Don Mattingly, manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, has largely avoided blame for baseball’s most expensive team having no middle relief, no base-running aptitude and no chemistry.
He may not be on the hot seat, but he should be. Those three weaknesses are ones a good manager addresses.
The big-league manager under the most fire right now is Washington’s Matt Williams, whose tense personality is blamed for the team’s choking tendencies.
But the Nationals’ main problem is a starting rotation that was supposed to be the best in baseball but has underperformed. There’s really not much a field manager can do about that, though Williams might be faulted for overworking Max Scherzer to the point of arm fatigue.
The Dodgers’ problem is not their starting rotation. They have two of the most admired pitchers in the sport, Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, who rank first and third in National League ERA.
The Dodgers lost their third and fourth starters, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Brandon McCarthy, to injuries, but lefty Alex Wood (9-8, 3.70 ERA) and righty Brett Anderson (8-8, 3.36) are respectable and would be better if the bullpen could bail them out of trouble.
But that’s just it. Even with a player payroll of $300 million and the deepest front office in baseball, the Dodgers have assembled a bullpen that ranks 23rd with a 4.16 ERA. And Mattingly may be part of the problem.
Kenley Jansen is a reliable closer, converting 24 of 25 save opportunities. But the middle relief is deplorable. For the most part, middle relievers are failed starters. A good manager can make them effective with the proper matchups. San Francisco’s Bruce Bochy is masterful at using the bullpen to change tempo to keep the batters constantly off stride. Mattingly has not shown he’s very adept at this.
Another place where the manager has critical input is the running game. He can devote extra practice time to base-running. He can urge the team to be aggressive. He can call for steals and hit-and-runs. He chooses who directs traffic at third base.
“Our base-running has not been very good at all,” Mattingly admitted. “That’s really on all of us as a staff.”
The Dodgers did make a change recently, hiring Ron Roeneke to be their third-base coach. Given that he managed the Milwaukee Brewers for five seasons and even guided that low-paid tiny-market club to the National League Championship Series, Roeneke’s arrival does cause suspicion he could be Mattingly’s replacement if the Dodgers fail to hold off the Giants for first place in the NL West.
Mattingly points out that his team has below average foot speed. But young outfielders Joc Pederson and Yasiel Puig were base-stealers before they were promoted from the minor leagues to the Dodgers. Mattingly, whether intentionally or not, has slowed them down.
Puig is constantly cited as a chemistry problem, and he’s not much as a hitter this year, slipping 40 points to a .255 batting average. In her book, The Best Team Money Can Buy, Molly Knight wrote of veterans who want Puig traded because of his nonchalant manner. He’s almost always last one on the field, last one on the bus. He’s a tad overweight, at 6-2, 235 pounds, and his work ethic is faulted.
In an interview with ESPN, Knight said, “They need to find someone who can lay down the law with him.”
Apparently that’s not Mattingly.
Puig is a refugee from Cuba, and you would think the Dodgers would have at least one Latin American coach who could reach out to him – as well as to other Hispanic players in the organization. But the Dodgers haven’t done that, which could be partly Mattingly’s fault. A manager usually has considerable input on coaching hires.
The Dodgers have what is arguably the most talented roster in baseball, not just the most highly paid. When a ball club with that much talent underachieves, the manager has to come under scrutiny.
Entering Thursday night’s game with woeful Cincinnati, the Dodgers held a 2 ½-game lead on the Giants. But on Friday they open a three-game series, at home, against the astonishingly hot Chicago Cubs.
The Dodgers have seven games remaining with the Giants, and they’re 3-9 this season against their biggest rivals. Mattingly cannot be feeling very comfortable.