Nov 28

Remembering 2011: James Loney


Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireJames Loney (42)

The setup: Patience was wearing thin for the 2002 No. 1 draft pick after his offense declined for the fourth consecutive season at age 27. He actually took an .803 OPS into the 2010 All-Star break, but floundered to .616 thereafter. Adding to the disconcerting power drought was a walk/strikeout ratio that declined from 1.03 in 2009 to 0.55.

The closeup: What a strange year.

As early as April 9 came a short post with the headline, “The lowest moment of James Loney’s career?” after he was told to bunt with a runner on second base and none out in the 11th inning of a game against a right-handed pitcher. While we would come to learn that extraneous sacrificing was perhaps the biggest foible of Don Mattingly’s rookie season as manager, things actually sunk lower for Loney before they got better. With a .194 on-base percentage and .213 slugging on April 25, Loney caused us to begin ruminating about the future of the worst-hitting regular in major-league baseball.

… The problem is not that Loney will hit this poorly forever – he won’t. The problem is that it seems less and less unlikely that, after three consecutive seasons of decline from 2008-10, he’ll take the step forward that the Dodgers have been counting on him to take.

If Loney can’t offer better than the league-average hitting that has defined his past three years – and now he has even further to go to reach that goal – there’s little chance the Dodgers can continue using him as their starting first baseman, whatever you think of him as a defensive player or RBI man. They will part ways with him after the season, if not sooner.

It pains me to say it because I’ve always liked Loney. As I said earlier this month, my theory is that the bid to coax more homeruns out of Loney has had the opposite effect, messing him up to the point where not only is he not hitting home runs, he’s not hitting doubles either. Loney, who had 41 doubles in 161 games last year, has just one in 24 games this year, to go with his sole home run three weeks ago. …

With a .534 OPS by mid-May, he was still on his way to one of the worst starts in post-1988 Dodger history, though by this time the rebound had begun, and the countdown to his being non-tendered was put on hold. In a reversal of 2010, Loney’s offense shot up in this year’s second half to a .914 OPS that, unadjusted for park effects, was 14th in the National League. A popular theory was that new hitting coach Dave Hansen helped; though the timing might have been mostly a coincidence, Loney’s mechanics had changed by the season’s latter months.

The sum total of it all was another substandard season for a first baseman. Finishing 2011 with a .339 on-base percentage and .416 slugging percentage, Loney was 19th offensively among MLB first basemen with at least 502 plate appearances according to Fangraphs, though his defense bumped him up a few slots. Though he hit seven home runs in his final 40 starts, he ended 2011 with only 12, failing again to reach his career high of 15, set in 96 games in 2007.

Coming attractions: With the Dodgers’ elimination from the Prince Fielder-Albert Pujols festivities etched in everything but stone, Loney is set to get at least one more shot at first base before becoming a free agent at the end of 2012.  No one would dare guarantee greatness from him at this point; the safe bet, after four straight years with OPSes in the .700s, is more of the same.

Nevertheless, I don’t find it outlandish to suggest that the form he displayed after his season-opening slump in 2011 could continue throughout 2012. In fact, his OPS from April 26 to the end of this past season was .828 – get him to the starting gate quicker in 2012, and he’ll have what for him will be a career year. That the Dodgers need even more than a career year from him is a larger issue.

Sep 20

Lee’s surge complicates road to Cy Young for Kershaw


Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireClayton Kershaw is set to finish his season with starts tonight and then Sunday in San Diego.

How heated is the National League Cy Young competition? The top four candidates — Roy Halladay, Ian Kennedy, Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee (in alphabetical order) — have a combined September ERA of 1.46.

Kennedy continued his late bid for recognition by pitching eight innings of one-hit ball with 12 strikeouts in a 1-0 victory for Arizona, which built its lead to 5 1/2 games in the NL West, while Halladay gave up a sliver of ground by allowing four runs in a 4-3 Phillies loss to St. Louis.

Kershaw and Lee — both red-hot of late, both scheduled to start tonight — have the opportunity to affirm themselves as the two top finalists for the award. In particular, if Kershaw bests Tim Lincecum for a fourth time in 2011 tonight, that’s going to be memorable.

For the first time, I’m starting to think that Halladay and Lee being teammates could hurt the award chances of both. Up until very recently, I’ve felt that the award was Halladay’s to lose, given that he pitches for the best team in the NL and that he’s pitched so well — his numbers are virtually equal to Kershaw’s (see chart below), with a slightly lower strikeout rate but better control, and higher wins above replacement.

However, Lee’s amazing stretch run —a 0.56 ERA in 64 2/3 innings since August 1 — has helped him catch up to the leaders and throw more confusion into the race. If you’re a voter who wants to honor the Phillies in some way with this award (given that the MVP race doesn’t really offer that opportunity), whom do you pick?

Now, if you watched “Modern Family” win bunches of Emmys on Sunday despite multiple nominations in those categories, you learned that teammates don’t always bring each other down. Still, as much as Lee presents another rival to Kershaw, he could also aid the Dodger by stealing votes from Halladay.

Voters who treasure wins may lean toward Kennedy, who certainly has been no slouch. But if Kershaw ends up with 20 wins himself, I think you can remove that category as a path to Kennedy leapfrogging the Dodger lefty.

In fact, much has been made lately of Kershaw possibly winning the pitcher’s triple crown: wins, ERA and strikeouts. My guess is that if he does, he will collect the Cy Young (though for me, the win totals are essentially irrelevant).

But let’s put it this way: If Kershaw doesn’t finish first in the balloting, there will be no crime. Halladay and Lee have been every bit as fierce as Kershaw. It’s been a superb year for all of them.

Top National League Cy Young Award candidates
(bold text signifies leader among contenders)

IP W-L ERA Sept. ERA ERA+ WAR (B-R.com) WAR (Fangraphs) WHIP K/9 K/BB
Roy Halladay 227 2/3 18-6 2.41 2.03 160 7.1 8.0 1.045 8.58 6.38
Cole Hamels 206 14-9 2.80 4.18 138 5.1 5.0 0.981 8.13 4.54
Ian Kennedy 216 20-4 2.88 1.88 137 5.3 4.9 1.083 8.08 3.66
Clayton Kershaw 218 2/3 19-5 2.30 0.90 161 6.4 6.8 0.983 9.71 4.63
Cliff Lee 219 2/3 16-7 2.38 0.72 162 6.7 6.5 1.015 9.14 5.31

* * *

  • By the way, this caught me by surprise, but Kershaw is no longer leading the NL in strikeouts per nine innings. Zack Greinke of Milwaukee is on top.
  • Chad Moriyama has a mammoth analysis of James Loney that you need to read, in which Moriyama analyzes both Loney’s stats and his swing. Conclusions:

    … What fans want to hear is that Loney has simply flipped a switch and will now pull 35% of balls and put up an OPS near .900 going forward. While I wish my analysis could guarantee that, it’s simply not a feasible conclusion to reach.

    What is clear though is that Loney has changed his approach and swing over the last two months in a way that has drastically affected his hit distribution and production. As such, the possibility does exist that his numbers could improve significantly in 2012 if the changes he has made carry over on a consistent basis.

    That said, all of my findings are subject to the usual sample size critiques, which is precisely why nothing about this is a sure thing. However, I have shown that Loney’s change under Hansen has absolutely happened, and looking at the free agent list at first base for 2012, unless the Dodgers can get Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, or Lance Berkman, I’d rather give Loney another shot if he comes at a reasonable salary (4-6 million?) even though I had previously preferred signing Carlos Pena (probably more expensive).

    When talking about baseball players, hope is part of what makes the game so fun to follow, but it can also be a dangerous thing, especially when that hope is invested in a 27-year-old first baseman with a .749 OPS/103 OPS+ over four full seasons. Still though, as of now, I’m more willing to take a chance on Loney than ever before.

  • Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com has a really nice feature centering on A.J. Ellis that will only make you root for him more.
  • Dylan Hernandez of the Times looks at the increasingly favorable comparisons of Kershaw with Sandy Koufax.
  • Jonathan Broxton had his elbow surgery Monday, with “a bone spur and associated loose bodies” being removed.
  • Adam Rubin of ESPNNewYork.com has an update on ailing catcher Gary Garter.
  • Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors compiles the $100 million free agent contracts in baseball history.
  • David Pinto of Baseball Musings reminds us that batting order is less about stats and more about egos.
  • Patrick Dubuque at Notgraphs has a fun essay on the impulse for a fielder to throw his glove at a ball.
Sep 17

Loney living large with another homer in Dodgers’ 6-1 rout


Gus Ruelas/APJames Loney isn’t trying to make Aaron Miles feel small; he’s just feeling big after hitting another three-run homer.

Just to illustrate the kind of season it’s been for James Loney: On April 24, his on-base percentage and slugging percentage combined were .403.

Tonight, after hitting a three-run homer for the second consecutive at-bat (in the first inning) and then doubling in the third of the Dodgers’ 6-1 victory over Pittsburgh, Loney’s slugging percentage by itself was .402, rising above .400 for the first time since Opening Day.

There’s no changing that this has been a disappointing year for Loney, who is still down in the low .700s for OPS, but I’ll take this version of Loney over the guy who started the season.

Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com suggested late Friday that Loney’s turnaround might be attributable to the July change in Dodger hitting coaches – his OPS is near .900 since Dave Hansen took over – but Loney’s been on the upswing since late April, posting a .357 on-base percentage and .432 slugging percentage in 443 plate appearances between April 25 and tonight’s game. Those figures are actually superior to the .341/.409 that encompasses Loney’s output from 2008-2010.

What does this mean for 2012? Well, you don’t have to fear that Loney is a player in decline at age 27. (At least not as much: until he hit the home run tonight, Loney’s career slugging marks had dipped every season since he reached the majors in 2006.) It still doesn’t assure you that he’s a proper major-league first baseman at the plate, but it certainly increases the possibility that the Dodgers will bet on the stability at the position for at least one more year, while taking the chance on the hope that he still might have a breakout season in him.

Taking away nothing from Jayson Stark, I don’t see Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder wearing a Dodger uniform next season. (Mike Petriello of Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness has a much longer look at this.) That doesn’t mean Loney is guaranteed to return, but he has elevated his status from guaranteed goner. For the nothing-if-not-likeable first baseman, progress.

* * *

  • Matt Kemp scored his 100th run and stole his 40th base tonight. According to The Associated Press, he is the first player in franchise history with at least 40 steals, 100 runs scored, 100 RBIs and 30 home runs.
  • Tim Federowicz drove in his first career run and has reached base in five of nine plate appearances so far.
  • Jerry Sands went 3 for 4 and has a .425 on-base percentage in September (40 plate appearances).
  • Ted Lilly pitched seven innings of one-run ball on 97 pitches, allowing six baserunners and striking out seven. The Pirates had neither a homer nor a steal against him.
  • Kenley Jansen struck out both batters he faced, improving his strikeouts per nine innings to 15.72 as he aims to catch Carlos Marmol’s single-season record of 15.99. Jansen has struck out 23 of the last 38 batters he has faced and has 23 strikeouts in his last 29 outs.
  • Juan Rivera hit the second of two homers that spoiled the homecoming of James McDonald (three innings, five runs).
  • The Dodgers improved to 75-76 in their first game since Atlanta ended Los Angeles’ 2011 postseason hopes for good.
Aug 29

Loney looms, if not large, then a little less small

James Loney’s white-hot walloping has upgraded his Dodger future all the way from non-existent to tenuous.

By doubling and hitting his ninth homer of the season (and third in four games) tonight in support of Clayton Kerhaw and the Dodgers, who beat the Padres, 4-1, Loney extended his swashbuckling slugging streak to 18 for 35 with five doubles and four home runs in eight games: a .541 on-base percentage, 1.000 slugging percentage and 1.541 OPS.

Loney pushed his OPS for the season above .700 for the first time since he doubled in four at-bats on Opening Day. Perhaps more significantly, since he began play on April 24 with his batting average at a season-low .165, Loney has basically been himself, producing an OPS virtually identical to his career .771. 

The news won’t light up Times Square, but it has helped Loney reach person-of-interest status. To be less opaque, it has reopened the once-dead discussion of whether the Dodgers would even consider keeping Loney in their 2012 plans.

Because of baseball’s arbitration patterns that reward service time with cash even when the performance wouldn’t seem to justify it, Loney’s salary would almost be guaranteed to rise from the $4.875 million he is earning this year to the neighborhood of $7 million if the Dodgers don’t surrender their exclusive rights to him by non-tendering him for 2012. 

Loney got a 57 percent raise last offseason, from $3.1 million, after OPSing only .723 in 2010. Loney’s 2011 OPS right now is .705.

The Dodgers could try to resign Loney after non-tendering him, but as was the case with Russell Martin last winter, that opens the door for any of 29 other teams to decide he’s worth more than the Dodgers think he is, not to mention for Loney to decide that a change of scenery would be good.

Under different ownership, the Dodger might be looking right past Loney to MVP-caliber first basemen like Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols, but that’s not going to happen with this organization this winter. And frankly, a number of healthy owners will stay out of that bidding as well.

Still, there remains a ton lined up against a Loney return, because Los Angeles might simply end up trying to address first base more economically.

Loney’s surge has increased the chances that the Dodgers could stomach giving him a raise, but then again, it has also increased the potential size of that raise. Though the decision isn’t getting any easier, the news is that there could be a decision to make at all.

If nothing else, it sure is a pleasure to see Loney look like a real hitter again.

* * * 

Clayton Kershaw pitches a complete-game six-hitter against the Padres (despite only five strikeouts against two walks)? Of course.

Andre Ethier gets three hits in his first start after the whole “should he be playing” brou-non-ha-ha? Different sort of of course, but yes, of course.

Aug 27

Dodgers leave it all on the field: Kemp’s 11th-inning homer wins it


Jeff Golden/Getty ImagesAnother throwback uniform day …

Unless someone served him breakfast in bed or left flowers on his doorstep, it’s safe to say that Chad Billingsley’s day got off to a gruesome start.

It was as if he were Charlie Brown raking the same pile of leaves, and then Snoopy was jumping in and exploding them all over the yard, and Charlie Brown would get back to raking. Billingsley allowed three baserunners in the first inning; none scored. He allowed runners to reach second and third with none out in the second inning; none scored.

Then in the third, Mark Ellis doubled, Carlos Gonzalez (4 for 6) singled and Troy Tulowitzki homered, and it was Billingsley who was getting raked.

Billingsley was on the verge of leaving the game as early as the fourth inning, when he was already approaching 100 pitches and falling even further behind, 4-0, on an unearned run driven home by Gonzalez. Somehow, on the hottest day of the year at Dodger Stadium, Billingsley managed to understay his lack of welcome all the way to the sixth. After walking pitcher Kevin Millwood with one out, Billingsley benefited from an 8-4 sun-aided forceout at second base and then struck out Ellis on season-high pitch No. 123.

The ledger left by Billingsley when pinch-hitter Trent Oeltjen popped up for him showed six innings, four runs (three earned) 10 hits, two walks and five strikeouts.

And yet, Billingsley almost was the winning pitcher.

That’s because for the fourth game in a row, the Dodgers unfurled a surprising big-and-tall inning. Aaron Miles and James Loney singled. Matt Kemp was safe at first when third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff threw errantly home, Miles scoring the Dodgers’ first run.

Kemp was credited with his 99th RBI of the season, somewhat inexplicably but perhaps on the theory that Kouzmanoff should have thrown to first base. Then, the error was switched to catcher Chris Ianetta, but still Kemp’s 99th RBI remained in the boxscore.

Rivera drove in the second run, with Kemp nearly making a costly baserunning mistake, only to be safe at third when Kouzmanoff muffed Gonzalez’s throw for another error. Casey Blake then ripped a double to the wall in left-center. Kemp and Rivera scored to tie the game, but Ethier, waved home by Wallach a day after running through a Wallach stop sign, ended up with the same result – out by a rod.

Still, the Dodgers took the lead when (after A.J. Ellis was hit by a pitch) and Jamey Carroll singled home Blake. The Dodgers led, 5-4.

But Hong-Chih Kuo, who had warmed up when the Dodgers were trailing by four, entered the game in the seventh and on his first two pitches allowed a bunt single to Gonzalez and Tulowtizki’s second home run, which took high-speed rail over the short fence in left for a 6-5 Rockies lead.

The Dodgers threatened a second rally in the bottom of the eighth when they put two on with one out, but Carroll flied out and pinch-hitter Tony Gwynn Jr. popped out on a 3-2 pitch from Rafael Betancourt.

The out gave Betancourt 18 consecutive scoreless innings in which he had struck out 30 and walked one. But after Miles popped out to start the bottom of the ninth, Loney lowered the boom on Colorado once again, hitting a no-doubter into the right-field bleachers for his second homer in 24 hours against Colorado and sixth against the Rockies this season.

Soon after Kemp just missed winning the game with a high fly ball to left, we were headed into extra innings.

After Javy Guerra pitched a shutout 10th, the Dodgers loaded the bases against Jason Hammel when walks to Blake and Justin Sellers sandwiched a Rod Barajas single, but Miles struck out on three pitches.  After Mike MacDougal’s shutout 11th …

KEMP!

Thirty-one home runs. One hundred runs batted in. Dodgers 7, Rockies 6.

Aug 26

A night not to balk at being a Dodger fan


Mark J. Terrill/APMr. 30-33, Matt Kemp, is now on pace for 37 homers to go with 41 steals this season.

Ted Lilly giving up an early home run? Typical game.

The Dodger offense struggling to put a single run on the scoreboard? Typical game.

A six-run rally driven by two balks, a James Loney homer and a Dodger joining the 30-30 club? Not such a typical game.

Mark J. Terrill/APJim Tracy wasn’t seeing straight after two balks were called on his team in the seventh inning.

The Dodgers trailed 1-0 heading into the bottom of the seventh, but they rolled a six on the Rockies and moved directly to a 6-1 victory.

It was the Dodgers’ fourth straight victory, their second in a row with a six-run inning, and their first with confirmation that Vin Scully would be back for more in 2012.

Working on a 1-0 shutout, Colorado starter Esmeril Rogers walked Andre Ethier and Aaron Miles, and Rod Barajas (after being forced to bunt for two pitches) singled to load the bases. However, the Dodgers seemed doomed – rather typically doomed, as it were – when Ethier tried to score on Jamey Carroll’s fly ball to center field and was thrown out, as we’ll get to continue hearing Vinny say, “from you to me.”

But after pinch-hitter Tony Gwynn was intentionally walked – I’m not sure about the smarts behind that one, by the way – Miles goaded Rogers into committing a balk that moved everyone up and tied the game. And then, with runners on second and third, Justin Sellers’ single drove in two more runs to give the Dodgers the lead.

A bitter Rogers was relieved by Matt Reynolds, who immediately picked off Sellers – only to have another balk called. That was all Jim Tracy could stand, and he couldn’t stands no more, his determination to protest the call getting him thrown out of the game.

With the reprieve, the Dodgers doubled their fun. Loney hit his seventh home run of the season – five of them against Colorado – to make the score 5-1. And then Kemp hit his crowning-glory absolute rocket to center.

Loney, 2 for 4, is now 13 for his last 21 with a walk and 22 total bases: a .636 on-base percentage, 1.048 slugging percentage and 1.684 OPS.

Kenley Jansen made a successful return from the disabled list with a 14-pitch perfect eighth inning, and Scott Elbert took on the ninth, allowing two hits but no runs. Lilly got the win with his fourth outstanding start out of his past five, a stretch in which he has a 2.20 ERA.

* * *

Tweets from Beto Duran of ESPN Radio:

  • Vin Scully held impromptu press conference in elevator after game. By far coolest ride ever!
  • Vin “winning and losing doesn’t bother me, it’s just love of people. Just don’t know what I’d do”
  • Vin on announcing return during game. “Didn’t want to make big deal. Not trying to be a Brett Favre”

Aug 21

Loney warms up in the bullpen


Barry Gutierrez/APHe just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich.

“James Loney is running out to the bullpen to get some work in for his role as the #Dodgers emergency pitcher today,” the team tweeted this morning.

Eric Stephen of True Blue L.A. has the reason why:

The Dodgers have had four different relievers pitch on each of the last two days:

  • Scott Elbert threw 25 pitches after throwing 16 pitches Friday
  • Matt Guerrier threw 23 pitches after throwing 16 pitches Friday
  • Blake Hawksworth threw 13 pitches after throwing 12 pitches Friday
  • Mike MacDougal threw 22 pitches after throwing four pitches Friday

Factor in Javy Guerra throwing 32 pitches on Saturday, and Hong-Chih Kuo pitching in parts of two innings and the Dodgers have the makings of a thin bullpen on Sunday. The one reliever I didn’t mention was Josh Lindblom, and even he threw 25 pitches yesterday.

There are several different ways the Dodgers could make a roster move to add a pitcher to the bullpen, but anyway …

Loney, of course, pitched in high school, and many thought that would be his path to the big leagues. From the Dodger media guide:

Was a standout as a pitcher and first baseman for Lawerence E. Elkins High School in Missouri City, TX…listed as a pitcher, was ranked by Baseball America as the 46th-best prospect entering the June 2002 draft…in its draft recap, Baseball America tabbed him as the best pure hitter in the draft, as having the second-best professional debut by a high school player selected and the second-closest high school player to reaching the Major Leagues…as a prep senior, hit .509 with eight homers and 56 RBI, while on the mound, he was 9-1 with a 1.80 ERA, striking out 106 in 54.0 innings…earned utility spot on Baseball America’s High School All-America first team…his Elkins team was 30-1 and ranked No. 1 in the nation…was slated to attend Baylor had he not signed with Los Angeles.

May 30

Good times find Dodgers, 7-1


Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesMatt Kemp’s throw to Rod Barajas nailed Carlos Gonzalez at home in the first inning.

The Dodgers were up by six when it happened, so it wasn’t the biggest moment in the game (see above for the answer). But …

Chad Billingsley had already thrown 99 pitches and scattered a career-high 11 hits, including allowing the leadoff man for Colorado to reach base in six consecutive innings, when he followed a visit to the mound from pitching coach Rick Honeycutt by walking Carlos Gonzalez to load the bases with one out in the top of the seventh. I’m one of Billingsley’s biggest fans, but with Troy Tulowitzki coming to bat, I was almost sure it was time to go to a Dodger bullpen that was rested from Clayton Kershaw’s complete game Sunday. Despite the loss of five relievers to the disabled list and a sixth to the restricted list, it seemed obvious that Don Mattingly should go for a fresh arm to protect the 7-1 lead and protect Billingsley’s eight-strikeout outing.

Billingsley stayed in, and four pitches later, Tulowitzki grounded into an easy Rafael Furcal-to-James Loney double play. I love when feeling wrong feels so right.

And despite my misgivings about this team – and keep in mind, even with this 7-1 Dodgers victory tonight, Los Angeles is only 8-10 since I voiced my big fear that this is the worst Dodger team since 1992 – this whiff of hope that has come from the past two games is a tasty amuse bouche of crow.

If nothing else, thank goodness for the respite from negativity that the last two games have provided. A day after Kershaw’s two-hit shutout, the Dodgers gave up 14 knocks – and still allowed only one run. Los Angeles went 4 for 4 with runners in scoring position; Colorado went 1 for 12. Rafael Furcal has entered the Rafael Furcal Zone, going 2 for 4 to reach 7 for 13 over his past three games. Andre Ethier is 9 for 15 with five walks (that’s a .700 on-base percentage, friends) since he banged into the wall in Chicago and got four days of rest from regular play.

And are you ready for a hot, or semi-hot, James Loney? Two homers in his past four games, including a two-run shot tonight, and 26 for 84 with seven walks and only four strikeouts since May 3 – a .370 on-base percentage and .440 slugging percentage. It’s not Gil Hodges, but a .810 OPS for this offense will cure some amount of ills.

Those who wanted to start the rebuild on Juneday, the National League West and the Dodgers’ recent show of extreme competence have conspired against them. Say hi to the hottest 25-30 team in baseball.

* * *

  • Tommy Lasorda, 83, is resting at home in recovery from a bacterial infection that sent him to the hospital for four days last week.
  • There was a second, smaller fire this morning in the same spot of Dodger Stadium as the bigger fire during Saturday’s game.
May 28

Spirits in the night: Dodgers 3, Marlins 2

Mark J. Terrill/APDioner Navarro doesn’t mind this collision at home.

At the end, it was less a victory than an exorcism.

The anti-homer curse against James Loney – gone. Andre Ethier’s near-month-long power outage – gone.

And the electrified way the Dodgers poured out of the dugout after Dioner Navarro’s game-winning pinch-hit single in the bottom of the ninth gave them a 3-2 victory over Florida, the way Matt Kemp came over not just to praise Navarro but to bury him in his arms as well, showed a group of players keen and desperate to get about a thousand monkeys off their backs.

The easy argument is that the Dodgers have stopped caring, in the wake of their obvious flaws, ceaseless injuries and exhausting off-the-field drama. None of those issues have gone away, but if they didn’t care about winning, they wouldn’t have been so over the moon about a victory that only raised their record to 23-29.

They have been fighting – other teams as well as themselves. There were the two rallies against San Francisco last week, followed by the shocking, Russ Mitchell-led comeback against the White Sox. They were one strike away from victory against Houston on Monday, then lost in the bottom of the ninth, then did so again Wednesday.

They haven’t won a game by more than two runs since May 17. They haven’t won a game by more than three runs since May 10. They’ve still only won nine games in a month that has been uphill since it started with a 7-0 loss to San Diego.

They can’t even claim the most exhilarating win in the National League West on Friday – finishing third behind Arizona rallying from a 6-0 deficit against the Astros and the Giants riding a grand slam from a player in his first major-league game to a comeback victory over Milwaukee.

They just suit up with the understanding that every game counts.

When Ethier’s pinch-hit single gave the Dodgers a short-lived lead in Houston on Monday, Clayton Kershaw roared in elation. When Ethier hit his home run in the sixth inning, Aaron Miles lifted Jamey Carroll so high, he nearly threw him over the dugout. When Navarro delivered what was only the seventh hit all year by the Dodgers with the bases loaded, you’d have thought they’d broken the bank in Vegas.

They care as much as you do, if not more. This is a team dying to make something happen, if only it can.

May 18

Looking back at the worst Dodgers starts since ’88


Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesJohn Shelby finished second on the Dodgers in home runs in 1987 at age 29, then declined.

As Dodgers watchers everywhere wonder how much latitude struggling James Loney will get, I thought I’d take a look at how much latitude others in similarly dire straits have gotten.

Loney has a .534 OPS, putting him firmly in position to have one of the worst Dodgers starts through the end of May of any regular since 1988:

Worst OPS through May
(minimum 3.1 plate appearances per team game)
.452 John Shelby, 1989
.457 Alfredo Griffin, 1988
.532 Mike Davis, 1988
.582 Cesar Izturis, 2003
.595 Jose Offerman, 1994
Source: Elias Sports Bureau (not adjusted for park factors)

Here’s what happened next to those five:

John Shelby, 1989
Shelby came to the Dodgers in a May 1987 trade and hit 21 homers in 120 games. He declined in 1988 to a .715 OPS but still contributed 10 homers and respectable defense in center field for the World Series champs. However, the roof caved in the following year.

He finished April batting .186 with two extra-base hits — and then got worse. In May, he got two more extra-base hits, but his batting average fell to .168 — and then got worse. Still playing almost every day, he slid to .160 — going 0-for-10 in the 22-inning game at Houston — although he did hit his one and only home run of the year that month.

You might conclude that there was a lack of offensive alternatives, especially considering that injuries limited Kirk Gibson to 71 games, but Gibson missed only four weeks before the All-Star Game and played regularly in June (including an 0-for-8 game June 17 against San Diego). Mike Marshall was off to a slow start in right field, but on the bench was Mickey Hatcher, who batted .307 before the All-Star break. However, none of those three could really play center field — although the Dodgers did try Gibson there occasionally.

In June, the Dodgers called up 24-year-old Jose Gonzalez. He mostly rode the pine in the early going but got a week’s worth of starts in late June and went 12-for-26 with three walks, at which point he began getting the majority of playing time in center field. Franklin Stubbs, Billy Bean without an “e” and Mike Huff were among those getting a shot, as the Dodgers looked for anyone who could help.

Shelby was sent to the minors in July by Dodgers general manager Fred Claire. “They said I could either come to Albuquerque … or be released,” Shelby told the Los Angeles Times later that year. After an .810 OPS in 32 games with the Dukes and manager Kevin Kennedy, he returned to the majors to play much of the final five weeks in center for the Dodgers and hit his season peak. Unfortunately, that peak was merely a .248 batting average with only three walks to go with 26 strikeouts — a .583 OPS. He never got it together.

He remained a Dodger until the next June, however, before he was released. He signed with Detroit and homered in his first game as a Tiger.

Alfredo Griffin, 1988
Savvy readers will notice the Dodgers went to the World Series despite two horrific starts from newly acquired regulars. One was Griffin, who came in a big, multiplayer trade with Oakland with the intention of ending the Dodgers’ shortstop-by-committee approach of 1987 (Mariano Duncan, Dave Anderson and Glenn Hoffman).

Griffin was hitting a robust .224 (.642 OPS) through April 23, then slumped to a .128 batting average and .334 OPS over the next four weeks, leaving him at .457 when he was sidelined for two months with a broken right hand from a Dwight Gooden fastball. Anderson got most of the starts in Griffin’s absence and almost stole the job for good with a Jamey Carroll-like .309 batting average and .416 on-base percentage in his first 40 starts, but he tailed off dramatically just as Griffin was nearing his return.

Griffin, still probably not completely healed, had a .558 OPS the rest of the season, then went 7-for-41 with two walks and one extra-base hit in the postseason.

Eric RisbergMike Davis found redemption in the 1988 World Series.

Mike Davis, 1988
Before the ’88 season, the Dodgers were counting on a free-agent signing in a big way — but until Gibson became available, that free agent was Davis, who hit 65 homers in his final three seasons with the A’s. But Davis reached the end of May without a single long-distance call, struggling with a .210 batting average, .283 on-base percentage and .248 slugging percentage.

He started 38 of the Dodgers’ first 41 games, but it was around the end of May that manager Tommy Lasorda’s patience began to run out. Davis started only 11 of the next 81 games, although he never went more than a few days without an appearance. Mike Marshall moved to right field from first base, where Lasorda mixed together a combo of players including Hatcher, Stubbs, Danny Heep, Tracy Woodson and, until he got traded to St. Louis, Pedro Guerrero.

Stubbs would by default be considered the player who replaced Davis in the lineup, and the former first-round pick wasn’t all that much to write home about with a .288 on-base percentage and .376 slugging for the year. But Davis never got any better. From July 25 on, he went 10-for-70 with six walks, a .394 OPS.

It was this year-long collapse that made the two-out walk he drew off Dennis Eckersley in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 1 of the 1988 World Series so improbable and impossible in its own right. He then hit a home run in the clinching Game 5, matching his entire regular-season total.

Cesar Izturis, 2003
Izturis became the Dodgers’ regular shortstop in 2002 at age 22, his first year with the team after coming in a trade from Toronto. As he was well above average in the field, the Dodgers were willing to tolerate almost anything from him with the bat, riding out a .512 OPS after May 1 that year.

The following season brought hope for improvement, but after a 5-for-9 start in an opening series at Arizona, Izturis was down to a .582 OPS through May. Unlike his predecessors on this list, his glove and health kept him in the lineup. He played 158 games in 2003 and started 154, even though he barely showed any improvement at the plate, finishing the season at .597.

Two years later, Izturis reversed his fortunes at the plate so dramatically that he was batting .342 at the end of May with an .812 OPS, numbers that propelled him to the All-Star Game despite a June in which he went 9-for-86 with four walks.

Kevork Djansezian/APJose Offerman played his last major league game in 2005 but never appeared at shortstop after 1996.

Jose Offerman, 1994
Once the most touted prospect in the Dodgers’ farm system, Offerman launched his career in 1990 with a home run in his first major league at-bat. But through the first four seasons of his career, his career OPS was a mediocre .650 in nearly 1,500 plate appearances. That wouldn’t have been so bad if, unlike Izturis, he hadn’t become notorious for his fielding flaws, making 79 errors in 1992-93 alone.

In 1994, he got off to his worst start yet. Like Loney, he was able to string together some singles, going 15-for-44 over a two-week period, to get his batting average above .200. But when May turned to June, his OPS was still below .600.

Offerman stayed in the lineup in June, muddling along at the same pace. His major league season ended abruptly June 26 with a demotion to Albuquerque by Claire (who replaced him with Rafael Bournigal), about six weeks before labor strife ended the ’94 season.

The crazy thing about Offerman is, unlike everyone else on this list, he actually earned some long-term bragging rights at the plate. Presaging Izturis, he parlayed a hot start to the 1995 season (.429 on-base percentage/.442 slugging through June) into a spot on the All-Star team. Still only 27 when the Dodgers sent him to Kansas City in exchange for pitcher Billy Brewer (who then went to the Yankees for Mike Judd), Offerman went on to play another decade in the majors, collecting more than 1,000 hits, twice leading the American League in triples and making the All-Star team again in 1998.

*Andruw Jones, 2008
You might be wondering why the notorious flail that was Jones wasn’t on the list. He just missed having enough plate appearances to qualify for the above criteria. Had we relaxed that requirement, his .543 OPS would give him the fourth-worst start by a Dodgers regular since ’88. He started 36 of the Dodgers’ first 43 games. One year ago today, he made his final start before knee problems sent him to the disabled list, where he remained until July. Playing semi-regularly upon his return, he showed no improvement, going 10-for-63 with a .433 OPS and driving the Dodgers to make the end-of-the-month trade for Manny Ramirez.

Jerry Lai/US PresswireJames Loney had an .810 OPS a year ago today. He’s now at .534.

**James Loney, 2011
What does this all mean for Loney? A bad start doesn’t have to mean the end of his career, although it would help if he were a middle infielder.

Anything can happen — all we have above are anecdotes — but it can’t be a comfort to know that since 1988, none of the Dodgers who have started their seasons in similar fashions recovered before the year was out.

Apr 26

Two cheers for the Dodgers, but they needed three


Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Hooray for James Loney and Andre Ethier. Loney had a “Thanks, I needed that” game, going 4 for 4, while Andre Ethier’s first-inning double gave him the MLB April hitting streak record with 23 games in a row. But Clayton Kershaw, despite displaying his defensive prowess yet again, couldn’t hold 1-0 and 2-1 leads, ultimately getting knocked out in the sixth inning of a 4-2 loss to Florida tonight. The Dodgers barely get 14 hours to think about it before heading back out for a game Wednesday at 9:10 Pacific.

Apr 11

Three questions

J-school:

1) Has James Loney’s swing gotten messed up, either by himself or by the Dodgers, in an attempt to get more home runs out of him?

2) Is Juan Uribe, who was hit by a Tim Lincecum pitch Opening Day, still hurt?

3) Will we see Jerry Sands, who is 6 for 16 with two homers, an .813 slugging percentage and one strikeout, in Dodger blue by June 1?

Apr 09

The lowest moment of James Loney’s career?

Tie game, 11th inning, Juan Uribe on second with none out. A single gives you the lead. No double-play threat. Right-handed pitcher on the mound.

And Don Mattingly has James Loney bunt.

So much for Mr. RBI. If that’s not the lowest moment of Loney’s playing career, it’s the lowest moment of Mattingly’s managing career.

Loney took three pitches, fouled off a bunt, hit another foul swinging away, then popped out.

Mar 29

Dodgers and Giants tidbits and tattles

Some Dodger-Giant notes from ESPN Stats and Info:

  • Just 12 days after turning 23, Clayton Kershaw will be the fifth-youngest opening day starter for the Dodgers since moving to Los Angeles in 1958. He’s the youngest since Fernando Valenzuela in 1983. He’s also the first lefty since Valenzuela in 1988. Kershaw will be the Dodgers’ fifth different opening day starter in the past five years. It’s the first time in the last 90 years that the franchise has had five unique opening day starters in five seasons.

    Youngest Opening Day Starter
    Los Angeles Dodgers History (Yrs-Days)

    1981 Fernando Valenzuela      20-159
    1958 Don Drysdale             21-266
    1983 Fernando Valenzuela      22-155
    1959 Don Drysdale             22-262
    2011 Clayton Kershaw          23-12

  • Most Strikeouts Before 23rd Birthday, Dodgers History
    Fernando Valenzuela     584
    Clayton Kershaw         497
    Don Drysdale            488
    Ralph Branca            397
    Don Sutton              378
  • Kershaw’s 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings is the second-highest before turning 23 since 1900 (min. 400 IP):

    Sam McDowell      9.6         1961-65
    Clayton Kershaw   9.3         2008-10
    Dwight Gooden     8.7         1984-87
    Dave Boswell      8.4         1964-67
    Vida Blue         8.1         1969-72

  • Since 1900, no one has more strikeouts through his first four seasons than Tim Lincecum.

    Tim Lincecum      907   2007-10
    Dwight Gooden     892   1984-87
    Hideo Nomo        870   1995-98
    Tom Seaver        866   1967-70
    Bert Blyleven     845   1970-73

  • Among the Giants’ current rotation, Lincecum actually had the second-highest ERA last season. Much of that was due to an August in which he went 0-5 with a 7.82 ERA. Some notes on that month:

    1) According to Elias, Lincecum became the first Giants pitcher to go at least 0-5 with an ERA of 7.80 or higher since Bud Black (0-6, 8.01 ERA) in September 1992.
    2) Opponents hit .388 with runners on base off Lincecum in August.
    3) Right-handed batters hit .362 in August against Lincecum. For the rest of the season, they hit just .210.
    4) When you eliminate August, Lincecum was 16-5 with a 2.84 ERA in 2010.

  • According to Inside Edge, the velocity on Lincecum’s fastball has declined each of the past three seasons:

    2008  94.1 mph
    2009  92.6 mph
    2010  91.2 mph

  • His swing-and-miss percentage also has gone down each year:

    2008  27.5%
    2009  26.2%
    2010  25.7%

  • The Giants are looking to be just the fourth NL team to repeat as World Series champs, and the first since the 1975-76 Reds.
  • The team finished with a 1.78 ERA in September, the fifth-lowest in a calendar month in the live ball era (since 1930). Opponents hit just .182 in September, the lowest since the Indians held opponents to a .174 average in May 1968.

    Lowest ERA in Calendar Month
    Live Ball Era (Since 1920)

    Indians      1.42         May 1968
    Dodgers      1.59         Sept. 1965
    Dodgers      1.71         May 1920
    Yankees      1.76         Sept. 1952
    Giants       1.78         Sept. 2010

  • Don Mattingly makes his managerial debut. According to Elias, only four people have won an MVP and managed a team to a World Series title: Joe Torre, Mickey Cochrane, Frankie Frisch, Lou Boudreau. However, the latter three did so as player-managers.
  • Since 2008, Kershaw and Lincecum rank first and second in opponent batting average:

    Clayton Kershaw   .221
    Tim Lincecum      .223
    Jonathan Sanchez  .226
    Ubaldo Jimenez    .227
    Felix Hernandez   .232

  • This will be the 10th time since 1958 that these teams have met on Opening Day. The Giants have won six of the previous nine.
  • Though he had a reputation for overworking relievers, Joe Torre’s Dodgers were not generally among the top teams in using a pitcher on zero days rest.

    Dodgers relief appearances on zero days’ rest (NL rank)
    2010  66    (14th)
    2009  79    (6th)
    2008  69    (13th)

  • James Loney has 268 RBI over the past three seasons, but only 36 homers. Among the 43 players with 250 RBI since 2008, he has the fewest home runs.

    Name HR    RBI
    James Loney       36    268
    Joe Mauer         46    256
    Jhonny Peralta    49    253
    Bobby Abreu       55    281

  • Among current NL players, Loney has the third-highest career batting average with runners in scoring position (min. 500 PA):

    Albert Pujols     .345
    Todd Helton       .335
    James Loney       .326
    Freddy Sanchez    .320

Mar 11

Dream-weaving the Dodgers offense

My thoughts remain with the victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.


Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireRafael Furcal, shaky sparkplug

It says something about how concerned people are with the Dodgers offense that even as pitchers Vicente Padilla, Jon Garland and Ronald Belisario have dropped off the probable Opening Day roster, the hitting is still the Dodgers’ primary concern. And not without good reason.

But there are a number of ways, not even high-apple-pie-in-the-sky ways, that the Dodgers offense could exceed the lowest expectations and prove adequate, if not above average. Here are some potential upsides for the batsmen:

250 total bases from Rafael Furcal
The Dodgers want Furcal to be reasonably healthy and reasonably productive. Reaching this milestone would indicate that Furcal was successful on both fronts. (Throw in about 50 walks and double-digit steals to top it off.)

The challenge: The 33-year-old hasn’t reached 250 total bases since his first year as a Dodger in 2006, when he had 291. In 2009, Furcal played in 150 games but struggled badly at the plate (probably playing at less than 100 percent); the following year he was on pace for a great season but couldn’t make it into more than 97 games. The problem with Furcal seems to be that he is simply not a quick healer these days.

The hope: Furcal could miss 30 games and still reach the plateau if his bat doesn’t take a holiday. Knowing the Dodgers have Jamey Carroll as a backup in the majors and Dee Gordon or Ivan De Jesus in the minors, the team can afford to give him days off or even a quick run on the disabled list to recover from lighter ailments in order to preserve him for the long haul.

2009 calls, and Matt Kemp answers
A year ago, we were wondering how Kemp might improve on his banner 2009 season. Today, everyone would be happy if he merely matched it. Lest we forget, that was a season, at age 24, when Kemp had a .352 on-base percentage, .490 slugging percentage, 34 steals in 42 attempts and defense that made you gasp, but not in horror.

The challenge: Finding out if Kemp still has a 2009 in him. Can he adjust, both to the pitchers who fooled him in 2010 and to the level of mental approach required of him over a full season?

The hope: It’s not unusual for players to take a step back before they take their next step forward. The Dodgers hope the presence of Davey Lopes will help provide the spring in Kemp’s step. Want a statistical beacon to look toward? Kemp’s batting average on balls in play last year was .295, after averaging .364 the previous three seasons. A little luck could go a long way.

Kyle Terada/US PresswireDioner Navarro



Dioner Navarro proves his signing wasn’t a clerical error

“I’ve made a huge mistake,” Gob Bluth of “Arrested Development” might have said had he woken up one morning and realized he had signed the once-and-future Dodger catcher to a $1 million contract after Navarro slogged out a .528 OPS in 2010.

The challenge: It wasn’t only 2010. Over the past two seasons, Navarro has a .263 on-base percentage and .306 slugging percentage in 163 games. Yes, offensive expectations are lower for a catcher, but that’s just useless. The Dodgers need their backup catcher to succeed because Rod Barajas can’t play every day (nor would you want him to), but investing too much patience in Navarro could be an investment in a black hole.

The hope: Navarro is still only 27, still only two seasons removed from a .349 OBP and .407 slugging. Totals like that would more than do the trick. Why the Dodgers think Navarro can recover, I cannot tell you, but this isn’t the stereotypical Ned Colletti signing of a veteran on the downslope of his career. This was a belief signing, a buy-low on a player who could still be entering his prime. Perhaps Navarro’s 2011 will show us why at the end of every hard-earned day people find some reason to believe.

James Loney stops hitting like Joe Shlabotnik
Kemp gets all the grief in the mainstream press, but for New School fans, it’s Loney who’s the bigger target. His RBI totals (especially relative to his opportunities) and his defense don’t make up for the overall production the Dodgers could really use from their first baseman.

The challenge: Among other things, proving that not one but two seasons of sub-.400 slugging percentage were just a pause that refreshes. And then there’s overcoming a walk-to-strikeout ratio that went from 1.03 in 2009 to 0.55 last year. And then … well, you get the idea.

The hope: Loney had an .803 OPS heading into the All-Star break last season, which isn’t exactly Albert Pujols, but it’s something to cling to. Folks still love his stroke, a stroke that delivered 19 homers, a .372 on-base percentage and .543 slugging percentage in his first 144 career games. Are we really to believe that Loney peaked at age 23?

Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireAndre Ethier


Andre Ethier is no platoon player

Ethier had an .846 OPS in 72 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers as a rookie in 2006. That production has declined each and every year since, down to .625 in 178 PA last season.

The challenge: Actually, protecting that pivotal pinkie might be Ethier’s biggest 2011 worry, but presuming he can, the decline against lefties is more than a bit worrying. Four years of decline is tough to stomach even for a player of Ethier’s overall ability.

The hope: Ethier, who will be 29 in April, was on an MVP pace for the first several weeks of last season, so with loads of room to improve against lefties, his best year might still be ahead of him. The alternative is that the Dodgers softly begin resting him against lefties if a fellow by the name of Jerry Sands keeps knocking at the door.

Jerry Sands knocks at the door
The power-hitting 23-year-old minor-leaguer with all of 68 games above Class A has been perhaps the top story in the early days of spring training, as Dodgers fans unhappy with the current third-outfielder conglomerate look longingly for a savior.

The challenge: Handling temptation. Sands’ massive inexperience at the higher levels of the game makes the script all too easy to write – an early taste of success followed by a faceplant against major-league breaking pitches.

The hope: In 2006, Ethier and Kemp came up as rookies and, while they didn’t win permanent starting jobs right away, made unmistakable contributions toward that year’s division title. The Dodgers can’t expect Sands to become rookie of the year, but it’s not crazy to dream he (or Trayvon Robinson) could provide some lift to the sagging outfield picture.

A midseason trade gives offense a new gear
For all the talk of how the McCourt ownership has hamstrung player acquisitions, the Dodgers have not been silent at the trade deadline. Ted Lilly was no Manny Ramirez 2008, but he was a major splurge for a team barely hanging on in more ways than one. It’s sensible to assume that unless the Dodgers fall completely out of the race, Colletti will have the BlackBerry working.

The challenge: Making the trade worthwhile, both in terms of what comes in (spare us Scott Podsednik, please) and what goes out. If Rubby De La Rosa continues his rapid progress, and anyone from the group including Ethan Martin, Aaron Miller and Chris Withrow bounces back, the Dodgers will have no shortage of trade chips in pitching alone. But you don’t want to use them unwisely, not at all.

The hope: Right player at the right time, ideally without giving up the primo minor-league talent. They’ve done it before; could they do it again?