Apr 19

A different set of problems for Jonathan Broxton

Well, here it is.

I suppose it isn’t my place to be the official historian of how and when the criticisms of Jonathan Broxton began, but I feel I’m on safe ground saying that they were born in anger over his failure to close some high-profile games, most notably in the 2008 National League Championship Series and then again in 2009. 

In a stretch that extended into June 2010, the flames were lit every time Broxton disappointed in what was labeled a “high-profile” game, though there were games just as prominent in which Broxton breezed, as well an overwhelming record of success in other games. From 2006 through the first half of 2010, Broxton had nearly 12 strikeouts per nine innings, more strikeouts than baseunners allowed. He blew people away, time and again, in critically important moments.

I really think it’s important to be clear about this. For the longest time, the concern that Broxton’s detractors had was not that he couldn’t get anyone out, but just that he wouldn’t get the job done in October. The explanation offered the most was that he didn’t have the backbone, guts or other relevant body part to succeed under pressure. 

I never bought into that argument, because I saw Broxton succeed too many times under pressure – including in the playoffs – to see a pattern, and that given another opportunity, there were more reasons to believe he would succeed than there were that he’d fail. Many more reasons. Baseball history is filled with onetime October failures who found redemption.

Would you have abandoned Mariano Rivera after Game 7 in 2001? Would you have abandoned Dennis Eckersley after Game 1 in 1988? Would you have stood by him just because he had a tough-looking mustache?

The stats did tell the story. Broxton dominated. He wasn’t perfect. He was merely superb.

The problems of Jonathan Broxton today are different problems entirely.

Broxton is having trouble getting people out, period. He has retired the side in order once in eight outings. He has allowed 13 base runners in 7 1/3 innings while striking out five. He’s being touched not just in save situations but in non-save situations. He’s allowing runs not in playoff games in October, but mid-week games in April.

It’s a continuation of the way he has pitched since late-June, after the 48-pitch nightmare against the Yankees at the end of a week of heavy use, when his touch abandoned him. 

The anti-Broxton corps is feeling validated, on the theory, I guess, that the confidence problems they perceived early on have spread to his entire game. (There’s also a theory that Broxton’s repertoire was so simplistic that it was inevitable he’d be solved by opposing batters, though this seems to ignore that Rivera has essentially been throwing the same single pitch for about a decade and a half.)

I won’t be so arrogant that I’ll insist they’re wrong, but I will offer what I still believe to be a more logical explanation: relief pitchers, like NFL running backs, have inherently short shelf lives – I’ve been providing analysis of this for nearly the entire life of Dodger Thoughts – and Broxton is looking more like someone who is simply having the arc of a reliever. It’s the job.  

I’m still not even convinced this is the end for Broxton as a topflight reliever – it’s still April. Are we giving up on Kenley Jansen, who has had an even worse month? 

But perhaps it Broxton’s time. That being said, whether he’s the closer or a middle reliever isn’t relevant. If you don’t believe the guy can get three outs with a four-run lead, you’re basically saying you don’t believe in him, period.

There is one thing I will insist on, however. For nearly five seasons – an eternity for most relievers, longer than, for example, the elite tenures of Eric Gagne or Takashi Saito as Dodgers – Jonathan Broxton was a great, great relief pitcher. The NLCS losses were crushing – indeed, for many they were poisonous – but he’s hardly the first great hurler who has pitches he’d like to get back. He has truly been one of the best relief pitchers in Los Angeles Dodger history, whether his best days are over or not.

Apr 18

How close is Jerry Sands? He’s here

I think I might always remember the moment, or approximate moment, that Jerry Sands was called up by the Dodgers. I was having an extremely rare weekday afternoon margarita at one of our big family gatherings of the week, and looking around the table at my wife reunited with her family and my kids with their East Coast cousins. To make a long story short, I’ve been having a hard time feeling optimistic about some things, but as I breathed in the scene, I suddenly not only told myself I should be more positive, I actually believed that I could.

That sentiment, I knew, might last little longer than the margarita, but lo and behold, I came out of the restaurant a couple hours later, quickly checked e-mails on my cellphone and saw that the Dodgers had made what could be a similar, happily desperate declaration in promoting Sands.

Sands, whose name I also came to realize today reminds me more of a slacks-wearing pro chipping in on the 18th hole to win at Pebble Beach, takes the roster spot of Xavier Paul, whom the Dodgers designated for assignment, as Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com notes. That tradeoff in itself tells you the perils of placing faith in a minor leaguer to fill a gaping hole in the Dodger lineup. Paul was never a Dodger minor-league hitter of the year the way Sands was last year, but the guy had a fairly strong career in the Dodger farm system, only to go by the same wayside as (take your pick) Delwyn Young or Cody Ross.

So of course we keep our expectations of Sands as sober as I now find myself, especially on the on-base percentage side as he faces major-league pitching for the first time, less than a year out of Single-A ball. But his power nevertheless offers the possibility of something the Dodgers desperately need after cleanup hitter Matt Kemp: a threat. Until Juan Uribe and James Loney figure themselves out, why not Sands? It’s worth a shot, and even if he falls short, I expect the early exposure to the bigs will instruct more than it will harm.

What’s funny is as dramatic as this move might seem, we could see it coming months ago. From this winter’s “How close is he?” series:

Summary: From age 22 1/2 to age 23, Sands had a .395 on-base percentage and .586 slugging percentage with 35 homers in 590 plate appearances combined at Single-A Great Lakes and Double-A Chattanooga. In Double-A, Sands posted a .360/.529 with 17 homers in 303 plate appearances. 

For comparison’s sake: From age 22 to age 22 1/2, Andre Ethier delivered a .383/.442 with seven homers in 471 plate appearances, all in Single-A. Then from age 23 to 23 1/2, Ethier offered .385/.497 with 18 homers in 572 plate appearances in Double-A (not counting a 17-plate appearance cup o’ joe at Triple-A). After starting 2006 strongly with the Dodgers’ Triple-A team, Ethier was promoted to the majors three weeks after turning 24. 

Sobering: Sands struck out in about a quarter of his at-bats in the minors last year. 

For what it’s worth: A younger Matt Kemp arrived in Los Angeles mere months after going .349/.569 in Single-A, and was in the majors for good less than two years after that Single-A year. 

Quick and dirty conclusion: Obviously, Sands and Ethier are not the same player. Ethier had a better OBP but less power in the minors, among other differences. Still, I did find the juxtaposition interesting. It seems entirely plausible that Sands could get a quick promotion to Albuquerque in 2011. That would position him to make his big-league debut before the year is out and leave him a serious contender for a starting role in 2012. 

Though there is almost zero chance Sands would start 2011 in the majors after only a half-season in Double-A – because Ned Colletti teams give veterans first crack in April – how Sands develops this year, against the background of how the Dodger major-league outfield shapes up, could speed up his timetable. He is also a potential understudy to James Loney.

We’ll see where Sands ends up ultimately. But tonight, I’m going to think positively. I could do worse.

Apr 17

Va-va-va-boom

Sixteen Dodger games into the torrid start that made him an early season Most Valuable Player candidate in 2010, Andre Ethier had a .377 batting average, .441 on-base percentage and .679 slugging percentage. 

This season, after 16 Dodger games, Matt Kemp has a .474 batting average, .545 on-base percentage and .719 slugging percentage. 

Kemp has reached base at least three times in half of his 16 games. He could go hitless in his next 53 at-bats and still be ahead of his 2010 batting average.

“They pitched to the one guy who could beat them,” said Vin Scully of the Cardinals in the bottom of the ninth, “and he does.”

Apr 17

Radio daze game chat

This seems like a good day to get away from the TV, grab a nice spot outside on the grass or thereabouts, and listen to the game in daydream mode. Sometimes I forget, but a ballclub’s struggles don’t seem so serious when you’re out in the fresh air.

Apr 16

Hong-Chih Kuo heads to the disabled list

A lower-back strain has knocked Hong-Chih Kuo off the abled list. Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com has details, including the “oh, of course” news that Kuo has been “bothered by back discomfort all season.”

Ramon Troncoso has been recalled to join the Dodgers’ now all-righty bullpen.

Apr 16

An 11-2 pounding adds to doubt: How much has really changed?

To answer your most burning question: Yes, we all slept … my kids, my in-laws, my wife and I.

So I can move my attention away from my household and back to Dodger Stadium and a different sort of burning question in the wake of the Dodgers’ fourth consecutive defeat, an 11-2 loss to St. Louis that might have been closer than the score indicated, but not much.

One of the storylines that emerged in Spring Training was the idea that this year’s Dodger team was going to rehabilitate the heart-and-soul demise of last year’s team. We heard that a lack of focus and willingness or ability to go the extra mile wasn’t confined to Matt Kemp, but rather spread like a virus through almost every Dodger who wasn’t, say, a cagey 37-year-old veteran infielder. The 2011 Dodgers understood these deficiencies and intended to rectify them.

The exhibition season certainly supported this idea – this was the most easygoing, focused camp in memory, with Andre Ethier’s contractual omphaloskepsis the minorest of blips. But that still left us with two unanswered questions:

1) Why, when the 2010 playoffs were still in reach, would the Dodgers suddenly decide to try not harder, but softer?

2) Why, when adversity struck again in 2011 as it inevitably would at some point, wouldn’t the Dodgers fall into the same bad habits again?

Now, there are potential answers to those questions: 1) immaturity, 2) growth. But there are also alternative theories for last season and this one that invalidate the questions to begin with – namely, the Dodgers collectively were and are doing the best they can, given that they are human beings and not programmable robots, and what you see is what you get.

Yes, Kemp looks like a better player this year, for reasons Dodger fans will debate. By the same token, James Loney looks worse than ever, and I think everyone would agree it’s not for lack of trying. Overall, it’s not clear to me how much a team can simply will itself to be better when, even in the darkest hours, there is always a baseline of effort.

Growth might help the Dodgers overcome a short stretch that has seen them fall into a virtual tie for last place in the National League West, but my suspicion remains the same: In the end, ballplayers always want to do well, and their fate will come down to their talent, not their desire.

This team wants to win. But can it?

Apr 15

April 15 game chat

So, been thinking … thinking about shocking y’all and declaring the National League West race over: Colorado in 2011.

Nah. I can’t do it. But the Rockies were the team in the division I feared the most in March, and they’ve done everything so far to appear to be the bee’s knees.

Apr 15

Is the game over yet?

Whatever the Cardinals did to the Dodgers on Thursday, that and more is what my 3-year-old did to my wife and I. He was either so revved up from getting a visit from my in-laws – or, more simply, possessed by a demon – that he went crazy and did not stop until 3 a.m. Three ay em.

My brain feels like an under-.500 brain, like a baseball that was bobbled, wild-pitched, thrown errantly into center field, battered all over the park. Getting to sleep by 3 instead of 4 is like getting a ninth-inning solo shot by Matt Kemp to cut a five-run deficit by one.

On to the next game …

Apr 14

Injuries hammer Isotopes

That wasn’t the injury bug in Albuquerque on Wednesday – those were injury locusts.  From Christopher Jackson of Albuquerque Baseball Examiner:

The Albuquerque Isotopes’ 10-7 victory over the Iowa Cubs on Wednesday night may go down as the costliest win in team history.

In the span of four innings, three Isotopes were injured, suddenly leaving the club down to only seven healthy position players.

“I’ve been in this game a long time and we talked about there’s not too many ‘nevers’ in baseball,” manager Lorenzo Bundy said. “To have guys get hurt and have to come out of the game the way it happened tonight, to end up with a pitcher in right field … it was a strange night.”

Second baseman Justin Sellers was hit by a pitch on his right hand in the fourth inning, forcing him to leave the game.

Three batters later, Juan Castro fouled off the first pitch from Austin Bibens-Dirkx, only to suddenly double over in pain, clutching his left side. He had to leave the game as well.

In the seventh inning, J.D. Closser, who had moved from catcher to third base to replace Castro, stumbled while trying to field a grounder. The ball bounced up and struck Closser under his left eye, leaving him with a visible bruise and forcing him out.

At that point, Jerry Sands had to move from right field to third, and with no position players available on the bench, pitcher Tim Redding trotted out to right field. …

Thanks to Dodger Thoughts commenter Mike Tink for the head’s up …

Apr 13

Unlikely homer sinks Dodgers, 4-3

It wasn’t as jaw-dropping as Ozzie Smith against Tom Niedenfuer, but in a six-year, 457-game career, Giants infielder Mike Fontenot had hit only one career homer against a left-handed pitcher before he broke a 3-3 tie in the bottom of the sixth inning with a home run off Ted Lilly, giving the Giants a 4-3 victory.

The Associated Press noted it was Fontenot’s first home run against any major-league pitcher since May 7.

Lilly, who had fallen behind 2-0 after two innings before the Dodgers came back with a two-run homer by Rod Barajas (his third of the year) and an RBI double by Aaron Miles (3 for 4), had one out earlier given up a game-tying homer to Pablo Sandoval.

The score stayed the same, but the Dodgers had a somewhat discouraging outing from Hong-Chih Kuo, who struck out two but also walked two and threw only seven strikes in 22 pitches before being relieved by Matt Guerrier. Kuo has walked four of the 13 batters he’s faced this year.

Matt Kemp’s hitting spree hit a speed bump with an 0-for-4 night.

Apr 12

Giants take the low road to 5-4 victory

Eric Risberg/APTim Lincecum averaged more than 20 pitches per inning tonight.

It was hard to watch the Dodgers build a 3-0 lead against Tim Lincecum and then fail to hold it in a 5-4 loss, but I’m not going to throw Chad Billingsley under the bus for this one.

Billingsley was superb through the first three innings and kept making good pitches in the fourth, but the Giants hurt him anyway. Buster Posey’s RBI single was on a pitch no higher than his knees, and Pablo Sandoval’s RBI double came on one even lower.

Aaron Rowand’s game-tying RBI single in the fifth was little different – a fastball down in the zone, a good challenge pitch that Rowand drove to left.

Obviously, Billingsley wasn’t perfect. Posey’s second RBI hit, giving the Giants a 4-3 lead, was a fastball up, leading to the last of the nine baserunners Billingsley allowed in five innings.  But the Dodger righty looked better on the field then he does in the boxscore – in fact, he looked better than Lincecum, who lasted only 5 1/3 innings himself while throwing 115 pitches.

The Dodgers came back to tie the game on Marcus Thames’ pinch-hit homer in the seventh, but reliever Blake Hawksworth gave the lead back almost immediately on a Rowand triple and a wild pitch.

Giants closer Brian Wilson struck out Xavier Paul, Tony Gwynn Jr. (0 for 5) and Jamey Carroll in the ninth inning, thereby avoiding Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp. Ethier was 2 for 4 and robbed of a third hit when Lincecum dove at a ball that was hit off of him and threw Ethier out. Kemp was 2 for 2 with two walks (one intentional), raising his season on-base percentage to an astonishing .578. In at-bats, he is 17 for 36, one hit shy of batting .500.

Kemp was caught stealing for the first time this season.

* * *

Jerry Sands homered for the fourth straight game and doubled in Albuquerque’s 18-3 victory over Iowa tonight. Dee Gordon had four hits, four runs and a steal.