Dodger Digs: What needs to go right for Don Mattingly to keep his job

Let’s run down the facts:
Last place in the NL West, 11th place in the National League. A 19-26 record has the Dodgers with only 6 more wins than the Houston Astros, a squad on pace to be one of the worst in MLB history. Part of the reason is a pitiful offense: LA is 29th in runs scored, 28th in home runs, 28th in slugging percentage and are 23rd in average with runners in scoring position (at .229!). Despite everything, the Dodgers are just 6 games out of first place–but that’s in spite of the fact that they’re in the worst division in either league. Of course, none of this would be terribly bad news in late May, except LA has the biggest payroll in baseball and possibly the greatest expectations in franchise history.
Who do you put the blame on? The line-up for under performing, including a disgraceful offense bogged down by awful early season performances from outfielders Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier? The bullpen for blowing 8 leads in just 6 weeks when they were supposed to be a bulletproof relief corps? Injuries for absolutely rocking the team, with over a dozen disabled list trips already, including a broken collar bone, pulled hamstrings, torn thumb ligaments and strained calves?
Wherever the true culpability lies, there’s little doubt where the ax is going to fall in a rapidly decaying season.
In short: it doesn’t look great for Donnie Ballgame.

I’ve written over and over again that one of the biggest question marks would be how well the Dodgers were going to be coached by Don Mattingly. Over the past two years, the team had overperformed for their manager in the face of little to no expectations with the specter of Frank McCourt looming over them. They had never quit on Donnie, continuing to play hard even late into last season when it seemed extremely unlikely that they’d be able to sneak into the playoffs. The excuse seemed built in for Mattingly’s failures last year, from a drastic ownership change to a massive late season trade that would rock even the steadiest of clubhouses. 2013 would be the first time since the early 90s the former Yankee great would be called on to lead a squad to greatness.

Obviously, it hasn’t worked out. Over at the MAMBINO-approved Dodgers blog Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness, Mike Petriello has exhaustively detailed the merits of whether or whether not to fire Mattingly. I’m in the camp that the team should not because of his ceiling as a motivator once the team is on the right track, as well as his popularity with the players and fan base. Although he’s not the in-game tactician that say, Tony LaRussa was, his ability to calmly withstand the pressures of the public and ownership can’t be taught, only learned through experience. However, it’s extremely disconcerting that the Dodgers are playing without the passion and motivation of a team that has more talent than most teams they play on a nightly basis. For that reason alone, I wouldn’t be happy with a managerial change, but certainly not surprised.

Regardless of the seemingly daily will they, won’t they saga of Donnie’s employment, it’s more pertinent to talk about what the team would have to do in the immediate future for him to keep his job.

Of course the easy answer here is “win”. That’s very, very true, and the most important factor. Quite simply, if the Dodgers start climbing up the standings no matter what manner, he’s going to remain the manager. But winning might not be the only factor. Here are three things Donnie must do, in order, if he wants to stay at the top of those dugout stairs:

1. Don’t get blown out. Ever. Lose with class

Even if the Dodgers win 4 out of the next 6, the next 8-run loss might be the end of Mattingly. The Dodgers have been most criticized for a lack of pride in losing, and throwing down a L that ends in a non-save situation certainly would personify that.

2. Get the superstars going…right now.

Nick Punto is hitting .330, Scott Van Slyke has a .850 slugging percentage and Juan Uribe has suddenly turned into a half-useful player. If you’ve been watching any of those three players for the past two seasons, you know that is a herculean accomplishment. But none of that matters.

What matters is that Donnie and his staff to get the eight-figure salary guys going, including Ethier, Kemp and Josh Beckett. It certainly is a huge credit to the coaches that several of the role players are exceeding their very modest expectations, but they’re not the players that are going to drive this team towards the postseason. If Mattingly is going to save his job, he’ll need to find a way to turn around his superstars very, very quickly.

Several small victories are great–but Donnie needs to win the big ones right now.

3. Weather this tough part of the schedule

This isn’t the best time for a manager to have his job security questioned–the Dodgers are looking at major challenges in 8 of their next 9 series. This weekend they’ll see the best team in the National League in the St. Louis Cardinals, followed by a home and away four game set with the resurgent Angels who have won 4 in a row. After that they’ll play at Coors Field vs. the surprising Colorado Rockies, and following a 3 game reprieve against San Diego, they’ll face the Braves, Diamondbacks, Pirates and Yankees all in succession.

The Dodgers aren’t going to go 17-3 in these next 20 games–in fact, under circumstances that the team were even playing well, they’d be lucky to go even 13-7. But they’ll need to match that record even as they’re struggling. As if it’s not enough for the Dodgers to have to turn the ship around, for this next stretch it feels like they’ll have to turn the ship and around and convert it into a flying barge. Unfair, but that’s the hole they’re in.

Those are just three, small footnotes in an extremely detailed encyclopedia of what the Dodgers are doing poorly right now. But if Mattingly can steer them clear of those obstacles (for now), he’ll remain manager in LA.

(For now)


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