the sixth inning --- surely they aren't out of bench players yet? The Astros were clinging to a 7-5 lead at the time, with two outs and a man on base. There were still many outs to go, but I had visions of the Snakes losing, and the Dodgers winning later, and the gap being narrowed to 4.5 games in the NL West.

And then Micah Owings hit a pinch hit home run to tie the game at 7-7.

The Dodgers aren't catching that team.

28 April 2008

25 Games, 25 Players

After 25 games the Dodgers are 12-13. It's been a mostly frustrating start. But the Dodgers have scored more than they have allowed, and appear to have a functional offense and pitching staff, which is more than any other non-Arizona team in the NL West can say. The Padres and Giants have pathetic, inept offenses and the Rockies pitching has fallen apart. The Dodgers are clearly the second best team in the west behind the obviously superior Snakes. I think the Dodgers are on track for a very good month of May and contention for a wild-card berth at the end of the year.

The 25 players who took the Dodgers to this point are ranked below in reverse order. Relievers Troncoso and Wade were left out because of a numbers crunch. Sorry guys.

25. Sweeney

My first grade teacher was named Sweeney. One afternoon while reading something to the class she fainted. She was out cold, on the floor. A classroom full of 25 six-year olds looked on, stunned and confused. Things soon turned slightly chaotic. I loudly proclaimed my theory that she was faking being asleep in protest for all the misbehaving we had done that day. No one paid attention to my ranting. Finally an adult was fetched from somewhere else and order was restored. Mrs. Sweeney would end up being fine. She fainted as a result of some kind of seizure, though my memory on that is fuzzy. Since Mark Sweeney has done nothing as a Dodger this year I thought I would write about my first grade teacher instead.

Mark Sweeney has played not a single inning in the field.

24. Proctor

Wilson Betemit has an OPS of .368 this year in 13 at bats. He's on the DL right now with conjunctivitis. What the heck is conjunctivitis? I guess that means 'is 'ands are swollen. Actually it's an infection in his eyeball. Ick.

Scott Proctor is responsible for the deer in the bullpen. But that's not really enough. As poorly as he has pitched so far he's going he going to have to go up into the San Gabriel mountains, kill a deer and bring back venison for the post-game spread every day to justify his spot on the roster.

It sure seems in hindsight that neither team won that trade last year.

23. Bennett

That night when Nomar was hurt and Martin had to play third base my wife said, "I guess they'll have to bring in the emergency catcher." I began to protest that Bennett was just the regular backup catcher, but actually emergency catcher is about right to describe him, given how little he plays. It would seem Martin's greatest talent is sweet talking managers into letting him play every day.

Gary Bennett has not caught for an entire game yet this year. This means Martin has been behind the plate for at least one inning in every game so far this year.

22. Park

In 15 innings pitched this year, Park has allowed: 17 hits, 9 walks, 4 home runs ... and only 5 runs! He's just awful, terrible, and yet somehow he's mostly getting away with it so far. How can Billingsley strike out 12 in a six inning start and give up 5 runs, while this lucky bum strikes out only 4 in all of his 15 innings and has an ERA of 3?

The Dodgers should quit while they're ahead with Park. Those home runs are going to keep flying and soon they will come with multiple runners on base.

21. Jones

I guess I believe he can turn things around eventually. But I remember when Martin was doing just as bad as Jones at the plate, and now Martin is back above an 0.800 OPS where he belongs, while Jones is doing as poorly as ever. The Dodgers just don't hit many home runs, so they really need everyone to get on base at a decent clip. At this point I wish Jones would just forget about hitting home runs and just try to put the ball into play. Jones makes Matt Kemp looks like a master of pitch recognition and sensible swings. Remember the lovely hit up the middle Kemp has in the first inning on Sunday? I can't imagine Jones having a hit like that right now. It's like he's taking aim at the top of the left field foul pole with every swing.

Andruw Jones is 1-18 with runners in scoring position. He has just 4 RBIs.

20. Pierre

It's pretty sad that Pierre rates higher than Jones right now. The difference between the two players is that Pierre is playing near his ceiling right now, while Jones is far below his. We hope.

Juan Pierre has twice as many RBIs this year as Jones in two thirds of the playing time.

19. Billingsley

Chad is striking out 3 batters every 2 innings. That's just astonishing. He should be the best pitcher in the league --- and yet he has an ERA of 6.53. Part of the reason his strikeout rate is so high is that so many of the balls put into play against him end up being hits. 42% of the balls put into play against him fall in as hits. Could this possibly be Chad's fault? I don't know. But he's too good for this to keep happening. I think he's going to have a great May.

Opposing batters have a 1.040 OPS with runners on, and a 0.633 OPS with none on. Maybe Chad can't pitch from the stretch anymore.

18. Garciaparra

I don't think he can stay healthy enough to play 81 games this season.

17. Hu

I've been mostly unimpressed by what I've seen from Hu this season. If the Dodgers think they are going to replace Furcal with Hu next year they'd better find a lot of improvement at other positions on the field. He might be the equal of Furcal with the glove but my own limited observation so far is that he's not; however, this isn't that fair to Hu since he is playing out of position and only part time. I think Hu should be back down at AAA to play every day. I don't know who would be the new utility infielder, though.

Hu has the fourth highest OBP on the Dodgers so far, after Martin, Furcal, and the leader ... Kuo! Hu does not have any extra-base hits, though.

16. Loaiza

I understand why Loaiza has taken the fifth starter job back from Kuo for the moment. Kuo seems incapable of going even 5 innings in a start, while Loaiza just went 6 innings against the Rockies. Kuo is clearly the better pitcher, though, and if the Dodgers would just be patient with him he'd probably reward them. Loaiza has pitched about as well he could be expected so far.

15. Young

Delwyn Young has played 2 innings in right field and 2 innings at second base this year. If not for these 4 rogue innings in the field, the Dodgers would be carrying two full-time pinch hitters on their roster right now.

Young is 4-12 this year, with no walks and no extra base hits.

14. Kuo

Which happens first: the Dodgers commit to giving Kuo 6 straight starts to see what he can do, without pulling him from the rotation after his first setback, or Kuo gets hurt again? Sadly, I answer the latter.

Kuo may be known for making too many pitches, but he only makes 0.05 more pitches per batter than Loaiza this year. The big difference between the two is that Loaiza is luckier or better than Kuo at facing fewer batters per inning.

13. Kuroda

We've gone from: Wow! Kuroda is the Dodgers' fourth starter to Kuroda really is a fourth starter. But Kuroda isn't the problem with this team. If the Dodgers can ever straighten out Billingsley and settle on a good fifth starter then this will be a very nice starting rotation.

12. DeWitt

The Dodgers have been very fortunate that third base has not been an offensive hole in the first month this year, and they have Blake's patience to thank for that. Though he's batting only .254 his on base percentage is above .350.

Andy LaRoche is still the best long-term option at third base this year. But between Nomar and DeWitt I'd rather see DeWitt.

11. Saito

I'm really, really worried about Saito. The stats maybe don't show it, but he's clearly not the same guy as last year. He's lost his supernatural control. It's not just that he's starting to walk more hitters, it's that he can't seem to locate that perfect pitch on the corner consistently anymore. He's never had an unhittably fast fastball; with him it has always been about location and movement. If he loses his great location does he turn into Scott Proctor?

Saito has four walks so far in 10.1 innings --- that may not seem like much, but compared to last year it is. Saito pitched 35.2 innings last year before giving up his fourth walk.

10. Loney

I hope he starts hitting more home runs. Loney is the least of the Dodgers problems but to be honest his current stats don't really cut it for a first baseman. Loney makes very little impression on me. He's just there in the lineup every day, not sucking but not really standing out either, not since his very hot start. Loney always looks like he's about to burst into tears.

Loney has grounded into 7 double plays so far to lead the National League. At his current pace he would shatter the record of 36 held by Jim Rice.

9. Beimel

Maybe Beimel deserves to have a bobblehead. I can't believe his ERA is 1.04. After all these years I still don't trust him, but that's my fault, not his.

8. Kent

Only four walks so far --- that has to improve. Kent is showing his age this season, with all the days off and a substandard on-base percentage. Maybe this is all the Dodgers can expect from his old bones but I think he'll heat up one last time.

7. Broxton

Broxton is still the man in the 'pen. Whenever Torre hits a situation in the sixth inning or later of a close game when he just has to have a strikeout, then he should call on Broxton if he's available. Most batters can't touch Broxton's heat.

6. Penny

Penny struck out 5.8 per 9 last year and still had an ERA of just above 3, so he's shown he can be successful with a low strikeout rate. But last year his ground ball to fly ball ratio was 1.6; this year it's declined to 1.3, and even more ominously, he's only striking out 4.5 per 9 so far this year. Can he sustain his great results so far this year?

I think so. I don't think Penny is any different than the pitcher he was last year. It's just that with so few games so far there is more variation in the underlying numbers. I think if he just keeps on doing what he's done the last 7 months of baseball then he'll end up with similar stats to last year.

5. Kemp

Matt Kemp is my favorite Dodger, which means I may have expectations that are too high for him. I cringe when he makes a baserunning or fielding mistake. I shake my head at his misadventures at the plate, his awful looking strikeouts, his seeming reluctance to take a walk. My last blog entry was all about a loss of faith in Kemp, and yet, truly, I still believe I'm watching a future hall of famer and the most exciting Dodger player there will be in a long time.

But I also think others want to punish him too severely for his failures. I knew he would be benched after the game when he struck out with the bases loaded, and I hated it. Sometimes I think the punishment for Kemp's failures is the curse that the good things he does will be ignored. The man can flat out hit, and he's not just pulling the ball all the time either. He's been overall a bonus in the field, getting to almost everything he should and keeping base runners in check with his great arm. And he proved that he can hit with the bases loaded with his grand slam on Saturday. Matt Kemp should play every day. He's earned it and the Dodgers need it.

4. Ethier

Ethier ranks above Kemp because his on-base percentage is superior. It seems daft that starting Pierre over Ethier was ever considered.

3. Lowe

Lowe's ground ball to fly ball ratio is only 1.7 so far, which is shocking. His normal ratio is 3:1 or better. Nevertheless he's been great this year. His only bad start was in Atlanta when the defense let him down. Lowe and Penny have carried the Dodgers safely through their early stretch of inconsistent offense and back-of-the-rotation struggles.

2. Martin

It's amazing how quickly Martin got back up to his usual stats after he started the season as poorly as Jones did. Pitchers must hate facing him because he just won't swing at anything off the plate. Martin's resurgence is why I am very optimistic about the Dodgers having a great May to close the gap with the Snakes and more importantly position themselves for a run at the wild-card.

1. Furcal

It's time to stop blaming Repko for Furcal's injury plagued 2007 and instead blame Furcal and Dodgers for it. Furcal should have taken an entire month off at least to get back up to full health. It's been so wonderful to watch him play this year, but at the same time frustrating to think of what might have been last year if he had just taken the time to get fully healthy.

Furcal probably can't keep playing this well all year but if he did I think he'd have to be the NL MVP.

25 April 2008


I was thinking it, silently. My wife predicted it, openly. A sad statement of fact. He's going to strike out on a slider away. I dreaded it, hated it, hated my own faithless despair before it even happened. Vinny called it, after the fact. The replay was painful. It showed a helpless man in a crucial moment. The bat didn't come close to hitting the pitch. Sometimes you see a swinging strikeout where it seems like the ball just bored through the bat, where in real time it seems impossible that the batter missed it, because he was just a little late on a very fast pitch, beaten by heat. An honorable defeat. But this was a miss, a true helpless, blind flail. It was a leaden failure. The Dodgers were down 5-3, with the bases loaded, with just one out, with their most talented hitter at the plate, with a golden opportunity to score, to tie, to even take the lead, win the game, seize momentum in the NL West. But not really. Sometimes we think we see opportunities where they never truly existed.

I don't think it's a coincidence that Matt Kemp is 1 for 17 with the bases loaded. When the moment comes, he doesn't know one pitch from the other. He doesn't recognize a slider from a fastball. It is a weakness that will undo his career. The best days of his career are behind him. Those innocent days in the summer of 06 when he hit a home run every other day are long past, like a distant legend. Back then the manager found excuses to play Kemp. Now the manager finds excuses not to play him. The talent is still there. Sometimes the results are there. He was really very good last year, right? Kemp has adjusted, found some success. He's not done fighting. He still teases with his enormous talent that seems to promise a Hall of Fame career. But the weakness goes too deep. He didn't really prove anything last year. Not enough games, and too many strikeouts. In the crucial moments we can see the future. Failure.

I don't like this. I don't know it's true, either. I suspect it, and I fear it. I want to say I'm wrong, this is wrong. Matt Kemp is still my favorite player. Knowing his weakness, knowing he will probably never overcome it, I will still cheer my loudest when his name is announced. And I will keep hoping I am wrong about Matt Kemp. Pathetically wrong.

I am left, at the end of my contemplation of a terrible moment from a trivial game, with the unsettled feeling that weakness will always be found and exposed. In baseball, and regular life. I may have a few moments of triumph, probably small, but still glorious in their own way, but then the world adjusts and I'm helpless. Maybe I give up, or maybe I flail a few times, thinking the weakness doesn't matter. Maybe despair is the worst weakness of all.

24 April 2008

Tenacious Dodgers

The Dodgers beat the Snakes and Dan Haren with disciplined aggression. They left alone the bad pitches, fouled off the tough pitches, and ripped the easy pitches. The Dodgers earned those easy pitches. They wrung them out of Haren, leaving him a frustrated, gesticulating mess. They took everything they could get out of him. This was not a game when everything came easy to the Dodgers. The final score may have looked that way, but this 8-3 game was very different from the 9-3 laugher they won two days ago. Haren may not have been at his best but the Dodgers still had to fight him for everything they got. It was clear, in the first inning, that this was a different team. Furcal took third when it was made available. Nomar worked for the clutch single to open the scoring. At this moment Haren was staggered, and he never regained his equilibrium.

The Dodgers can't afford Torre's screwups anymore. Back when they still led only 3-1, when it was clear that Lowe had to come out with tightness in his elbow, Torre had Chan Ho Park warming up in the 'pen, to come in for the sixth inning. This is an unacceptable risk with a two run lead. I understand that the 'pen was a little thin from the previous game, but Beimel, Broxton and Saito were all fresh. They should have been enough to bridge four innings. When it comes to it, the real mistake here is that Park is even on the team at all. Why keep him and trade away Eric Hull for nothing? What could Park possibly have left to offer?

At least Torre started Kemp against a tough righty, and sat Pierre. This is progress. And Kemp had a good game, going 2-5 with one run scored and one driven in. He also struck out twice and left six runners on base. I mention this only because I fear Torre is noticing this as well.

As it turned out the Dodgers knocked out Haren in the bottom of the fifth with 3 runs, so Park ended up coming in with a 6-1 lead. Still, he almost had a hand in blowing the game in the tense seventh inning. It was in these moments that it looked like LA would collectively kick away the evening. On my big TV the Lakers were blowing a third quarter lead to the Nuggets as the Dodgers were letting the Snakes bring the tying run to the plate. By then Broxton was pitching. He was wilder than I ever want to see, but in the end he was up to the challenge. The Snakes appear to be a great team, and they won't go easy. There are very few easy games against them.

The Lakers, too, were up to the challenge, and ended up putting away the Nuggets rather easily. But they have Kobe Bryant. The Dodgers don't have anyone like him. Joe Torre's one thousand lineups make a certain kind of sense, because while the Dodgers have a lot of good hitters, they don't have any dominant hitters. They have no one of whom one can say --- yes, he's the clear three hitter or that's the obvious cleanup hitter. Maybe, back in their primes, Nomar and Andruw were clear choices for the 3 and 4 spots, but no longer. Now it's more like 7 and 8, or the bench. The Dodgers are caught between two worlds. They have declining veterans, some of whom still have something left of their past glory. They have rising youngsters, some of whom show flashes of their future hoped-for brilliance. They don't have the man. Where is the man in this lineup? Too often this year the lineup has folded when things didn't go easy for them. Not last night. With a few exceptions, everyone was the man last night.

There would have been more tense moments in the ninth inning from the wavering, aging Saito, if not for Upton's spectacular drop. Now that made the game into a laugher --- there's little quite as funny as seeing an opposition player drop an easy fly ball. Upton, you will live forever on those blooper tapes they show during inning breaks at ballparks around the country.

The Dodgers have to do it again today. They get the Snakes' worst pitcher, but that's no guarantee of anything. The Dodgers have to do it as a team. There is no Kobe to bail them out, to make everyone else's job easier. Without the man in their lineup, the Dodgers have to be a team of men. Tenacious men.

22 April 2008

Blowout Heroes


Those are the runs the Dodgers have given up in their eight wins so far in 2008. If not for the ineptness of Chan Ho Park, the Dodgers probably would have held the opposition to 2 runs or fewer in every single win this year. Aside from two 3-2 victories, every Dodger win this year has been by a comfortable margin. If the game is in doubt in the late innings, the Dodgers usually lose.

People talk about teams needing to hit in the clutch, and what they usually mean is getting hits with runners on base. Most analysts don't think there is much if any true clutch hitting ability among major league hitters. But there is another kind of clutch: that is hitting well when not everything is going great for your team. Hitting well when the opposition pitcher is on his game, and your own pitcher has given up 3 or 4 runs. Hitting well when the game is slipping away, but still within reasonable reach. This kind of clutch may not exist either, but if it does the Dodgers need to grab it. Because right now this is a team that is lost if their starter gives up a third run. Kuroda and Lowe are the types of pitchers who will often give up that third run. They're good, but not great. Penny and Billingsly and Kuo are potentially dominating, but all have struggled at times this season. The Dodger pitching cannot hold the opposition under three runs in more than half of their games. It's just not that good.

It's probably just bad luck that all of the Dodgers' best hitting performances seem to come when they're also getting their best pitching performances. And that's such an unsatisfying thing to say. It's about their character, dammit! Martin and the boys have gone soft! Kemp and his heedless headless style of play is infecting the whole team! We need a lineup of men who know how to play the game, how to win! We need speedy men with small skulls who will bunt and steal bases and make things happen! A team full of Pierres! Even the pitcher, who would be a crafty junkballer with a 70 MPH fastball.

Oh my. No. I'll take the team of blowout heroes we have and leave Pierre behind. The 5-4 wins will come. They will. But until they do, I look at these blowout wins and get a little frustrated. Why can't they score all these runs when they really need them? It's a question with no answer except patience.

21 April 2008

The Think Sink

It's time for a new post. I mean, it's time. It's one thing to go two months without a post in the offseason, but to go a week without a post during the regular season? That's not acceptable. But the truth is I don't even want to think about the Dodgers after the weekend they had. Sweeps happen, bad stretches happen, but the games in Atlanta never approached being fun to watch. The Dodgers couldn't score; the pitching always found a way to kerplode.

Right now I'm more interested in the NBA playoffs. That game between the Spurs and the Suns was amazing --- two overtimes, three game tying three pointers with time running down, a game-winning layup by Manu Ginobli --- how do you let him get a layup in that situation, anyway? But the craziest moment of the game was the three Duncan hit to force the second overtime.

Let's play What Was He Thinking? with that moment.

Here was the situation: It was near the end of the first overtime period in the San Antonio-Phoenix game, with the Spurs down by three. Clutch scorer Manu Ginobli had the ball off the inbounds pass. He drove, was stopped by a double team, and passed out to Tim Duncan, standing at the three point line. What was Ginobli thinking in that moment?

As great as Duncan is, Manu is the clutch end-of-game player on the Spurs. That doesn't mean it's wrong for him to give up the ball if the defense overplays him, and getting the ball to an open shooter at the three-point line is a very good thing when you're down three late, but Duncan? There was enough time to get two, still --- I wonder if Manu thought Duncan would dribble in closer and get a look at an easier two, maybe that deadly bank-shot of his. Or did he really expect Duncan to take the shot from the three point line? Maybe he just saw an open teammate, the white Spurs jersey, and only as the ball was leaving his hand did he realize "Wait, what? Why is Duncan spotting up for three, and why am I passing it to him?"

Which brings me to the second, and even more interesting, What Was He Thinking? What the hell was Tim Duncan thinking when he spotted up at the three point line, caught the ball and let his shot fly? Did he think this was a good option for the team? Remember, Duncan hadn't made a three all season. He's not Dirk Nowitzki out there. He's a center, a rather traditional center, though for some reason he wants to be called a power forward. Centers don't take three pointers. They aren't good at it. One of the craziest shots I ever saw was a three made by Vlade Divac to send a Lakers-Clippers game into overtime one year when the Lakers were really bad. When he made that shot Vlade was beside himself with joy and surprise. Even he couldn't believe he had made that shot. Vlade actually made 100 three-pointers in his regular season career, though he shot a terrible percentage. Duncan has made 28 in his career, including 4 in the playoffs. Does he practice threes? Maybe he does. Maybe he knew it was going in. Confidence is a great thing to watch.

The truth is, I don't think Ginobli or Duncan was thinking about anything other than winning. Screw the percentages --- they are champions and they found a way to win. The Dodgers aren't champions. They aren't winners, not yet. My guess, through observation, is that they are a baseball team without confidence, full of players who seem to be thinking too much at the plate and on the mound. Something is holding them back, because while the Dodgers may not be better than the Snakes, or even good enough to make the playoffs, there is too much talent on this team for them to have a losing record.

It's not just the players. Torre thinks about the Dodger's offensively poor games so much he gets lost in dead end mental alleys where starting Juan Pierre over Matt Kemp seems like a good idea. And he's long been known for overthinking his pitching moves, avoiding using his best reliever at a point when the game is truly on the line because he might need the good one even more later.

I think I will watch tonight's Dodger game, as depressing as it's been to watch the team lately. It's less than an hour from now, actually. Go forth and unleash your inner Duncans, Dodgers!

16 April 2008

The Mighty Pirates

I keep thinking about what it's like to be a Pirates fan. To know -- know -- that your team has no hope. The Pirates haven't had a winning season since 1992.

1992. The Dodgers opened the season 11-20. They looked bad. Beloved catching stalwart Mike Scioscia, in what would turn out to be his last season, could no longer hit. The Dodgers' best offensive player, Darryl Strawberry, had just gone down with an injury. Other than Brett Butler there really wasn't a good offensive player on the team. And the pitching was not picking up the slack --- it was average at best.

But then Dodgers began to turn it around. They went 4-1 over their next five games. And then the mighty Pittsburgh Pirates came into town for a three game series, ready to stop the Dodgers' momentum cold. It's so strange to think that the Pirates were once mighty, but they were, with three straight NL East titles in the early 90's. Bonds and Bonilla, the B-twins, are the players I most associate with those Pirates. Back then I didn't know any better, didn't realize how much better Bonds was. In fact Bonilla was gone to the Mets after 1991, but the Pirates still had Bonds, who would put up an awesome 205 OPS+ in 1992. They also had Andy Van Slyke, and Doug Drabek leading a solid though not spectacular pitching staff.

The Pirates won the first game of the series, and they led in the ninth inning of the second game, 4-1. The series loss was all but assured. The end of the Dodgers' brief turnaround was all but assured. And then they rallied. Todd Benzinger, starting his eighth consecutive game at first base, opened the bottom of the ninth with a single. He was wild pitched to second, and then Mike Scioscia singled him home. The old catcher still had something left in his bat. Dave Hansen, who would go on to be a pinch hitting hero for the Dodgers in the late 90's, but who in 1992 was just an overmatched starting third baseman, walked. The tying runs were on base. Jose Offerman sac bunted the runners over. The tying runs were in scoring position, with one out. The pitcher's spot was due up next. Erik Karros, rookie first baseman, came up to pinch hit. He battled for seven pitches, fouling off several. The count was full.

Everything I've written in the previous paragraph I had to look up on Baseball-Reference. What happened next I will never forget. Erik Karros launched the eighth pitch of his at bat into the stands. The Dodgers won 5-4.

I remember hearing it on the radio. I don't remember who the announcer was; I want to say it was Ross Porter. What has stayed with me the most is the feeling of that home run. The Dodgers were still just 16-22, but they were on their way back. They didn't need Strawberry. Eric Karros would fill that void, and more. That home run was magic. After that I felt like anything was possible. It's really strange to me that a moment from that awful 1992 season is one of my fondest memories as a Dodger fan.

Eric Karros would start every game at first base for the rest of the season, and win the NL Rookie of the Year award, though he wasn't really much more than an average first baseman that season. And the Dodgers, indeed, were not done winning after that magic home run. They won their next game to finish off a series win over the mighty Pirates. After one loss, the Dodgers reeled off 5 in a row to reach a record of 22-23. They were almost all the way back from the dead. Who stood in their way? Once again, the mighty Pirates.

Given the way 1992 ultimately ended, it would have been more honest, in a way, if the Dodgers had gone ahead and lost the first game of that series in Pittsburgh. But they won it 8-6. They were back. We were back. The Dodgers were contenders. I truly believed that. The Dodgers were 23-23, only 2.5 games back of three teams tied for first. The mighty Pirates were a mere 26-23. Anything seemed possible.

Then, reality. The Pirates won the next two games of the series. The Dodgers were, in fact, as bad as they had looked when they were 11-20. They finished the season in last place in the west, at 63-99. The Pirates were still mighty, and won the east at 96-66. Reality would not catch up to the Pirates until 1993, when Barry Bonds left them and joined the Giants as a free agent. Call it the curse of Barry. Now that he is in forced retirement, can the Pirates have a winning season again?

Maybe there is hope for the Pirates. They're 7-7 right now. They seem to have some good players. That McClouth guy looks good. That dramatic home run he hit two days ago, to beat the Dodgers and give the Pirates a winning record at 7-6: did that create a special memory for some young fan? Perhaps, but not for a very young fan --- it did happen close to 1am local time. Let's see, I was 16 in 1992. But I'm not sure I would have been staying up after midnight, not even for a baseball game.

Both the Dodgers and the Pirates have played 14 games this season. That is such an insubstantial number of games. It's nothing. Fourteen games is a few rusty starts from your ace. It's a slump from your stalwart catcher. It's a slow start from the new free agent outfielder. It's a decent stretch for a young in-over-his-head AA third baseman. It's a save and a shocking blown save from the reliable closer. Reality is hard to find this early.

I find myself hoping that the Pirates have a winning record when the Dodgers play the Pirates next, in September. And the Dodgers too, of course. A clash of contenders in September. Maybe. By then, we'll know what is real.

11 April 2008

Advice for Torre: Unwanted, Unheard, Unheeded

Broxton should have started the eighth inning, when the Dodgers trailed 4-5. A one run deficit is more worthy of special care than you think, especially with two innings left against a bullpen with Trevor Hoffman in it. Broxton was fresh; he was the best pitcher for the job at the moment. Saito could pitch the ninth.

Broxton could have entered the game with one out and runners at second and third in the seventh. This was the most important relief moment of the game. A strikeout was needed to keep the Dodgers close. ( Remember the previous advice about one run deficits? ) Broxton was the best man on the staff for getting a strikeout when you really need one.

Is there anyone close to Joe Torre who would give him similar advice? If there is, would Torre listen?

10 April 2008

Don't Be a Jerk

Google has a corporate motto: don't be evil. They have followed it, mostly. And it has worked for them. People not only use Google, but they usually like Google. Google is so dominant now that people might not feel like they have a choice, but that's okay because most people don't want to use something else. The whole point of their "don't be evil" motto was to secure their long-term success, and they appear to have done that.

Frank McCourt should adopt a similar motto for the Dodger Organization: Don't be a jerk. True Blue Dodger fans may feel bound to the team, without any real choice to just stop being Dodger fans. Most of us aren't going to just stop following the Dodgers cold, or become Angel fans, no matter how bad ownership is. But we can be driven away from the team over time, bit by bit. Short term the Dodgers have been increasing attendance from year to year, and might draw close to 4 million fans this year, but if they keep treating fans poorly the trend could reverse itself, maybe years from now.

Don't be a jerk. Don't make regular fans who park in the outer ring be subject to the directions of an army of parking enforcers, while those who park in the inner ring get to park wherever they like without being directed by some martinet. Don't pretend nothing is wrong when your new parking system makes things worse early on. Don't talk about improving the fan experience while doing nothing about the hideously inefficient food service. Don't be so quick to fire employees! Don't interfere with Vinny's telecast by going on the air with him --- we want to watch the game and listen to Vinny call it, not listen to what you have to say. And ... don't prevent kids from getting autographs before the game because their parents can't afford the expensive seats. Frank, do you have any idea how big of a jerk this makes you look?

I first read about the *"water-graph" scandal on Dodger Thoughts. I agree with Jon about autographs. I don't really get the concept of them. But I don't have to sympathize with kids begging Nomar or whoever for his signature to understand where this new policy fits into the overall pattern of how Dodger management has been treating fans lately.

I think a sensible perspective to have is that "water-graph" will produce some cheap outrage, but in the end people really don't care much about it. No one is going to stop coming to Dodger games because of this policy, right? Yes ... but. There is a slow erosion of the Dodger brand going on. There are so many moments when management just doesn't seem to get it. Loyal fans who have been going to Dodger Stadium for years are assaulted by ever more ads, blaring music, parking restrictions, food lines, and worse yet, as the fan experience deteriorates the ticket prices only go up. Don't be a jerk! Treat the fans better.

I'm not going to as many games at Dodger Stadium this year as I did last year. There are many reasons for this that are hard to identify separately. But I think a part of it is how often management acts like a jerk toward fans. I don't feel wanted there. That makes it easier for me to shift some Dodger game out of the budget. And that's a shame. We love the Dodgers. We want to love going to Dodger Stadium so much that we say "screw the budget" and go there even more. Frank, you had us at "Dodgers baseball". There's just one thing you have to not do. Don't be a jerk.

* --- How come the "-gate" part of "Watergate" is the part that got handed down to every subsequent scandal? I think "water-" should be used as well, and so I'm using it.

NL West Contender Blender: Series Three

The Snakes won the Very Early Season NL West Final Four by convincingly sweeping the Dodgers in the finals matchup. The Snakes have now swept the Rockies and Dodgers, and are the early season favorites to win the NL West.

Snakes --- 7-2
Peavys --- 5-5
Rockies --- 4-5
Dodgers --- 4-5
Giants --- 3-6

The Rockies have reaffirmed their contender status by taking the first three in their four game set with the Braves. The previously shaky starting pitching lead the way. Cook and Jiminez had excellent outings in Coors, and even Redman pitched passably yesterday. Holliday hit a late clutch home run to win the first game for the Rockies, and has two RBIs in each game of the series so far. Helton has been on base 8 times in the series. Among the big four only Brad Hawpe has yet to get things going. It's just a matter of time. The Rockies offense is going to be fine, and their pitching is starting to look good too after a bad first week. Francis will try to turn his early season around in his start this afternoon.

The Padres did not have Peavy starting in their series against the lowly Giants, and it showed: they lost the series. And yet it may not have mattered who the starters were. Maddux, Wolf, and Germano were all excellent against the inept Giants hitters. It was the Padres own slightly less inept lineup and leaky bullpen that let them down in the final two games. It's 2007 all over again for the Padres, when they piled up 25 bullpen losses ( about league average ) in spite of having by far the best bullpen ERA in the NL. I think it's not so much that the 'pen just gags in clutch situations ( though there is some of that, and I'm looking right at you, Trevor Hoffman ) as much as the inept late inning offense of the Padres so consistently leaves the 'pen out on a limb with no room for error. Whatever the cause, the Padres 'pen has all 5 team losses so far this year: 2 by Hoffman, and one each by Bell, Thatcher, and Meredith. With Peavy and Young starting the first two this weekend at Dodger Stadium, the Dodgers better be prepared to score late.

Then there are the Snakes, who just slithered right up to the Dodgers and ate them whole. That Reynolds sure can hit, can't he? Last season was supposed to be a fluke, dammit. He was supposed to strike out a lot, and generally look like Andruw Jones has so far. Hell, if he keeps getting dogmeat pitches over the heart of the plate he may well break Barry's single season 73. Before the season I thought there was a possiblity the Dodgers might have a better offense than the Snakes. It sure doesn't seem much like a possibilty now. The Dodgers scratched a bit against Haren, Davis and Owings, but could knock none of them out, whereas the Snakes managed to knocked out all three of the Dodger pitchers. Maybe Kuroda was a TKO.

Most starters will only be making their third starts this weekend. Vague impressions of the NL West are forming, but it's still way too early for conclusions. Right now the Snakes rule over all with an iron rattle, but it may not last. Last year the Dodgers looked like a team of greatness in April. Three years ago they started 14-2. Maybe this year they can turn a leaden start into gold, after going the other way too often in the past.

08 April 2008

The Ace Excuse

The Dodgers have fared very poorly against the opponents' starting pitching so far this season. It's a worrying trend, but two important things to note: it's very early, and a lot of the starters they've faced have been really tough.

Starter --- 2007 ERA+ --- runs scored

Zito ----------- 98 --- 4
Cain ---------- 122 --- 0
Lincecum ------ 111 --- 1
Germano ------- 91 --- 1
Peavy -------- 159 --- 1
Young -------- 129 --- 2
Haren --------- 137 --- 3

I've listed Lincecum as a starter even though he ended up going 4 innings in the middle of that rain game. His ERA+ from last year probably understates how good he'll be this year. I'd say of the 7 starters the Dodgers have faced so far, only Zito and Germano haven't been elite starters.

Here is the 2007 ERA+ of the remaining two starters in the Arizona series:

Davis ----- 111
Owings --- 109

Grunt. They're not as bad as I had hoped, or thought. It's really hard to know what to expect from Davis, given that this is his last start before cancer surgery. I'm sure the home crowd will be very supportive, and may lift his performance. I don't know. And Owings is a pretty good young pitcher. But still. These guys aren't aces. They aren't even deuces. It's time for the Dodger offense to break out against the starter. They really haven't since Opening Day.

The three runs against Haren last night were encouraging, to be sure, even though only one of them was earned. The Dodgers are going to have to start scoring off of the good pitchers. They're going to face a lot of them this year! Every division rival save the Rockies ( maybe ) has at least two elite pitchers on staff. Most of the division staffs are at least average through the fourth starter. Five elite pitchers in seven days is a lot, but the Dodgers are going to face really tough pitchers in almost half of their division games this year. Time to start making a habit of scoring off of them. It may be Davis and Owings today and tomorrow, but this weekend the Dodgers get Peavy and Young again. Be patient; be disciplined; be aggressive when the pitch is there --- and leave Pierre on the bench.

07 April 2008

NL West Contender Blender: Series Two

The NL West is having its own version of the Final Four this week. The Snakes thumped the Rockies in one semi-final matchup, and the Dodgers edged the Padres in the other semifinal tilt. Now starting today the Snakes and Dodgers play in the finals, with the winner of the series being awarded the title of Very Early ( and not very meaningful ) NL West Favorite.

Given that the Rockies and Snakes came from the back of the pack in the NL West last year to make the playoffs, winning a series early in April maybe isn't that big of a deal. And yet every game does count the same, and there won't be comeback teams every year. As the cliche goes, you don't win the division in April, but you could lose it. The rule of April is don't get buried.

Dodgers --- 4-2
Snakes --- 4-2
Peavys --- 4-3
Rockies --- 1-5
Giants --- 1-5

If this was football the Rockies would already be buried. But it's baseball, and the dirt is only around the Rockies' ankles right now, but still, if they don't start moving at some point they could find themselves in real trouble. The Rockies have looked awful so far. They've been outscored 32 to 10 in their six games. Joe Torre thinks the Dodgers have offensive woes to start the season, and yet they have twice the runs the Rockies do! But the Rockies figure to turn around the offense sooner or later. The real worry for them has to be the starting staff. Francis had his second straight bad start, though technically the first didn't count since it was rained out. Redman was predictably awful. Only Morales turned in a good start in the Snakes series, which is the one good sign the Rockies have had so far this year.

Owings, Gonzales, and Webb each gave the Snakes a great start in Coors field. If either of Owings or Gonzales turns into a solid, slightly above-average pitcher this year the Snakes will be really tough to beat. Owings is probably already a good bet to do so, as he had an ERA+ of 109 last year. For some reason I think of him as a bad pitcher when he really probably isn't. I wonder why? Oh, now I remember. It's because I hate the Snakes --- their uniforms, their hideous stadium, their way too long team name that I usually refuse to use, their old uniforms, their swimming pool, their former managers, the names they taken for their hideous stadium, their career home run leader, and finally that stupid path to the mound at their hideous stadium. I can't believe I picked them to finish in first place.

The Dodgers seem to have the slight edge in the upcoming series with the hated Snakes. The Snakes have a clear advantage in game one, when Haren meets Hendrickson-lite, er, I mean Loaiza. The Dodgers have an almost as clear advantage in game two, when Billingsley faces Davis. And then in the likely rubber match Kuroda faces Owings, a game in which the Dodgers probably don't have as much of an advantage as I think. The series will be in Phoenix, but I still think the Dodgers will edge out the Snakes to win this very early NL West Final Four.

The Rockies are home playing the Braves, while the Padres get the Giants. The Padres also get Cain and Lincecum, while not having either Young or Peavy starting in the series. Do the Giants have a chance of pulling off the series win? With their inept lineup, probably not.

06 April 2008

Journey to Petco

Petco Park feels more like a part of its city than either Dodger Stadium and AT&T field, the only other two major league ballparks I've been to. The tall downtown buildings behind the outfield wall feel so close, as if they're leaning in to watch the game. There's a lot of work being done in this area of San Diego --- we counted three cranes beyond the outfield walls!

The drawback of this location is that getting away from Petco after the game by car is almost impossible. Dodger Stadium may have a bad reputation but Petco is far worse, since to get to a major freeway you have to wade through the relatively narrow gridlocked downtown streets. It appears that Petco gives fans some good public transportation options, at least, but that was no help to us.

I have no doubt now that the overwhelming favorite player of most Padres fans is Jake Peavy. He received by a wide margin the loudest cheers upon introduction of the starting lineup. The crowd was on its feet cheering for a strikeout with two strikes in the first inning. The biggest roar of all occured when Peavy came out to start the ninth inning. It reminded me, a little bit, of being at the Lima playoff game. The situations were so different, and the ability of the pitchers so different, but the excitement and anticipation of the fans was the same.

Peavy was great early, and good until the end, but he wasn't overpowering until the end. The Dodgers hit the ball hard and reached three-ball counts with some regularity later in the game, but nothing ever came together for them. The hard hit balls were swallowed by the defense; the three ball counts were usually overcome by Peavy.

Penny was awful early. After his initial strikeout everything in the first inning was hit hard, all the way to the final hard fly-out by Peavy at which the crowd roared as if it might be a home run. After that inning Penny was better, but never really good, and yet the Padres couldn't score any more off of him. I came away from the game being very impressed by Peavy and not very impressed by the Padres offense, which feasted off Penny when he was terrible and then let him off the hook when he was merely average.

I had fun at the Saturday game, even though it seemed hopeless after just one inning. There were reasons to cheer a few times in the game, and for a moment the ninth inning seemed to have promise before the devil popped up and Martin snuffed the chance with a grounder double play. There were a lot of Dodger fans in attendance, and we even had a "Let's go Dodgers" chant going briefly after Loney doubled. Peavy looked shaky at that moment, but it was a mirage. Peavy is the real deal, and the Dodger fans who voted that Penny is a better pitcher than Peavy in one of those silly cell phone polls in today's game telecast are fooling themselves.

After this weekend I have to say the Padres look very much like a one man team. Young is good, but remains a question mark due to his road work, injury history, and high pitch counts. The rest of the starting pitchers are okay but may not be good enough to carry the at-best average offense. The bullpen looks awful early, and though they will improve you have to wonder if Hoffman might not be done as an elite reliever. Was any Dodger fan all that worried when he came in today in a tie game? I was, truly honestly, expecting the Dodgers to score off of him. And the outfield defense of the Padres is terrible. I was appalled ( and delighted ) when neither of the center or left fielders could cut off the ball that went for Furcal's triple. Loney's double could have been caught too by a better center fielder ( say, Mike Cameron ). So yeah, the Padres don't look all that impressive to me. Except when Peavy starts. Then they're a freaking juggernaut.

04 April 2008

My Knee Jerk Is Wrong

My knee has turned against Russell Martin. He comes up with the bases loaded, a golden opportunity for the golden boy of the Dodger organization, but my knee barks, "double play". That jerk, my knee. It's betraying the rest of me that believes Martin can get a hit, his first of the season. "Double Play!" There's only one out, and it would end the inning. He's done it before --- grounder, flip, throw --- more times than any of us would like. "Admit it," barks my knee. I'm openly talking about a possible double play now, as I watch the game with my wife. My knee jerk has taken over. The little hammer of pessimism has struck. "DOUBLE PLAY!"

I can feel it. The Dodgers are entering one of those stretches. The kind that consumed the team whole at the beginning of last August, when their toothless offense gummed them to death. They let Germano off the hook, with his readable changeup, his minor league fastball. I think dark thoughts for the plate umpire and his unfriendly calls, and other dark thoughts for the hugeness of Petco, but mostly I just lament the Dodgers inability to get the clutch hit. "Timely hitting!" a cliche of a baseball analyst yammers on TV. Defense and pitching and clutch hitting. But above all things, clutch hitting. I don't care if it doesn't really exist, in any measurable sense. The Dodgers still need it. Even just one. One clutch hit. With the bases loaded. By the golden catcher. Please? "Double Play!" my knee barks grimly.

It was the seventh inning, in a 1-1 tie, and relief pitcher Thatcher was on the ropes, jabbed and harried by his own wildness, bases loaded on walks, one to the pitcher even, but he still had the magic sidearm pitch, the pitch that would come in low and seduce the batter into hitting a lovely little two-hopper to the shortstop, easy flip to second and throw to first, a double play. Kemp already did the ground ball thing. And beat the throw, but no matter. The umpires are against us today. Fate is against us. The Dodgers are so patient, a mirror of their manager, or at least the idea of their manager that I have in my mind. Torre, the wise master, patient and zen-like, a Phil Jackson for baseball. Later in the game Torre's players will induce a 200th pitch from the Padre pitchers. "What sound does a two-hundreth pitch make in a cavernous ballpark?" goes the little known baseball zen koan. But now, in the moment of the game, when it will all be decided, patience is not enough. There are no clutch walks. Well, there could be. Martin is up, he's patient, he could walk and bring in a run, in theory. Yeah, the pitcher IS wild. But more likely he would watch strike three go by, the way he's already done at least once before this season. He has to hit the ball. But he doesn't have a hit yet in the season, not one. It seems too much to think he could get his first one here, to break open the game and give Kuroda the lead, a real lead. I want to see it so bad.

Kuroda had pitched such a good debut up to that point, when the game was on Martin's bat. But even in the middle of Kuroda's run of excellence and efficiency my dark pessimistic side couldn't resist a little dig at him. After he got the first eight Padres out I said to my wife, "I can't tell you how many times I've seen a pitcher get the first eight batters and then allow the opposing pitcher to be his first baserunner." Once the count got to 1-2 I reversed myself and confidently said it wouldn't happen this time. Too little, too late. Germano got his little fly ball hit, and thereafter I thought I knew how things would turn out. My knee was twitchy, ready for mischief and dark thoughts. That jerk.

When Martin hit the ball, I thought the second baseman would get it. Just like his previous well-ripped ball that Greene caught. I was SO sure the second baseman would get it that I initially thought it had gone off his glove and then into the outfield. But it was just a base hit. A clean, beautiful base hit. Two runs, not two outs. My knee jerk went quiet. It won't always be double plays and line-outs. The Dodgers are full of talented players. The hits will come, the wins will come, more often than the losses. I hope my knee remembers that.

NL West Contender Blender: Series One

It's a pitching heavy Blender this time around.


Padres 3-1
Dodgers 2-1
Snakes 1-2
Rockies 1-2

The Dodgers are in a five-way tie for the wild card right now! That's going to lead to a complicated playoff home field coin-flip if this tie holds up until the end of the season. The only undefeated team left in baseball are the Royals of western Missouri. I don't feel as bad about the Dodgers failing to stay undefeated Wednesday night knowing that, for some reason.

It was a great half-week for bullpen schadenfreude in the NL West. Both Trevor Hoffman and Brandon Lyon blew saves that led to losses for their teams. There's no reason to panic after one blown save, but it's possible that Lyon may not be up for the job, and the Snakes may end up changing closers a few times this year while they try to figure out which of the great relievers of 2007 are up to repeating that performance in 2008.

In the wake of Trevor Hoffman's 4 run meltdown, the following poll appeared on Padres blog Gaslamp Ball:

You're either with Trevor Hoffman or against him. What's it gonna be?

* I stand by my man! I'm with him!
* I side with the terroists! I'm against him!

Hmmm ... I'm going to have to side with the terrorists on this one.

The Padres have had good starts from everyone so far. Fifth starter and possible weak link Germano opens the series with the Dodgers tonight. In his start Peavy was great through a scoreless 7, though he had only 4 strikeouts. The most important pitching line for the Padres was probably Randy Wolf's, with 1 run allowed in six innings, with 5 strikeouts. If Wolf can give the Padres these kinds of starts all year then they're going to do a lot better than the 82-80 record I foolishly predicted for them.

Chris Young was okay in his start. More about him, from Padres blog Ducksnorts:

As for the game, Chris Young’s final line looks decent, but don’t be fooled. His inefficiency has been well documented, and on Tuesday, he added to the legend, throwing 112 pitches in 5 2/3 innings and going to three-ball counts on 8 of the 27 batters he faced.

Sounds like something Kuo or Billingsly might do. Or Penny if he's getting fouled off a lot. The more important goal for Young will just be to stay healthy, I think.

The Rockies had the worst pitching series of anyone. Francis was rocked in his rained out start; Jimenez was wild, with 46 balls in 100 pitches; Cook was just ineffective. Kip Wells did the best of anyone in his fill-in start. The bad news for the Rockies is that so far their starting pitching looks pretty bad, and they haven't even gone to their four and five starters yet! The good news is that it's only three games. But I'm beginning to wonder if the Rockies rotation is really up to the job this year. I don't trust any of these guys except Francis.

The Snakes had decent starts from Haren and Webb, and an awful, wild start from Doug Davis. I don't know how good anyone can expect Davis to be with his cancer surgery coming up. Of course, even if he had never had cancer he is certainly capable of being a bad starting pitcher.

Snakes first baseman Conor Jackson had to come out of Wednesday's game with shortness of breath, and he wasn't in the lineup on Thursday. Doctors suspect the cause is pneumonia.

It's going to be a challenge weekend in the NL West Blender, with the Dodgers visiting the Padres and the Snakes at the Rockies. I'll be at the Saturday game in San Diego --- my first ever trip to Petco Park!

02 April 2008

Run Dodgers Run

Rafael Furcal ran. The spirit of Juan Pierre was in him, in all of the Dodgers last night. They were fast and daring. The Dodgers never hit the ball very hard last night. Not often. Kent had his double, and there were a few other hard hit balls. Most of the hits were in the borderlands. Firmly hit balls, but needing to find a hole or a poor defender to become line drives in the box score. There were at least three sharp grounders to the hole between second and first that became hits. On the last of these, Furcal ran. For a moment Durham filled the hole, but he still failed. The Giants have so many ways they can fail this season. The ball rolled around, outside of Durham's glove. Furcal rounded third, never broke stride. He did what Juan Pierre would have done at his best. The throw came in to first. Young was safe at first. The throw came home. Molina whipped around with the tag. It was already too late. Furcal had scored.

The Dodgers ran up the pitch count against Matt Cain. The spirit of Juan Pierre was not in them. They were patient, worked the count, drew walks. They found success in their failure. Cain was nearly unhittable, but he was not perfect. In the end it made no difference that Pierre started instead of the Bison. Matt Kemp would likely have fared just as poorly against Matt Cain. When it really mattered, the bat was taken away from Pierre and given to Kemp. Who do you trust, with the bases loaded and two outs? Kemp struck out. But it was the right move. And it didn't matter. The Dodgers still had 9 outs to go, and Cain was out of the game. They had already won.

Larry Bowa was run. He seems to be a man in search of anger. His display on the field was disgraceful. The reason for his anger was just as disgraceful. Larry Bowa wasn't standing up for one of his players. He wasn't angry at some injustice done to his team on the field. He was standing up for his own self-importance. He was angry because the rules were, after all, going to apply to him. He has to wear a helmet, and yes, he has to stay in the coaches box. At the end of the game it was Mariano Duncan in the coaches box, waving Furcal around to win the game. The team celebrated their run-off win. Bowa was not a part of it.

Blake DeWitt ran. The spirit of Juan Pierre was in him. He slid into third at the front of a double steal. The throw beat him, but the tag didn't. He was briefly off the bag, but the tag was no longer there. He could have been out, but he wasn't. Speed never slumps. Unless it can't get on base. Unless it can't get off the bench. Unless it does something stupid. DeWitt was safe, but Furcal was not, moments later, after he drove in the tying runs. Two innings before his triumphant run home, Furcal ran himself out rounding first. So it goes with baserunning.

01 April 2008


I'm not really into using profanity on the blog, but nothing else will suffice for this, I fear. Juan Pierre starts in place of Matt Kemp. There are rational responses to this, I know. Sober perspectives to hold. It's just one game. But --- anger, disappointment, disbelief. That's all I got right now.