Bill James on the 1981 Dodgers

From the 1982 Bill James Baseball Abstract:

… When I was young the Boston Celtics used to coast through the season with a 50-32 sort of record, far behind the best mark in the league which might in a given season belong to Philadelphia or Los Angeles or whoever. But come playoff time, the Celtics would crush those teams with no apparent ease but considerable regularity. When Bill Russell retired he attributed this to the fact that during the season the Celtics, knowing that they could make the playoffs, would take care to develop their sixth and seventh and eighth players, as well as being careful to decentralize the offense, not relying on any one or two or three scorers to put the points on the board. And then come playoff time, the Celtics would have more weapons than their opponents. Russell could fight Chamberlain to a standoff and the Celtics would win because the rest of their roster was ready to contribute, whereas the reliance on the big man would have gradually weakened the rest of the roster.

I thought of that when I noticed a pattern in the Dodger playing time in the second half of the season. Three of the four first-half champions were veteran teams, near the point of having to start getting some new names in the lineup. But only the Dodgers seemed to realize that, with a spot guaranteed, they might as well start developing some more weapons. All of the Dodger regulars, with no exceptions, batted fewer times in the second half of the season than in the first. The team did play four more games in the first half, but that’s not the cause of it; all eight regulars batted more times per team-game in the first half than the second. The extra at-bats were absorbed by Derrel Thomas, Rick Monday, Reggie Smith, Steve Yeager, Steve Sax, Candy Maldonado and Mike Marshall, who all batted more times in the second half, despite the four fewer games, than they had in the first. The Dodgers also took the opportunity to take a look at Tom Niedenfuer and Dave Stewart and Alejandro Pena, pitchers who figure to help them sometime later.

Then you look over the score sheets of the Dodger victory that led them over the World, and you see Monday’s home run, Yeager everywhere, Derrel Thomas tracking balls down on the track, Niedenfuer shutting people down, Jay Johnstone hitting a key home run. I can’t remember a World Championship that was won with so much help from the bench. Lasorda’s a conservative manager, not really a very interesting manager in substance. But I think you have to give him some real credit here. …

James was in his ascendance at this time – this was his first Abstract that had a formal publisher. The year before, I ordered a copy of the 1981 Abstract from a small ad in The Sporting News, and it came with a hand-designed cover and essentially was photocopied and bound. Reading James at this time was like Clayton Kershaw pitch — you practically salivated over every insight with excitement and no small amount of awe.

Reading the passage above three decades later, I can’t avoid having some amount of skepticism. I don’t necessarily doubt the Dodgers used their bench more than other teams did that year, but a) they might simply have had a more talented bench (I mean, those are some good names up there) and b), I question whether their use of the bench was as revolutionary or as James asserts.

But like I said, James was Kershaw. So I am tempted to take it as gospel. And certainly, a similar formula helped propel the 1988 Dodgers to their title. The bottom line is, much like with a bullpen, you need a good bench to win, though it might not be something you plan.

Dodgers at Yankees, 10:05 a.m.

  • Anonymous

    I remember that passage very well. Although I don’t give Lasorda credit for thinking that far ahead. But he did manage like he knew he was in the playoffs.

    Looking at B-R, I never realized how young the Dodgers pitching staff was in 1981. The oldest starters were Reuss and Goltz and they were both 32. Hooton was just 31. Forster was the oldest pitcher in the pen at 29. Stewart was 24, Howe was 23, Niedenfuer was 21, and Pena was 22. Bob Welch was 24.

  • Dave Alden

    Great flashback to Bill James. I’m sure that James was sometimes wrong in those days, but his thinking was so far ahead of others that even his mistakes were insightful.

    Speaking of the 1981 Dodgers, I’m off to Vallejo Friday evening to watch the Vallejo Admiral indy ballclub under the field management of Pedro Guerrero. Going with me will be the mayor of my town, who was the radio guy for the Albuquerque Dukes when Guerrero played there. The radio guy ended up doing play-by-play for the Giants during the years that Guerrero was a Dodger. It should be an interesting evening.

  • https://www.facebook.com/kmt59 KT

    #Dodgers Game One Lineup:

    Punto SS

    Puig RF

    Gonzalez 1B

    Ramirez DH

    Ethier CF

    Uribe 3B

    Schumaker 2B

    AJ Ellis C

    Castellanos LF

    Ryu P

  • Anonymous

    I would assume that starting Castellanos in the first game means that he is heading to Albququerque after the game is over.

    • Anonymous

      Since Hairston is 0 for 7 against Kuroda one of the 7 a GIDP, I think the words means in your claim is meaningless even though the conclusion is correct in spite of the invalid reasoning.

      • Anonymous

        Thank you very much.

  • https://www.facebook.com/kmt59 KT

    1-2-3 inning with a Puig single

  • https://www.facebook.com/kmt59 KT

    Had plenty of time Shoe

  • https://www.facebook.com/kmt59 KT

    got a break on that strike 3 call by Ryu…definitely inside

  • Anonymous

    That is such an awesome picture.

  • Anonymous

    Well I nominate Ed Begley, Jr. to star in the inevitable Lyle Overbay biopic.

  • https://www.facebook.com/kmt59 KT

    Come on Yasiel…drive him in

  • https://www.facebook.com/kmt59 KT

    Nice Play Juanito!!

  • Anonymous

    C’mon, Andre!

  • Anonymous

    Steiner described the “ground ball” caught by Kuroda to start the DP.
    So not only typical 2013 luck for the Dodgers, but Steinered on the play.

  • http://www.linkmeister.com/wordpress/ Linkmeister

    Gameday has stalled in its summary after Ramirez’s double. What happened? From 1st and 2nd with no one out to zero runs and the Yankees up in the bottom of the inning. How’d we fail now?

    Edit: Ah. Now it refreshes. Ethier to Kuroda for two, and more from Uribe.

    • https://www.facebook.com/kmt59 KT

      Ethier lined into a 1-5 DP…Uribe grounded out

      • Anonymous

        Drat!

  • Anonymous

    C;mon, Ryu — one more!

  • Anonymous

    Ryu!!!!

  • Anonymous

    Silver lining department: I’ve always liked Kuroda.

    The Dodgers never gave him much run support when he was on their team, so they’re not disappointing him.

  • Anonymous

    Skippy!

  • Anonymous

    Jerry!

  • https://www.facebook.com/kmt59 KT

    Good play Gonzo

  • Anonymous

    Fire Bellisario, immediately.

    • http://marioluevanos.com Mario Luevanos

      complete disaster

  • http://marioluevanos.com Mario Luevanos

    Bellasario… just wow…

  • Anonymous

    I think Beiisario is nearing the end of his usefulness. I can easily see a DFA,

  • http://www.linkmeister.com/wordpress/ Linkmeister

    Why pick on Bellisario? It was Howell that gave up the first two hits.

    • Anonymous

      Interesting too, the KCAL showed AJ yelling “drop it” to Belli. Not that that’s an excuse.

    • https://www.facebook.com/kmt59 KT

      yea but that was an easy DP and he got flustered

    • Anonymous

      More than just this game Link. I just haven’t seen all that much from him this year that Guerrier doesn’t also bring. He’s not even near being the 8th inning / Emergency closer guy he used to be.

  • Anonymous

    Wow. We are bad. Stepped away for a few minutes, and they score three, as we add two more errors.

  • Anonymous

    WHOA. A series of feats of superhuman strength thus far in the top of the 8th.

  • https://www.facebook.com/kmt59 KT

    Good eye Juan
    Come on Shoe

  • Anonymous

    Just came back from errands — the Vegas station chooses which games to carry and this ain’t one of ‘em.
    Surprised to hear the game still on.
    Even more surprised to see it became a game.
    Not surprised, but saddened to see two MORE errors and Belli’s collapse.
    Unfortunately, I think this is going to end as usual — teased and an L . . . with another game to go!

  • Anonymous

    Re Belli: remember how we were all saying the same things about getting rid of Uribe and how he turned it around? . . . But with a pitcher — especially a reliever — it seems the ineptness is magnified.

  • http://www.linkmeister.com/wordpress/ Linkmeister

    Mr. Puig, meet Mr. Rivera. Gotta be a thrill for the kid.

  • Anonymous

    Whoever said this year is one long season of games in which we continue to find new and unusual ways to lose, continues to be correct.

    • Anonymous

      :(

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

    NPUT