Criticizing the 2013 Los Angeles Dodgers is Easy…But Maybe Not Right

“Pitching and defense. Defense and pitching. Either way, with both going this well simultaneously, 3-0 is exactly where the Giants are supposed to be.”–Mike Bauman, MLB.com

“And, especially, one win from popularizing a way to win baseball games that most people thought had gone out of style in, like, 1992: Throw the ball. … Catch the ball. Pitching. … And defense.”–Jayson Stark, ESPN.com

“The best defense in all of baseball made all of these very good, very young pitchers look even better…Given everything they just accomplished, and the path they took to get there, we should rank the 2012 Giants right there among the four greatest playoff stories of the past 40 years.”–Jonah Keri, Grantland.com

The pundits couldn’t be any more correct. This past October, the San Francisco Giants won their second title in three years with the best pitching staff top to bottom in the Majors and a spectacular fielding defense. In a time when the Dodgers, Yankees, Angels and Red Sox spend $100 million on a hitting lineup alone, the Gigantes surrounded their all-world hitter and 2012 NL MVP in Buster Posey with understated trade bait and shrewd scrap-heap pick-ups. GM Brian Sabean built a team similar to the Dodgers squads dominated the 70s and 80s, with each of their athletic solar systems built around the gravitational pull of a titanic pitching staff and defense.

In October, the Dodgers watched helplessly as the Giants won their fourth pennant and second title in a span of time where neither of those accolades were accomplished in Chavez Ravine. To add insult to injury, San Francisco did all of this by playing Dodgers baseball
Is the Giants’ 2012 run the new paradigm of the greatest game? Build an unbelievable, indomitable staff and bullpen with an air-tight defense behind it? Then employ just one elite hitter and let the rest of the offense sort itself out down the line? The Tampa Bay Rays, Evan Longoria and the best defense in baseball certainly would support that notion. So would the World Champion 2011 St. Louis Cardinals, who had a near-retirement Lance Berkman as a cheap, understated signing, 28 year-old would-be star in David Freese turned NLCS and WS MVP and youngsters Jon Jay and Daniel Descalso playing over 300 games combined.

This new era of team-building is in many ways a throwback to the “purity of baseball”: a more placid offense with an enhanced focus on throwing and catching. There’s perhaps the perception that because the Giants focus so much on pitching and defense rather than the flash of a crushing offense, that their payroll reflects such a modest set of demands. It’s as if the focus on such basic, spartan tenants of the game absolves San Francisco of spending exorbitant amounts of money like any other major market team. 

Quite the opposite: the Giants were seventh in payroll last year, with three players making over $16 million dollars. However, they all were pitchers (Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito and Matt Cain) and eight of their ten highest-compensated players were hurlers. The Giants payroll weight shifted towards the very manner in which they won two titles, but it certainly wasn’t cheap. The core of these two teams were built around homegrown prospects, including Posey, Lincecum, Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Pablo Sandoval and Sergio Romo, further romanticizing a team without extravagantly expensive hitters. How is it that San Francisco didn’t have a chorus of skeptics denouncing their high-spending ways, like when the Miami Marlins did when they spewed out hundreds of millions last winter? Or the Toronto Blue Jays with a top-10 payroll on the books for 2013? 

It’s because the Giants’ method of team-building throws back a sentiment to the days of yore. A loveable notion that a franchise isn’t out “buying players” and “purchasing titles”. Yet Matt Cain is the second highest paid right-hander in the game. Tim Lincecum is making $20 million next year. The Giants pay to retain the players they develop, a luxury that the Rays, A’s, Indians and Padres haven’t been able to do. SF isn’t as far from LA or NY as you might think.

But the results were. The Dodgers spent October fending off tears while the Giants shielded their eyes from champagne. The focus of this offseason for LA wasn’t just to establish themselves as financial heavyweights in Major League Baseball. The main goal was to simply get better than the San Francisco Giants.

Did they do that? It remains to be seen. In the past eight months, the Los Angeles Dodgers have signed or acquired players for the down-home price of half a billion dollars. Hanley Ramirez, Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford (via trade), Zack Greinke, Brandon League, Hyun-Jin Ryu, minor leaguer Yasel Puig, as well as new contracts for Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier have been a part of the public spending spree for new owners the Guggeinheim Group. The Dodgers have been taking what they want, daring other teams to match their massive new pocketbook, all the while moving rapidly from the McOuthouse to the penthouse in overwhelming fashion.

On paper, the 2013 Los Angeles Dodgers seem too good to be true. The criticisms of the Boys in Blue have come far and wide, with pundits naming recent history as the best example for why spending doesn’t always equal success. Just a year ago, the Marlins and Angels went on free agent binges, gobbling up Albert Pujols, CJ Wilson, Jose Reyes, Mark Buerhle and Heath Bell like they were delicious McRibs. Moving on into the season, the Dodgers late-August salvo acquisitions of Gonzalez and Beckett weren’t enough to crack the seal on the Smirnoff Ice-like gamble that is the Wild Card play-in game. The result? Zero postseason berths, while the teams sat at home and watched the spendthrift Oakland A’s and Cincinnati Reds play for the chip.

But it’s not just the fact the money’s been spent. It’s the manner in which it’s been doled out. Jonah Keri wrote a superb piece last month, detailing that while the Dodgers have unquestionably gotten better, they might be tying themselves up in premium money for less than premium players. For example, by extending Andre Ethier, they retained a very good, perennial borderline All-Star. However, in doing so, they put themselves out of contention to sign an actual premium player in Josh Hamilton, who went down the 405 to Anaheim. He calls this the curse of plenty, and in some ways, it’s hard to argue with him. Even if you buy into Keri’s theory or you just don’t like the fact that a team can just spend it’s way to a full roster, there’s no doubt that the Dodgers have become one of the most reviled teams in the league.

When spring rolls around, most baseball writers are going to give the San Francisco Giants their due. They will be roundly, and rightly, be considered the favorites for the NL West title and to represent the Senior Circuit in October. On paper, San Francisco certainly doesn’t look like the strongest team. GM Brian Sabean retained his 2012 title roster, but at the cost over nearly $70 million for a 37 year-old utility man who played out of his mind for three months and a 31 year-old center fielder who just had a career-best season. As for the holdovers? Hunter Pence played below replacement-level after coming over from the hitter’s haven known as Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. The Brandons–Crawford and Belt–have less juice in their bats than Brandon Roy does in his knees. Gregor Blanco, Joaquin Arias, Andres Torres and Brett Pill aren’t good enough offensively to justify being platoon players, but all will enter into the 2013season as…platoon players. 

However, it’s hard to argue with results. The Giants have won two titles in 24 months. Kneel before the kings. 

As hard as it is to believe, it’s become all-too easy to dismiss the Los Angeles Dodgers as title threats. Aside from the general viscosity aimed towards them for throwing high-priced solutions at a problem that, as the Rays and A’s have shown, low-cost remedies can fix, LA simply doesn’t have the type of pitching or defense that the Giants do. 

But that might actually not be the case.

Offensively, there’s no doubt that Los Angeles has the edge. The Dodgers line-up has 15 All-Star berths between them, and for good reason. Even as Jonah Keri pointed out, yes, GM Ned Colletti could be inhibiting himself from signing better players. But as is, the Dodgers are still an above-average offense club. Fresh from November surgery, Matt Kemp should be back to hitting at the NL MVP-level pace he was at before he got into a fight with a wall in Coors Field…and got his ass kicked. Adrian Gonzalez might not be in the upper echelon of first basemen–still a premature statement considering his sample size in LA was limited to just 36 games–but he’s still very capable of pushing out a .800 OPS or better. The rest of the line-up, including Ramirez and Ethier, should benefit from LA’s most underrated offseason acquisition: new hitting coach Mark McGwire. 

The embattled slugger was a part of Tony LaRussa and then Mike Matheny’s staff for three seasons, in which the Cardinals were first in batting average and on-base percentage, as well as second in runs scored. Under McGwire’s watch, anonymous fringe rotation players like Allen Craig, Jon Jay and Matt Carpenter were saved from a sentence to a life of minor leaguery, while Yadier Molina and David Freese became MVP candidates and champions. There’s no doubt that one of the sweetest swings in the history of baseball–juiced or not–helped them become better hitters. 

And the Dodgers are badly in need of becoming better hitters. In September, the Dodgers struggled at the plate, mustering only a .704 OPS and 28 home runs–worse than the Seattle Mariners. It wasn’t just September though. The team finished in the dregs of the Majors in offensive potency, finishing with less runs scored than the Padres, Rays and Indians. The Dodgers line-up is riddled with the type of potential that McGwire regularly transformed into product in St. Louis.

On the other side of the ball, the Giants edge out the Dodgers, without question–or do they? 

Pitching-wise, there’s no need to get deep into the numbers: San Francisco is just flat-out better. Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner have emerged as Cy Young candidates, while Ryan Vogelsong has proven to be more than just a one-year reclamation project. Tim Lincecum looked reborn in the playoffs after a deplorable 2012 and could be in line for a massive rebound year as he approaches free agency. The bullpen of Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla and Jose Mijares were bulletproof in October. But none of this is to say that the Dodgers can’t be just as good–a rotation of Clayton Kershaw, Greinke, Beckett, Chad Billingley and Ryu could be just as proficient as the Giants’, and a ‘pen with League, Kenley Jansen and Ronnie Belasario can simply dominate. If San Francisco won with defense, pitching and timely hitting, the Dodgers have the tools for at least two of those components. 

Defensively, the Dodgers will have premium fielders spotted all over the field. According to fangraphs, second baseman Mark Ellis, third baseman Luis Cruz and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez are all above-average fielders, with Ellis being elite-level. Catcher AJ Ellis, according to mlb.com, was towards the top of qualified players in regards to range factor, fielding percentage and stolen base percentage allowed. Carl Crawford, before his time in Green Monster purgatory, was one of the game’s great outfielders. As his speed leaves him into his early thirties, he’ll definitely gravitate towards being an average defender, but for now, his excellent defensive instincts should benefit him in the expansive Dodger Stadium outfield. His mirror image counterpart, Andre Ethier, has a reputation far exceeding his actual capabilities on the grass. ‘Dre won a Gold Glove just one season ago, but that was largely based on his explosive throwing arm and a career-best season in field. It’s not that Ethier offends the position with poor play–it’s that he rarely will make the spectacular catch or amaze with his athleticism. Fangraphs actually rates his UZR as costing the team runs, though other metrics from the fielding bible peg him as merely adequate. Just on the eye test, Ethier hits the midway mark between the two reviews–a decent fielder with good instincts and an assassin’s arm, but average to below average athleticism and range. Overall, he won’t hurt the Dodgers.

That’s where the excellence ends. And it should come to the surprise of no one that Hanley Ramirez is one of the team’s weak links, as his reputation as a sub-par defender is well-earned. Fangraphs has his fielding costing his teams almost 48 runs in his career, though he played his best defense at short than he has since 2009 after his trade to SoCal. He’s not a complete butcher in the Mark Reynolds mold, but no one’s going to confuse him as Ozzie Smith over there. A lot of anecdotal evidence I saw was that the guy simply doesn’t hustle on a lot of plays. He just looks…kind of lazy. Whether that means he’s just not working hard or knows he can’t get to the ball is irrelevant. The point is that he’s not making the play. The other defensive black mark on the Dodgers? Surprisingly, Matt Kemp. 

Any honest Dodger fan will be able to tell you that Matt Kemp’s defensive acumen has been vastly overstated. On one hand, he’s a fantastic athletic specimen who lives up to his billing as having the full five tools at his disposal. Kemp has tremendous range because of his speed and ability to burst out of the box, not to mention an arm only rivaled by his teammate Ethier’s.

However, Oklahoma’s finest has some of the poorest defensive instincts in the league. UZR has him as costing the Dodgers double-digit runs over the past four seasons in center field, which is corroborated by simply seeing Kemp make the wrong first step and misjudge flies inning after inning. He often tries to make up for his poor decisions with diving grabs–which, thanks to his supreme athleticism, he sometimes makes–which only compounds his mistakes in the field. Kemp is a prime example of how many times, players establish the reputation as great defenders because of their ability to run and jump. 

Overall, the Dodgers defense ranks as solid, but not spectacular. The Ellis boys, Cruz, Gonzalez and potentially Crawford all rank as excellent fielders, with Ethier playing well enough on the right side of the field not to stick out. However, the two most defensive positions up the middle–Ramirez and Kemp–really hurt LA’s scheme. It’s hard to say if their defense will improve with more stability on the roster and better defenders surrounding them. Looking back on the past few World Series champions, it’s very difficult to win with poor defense up the middle: in the past ten years, only the 2004 Red Sox had deficient players at more than one position (Mark Bellhorn and Johnny Damon). That’s not to say it can’t be done, or more importantly, Ramirez and Kemp can’t improve. It will just be extremely difficult, not to mention uncommon. 
 
It’s a mistake to overlook the Dodgers’ defense and pitching on the whole, and immediately give the Giants the edge. LA’s pitching potential and fielding unit is far better than given credit for, mostly because most critics are quick to judge any team that throws money at hitters.

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