Dodgers in a race to the upside down

Sure, OK, we can start with the bullpen. It’s hardly the only thing going on with the Dodgers, but it’s something. Oh yes, it’s something.

You need good relief to win, but you can’t plan for good relief. 

This comes up every year, so it’s tedious to point out, but it doesn’t seem to go without saying.

I’m going to ask take my years-old research into this on faith; whether you choose to do so is up to you. But what you find is that there is virtually no consistency year-to-year among relief pitchers. The best might give you two or three consecutive good years. The very best.

The reasons for this should be clear. You don’t become a reliever unless you are flawed in some way that prevents you from being a starter. That obviously doesn’t mean you can’t be a fantastic reliever in a given year, but for the most part, relievers are pitchers who aren’t designed to be great over the long haul. They typically have a limited number of pitches, which leaves them vulnerable to being figured out over time. The good ones end up getting overworked, or maybe they were never that good in the first place, instead merely a triumph of small sample size. We could go on, but let’s sum it up this way: Mariano Rivera is not reality.

The 2003 Dodger bullpen was incredible. It was also, in many significant ways, an accident.

Staffing a bullpen has always, fascinatingly, been Ned Colletti’s simultaneous strength and weakness. Colletti has had a knack for finding capable non-roster talent (Takashi Saito, Ronald Belisario) over the same years that he has invested multiyear deals in such inconsistent arms as Matt Guerrier and Brandon League. There is no correlation in the Colletti tenure between salary and performance, yet the expensive signings continue.

The point is that you can never feel good about your bullpen entering a season – never. I really believe that. You can’t feel anything at all. The best thing you can do is assemble a number of arms before Spring Training, a combination of youth and experience and promise and reclamation, and then hope for the best.

The peril of having someone with a long-term contract is that you feel obligated to keep him past the point of effectiveness. That’s the boat the Dodgers are in with League and Guerrier, even with a new ownership that doesn’t much worry about player salaries these days.

The Dodger bullpen is leaky through and through. Almost nothing is working right now. Just as you were gaining supreme confidence in Paco Rodriguez and Kenley Jansen, they found growing pains that left them struggling like the more experienced J.P Howell, League, Guerrier and, if you will, Belisario and Javy Guerra.

Fans tend to have unreasonable expectations of bullpens – you see outrage anytime any relief pitcher gives up a run, let alone a lead. I’m not sure where fans get the idea that every reliever on their team should have a 0.00 ERA, but there it is. Every Dodger relief pitcher since the heyday of Eric Gagne and Saito has been attacked for his failings, however momentary, however good that pitcher has been overall.  So when a bullpen is collectively struggling as much as the Dodger bullpen is, it’s frogs and locusts time.

Don Mattingly’s instinct has been correct in general to try to play matchups with his relievers. You can debate the specifics of all his choices – I don’t agree with them all – but the bottom line is, there’s little he can do when no one is reliable.

Mattingly’s bullpen Sunday faced 18 batters and got nine outs. When Jansen entered Saturday’s game in relief of Chris Capuano, he had thrown only 21 pitches in his previous 72 hours. Capuano had pitched well that night, but he was past the 90-pitch mark and going on a balky calf.

But when things are bad, things are bad.

Tim Federowicz is not a martyr.

This morning brought the news that Tim Federowicz, and not Luis Cruz or Ramon Hernandez, had been displaced from the active roster to make room for the return of Mark Ellis from the disabled list. Federowicz is more valuable than Cruz or Hernandez, but the hysteria this caused was rather remarkable.

When I called out this freakout on Twitter, several people lectured me, as if I didn’t know, that it wasn’t just about Federowicz, but that it was symptomatic of the Colletti Dodgers’ larger mismanagement in general or obsession with experience over youth in particular. As if I needed to be told that Colletti values experience, sometimes to the franchise’s detriment.

I’ve spent a lot of time on how to phrase this next section, because I don’t want to give the impression that you shouldn’t try to maximize every advantage you can. Federowicz can’t help the Dodgers that much right now, but sure, I’d rather see him get five at-bats a week over Hernandez, because an on-base percentage over .500 in Albuquerque and above-average defense suggest a better skill set than Hernandez currently offers. Scott Van Slyke’s callup was overdue, not because he was guaranteed to hit two homers in a game, but because he was on a hot streak in the minors that made it clear there was no better time to try him out.

But just as there is with the bullpen, there’s a level of knee-jerk fan reaction with the bench that is out of proportion. When a player is a single game away from having better stats than his competition, as Hernandez is compared with Federowicz (3 for 17 with one walk and no extra-base hits as a major-leaguer in 2013), and neither is projected to be a starter, and the alternatives to Hernandez as backup if A.J. Ellis gets hurt are Jesus Flores, Matt Wallach and Gorman Erickson, the uproar should not be Defcon Anything.

Yeah, Cruz stinks right now, and no one in their right mind would keep him over Juan Uribe – just like no one in their right mind would have argued to keep Uribe over Cruz last summer.

See what I’m getting at?

If you’re not frustrated with the Dodgers right now, you’re either not a Dodger fan or very zen. You’re not wrong if you’re unhappy with Federowicz’s demotion. But if you’re angry over Federowicz being sent down, you’re overreacting. It’s not symptomatic of the Dodgers’ larger problems. You’re not going to plug in Federowicz, Yasiel Puig, Joc Pederson and Alex Castellanos into the Dodger bench and as a result see things turn around.

And May 19 is too soon to give up, if only because of one person.

Matt Kemp.

Until Kemp starts hitting, nothing is going to happen with this team. Nothing. The Dodgers cannot win without his bat. And again, it’s not something anger will solve. The effort is there – if anything, he’s trying too hard to get things going. But it is up to Kemp.

It would help if Andre Ethier hit more, but the difference between what Ethier is doing compared to what is expected of him is not what it is with Kemp.

I’m sure Kemp has had all the advice in the world, from Mattingly, Mark McGwire and any number of coaches or people he meets on the street. But no one else can synthesize the good from the bad and put it into action.

You can start firing managers or coaches or trainers. Kemp still needs to hit.

The bullpen can start putting out fires. Kemp still needs to hit.

The defense can stop making two errors a game. Kemp still needs to hit.

But what if he does?

Let me tell you one more thing.  I would love to give up on the 2013 Dodgers. It will be a relief if and when I can. I spent part of my Sunday writing this 1,500-word piece that probably isn’t worth a damn, especially for a team barely winning 40 percent of its games.

And the season might be over, except for this. For all their problems, Los Angeles is still somehow only seven games out of first place. The Giants, in case you haven’t noticed, have their own cauldron of concerns. And Arizona and Colorado … I just don’t know. I can’t see them not hitting their own skid. I can’t see it.

The National League West looks like an 85-win division. That’s still within the Dodgers’ abilities.

The team gets healthier. The bullpen stops being a disaster. Matt Kemp starts to hit. And then …

Honestly, that’s as far as I can go. The team does look awful right now. It looks nothing like a winning team. It’s creaky and crumbly. Race to the bottom or race to the top – I truly can’t decide.

  • Anonymous

    I love your insight and candor, Jon.

    While the team is off to a horrendous start, DT (ie. Weisman) is off to a stellar start in 2013.

    • Anonymous

      Yes; This piece is well worth whatever time you put into it.

  • Anonymous

    What a wonderful assessment of exactly what I see with the Dodgers, also. You have done an outstanding job of putting into words how I feel. I won’t give up this early as you said, 7 games out of 1st is way to early in this part of the season. I too feel disarray with this team and I wonder if it is slipping from Donnie’s control?? One thing for sure, you hit it dead head. Thanks for taking the time to write an excellent piece of journalism.

  • http://twitter.com/justin6e justin greenspan

    you’re the best Weisman…you’re like my shrink…i should really pay you

  • Anonymous

    As has already been said–Dodgers may stink this season but Jon is still tops. I’m so glad to read your site this season, Jon.

  • http://www.facebook.com/scareduck Rob McMillin

    >>There is no correlation in the Colletti tenure between salary and performance, yet the expensive signings continue.<<

    Now you have my R^2 juices flowing. Just *how* bad is this correlation?

    • Anonymous

      He’s signed two relievers to what could be called expensive deals over his tenure.

  • Anonymous

    Brandon league is still bad. Why Ned ever thought he was worth three years is beyond me.

    • foul tip

      Because of being a former All-Star and posting a bunch of saves. He was excellent toward last year end, and Ned (I think Ned, maybe DM) said then he was pitching as well as anybody in the game.

      Prime setup for a Neddy woofer contract, which was forthcoming quickly. Ned does not grasp the point made by Jon and others about the fickleness of relievers. League did warrant consideration based on his finish last year, but one year at much less probably would have worked for everyone. Nor did League need to be named “closer” upon signing.

      Maybe there could be a DT system for awarding positive or negative Neddys for personnel moves both good and bad. League seems on track for about a -2, maybe -3, with Neddy value likely to drop the last 2 years.

      Schmidt probably would rate a -10 on a Neddy scale, for dropping $47 million even after dicey medical reports. Andruw, probably a -5, because while there were was no discernible reason to expect the level of suckitude he delivered, his numbers did fall off right before his big Dodger contract. But perhaps I digress. Perhaps not.

      If Ned were in the stock market, he would buy stocks at their peak and then be greatly puzzled over why they did not continue to do as well as in the past. Or buy them in decline well after peak and wonder why they did not rebound to old highs.

      In the stock market you can use stop losses to cut damage quickly. In baseball you’re stuck for the whole dang contract. There’s no stopping that kind of loss, a sunk cost.

      Ned has had some successes, and no GM bats 1.000. Overall Ned might net out about 0. But when overpaid players mess up, his woofer contracts loom larger.

      • Anonymous

        League was an all-star for all of one year, and his performance with the Dodgers was all of 27 innings. I didn’t see Ned handing out $21 million to Dee Gordon based on his first 27 innings last year, which weren’t too shabby at all.

  • Anonymous

    Great post, Jon.

    I’m not as worried about Matt’s lack of power as I am in his increase in striking out . . . this seems like the pace he was on the year before he hit it big (so to speak).

    I was driving after the game concluded and was behind a car with a vanity plate — “Therapy” — and I thought of Dodger Thoughts . . . definitely cheaper than therapy. As I said before, the new slogan should be “Dodger Thoughts: Needed Now More Than Ever.”

  • Neeebs

    What happens if Kemp lost his power bat? Looks like he has warning track power now. Post-Surgery? Weight loss? Chemical free? If it doesn’t return…oh boy. Look out below.

  • Anonymous

    Well, this post of yours is why I am so happy I’m a Dodger fan. I have learned so much about baseball from all of you, and the level of discourse, especially when things are unraveling, really soothes my nerves. Thank goodness we have here to come. I’d be in bad straits otherwise.

  • Anonymous

    It is only 7 behind !?!

  • Howard Fox

    I am actually fine with the core…Kemp, Ethier, AGon, Crawford, Ramirez (hopefully he can be somewhat healthy)…I would prefer plugging the youngsters in around them rather than all the retreads…but my issue is at manager. Mattingly doesnt seem to have command of the game or the pitching staff. Yes, bullpens are fleeting, but Jansen is off his game right now, but he is the 8th inning pitcher so 8th inning it is…yes, the Dodgers are not hitting, but he seems to be hell bent on the lefty righty thing with the hitters.

    • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

      When you struggling offensively, why wouldn’t you maximize platoon advantages when you can?

      • Anonymous

        The Dodgers lefty relievers are doing well against lefties. The Dodgers righty relievers are getting pounded by lefties. Jansen is doing well, but League and Belisario are getting hammered. Guerrier is doing surprisingly well against LHB, although I don’t think Mattingly has any confidence in him. And I think Guerrier is just getting lucky against lefties.

  • Anonymous

    Must reading, Jon.

  • Anonymous

    It’s true. Your writing is equally valuable in good times and in bad. 7 games out in May is not a big problem. As for the stink of the team, I still believe that’s likely to changes sometime in the next few months. Until then, all you can do is endure it because enjoying it doesn’t seem likely.

  • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

    It’s been 13 days since Ramon Hernandez last played in a game and 37 days since he had his base hit.

    • foul tip

      So you’re saying he’s well past expiration date?

      However many days he’s been on the roster is that many too many.

    • http://farinella.com/ David Farinella

      The only real question I have vis a vis Hernandez or Federowicz is this: Does AJ need the veteran guidance on the bench? I thought I’d read that Hernandez can help AJ grow or brings veteran wiles to the bench. It’s not like he’s a 21 year old wunderkid just up to the majors. He’s been around these pitchers enough to know them, right?

  • Anonymous

    Jon: your adroit analysis leads me to a sore subject: coddling of starters. If, as you posit, relievers are generally pitchers not good enough to be starters, why has the game evolved to let starters go only six innings? I’m always in favor of leaving a start in to throw more pitches than in bringing the sixth-inning guy, who is usually the 9th or 10th best pitcher on the roster. We’ve gotten so concerned with pitch counts that managers are practically forced to remove a good pitcher for a lousy one.

    I’d much rather see a starter go eight innings and a top-notch reliever come in and lock down the ninth than see the Matt Guerriers and LaTroy Hawkinses of the world befouling my television.

    • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

      Like it or not, we just don’t live in a world where most starting pitchers are effective past the sixth inning. Believe me, managers would love to have more of those pitchers.

      It’s rare that an effective pitcher is taken out of a game in the sixth inning strictly because of pitch count. Most pitchers are good to go for 90-110 pitches. If they’ve thrown that many by the sixth inning, they are probably not having a very good game and certainly not very likely to keep having a good game.

      • Anonymous

        I agree that this is the case, but without getting too circular, I’d suggest that this is a situation where expectations dictate the outcome. Starters aren’t expected to go beyond six innings, and therefore prepare to go only that far. From the lowest levels of the minor leagues, five-man rotations and six-inning pitchers are the norm.

        Nolan Ryan has tried to revamp the Rangers’ system from the bottom up. So far, it’s hard to argue with the results: Texas leads the majors with a 130 ERA+

    • Anonymous

      Hitters get significantly better the more times they see a pitcher in a game.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1172439252 Michael Green

    Recently, Ned Colletti commented that near as he could tell, Don Mattingly hasn’t driven in a run since 1995. Well, that’s correct–the players have to DO. Perhaps Mattingly could strategize better? Fine. Strategy won’t get a team more than three hits in a game.

  • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

    SaMoDodger

    Only two Rangers starters are averaging more than 6 IP/start, and one of them is Yu Darvish, whom the Rangers had nothing to do with developing.

    So while what you say may all be true, but it also may be fortuitous. This year, AAA Round Rock pitchers are averaging less than six innings per start. (Two of the top six starters are slightly above
    six). In AA, none of the regular starting pitchers are averaging six innings per start.

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/minors/team.cgi?id=006a6b85
    http://www.baseball-reference.com/minors/team.cgi?id=df0040c6

    Justin Grimm last year: under 6 innings per start. Alexi Ogando has never averaged at least six innings per start.

    I still think it’s more an issue of collective talent and ability than vision. There is no clear way to attribute the Rangers’ pitching success this year to an organizational plan to make them pitch more innings.

    • Anonymous

      point taken. Still, I prefer baseball when you’re watching the team’s best pitchers play. The age of specialization is tiresome in my opinion.

  • http://www.twitter.com/ElJefedor Jeffrey Thomas III

    Bullpen pitchers are a lot like NFL kickers it seems. The team can spend all afternoon failing to capitalize on chances and score points, but if they’re within three at the end of the game it is up to the kicker to rescue them. Depending on a bullpen to rescue you is a seemingly terrible way to go about trying to win games. These pitchers don’t deserve all the blame, but at the end of the game after everybody else has already failed, they are the last one’s to fail and receive the majority of ire from fans. Though having said all this, it doesn’t make the three straight losses in Atlanta in which the Dodgers lead in each, any less demoralizing.

  • http://farinella.com/ David Farinella

    Anyone else see this at the LA Times:

    Of Mattingly’s performance as manager, Colletti said, “I think he has done fine. I think he’s kept it steady. Players still have to play. A dangerous sign is if people stop playing, if they stop playing hard. Sometimes I see us playing almost too hard. But you have to look at our performance as a team on the field. Have we hit well with runners in scoring position? Have we scored enough runs? Have we played enough good defense? Have we made proper pitches all the time? It’s an easy way out to look at one person.”

    I’m sorry, but isn’t it ONE person that’s supposed to bring all those things together? Kiss my blarney stone, I don’t understand what the Ned is thinking here….

  • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

    NPUT