What…the hell…is going wrong?
Three weeks before the baseball season ever began, I wrote a post titled “To see how “a potential juggernaut” can go wrong, the 2013 Dodgers must look to the 2013 Lakers“. As Spring Training broke and I began to collect my thoughts for a season preview, I realized that these Boys in Blue–from their star-studded, expensive roster to the championship expectations surrounding them–very, very closely resembled this past season’s edition of the Lake Show. From the post:
But as I look forward to this Dodgers season more than any other in the past decade, I find myself cautiously examining the team at hand, rather than missing the obvious pitfalls that have befallen the Lakers.
Yes, Don Mattingly is a talented manager who seems to connect with his players based on the mere fact that he was once the best hitter in the Majors. However, like Mike Brown before him, are we expecting too much, too soon from a man who’s overseen two seasons of 7 above .500 ball? Mattingly has largely been excused from criticism until now, seeing as his squads have always been talent-limited and surrounded by ownership disputes. But let us not forget the bungles he’s made on the field, such as simple line-up card mistakes and strategic errors late in games. Most writers and scouts seem to believe that it will all work out behind Donnie Baseball, as his most important attribute has always been player communication, not to mention his ability to think outside the box with his line-up and pitching staff management. However, that’s easy to do when you’re dealing with Juan Uribe, Dee Gordon and Tony Gwynn Jr. Mattingly has openly suggested that if the Dodgers don’t make the playoffs, it’s all on his shoulders; not at all a brash statement. Not in the least.
Looking at the team itself, there are too many situations reminiscent of what the Lake Show faced last October. Dwight Howard was coming off of back surgery, while Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant were all on the wrong side of 30. Foolishly, we looked past their age and didn’t examine enough how much the star center’s surgery would limit his effectiveness, or how easily these over-30 stars could get injured. Carl Crawford will come into this year still feeling the effects of Tommy John surgery, while Matt Kemp slowly rounds into form after getting beat down by an outfield wall in Colorado last summer. Many are placing the Dodgers’ expectations on the shoulders (literally) of Matt Kemp and his potential for MVP-level play; is that feasible considering his physical limitations?
Are we also overlooking the simple question of inter-personal chemistry? No, baseball isn’t basketball. The individual play of every player isn’t as interlocked as it would be on the hardwood, where five guys need to work in tandem to win. However, hitters and pitchers, as we saw late last season, need to be comfortable in their surroundings. The September 2012 Dodgers were all adjusting to a new league with new teammates in a new ballpark, and simply couldn’t settle in and start playing to their potential. Night after night, Steve Nash throws passes off Howard’s heels and Earl Clark gets turned around while confused on defensive possessions. Throwing a ton of new players together, no matter what the sport, is going to be a massive change for everyone. Put that together with tremendous expectations that no Dodger team before them has seen? It could be a recipe for disaster. This LA team will have their name circled in red on every calendar in the majors–after all, any opposition would relish the opportunity to take down a highly vaunted team of well-compensated stars, the self-proclaimed “Yankees West”. The difference? The Bronx Bombers have won seven pennants and five titles in the last 25 years. They earned the pinstripes it takes to have a target on their foreheads. These Dodgers have no such resume, no such experience and no such justified mystique to them.
Make no doubt, this Dodger squad has all the makings of something special. An 8-man deep rotation, a line-up with four potential 30 homer bats and a pocketbook to go out and get any help at the trade deadline bolsters that statement. But there’s a chance we’re looking at this highly compensated team with the same distorted view we viewed the Lakers just six months ago. There’s too many questions to answer and too any things that can go wrong before we anoint this team a 95-game winner.
Not every doom-saying prediction has come true–but a few have come straight out of the bleachers, just like this past cursed Lakers season.
The team’s age and injury-prone players have reared their filthy heads. Mark Ellis is down with yet another leg injury, which will cost him several weeks on the DL. Hanley Ramirez has been injured twice now, once with hand surgery and now with a strained hamstring, continuing a trend from the past three seasons. Matt Kemp remains nearly as ineffective as he was at the end of last year, and it remains to be seen whether or not he’s still hurting from an ass-kicking from a center field wall in Colorado. Chad Billingsley’s elbow exploded right on schedule, costing the right-hander a year of playing time while recovering from Tommy John surgery.
However, there have been several injuries completely random in nature–paging the 2012-2013 Lakers season, paging the 2012-2013 Lakers season. Zack Greinke broke his collar bone when Carlos Quentin decided that the Chargers were so shitty this year that another San Diego football tackle was necessary to redeem them. Chris Capuano strained his calf running in for the ensuing fight. Adrian Gonzalez had one at-bat this past weekend in San Francisco because he strained his neck while accidentally running into an umpire on Thursday night. The injury bug has hit the Dodgers like a hurricane in just one month so far, with an amazing 11 players on the disabled list as of today. Like the Lakers, the hits just keep on coming, from both expected and unexpected areas.
More importantly, the chemistry just isn’t there on either side of the ball. The Dodgers are a patient bunch, ranking sixth in OBP, 26th in strikeouts and 5th in walks…but somehow, 28th in total bases. The reason? Once the Dodgers get on base, the fellow batters can’t do a damn thing about it. They’re batting .222 with runners in scoring position and a feeble .298 slugging percentage–in other words, they’re not hitting, and if they do, it’s most likely a single. This isn’t at all surprising; the Dodgers are slugging just .364 on the year, an awful number considering the thunder they thought they’d have in the line-up. Situational hitting is just a matter of luck a lot of times, but the fact is that the Dodgers aren’t making opponents pay in general when they’re hitting. The power hasn’t been there, and hasn’t been there in a big way.
A big reason for that is Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier getting out-slugged by AJ and Mark Ellis. The entire concept behind getting the highly compensated Adrian Gonzalez is that he’d have Ramirez, Kemp and Ethier forcing oppositions to pitch to him. Not the case when Hanley has played 2 1/2 games all season and their center and right fielder have 15 extra base hits between them.
On the mound, well, what hasn’t gone wrong? Zack Greinke broke his collarbone, Billingsley blew out his arm and Lilly’s shoulder looks messier than the Welcome Center at the end of Jurassic Park. Josh Beckett has been incredibly disappointing after a great Spring Training, getting destroyed in the NL West when most people figured he’d dominate. Thus far, 9 pitchers have started 31 games, delving into GM Ned Colletti’s vaunted rotation depth all too soon. The bullpen has been good, but not great, with either Brandon “I’ve got too much natural talent” League or Brandon “Last year I was almost out of the” League showing up. These inconsistencies aren’t too unlike what the Lakers faced this year–vets with tons of talent but whose performances change from night to night.
In regards to the team’s management, Don Mattingly has been able to teach his hitters patience and coax as good of a performance out of his rotation considering he’s used enough guys to fill out two of them. The Dodgers haven’t had the coaching crisis the Lakers went through for the past seven months, but they’ve certainly given Donnie the same fits in terms of trying to fill out a line-up every night with so many casualties. But is Mattingly too inexperienced as a manager to get his team out of this slump and the NL West basement? Luckily, there hasn’t been any reports of personality clashes in the locker room, but if the losing continues, the volatility the Lakers showed at times in 2012-2013 could rear it’s head in Chavez Ravine.
The Dodgers aren’t nearly out of this yet, standing at 13-18 in the beginning months of May. However, if you’ll remember the Lakers sat evenly at .500 on Christmas, and proceeded to let infighting and injury get them eight games under .500 by the end of January. The similarities between these two Southern California teams has been outrageously similar thus far. It’s easy to look at the calendar that casually believe that there’s a ton of time left to rectify a month of barely mediocre baseball. But as the Lakers will tell anyone, sometimes the hits never stop.