Mike Schilling asks: “What’s wrong with the Dodgers?” Which I’ve been steaming about for a while. There’s only one possible answer at this point.
It isn’t lack of talent. The Dodgers have the second-highest payroll in Major League Baseball, given healthy rosters on all teams. And they have some very high quality players to put out in the field, particularly a trio of starting pitchers in Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Hyun-Jin Ryu who should be fearsome adversaries to behold. The fifty-four million dollar outfield of Andre Eithier, Matt Kemp, and Carl Crawford ought to be the core of a new murderer’s row.
But that isn’t happening.
As of the time I write, the Los Angeles Dodgers have sat in the NL West’s basement for more than a month, and hold a record of 20-28. Nearly none of their banner players are performing up to potential. If you were playing fantasy baseball, you’d be looking at Kershaw and Adrián González, and that’s about it from Los Angeles. Maybe if you need to fill the catcher’s slot, your best alternative is A.J. Ellis. But if you’re a real starting pitcher, and you look at that core lineup, it’s an obstacle course, sure, but one that most starters have been able to navigate through nearly three times out of five.
The master’s worth of salary being paid to a starting pitcher clearly on the tail end of a career that shows journeyman rather than master numbers bothers me, too — although that contract is a legacy from the McCourt era. Don’t get me wrong, Lilly is a fine fourth-position starter, but he’s not worth twenty-one million dollars a year. And Beckett is, well, Beckett. He had that great season once. He wasn’t a Dodger when he did it.
Still, this is symptomatic of the real problem. And that problem is what sports writers call the “intangibles.”
The difference between a winning and losing record right now has been the eight-game losing streak that started out the Dodgers’ month of May. That losing streak consisted of: losing one at home to Colorado; losing three straight away at San Francisco, each game by one run; losing three straight at home to Arizona, one by two runs and one by a single run; and losing one to Miami at home, again by one run.
Momentum has definitely been a problem. Greinke got knocked onto the DL after being charged and hit during an early-season game. Losing one of the three aces early on hurts — not just for the games he would have won, but for the momentum that comes from those wins, too. A good record early in the season has traditionally be the marrow around which team belief has knit bones and lurched into the summer. I think that’s part of it.
But good teams find ways to get through things like an ace getting put on the DL. Good teams find ways to step up for one another, and to capitalize off of one anothers’ successes. They coax good seasons out of not-quite-good pitchers like Lilly. They get their big hitters to make hits in sequence so that tough batting order becomes not just a chore but an ordeal for opposing pitchers to work through. Rhythm: these guys haven’t found it yet. González alone has been more reliable than chance in the clutch. No rhythm: of the Dodgers 28 total losses, 10 have been by one or two runs, after situations in which late-inning RBI’s were available.
Now, I hate saying that it’s the “intangibles” because that reflects poorly on manager Don Mattingly, who commands loyalty and has made nothing but defensible roster maneuvers. And benching Ethier and Kemp for poor performance was a ballsy, dramatic move, one which sends the right message — you guys aren’t earning it. But that hasn’t had the tonic effect either; the team’s record has been even since then.
Baseball is a game of marginal adjustments and tinkering with small things that have little immediate measurable impact. The difference between batting .270 and .300 is about one extra hit a
game week — and that’s the difference between sticking in and sticking out. With all the pieces of the puzzle there, Los Angeles hasn’t really found a way to put them together yet. And it’s Mattingly’s job to find a way to alter that set of intangibles and get these guys believing that they can make it happen.
We’ll see what June brings.