With my third Sweet Spot post, I finally bring things back to the Dodgers …
My recent interview with Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti prompted me to reflect on a little-discussed aspect of his tenure …
With my third Sweet Spot post, I finally bring things back to the Dodgers …
My recent interview with Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti prompted me to reflect on a little-discussed aspect of his tenure …
The Dodgers rose from the basement of the National League West in May to the best record in the league in June, then sat only two games out of first place in the division at the All-Star Break.
Yet as far as Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti was concerned, it was almost a mirage. During an interview at his Dodger Stadium office last week, Colletti fully acknowledged that the Dodgers’ second-half fade, as much as he and everyone else tried to reverse it, came as disturbingly little surprise to him.
Ten days. In Colletti’s view, that’s how long the Dodgers played championship-quality baseball in 2010.
“I think the second half, in a lot of ways, was the result of the first half and the spring,” Colletti said. “I can’t say I had more than a 10-day period where I thought we were truly playing as well as we could play. In ’09, we had a pretty good defense, and we executed, played well in clutch situations, found a way to win games. We really hadn’t done that very much in the first half of the season. And I think it caught up with us in the second half.
“And what I did last year wasn’t acceptable. How I prepared for last year didn’t meet the results that I have for myself.”
The Dodgers will arrive to spring training later this month, in many ways, a different team than a year ago, starting with a greater emphasis on starting pitching that represents Colletti’s most visceral response to his roster concerns from 2010. At the same time, Colletti said the experience the returning core gained from last year’s disappointment has the potential to play a significant, positive role in 2011.
“They’re professional, and this is their livelihood,” he said. “And you believe there’s enough pride and adjustment and education from this past year. A lot of guys haven’t gone through what they’ve gone through in the past year. That will put them in the right place coming in to know it’s got to be better and it’s got to be more focused.
“Because they’ve (succeeded) before, I’m confident. But then, last year was what it was. I’m cautious by nature. I take nothing for granted, at any point in my life at any stage. So I don’t take it for granted that it’s just gonna happen. I think it has to be prepared in order to happen.
Translated, Colletti believes the talent is there but the effort, focus and confidence need to return. He said the offseason preparation “is done to some point, and when you get to camp now it’s going to be up to Don [Mattingly] and his staff to have certain procedures in place and certain accountability set forth. And I obviously have to support that, and they have to buy into it.”
Despite leading Dodgers regulars on offense, Andre Ethier never fully seemed to recover from the pinky injury he suffered in May and fed doubts about his long-term ability to hit left-handed pitchers (.625 OPS against them in 2010, .681 for his career). James Loney went from decent before the All-Star Break (.803) to disastrous after (.616). Jonathan Broxton’s second-half collapse is as well-documented as anyone’s, and Matt Kemp … well, let’s just say his season could have been the inspiration for what made Linda Blair’s head spin in “The Exorcist.”
The question, Colletti agreed, is which of the players will hit a hurdle in their development in 2010, and which have hit a wall. And it’s a question that’s due for an answer. Mulligans that were handed out last year won’t be found so easily or at all in 2011.
“In the past, I’ve been more patient than open-minded,” Colletti said. “I think that one of the toughest characteristics you have to have in these jobs is patience because everybody expects everything to turn overnight. … It doesn’t work that way. Everybody’s human; these guys are all human. They take maturation, physical maturation, all kinds of processes.
“I won’t be able to be just completely patient with it [this year]. We’re not an old team, but we’re not a team overwhelmed with rookies, either. We have experience, and a lot of our players have been to the postseason at least twice and sometimes three times in the last five years. So it’s there, it’s really kind of going back to that point and being focused about it and passionate about it and tough-minded about it.”
It might surprise people to learn that Colletti seems particularly bullish about Kemp, the target of a radio critique by Colletti in April.
“I think probably from middle of August on, things became a little bit more focused for him,” Colletti said. “He and I had a conversation, probably in August, that was really a man-to-man, heart-to-heart, one-on-one conversation. And I was trying to take some of the weight off. I think he understands it; I think he understands what transpired last year. I think from my conversations this winter, from the last month of the season and this winter, I think he understands more than he did a year ago about himself and about the game, about preparation. So I think he’s got a chance to really have a great year.”
It’s possible Colletti might have said the same thing about Russell Martin, except Martin is no longer around. The circumstances of the Dodgers’ decision to let Martin go rather than offer him salary arbitration weren’t discussed, but Martin’s recent offseason comments about “distractions” that affected him led to a broader comment from Colletti about the difficulty of playing in Los Angeles.
“Sometimes, it’s commitment, prioritization and commitment,” Colletti said. “I read what Russell said, but I don’t know what the true context was or what his underlying thoughts were as to why he said it. … There are a lot of distractions in this city. There’s a lot of different things to be doing, a lot of places your mind can wander off to, but if you’re a professional baseball player, if you’re a Dodger, you’ve got to figure out life. … And it’s not easy to do it.”
Without going into many specifics, Colletti indicated that the ability to play in Los Angeles is a factor in some trades of young players he has made. He called Carlos Santana the prospect he regrets parting with “probably more than anybody” before he added that there were a couple of other guys he would have to wait and see on.
“Again, Los Angeles isn’t for everybody,” Colletti said. “Sometimes we make a move on a player because we know in this environment here, they’re not going to be very good in it.”
As for Broxton, count Colletti among those who see his second-half crumble as an issue of confidence, rather than health problems that might have been caused by his 48-pitch tar-and-feathering against the Yankees last June.
“He never complained,” Colletti said. “And at the end, he wasn’t thrilled with it, but I said, ‘Jonathan, I need you to take a complete physical — your arm, your shoulder, your elbow.’ A week to go in the season. And he said, ‘I feel great. I don’t need to do it.’ And I said, ‘I need you to do it.’ So he said, ‘I’ll do it,’ and everything came back clean.”
Colletti is aware of the volatility of relief pitchers, comparing them to great goaltenders who can go through “a month or two where they can’t stop anything.” But this awareness cuts both ways. It leads Colletti to give relievers who have performed in the past long leashes, and it compels him to have as many alternatives on hand as he can, as seen through the acquisitions of set-up men Matt Guerrier and Blake Hawksworth and oblique references to No. 6 starter Vicente Padilla’s potential to close games.
Again, however, Colletti believes that at rock bottom you can often find a trampoline. Look no further than Chad Billingsley, banished from the Dodgers’ starting rotation by the end of 2009 before rising anew last season.
“Most of our young players did not experience a lot of failure as young players, minor leagues [or] early in the big leagues,” Colletti said. “They really didn’t struggle. And when it finally hits you, and you do struggle for whatever reason and you’re doing it in front of 45,000 people in Los Angeles all the time, on television every day, that’s a tough time to struggle for the first time, for the really first time, and be able to come out of it.”
Interestingly, Colletti’s faith in failure recovery played a partial role in what many believe is the Dodgers’ greatest weakness heading into this season: the lack of a bona fide left fielder.
Angst in the outfield
This winter, the Dodgers didn’t bid on the two marquee outfield free agents, Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth, and you can safely conclude that was a reflection of their overall contract demands and the Dodgers’ budget. But when it came to alternatives, Colletti was wary of blocking two Dodgers outfield prospects who could each be major league ready a year from now, Trayvon Robinson and Jerry Sands, especially after the experience Robinson had in Jacksonville last summer.
“Robinson last year started off slow in Double-A, and we stayed with him and he figured it out,” Colletti said. “That to me was huge. Because he’s gonna have to figure that out. Because everybody struggles up here.”
There is the caveat that it’s not as if the current Dodgers never struggled in the majors or minors before 2010 – one could easily make the case that they did, but that their subsequent triumphs blotted out the memory. In any event, if he had found a signable veteran outfielder worthy of a multiyear deal, Colletti no doubt would have pulled the trigger. But he does feel optimistic over the long term about what he has.
“If I would have signed a left fielder for three years, who was again not one of those robust guys — I’m not sure there was a guy out there — then I’m really kind of blocking one of those two kids, and I’ve got faith in both of them,” he said. “Hopefully, not this year. Hopefully, it’s a year from now, but I have faith in both that they’ll be able to play and contribute. And actually I told them both that, too, in the fall — I told Trayvon way back in the summertime, ‘It’s important for me to know who you are and how you play. Because you know what, Manny’s not gonna be back next year. And I’ve got to make a decision whether I’m gonna go and tie up his spot for three or four years, or be patient and mix and match for a year and wait for you.’”
In the interim, Colletti is under no illusion that he has gold in the third outfield slot, so the Dodgers will essentially play it by ear in the outfield, with Mattingly looking at matchup opportunities for Tony Gwynn Jr., Marcus Thames, Jay Gibbons and Xavier Paul (if he makes the squad), and on an infrequent basis, Casey Blake or Jamey Carroll.
“Right now Matty’s the center fielder,” Colletti said. “Andre’s the right fielder. I want to see what Tony can do offensively. He’ll play as much as the offense allows him, I think … using the whole field, bunting more, figuring out ways to get on base, because his on-base percentage isn’t high even when he hits .270. See if he can become more disciplined at the plate, use his speed more to get on. I don’t expect power out of him. I don’t expect gap power out of him, but I would like to see him get on base a lot more, because if he does it perhaps changes the dynamics in the outfield.
“And in the meantime, I’ve got two guys that can hit, one from the left side and one from the right side — actually two from the left side with X. Paul and Gibbons, and then Thames. … And perhaps they’re five- or six-inning guys, and then you go defense later. But you’ve got two guys that might be able to hit 20 homers between them.”
Third base offers a secondary question for the Dodgers because, while Blake is sure to start against lefties and some righties, no one seems to be beating the drum for him to play 146 games like he did last season. With the Dodgers’ minor leagues fairly thin at second and third base, this time Colletti took the plunge on a multiyear stopgap in Juan Uribe.
“Our system’s produced a lot of guys,” Colletti said. “But except for really [Ivan] DeJesus, we don’t really have a second baseman that’s on the verge of being here. We have a shortstop coming probably in Dee Gordon and after him [Jake] Lemmerman, and right now third base is a bit of an open spot too — we had [Pedro] Baez in the Cal League last year. So Uribe, while the on-base percentage isn’t Moneyball-ish or whatever, the run production is still pretty good, in that he can play second, short or third, and we don’t have anybody that’s going to press him at third for a while, and really De Jesus is trying to transition to play second. I needed somebody I can run out there who’s a big league guy.”
Because of what he sees as a potential benefit to have Uribe play some at the hot corner, Colletti emphasized that De Jesus has a legitimate chance to make the Opening Day roster as a backup infielder. Obviously, someone like Carroll could also make several starts to allow Blake to rest.
In any case, Colletti is aware of how much a juggling act the Dodgers’ everyday lineup has become. Though he has in one sense traded last year’s lack of a fifth starter for this year’s lack of an everyday left fielder or third baseman, Colletti sees the two situations as apples and oranges.
“You really didn’t have in my mind many choices that were going to be able to play every day,” Colletti said. “We had to fix the pitching first, and we had to upgrade the bullpen if we could.
“You can’t finesse pitching. Maybe a day here or there, but you need to have it. And the list [of available pitchers], we were kind of picking near the top of the list, even though it isn’t sexy to say you signed Ted [Lilly] or Hiroki [Kuroda], it’s not necessarily ‘wow,’ but it’s solid. It gave us a little bit of depth. So we had to start there. The kid from Minnesota, Guerrier, is gonna be a good add for us. He’s pitched in a lot of big games; he’s always had positive results.
“It’s the most volatile group, but once [Joaquin] Benoit got three years and [$16.5 million], that’s what people expect to get … and if you really need a guy, sometimes you have to go the extra distance to go and get him.”
Add together the total commitments the Dodgers made to their free-agent signees of this past offseason, and you barely pass the total value of Adrian Beltre’s deal by itself, while falling short of the Crawford or Werth contracts. And like it or not, Colletti was not going to enter another season shy on pitching or dependent on unproven rookies such as James McDonald or Scott Elbert.
“I was apprehensive all winter long last year” Colletti said of the starting pitching. “I knew we were short going in; I knew we weren’t going to be able to rally it. In the spring, J-Mac and Scotty both struggled. We may have sent them both out early, in fact, because they couldn’t throw strikes; they were all over the board. So right from the beginning, I knew we were going to be short. I didn’t know how we were gonna mix and match, and we couldn’t afford an injury certainly.”
If there’s an ongoing concern on everyone’s minds, it’s how the Frank McCourt ownership crisis is affecting spending on the team on the field. You can argue that different owners might have allowed Colletti to sign one big-ticket free agent in addition to shoring up the pitching, but Colletti doesn’t contend that the divorce itself is having an impact on personnel.
He also makes the case, as McCourt did a year ago, that the Dodgers are aiming to spend more money to deepen their prospect population.
“We’ve had basically the same [major-league] payroll,” Colletti said. “Though we dipped a little bit last year, we’re coming back this year. It’s not really how much you have, it’s where you spend it. We do have to get better at international signings; we have to reinvest there. I think we’ve let Venezuela slip for a few years, and we’ve made some changes in the staffing.
“We’ve done a decent job in the D.R. [Dominican Republic] — not what we did 25 years ago, but with all due respect, 25 years ago there wasn’t 30 teams down there, either. So, it’s not like we could just cherry-pick the players we want like we probably did at the outset of the country opening up to having players signed. But we do have to get better at that to support our player development system. It’s been fruitful. Obviously, a lot of players are in the big leagues now that we drafted, but we have to keep flowing, and they have to keep getting better. I know we’ve hit a touchable lull right now and I think we’re probably a year or two away from having another group come forward.”
Colletti didn’t rule out the Dodgers’ top draft choice of 2010, Zach Lee — whose signing shocked most baseball observers — being part of the Dodgers’ graduating class of 2012. Amid the height of McCourt tensions, Lee received a $5.25 million signing bonus, a record for a Dodgers’ draft pick. The previous record-holder, Clayton Kershaw, reached the majors less than two calendar years after he was picked, and Lee could do the same.
“We really liked this kid,” Colletti said. “We really liked his makeup, his demeanor, his abilities, athleticism, his toughness. … Not only are the physical skills different than most kids you see, but the way his mind works is different … probably from playing at the highest levels at a couple of sports, including going to LSU for a summer and having that experience, which as long as he didn’t get hurt it didn’t bother me.”
Colletti’s hope is that the Dodgers’ minor league pitchers drafted in previous years allow Lee as much time as he needs to develop. There was an epidemic of setbacks among the farm system’s arms in 2010 — so many that if Colletti wants to see who can overcome hurdles, wish granted.
“It’s concerning to me,” he said. “Probably a lot of the guys that we could both probably name should be a year farther along than they are. They’ve all struggled with command. … Some are converted players, some weren’t pitchers necessarily in high school or college. So they’re still learning that.
Curing the epidemic
And to circle back to the beginning of our piece, in some ways, older players never stop learning and developing. Witness Colletti’s additional assessment of the contagion that struck the Dodgers’ offense in 2010:
“I think hitters sometimes without results start to get impatient, so they start to chase out of the zone,” he said. “They’re trying to build more offensive numbers in a quicker period of time and so they’re not as diligent to work the count, and all that stuff starts to compound through the course of it. … When people are starting to slump, sometimes it produces more guys that go in that direction than less. And that’s what started to happen. It started to spiral where one guy struggled and then two. And then the third guy saw the other two and then he struggled, and it continued to mount.”
When you take Colletti’s view of what went wrong with the Dodgers last year and what’s needed to make it right, it makes sense that he sees one of the most promising offseason moves as one that even some jaded Dodgers fans embraced: the hiring of Davey Lopes as a coach.
“I’ve known him a long time and I’ve admired him,” Colletti said. “You know, I was with him in Chicago when he was still a player and I’ve certainly watched him from the other side of the field when he managed and when he was coaching. And I think what he brings here is — you’re talking about first — someone who was an iconic Dodger who understands Los Angeles and understands the Dodgers and was here during one of the greatest periods in our franchise’s history. That’s important.
“What he did in Philly with baserunning and defense and fine-tuning that position, the first-base coaching position, to make it a far more valuable position to the organization, is something we noticed. And I think he’s going to have a great impact on our club. I think there are some players that could turn their game up a notch with his instruction, with his thought process. I think, while it’s a coaching position, I think it’s a huge addition for this franchise.”
Will a new manager, new coaches, new players and new spirits be enough to right the Dodgers’ ship? It’s too soon to say, but if the Dodgers are to play more than 10 days of great baseball in 2011, Colletti will expect to see strong signs of it before Opening Day arrives.
Eric Chavez won’t be the uncertain solution to the Dodgers’ uncertain third-base situation. The oft-injured vet is headed to the New York Yankees on a minor-league deal, as is former Dodger Ronnie Belliard.
* * *
Fairly safe to say that the most scrutinized 2011 Dodger heading into the season will be Matt Kemp. Here’s more detailed analysis, from True Blue L.A. newbie Chad Moriyama,
In a world where money doesn’t matter, newest Angel outfielder Vernon Wells is better than anyone the Dodgers will have playing alongside Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier in April.
But even in a world where money doesn’t matter, volunteering to pay $86 million to Wells for his four years from age 32 through age 35 is a staggering amount, considering that even after slugging 31 homers in 2010, Wells only has a .321 on-base percentage and .450 slugging percentage over the past four years from ages 28-31. Both that OBP and slugging are less than what Kemp – labeled by some an underachiever – has produced over his past four years (.339/.474) while playing in a pitchers park, and Kemp’s best four years might still be ahead of him.
And since we live in a world where money does matter – where even under selfless ownership, salaries of more than $20 million per year matter – the idea of taking on Wells’ contract is frightening. Count me among the surprised that the Angels will shoulder it.
Unless it’s the difference between winning and losing a title, or unless we’ve been terribly misinformed about Toronto shouldering more of the burden of Wells’ contract, the level of improvement that Wells’ provides over the status quo is not worth the amount he’s being paid (both before or after you factor in sending off players like Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera and their combined $11 million salary for 2011). Do you think he’s the difference-maker for the Angels or would be for the Dodgers? It’s a roll of the dice to say the least.
“Vernon Wells isn’t a terrible player– he’s a solid player with a terrible contract,” Keith Law of ESPN.com aptly says, before adding “he is absolutely the wrong player right now for the Los Angeles Angels, who have made one the worst desperation moves I can remember.” Law offers the following explanation:
The problem is that Wells is now well below-average in center and probably should be in a corner outfield position, where his bat is less valuable, and where he may not profile offensively by the time he’s a free agent after 2014. His power spike in 2010 coincided with a sudden shift in the Rogers Centre’s park factor and a teamwide rise in home runs. He’s a good fastball hitter who’s not very disciplined and tries to pull the ball on the outer half, resulting in a lot of frustrating rollovers to the shortstop.
The Angels have Peter Bourjos and his 70 (or better) glove to man center, and there’s no way Wells will be worth $18 million more than Bourjos this year. Turning Bobby Abreu, a once-great player now showing his age, into a platoon bat/pinch-hitter would make the best of a bad situation. It’s still a bad situation, though, and doesn’t make the Angels much better off even in 2011.
Mark Saxon of ESPNLosAngeles.com is more sanguine, only by comparison: “You can make plenty of arguments in favor of Friday’s move, but it certainly had the air of desperation.”
We know the Dodgers are desperate for a left fielder, but I’m glad they’re not (or can’t be) this desperate.
(Meanwhile, Manny Ramirez appears headed to Tampa Bay on a simple one-year, $2 million contract.)
Looks like the world is getting back to work …
One in a series of at least one, on how close selected Dodger prospects are to the majors …
Vitals: OF/1B, 6-foot-4, 210-225 pounds, turned 23 on September 28.
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.
Did you know? Sands stole 18 bases in 20 attempts in 2010 and is 24 for 27 in his pro career.
I’m trying a different medium here …
Update: I was alerted to the mistake I made in using Joe DiMaggio as an example, since he was apparently retired when he began his relationship with Marilyn Monroe, but really, there are tons of examples that could go there.
The full value of this post is deferred until 2013 …
A year ago, I posted these 33 theses on the doors of Dodger Thoughts. Let’s see how they have held up …
|1) Frank McCourt will prevail in the courts against Jamie McCourt and retain ownership of the Dodgers.||No||Failed to anticipate the Great Adverb Dispute.|
|2) Rather then sell the team, McCourt will take on a minority partner to improve his cash flow.||TBD||It might not be quite that simple.|
|3) The incentive for the minority partner will be the Dodgers’ ability to make a profit, with potential for greater revenue from development of the Dodger Stadium property.||TBD||This plus the TV contract.|
|4) The project to turn the area behind center field into a gathering place of restaurants, shops and a Dodger museum will begin by 2015.||TBD||I sure was looking ahead, wasn’t I?|
|5) The Dodgers will earn enough money over the coming decade to remain competitive, though they will never spend like the Yankees or Red Sox.||TBD||Fans are probably pessimistic about this one, but we’ll see.|
|6) The Dodgers will sign a veteran with an unexciting name to take the No. 4 spot in the 2010 starting rotation, completing their offseason in much the same manner they would have even if the McCourts weren’t divorcing.||Yes||Hello, Vicente Padilla.|
|7) Observers will decry the state of Dodger starting pitching entering the season, even though it will probably match up well with every team in the National League West except San Francisco. (Arizona’s No. 4 starter: Ian Kennedy?)||No||San Diego ruined this prediction for me.|
|The focus will be on what the Dodgers didn’t do, ignoring how thin the pitching market was and how little their division rivals have improved themselves.||Yes||This was a safe one.|
|9) Spring training will come as a relief, as the conversation returns to baseball and, despite all that has happened, the sight of Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw roaming the field becomes too intoxicating to resist.||Yes||Spring Training was relatively enjoyable this year.|
|10) Exhibition performances will excessively color people’s views of the coming season, even though Val Pascucci’s .429 batting average in March 2009 failed to carry over into the regular season.||Yes||This at least applied to the Dodgers themselves, vis a vis Les Ortizables.|
|11) Sportswriters will blast the Dodgers for not acquiring a big name, then criticize every move Manny Ramirez makes while knocking the Dodgers for all the money spilling out to Andruw Jones, Juan Pierre and Jason Schmidt.||Kind of||Not all sportswriters, but certainly some I can think of.|
|12) People will be intrigued with how Russell Martin explains that this will be the season everything will be OK for him.||No||“Intrigued” seems strong in retrospect, plus Martin got hurt in March.|
|13) Chad Billingsley will gamely turn the other cheek as reporters and fans insultingly question his manhood. Then he’ll go out and throw bullets.||Yes||He wasn’t red-hot to start the season, but ultimately this came true.|
|14) The Dodgers will not get off to as hot a start in 2010 as they did in 2009, when they were 10-3 and 21-8.||Yes||To say the least …|
|15) The Dodger community will be on edge, as it becomes clear to all that 2010, like most years, will be a season-long challenge.||Yes||To say the least …|
|16) Jokes about portable concession stands will grow old fast, yet continue to be told.||No||This died down more quickly than I expected.|
|17) Lines at Dodger Stadium food stands will remain long anyway.||Yes||No change here.|
|18) Nevertheless, the Dodgers will remain in the thick of the National League West race into May, when the McCourt case launches in the courts.||Yes/no||Dodgers had the best record in the NL at one point, but the trial was delayed.|
|19) The free-for-all between the McCourts’ lawyers will be annoying beyond belief.||Yes||All those fun revelations and accusations …|
|20) Kershaw, Kemp or Andre Ethier will suffer a setback, while Martin, James Loney or Rafael Furcal will experience a rebirth.||Yes||Setback for Kemp, rebirth for Furcal (until he got hurt, but I’m counting it).|
|21) Ramirez will have his ups and downs but will regain some of the fans he lost in the final months of 2009.||No||I could probably prove this true on a technicality, but I won’t try to push this one through.|
|22) There won’t be as much Dodger walk-off magic in 2010 as there was in 2009.||Yes||There was some moments early on, but they didn’t carry on.|
|23) Forced to rely on the farm system for pitching depth, the Dodgers will benefit from some precocious performances.||Yes||John Ely, Carlos Monasterios and Kenley Jansen, among others, did some good for the team.|
|24) “Don’t Stop Believin’” will be gone, but “God Bless America” will return.||No/yes||Oh well.|
|25) With the dust from the courtroom settled, the Dodgers will make a trading deadline deal.||No/yes||Deals came while dust was still swirling.|
|26) The biggest moment of the year will be when Vin Scully announces his plans for 2011.||Yes||You can argue with me, but I’m counting this one.|
|27) With almost nowhere to go but down after two National League Championship Series appearances, 2010 will almost surely end as a disappointment for the Dodgers.||Yes||This had a chance to be wrong in summertime, but in the end it was right.|
|28) The Phillies will not win the NL title, because it looks too much like they should.||Yes||That’s the way it goes …|
|29) The Dodgers will have more reason to be nervous after the 2010 season, when the team has to replace Ramirez and Hiroki Kuroda while giving even bigger pay raises to the homegrown talent — even those who had subpar years.||Yes||Even though Kuroda and others are back, if we’re talking about how most people felt at the end of the 2010 season, there was more nervousness and pessimism than 2009.|
|30) Minor league pitchers Aaron Miller, Chris Withrow and John Ely will come to the rescue, sooner or later, either by becoming major-league ready or major-league trading chips.||No||Given the way Ely ended the season, it’s hard to tally this one in the Yes column.|
|31) The Dodgers will have enough talent to stay competitive, but not enough to make them prohibitive favorites.||Yes||I’ll probably get some heckles on this one, but if the 2010 Giants could win, I’m not ruling out the 2011 Dodgers.|
|32) The Dodgers will continue to be good enough to keep all but the most reactionary fans hooked, yet weak enough to keep all but the most tolerant fans unsatisfied.||Yes||Accurate, no?|
|33) Fans will start to pay attention to the ticking clock that is the end of the 2012 season, when Martin, Loney, Kemp, Ethier and Billingsley are scheduled to become eligible for free agency.||No||I’m not sure enough people are worried about this.|
|Total||19-7-7||What does this mean? I have no idea.|
As I walk through the valley of the shadow of no frontline left fielder, with yea but another candidate abandoning us to aimless wanderings, my thoughts seek a place to turn.
I believe that Xavier Paul, Jay Gibbons and Jamie Hoffmann can make positive contributions, but as I started to make a case for each of them in left field, I couldn’t finish the job. The offensive ceilings for Paul and Hoffmann just seem too low, and the defensive limitations of Gibbons too pronounced. I’m content to see them get a chance, but I just don’t have confidence it would go all that well.
The problem with turning to a 35-year-old Scott Podsednik is that his defense is pretty poor itself. Podsednik would probably post a better on-base percentage than any in-house Dodger candidate, but not so much better that he’d be worth more millions spent by Ned Colletti.
Minor-leaguers Jerry Sands and Trayvon Robinson? Despite their relative promise, only once in five seasons has Ned Colletti promoted a AA player into a major-league starting role in April, and that happened to Blake DeWitt only because injuries had left Chin-Lung Hu and Ramon Martinez as the only alternatives. Paul, Hoffmann and Gibbons don’t fall to that level. And I’m not convinced that Colletti should break that policy right now, because unlike with Paul and Hoffmann, I imagine Sands and Robinson still have more to learn in the minors.
There’s a guy out there who would represent a pretty nice part-time addition to the roster, by the name of Manny Ramirez, but I know the Dodgers don’t want to go down that road.
That doesn’t exhaust all the possibilities, but there really isn’t much else to talk about in terms of difference-makers. And that’s why, more and more, I find myself ready to throw my lot with Tony Gwynn Jr. — if, as was discussed last week, he plays center field.
Of everyone discussed here, Gwynn offers the most elite skill, if not the only one — his defense. He’s something of the polar opposite of Ramirez, and it seems to me that he is the one person left in the conversation who can truly transform the Dodger lineup. By placing him in center and moving Matt Kemp to right field and Andre Ethier to left, Gwynn would turn the Dodger outfield defense from a weakness to a strength.
At a minimum, it would be a low-risk way to buy some time until Sands or Robinson proves more ready to make the leap to the majors, possibly at midseason. Or, until the Dodgers decide to make their annual midseason trade.
I don’t think Colletti or Don Mattingly would be opposed to asking Kemp or Ethier to switch positions. Would either player rebel? Perhaps, although if they are that selfish, we’ve got other problems.
Here’s a Dodger lineup with Gwynn in center:
Rafael Furcal, SS
James Loney, 1B
Andre Ethier, LF
Matt Kemp, RF
Juan Uribe, 2B
Casey Blake, 3B
Rod Barajas, C
Tony Gwynn Jr., CF
Offensively, it’s shaky, but it’s not as if any of the other outfield options would save the day. But defensively, there’s actually hope.
I’ve looked at the Dodgers’ outfield dilemma many different ways — coming at the problem, in fact, with a bias against Gwynn signing with the team to begin with. There might be no more surprising event to me than making an argument for Gwynn to be in the Dodger starting lineup. But I just don’t see a better way to go right now. Tony Gwynn Jr. has a first-rate skill that no other Dodger has, and the Dodgers absolutely must consider taking advantage of it.
In his best year (2009), Gwynn reached the .350 mark in on-base percentage, but other than that and a good year on the basepaths last season (17 steals in 21 attempts), Gwynn has zero — or less than zero — offensive value.
Defensively, Gwynn’s another story, as he was arguably the best center fielder in the National League last season.
So if the Dodgers plan on using Gwynn as more than a fifth outfielder, should they not play him in center field, either moving Matt Kemp to left field or Kemp to right and Andre Ethier to left?
Just as you shouldn’t bat a great offensive player eighth, shouldn’t you avoid minimizing the impact of a fine defensive player?
The Dodgers’ 2011 lineup may be the most OBP-challenged we’ve seen in Los Angeles in some time. If the plan is to win with pitching and defense, while hoping that Kemp, Ethier and others hit a few home runs along the way, the Dodgers should seriously consider using Gwynn in center.
Of course, if the Dodgers want to find more offense for that third outfield slot, fine by me.
Update: R.J. Anderson of Fangraphs has more on Gwynn.
* * *
According to Ken Gurnick of MLB.com, in addition to his $2 million base salary, Vicente Padilla could earn as much as $8 million in incentives as a starter or $6 million in incentives as a reliever.
Overall, I’m satisfied – even impressed – with how Ned Colletti has pulled together the 2011 Dodger starting rotation over the past month.
I was worried about how the Dodgers would fill their three offseason vacancies in the rotation. Then, thanks in part to Hiroki Kuroda’s agreeability, the Dodgers got their front four. As in the past, I would have been prepared for the team to enter Spring Training with a combination of youngsters and journeymen battling for the No. 5 spot. But the Dodgers didn’t even make us wait until December before filling that spot with a solid (though not spectacular) starter in Jon Garland.
There was another shoe to drop: Garland admitted to AM 710 that there are concerns about his health. Whether this means shades of Jason Schmidt remains to be seen, but it’s hard to get too worked up when the salary commitment to Garland is about 90% less than what the Dodgers paid Schmidt (are still paying, in fact). Garland figures to give the Dodgers something, and perhaps more than something.
There have been rumors that the Dodgers aren’t done with the pitching, that they are contemplating also bringing back adding Vicente Padilla as a swingman, a super-utility pitcher. The addition would further increase the Dodgers’ chances of presenting a smothering pitching staff next season, led by Clayton Kershaw in the role of Tim Lincecum, only wholesomer. Yes, my friends, the Dodgers have their ace – or rather, their king and his court.
All that being said …
The left-field situation resembles what we expected the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation to look like. Journeymen, kids and babies. Jay Gibbons is Jeff Weaver, Xavier Paul is John Ely, Jamie Hoffmann is Carlos Monasterios, Trayvon Robinson and Jerry Sands are Chris Withrow and Rubby de la Rosa. I’m not losing sleep over it – certainly not in December. Should it remain this way until April, I’ll admit I’ll be surprised. But also fascinated.
If the Dodgers don’t make any big additions in the outfield – and it could be months before we know – they will be doing exactly what they did when they handed four April starts to Charlie Haeger. That they did so once means they could do it again, but I have trouble believing the Dodgers have invested all this money in catcher, second base and the starting rotation, just to let left field twist in the wind.
On the other hand, they might sign Scott Podsednik and think they’ve done something useful, and simply be wrong.
* * *
At Matt Kemp’s current age (26), Jayson Werth hit .235/.338/.374 before sitting out his age-27 season because of injury.
Through 2009: Matt Kemp career 116 OPS+, Jayson Werth career 115 OPS+. Kemp is 5 1/2 years younger.
The point, I hope is clear, is not to say that Matt Kemp is better than Jayson Werth (though he might be, sooner than people think). Rather, it’s to remind people that it’s a wee bit early to be giving up on Kemp because he had a disappointing season at age 25.
If we stipulate that Kemp has some issues to address going forward, let’s remember that they are not insurmountable.
* * *
I was very satisfied with the season finale of “Boardwalk Empire,” both in how it wrapped up this season’s threads and set up Season 2. We haven’t had any formal TV chat here in a while, so if anyone wants to share their thoughts, please feel free.
This article by Tim Marchman for SI.com about the development (or lack thereof) of young prodigies is an interesting read, and not just because it manages to mention Tom Brunansky twice in the third paragraph:
Since the most valuable thing in baseball is a young star signed to a cheap contract, I was fairly shocked when I learned the Arizona Diamondbacks are, if not actively shopping outfielder Justin Upton, at least willing to listen to offers for him. Perhaps they know secret things about him; perhaps new general manager Kevin Towers simply doesn’t like the cut of his jib. Most likely he’s available in the sense that all players are available. (Scoop: The Atlanta Braves would happily trade Jason Heyward to the Giants in exchange for Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner.) Possibly, though, the Diamondbacks have been doing some math.
Here is a filthy secret about young stars: They don’t generally improve. Baseball fans have it in their minds that a player will, at 27, be a better version of the player he was at 21. On average, that’s true. This chart, for example, is a bit technical, but shows that the typical hitter will, at 27, be about 10 percent more valuable per plate appearance than he was when he was six years younger.
What defines a great player, though, is that he isn’t anything like an average one. And Justin Upton is a great player, or close. Two years ago, when he was 21, he hit .300/.366/.532, good for an adjusted OPS of 129. In the last 30 years, just eight other hitters have done as well by that age: Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Ken Griffey Jr., Tim Raines, Rickey Henderson, Jason Heyward, Miguel Cabrera and… Tom Brunansky. That’s five players who are or one day will be in the Hall of Fame, one who’s on course to join them, a player who turned 21 in August, and… Tom Brunansky. Upton’s prospects are obviously high. …
Take our other young stars as guides to what may be in store for the lucky owner of Upton’s contract over the next five years. From ages 23 to 27, Rodriguez’s adjusted OPS of 153 was actually lower than the 160 mark he posted at 20. Griffey, Raines and Henderson all hit basically the same at those ages as they did at 21, while Brunansky hit much worse. Only Pujols and Cabrera hit new levels.
None of this is of course any knock on these players. Once you’re hitting like a Hall of Famer, there is no real improvement you can make, unless you’re Albert Pujols and thus capable of hitting like Mickey Mantle rather than Hank Aaron. (Scoop: St. Louis has a good first baseman.) The point is just that you can’t expect the kind of linear improvement from a historically talented player that you can from a merely excellent one. Baseball is hard, and going from great to greater is in many ways harder than going from good to great. …
If you’re wondering how this might apply to Matt Kemp, so am I. In some ways, it might not apply at all, and there’s certainly enough mystery about Kemp to suggest he might be an exception to any rule. But if it influenced me at all, the article made me think that Kemp could easily rebound to his earlier established level of success (2009), but perhaps just not ever exceed it by all that much.
* * *
Here’s the latest McCourt update, from The Associated Press:
Mediation between Jamie and Frank McCourt involving ownership of the Los Angeles Dodgers will resume as they await a judge’s ruling on whether a postnuptial marital agreement is valid in their divorce case.
Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman is expected Friday to meet with each side separately and present a settlement. Both McCourts are expected to be in a downtown courtroom and the terms of the proposal will likely be kept confidential.
Judge Scott Gordon has about five weeks to decide on the disputed 10-page marital agreement that exists in two versions – one that gives Frank McCourt sole ownership of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and one that doesn’t. …
* * *
One Friday in the summer of 1977, I won an award named after the legend who was born 100 years ago today. The John Wooden Basketball Camp Special Award was given to one member of each of the camp’s basketball teams who best exemplified the values of Wooden’s Pyramid of Success.
I was 9 1/2 years old, heading into fifth grade, and had been dribbling a basketball (originally with two hands but more recently with one) for five years or more. But I had not made a lot of progress as far as putting the ball in the basket. I was almost unconscionably short, I’m guessing about 4-foot 4 or so, and that 10-foot hoop was still miles high in the sky. As far as playing the game, I was still trying to figure so many things out. And so that week on the campus of Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, I was quite possibly the least talented basketball player in that entire camp, or at least among them.
I think we played about five games in our little camp league that week, and our team’s coach, whom I actually don’t have any bad memories of, decided at about Game 2 that I should play safety. Yes, safety, and by that I mean, he came to the conclusion that offense was such a pointless endeavor for me that I was better off just being on defense. So he designated that I shouldn’t cross the halfcourt line when our team had the ball. He played four-on-five, while I waited for the other team to bring the ball back my way. The game looked pretty interesting from the backcourt …
And then, one time, an opposing player stole the ball. How I remember it, that kid racing (as much as 9-year-olds raced) down the left side of the outdoor court, parallel to some Cal Lutheran dormitories, with only me between him and the basket. I sped up to match him stride for stride. He drove in for his layup, and I leaped up next to him – we’re talking four, five, six inches in the air at least – and tipped the ball away. Clean, pure, perfect. My first extraordinary moment on a basketball court.
The referee, some guy whom I’d guess was about 16, whistled me for a shooting foul. I was in utter disbelief. I cried out in protest, and was immediately warned not to argue. You didn’t argue a call at John Wooden Basketball Camp. I shut my mouth, bitterly, crestfallen that my moment – my moment – had been taken away from me. I looked around, and I’m not sure anyone really believed that I had been robbed, because I’m not sure anyone believed I was capable of having a moment to rob.
My milli-spark of rebellion was an aberration, and it did not prevent me from receiving the Wooden Basketball Camp Special Award, the award praising me for my industriousness, cooperation, ambition and so forth. True, I wasn’t showing much confidence or competitive greatness, but I meant well. I won it, and I accepted it, took a little pride in it, put it on a wall in my bedroom at home and kept it in a box through my adulthood.
There was no mistaking, then or now, that this award was a consolation prize. Practically a booby prize. It’s not that it didn’t mean something. It was a reward for not giving up. But why would I have given up? The implicit answer was that I as a basketball player, I was that bad.
There wasn’t a person who received the John Wooden Basketball Camp Special Award who wouldn’t have traded it on sight for just being a little better naturally at actually playing basketball.
* * *
The Dodgers’ 2010 season was defined by two kinds of players: Jamey Carroll and Matt Kemp. Carroll, the overachiever who hustled. Kemp, the underachiever who … well, we really don’t know exactly what he was doing. And that’s the reason for this story.
I am someone who has always had, almost without exception, what adults would call a good attitude toward work. Rarely in my life has my effort been questioned. This is true despite the fact that even before I became aware of it, it has been my goal to do more with less. I’m not a show-my-work guy. I just want it to be easy.
I’m practically a lifelong skier, for example, having taken my first lesson 35 years ago, when I was 7. To this day, I challenge myself, seeking out the hardest possible runs I can, but I don’t do it for the sake of the work. I do it for the sake of the accomplishment. I want to glide, always glide. I want to be a natural.
But I was not a natural, never. Skiing is my best sport, but it has taken me all 35 years to get to the level of ability I’m at today. In my 20s, trying to impress myself and more importantly, trying to impress girls, I was OK, but I wasn’t impressing anyone. I had to grind and grind away at it.
There’s a widespread assumption that Kemp has had things too easy in his athletic life, and that this year he paid a price for it. I think that’s probably both truth and fallacy there. Kemp has made athletics a daily part of his life for probably 20 years or more now, ultimately at a level of intensity that most of us can’t relate to. The idea that Kemp hasn’t worked to get to where he is today couldn’t be more ignorant.
But Kemp undoubtedly, more than anyone sitting at a computer reading this piece, is a natural at sports – even at the game of baseball at which he can sometimes seem clunky. He was a basketball star in high school. He reached the professional level in his No. 2 sport at age 21. He got Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards as presents for his 25th birthday. Generally, Kemp has probably found throughout his life that if he worked a certain amount, he would get better, and that any setbacks were temporary. You grow accustomed to that pace.
Relatively speaking, Kemp is a natural, and it’s completely understandable that he would take pride in that. I know I would. Making it look easy? Come on. How could you not feel good about that? Of course you’d find self-worth in that.
Hustle is great, but not needing to hustle, not needing to make that extra, tear-yourself-up effort, not needing to be told what to do, that can be pretty spectacular. That is a rush and a half. Who wouldn’t become addicted to it? And addictions are not something you easily shed overnight.
* * *
OK, there have been times I have actually felt like a natural. Just a few. First-grade spelling: They didn’t call me Speedy Gonzales because I could run fast. Math was never a problem in elementary school. And I could rock a Mattel Electronic Football game pretty hard. It was effortless, and it felt good.
Starting in seventh grade, it started to get incrementally harder. I still had my strengths, but nothing was automatic. And as I went into high school, a philosophy evolved. It took as much effort for me to get from an F (i.e., doing nothing) to a B+ or A- in an average class, as it did for me to get from an A- to an A. In other words, the cherry on top was half the effort. The A, though it seemed so close, was like the last 1,000 “Into Thin Air” feet of the climb to the top of Everest. That was the part where you could die trying.
And so sometimes, going for the A often seemed not worth the trouble. Other times, it wasn’t by choice. I took to science like Kemp has taken to the tailing slider. After sailing along in math my whole life, calculus brought me to my knees. I made mistakes that I couldn’t fathom, and I made mistakes that were just plain stupid.
I graduated from high school with a 3.5 or 3.6 grade-point average. I probably ranked about 40th out of 130 or so kids in the rather intense environment that was my senior class, better than some, worse than others. I had a lower GPA than my older brother or sister had (though who knows what my grade-point average on balls in play was).
I did have excellent SAT scores, but as the applications were going out, I was warned by our college counselor that I had the wrong combination of strengths. If your SAT scores were in a lower percentile than your GPA, that meant you made the extra effort to place above your station. You were a worker. You had character. High SATs and a lower GPA, however, meant you were lazy. Which, in my case, was not wholly true but partially so.
What did that make me? Did it make me a bad person, to be good but not great? That as hard as I tried, I consciously risked falling short of my goals because I couldn’t or wouldn’t make myself try harder? Should I be booed? Should I have my ethic questioned?
Ah, but it’s different, right? There’s no comparison between high school classes and major-league baseball. I wasn’t getting paid, first thousands and then millions like Kemp (though I was getting paid, in a sense, by my parents’ investment in my future). I was just a boy. Kemp is a man. I was in school; Kemp is a professional.
I’m going to argue that it’s not so different. As much as your circumstances change, there is a core part of you that remains young and in the midst of development. I am 42 years old, but that’s a chronological age. Or to put it another way, it’s an average of all the ages I feel. Sure, there’s some 42-year-old in me, but part of me still feels 9, and part of me feels about 75.
I approach life a certain way. I want to be better, and I’ll grind at it, but there’s a limit to what I’ll do. I work very hard, I feel, but I can’t emphasize that limit enough. And that limit can change on a weekly, daily, hourly basis. There always has and always will be a part of me that wants to do nothing more than smell the roses, whether those roses are Saturday morning cartoons as a kid or a nice long walk in the twilight as a grown-up. I like the work I do, but I don’t like to work. I accept the process and can even enjoy the journey, but the result is a big part of my reward. I always want my life to be easier; I always want things to go right the first time.
And so that limit of how hard I’m willing to work is a moving target. I suspect that’s true for many of us.
Knowing what to do is not the same as being able or willing to do it. It’s a hard lesson to learn that the effort that you’re comfortable with is not always enough. It’s a lesson that might make you rebel. Matt Kemp and I can’t be the only ones who wrestle with that. Being paid a lot of money might alter the personal battlefield, but it doesn’t eliminate it.
* * *
While on his postseason vacation in Europe with Rihanna, a short break before his offseason workouts begin, Kemp’s baseball mind is probably is at one of two places. He’s thinking that he has overcome hurdles before, and so there’s no reason to think he won’t overcome them again. Or he’s thinking that okay, that philosophy has worked in the past, but this time he really has to find another gear. He is going to have grind even harder than before, and that’s what he’s gonna show us next year.
Or he’s thinking both of the above. He will have to grind, but he will succeed. Because he believes.
I don’t know if it’s one, the other or both. However, I don’t imagine Kemp not caring about improving. There’s too much for him to gain – more money, more glory, more victory – not to care.
But let’s consider the alternative.
There is conflicting scuttlebutt about Kemp. You hear that he does work, very hard. You also hear that he’s not a good listener, that when it comes to instruction or coaching, he’s a mixed bag. People wonder where his head is at a given moment.
These are not contradictory reports. Far from it. The beef with Kemp is with his mental game, but that grievance contains an implicit assumption that only a fool, or worse, a scumbag, would operate at less than full mental capacity. That oversimplifies things to a remarkable degree, practically the equivalent of hammering Jamey Carroll because he isn’t bigger and stronger.
The mental game can be hard. For some, it can be unconquerable. The mental game is not a free throw. Carroll is better at it than Kemp, but Carroll is more than 10 years older than Kemp. Carroll didn’t even break into the big leagues until he was two years older than Kemp (who has played in 626 games) is now. Carroll had to hustle more than most, had to think more than most, or he’d simply never have made it in the show, much less stuck around.
Kemp now has to step up his mental game to bounce back from a disappointing 2010 season. Anyone, including Kemp, can see this. But people think it’s a matter of flipping a switch, and that’s simply not true. You don’t power the mental game by flipping a switch. You power it by being the hamster that grinds on the wheel all day long, all so that you might get one extra drop of water.
Everyone is asking the same thing of Kemp – to work twice as hard in order to become, instead of better than 99.9998 percent of the people in the world at his sport, better than 99.9999 percent.
Maybe that’s disingenuous; maybe it’s only fair to look at Kemp in the context of his peers, among whom he ranked poorly in 2010, at least by Fangraphs’ estimation. The point is, everyone is expecting Kemp to be humble about a career that, until a few months ago, he has had every reason to take pride in. That might require more than an overnight adjustment. It might require trying harder, and then thinking you’ve got it, and then realizing you don’t, and then having to search – sincerely search – for new levels within yourself that aren’t immediately apparent.
Kemp, who has averaged more than 20 homers a year with a .285 batting average, who has had Gold Glove and Silver Slugger honors, two playoff appearances, a past income of more than $5 million and a guaranteed 2011 income of nearly $7 million, who came back and improved after disappointing finishes to his 2006 and 2008 seasons, is being told that’s not enough, not nearly. He’s being told that if he doesn’t improve in 2011, he will be a great disappointment, and if there’s any question about his effort, it will be nothing less than shameful.
And here I sit, having worked hard to get where I am but with plenty farther I could go, having consciously and constantly holding myself back. Kemp is considered a mental misfit even though he’s a grown man under constant instruction, while no one questions my dedication to writing even though all I’m subjected to is the occasional edit, and I haven’t taken a writing class in 15 years. Kemp is sliced and diced for his Rihanna romance, even if the sincerity of it – no matter what the future holds – should no longer be in doubt, while I refuse any job that would require travel or night work that would take me away from my wife and kids, even if it would bring in more money, more glory, more victory.
If Kemp were to say to himself – and I personally don’t think for a moment he is saying this to himself – “I have money, I have love, I have a good job and I have my health, and I have this all just by being who I already am, and even though I’m no longer the best, that’s all I need,” no one would think for a moment that this was a legitimate perspective, even though outside the world of competitive sports, it most certainly is. In sports, there’s no greater sin than unrealized potential. And yet in life, in real life, letting some of your potential go at a certain point can actually be a gift to yourself and your loved ones.
* * *
But let’s say you accept your flaws. You’re humbled. You’re trying to get better. You aren’t getting there.
You don’t necessarily decide when it’s going to click.
In ninth-grade history, I had a teacher I was really struggling with. He had a very strong, upper-crust personality and was not afraid to mock you. I simply did not get him, and I felt that whatever I was learning — and I was learning something — I was learning despite him.
Tests in the class typically consisted of a short-answer portion (60 points) and then an essay (40 points). One time, mid-essay, I found myself in deep trouble. I had started with a thesis paragraph that I couldn’t really support. I can’t really recall what it was or why I went with it, although I guess it was basically the argument I thought the teacher would have made or what he wanted to see. But I just couldn’t see it through.
I crossed out the paragraph and started over, arguing the opposite. (Hello, George Costanza.) I was running out of time but I whipped through it. It wasn’t effortless – I had to think about what I was writing – but the thoughts did follow, one after another. Nevertheless, I didn’t turn in the exam with any confidence.
When I got it back, my teacher had given me 45 points for the 40-point essay portion, and written the following words: “Weisman, I have challenged you, and you have come alive!”
Sounds hokey for sure, but you don’t forget something like that. And not to go all “Dead Poets Society” on you, but I came to realize that the teacher – all 23 years old of him – had come to this class at the start of the school year and found many of us in a stupor before it had even started, and he was trying to shake us out of it. He wasn’t trying to impose himself on us. He was trying to draw something out of us. That’s not something that you necessarily can understand right away. Arguably, it could be even harder to realize when you’re older. I know, despite my best intentions, I don’t love criticism, however constructive.
This moment in ninth grade was a turning point for my life as a writer, as a thinker and as a doer, but there was no straight path to it. I needed to get somewhere, and I got to it, but it couldn’t have been more roundabout. It involved a clash and reconciliation of determined instruction with determined independence. It involved a personal evolution on its own timetable that no one could control. Though it was largely a mental issue, it wasn’t an issue of effort or desire or choice. Not by themselves, anyway.
And all this leads to is the next challenge, and the next. For a decade in my 20s and 30s, I would pursue the goal of writing for primetime shows and fall short. Today, I have several different paths I pursue, but I’m honestly not sure where I should channel all my energies. Sometimes, I think I’m doing my best; other times I’m not so sure. There is still doubt. Which one of me is right?
* * *
I imagine two types of reactions to this piece. (Maybe more, but these two will be among them.)
1) Yeah, you make some good (if long-winded) points.
2) What kind of pathetic apology for mediocrity is this?
Let me reiterate that I don’t believe that Kemp is actively choosing mediocrity. Nor am I trying to suggest that mediocrity is a worthy end, in and of itself.
I am asking people to understand that stepping up one’s effort is a process, and it’s not an easy process. There really is no such thing as an overnight success. Asking more of yourself than you’re used to giving is — in and of itself — a challenge. More than a challenge, it’s a mystery.
There’s always a limit. There’s always something that holds us back, some level of relaxation we preserve for ourselves, whether it’s money, pleasure, sleep, blissful ignorance or what have you. And the questions, for Kemp or anyone else, are twofold: Where do you want to be on that scale, and how much control you have over that desire?
In the coming year, we’ll see what Kemp is made of at age 26. We’ll see how much he steps up his mental game. It’s silly to assume that he won’t develop at all, but if he doesn’t develop as much as people like me hope, there are all kinds of reasons why. They’re not excuses. They’re reasons.
None of us know how Kemp will respond to the challenge. I’m not sure Kemp even knows. Plus, his performance in 2011 won’t necessarily be an accurate reflection of his work ethic. He could coast, and improve based on just natural development. He could bust his butt, and slide farther back. People will cheer if he does well, boo if he does poorly, draw conclusions based on whatever they see fit.
As I approach the 4,000-word mark on this essay, I guess all I’m really trying to say about turning on hustle and smarts is this: Living up to the standard that John Wooden set … it’s just not that simple.
With Chad Billingsley pitching brilliantly, Matt Kemp slugging a homer here and making a diving catch there, and Andre Ethier going 4 for 4 … you’d almost think you had a ballclub.
The reality was you had but one victory, the Dodgers’ 79th in 161 games, 3-2 over Arizona. But, they’ll take it.
Billingsley pitched brilliantly, taking a perfect game into the fifth, a no-hitter into the sixth and a shutout into the eighth. He had whittled his ERA for the season down to 3.47 and struck out nine in 7 1/3 innings before finally getting touched for two runs in the eighth. Kenley Jansen pitched the ninth and, though he allowed the tying run to reach second base, struck out the side for the save.
Kemp homered for the fourth consecutive game, getting a green light on a 3-0 pitch from guest manager Jamey Carroll and drilling it out to break a scoreless tie in the fifth inning. Prime Ticket had great audio of Carroll celebrating his decision in the dugout: “That’s why we do it!” (They also caught Carroll showing his excitement over the potential three-way tie between San Francisco, San Diego and Atlanta for the final two playoff spots in the National League, as well as becoming the second manager in as many nights to as Clayton Kershaw to get him a sandwich.)
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3) Ethier will need a heck of a memorable Sunday to catch Kemp, whom he trails in home runs, 27-23.
4) Kemp’s 86th and 87th RBI pulled him within one of James Loney for the team lead.
6) Rafael Furcal did not play again, with Joe Torre telling reporters before the game that the team is consciously trying to keep Furcal’s average over .300. Furcal is not expected to bat more than once in Sunday’s finale.
10) Pittsburgh lost, clinching the worst record in the National League since the All-Star break.