In every manager’s season comes those moments that he must rise up and be – “The Skipper”. This is the first such moment of 2015 for Dodgers manager, Don Mattingly.
This year the Dodgers came out of Spring Training like gangbusters. They hit homers from multiple positions in the lineup AND off the bench, withstood injuries to key players, jumped out to a fast first place in the division, and brought the excitement of a potential Dodgers juggernaut to Chavez Ravine. They even made believers of the East coast press. Don Mattingly was a series sweep or two away from eating lobster during his press conferences a la Tommy Lasorda.
But that didn’t happen. Adrian Gonzalez, the Dodgers’ butter and eggs man, hasn’t been delivering lately. Young Joc Pederson has stopped taking walks and started striking out. Justin Turner, Scott Van Slyke and Alex Guerrero, the boys off the bench with lightning in their bats, have lost their spark. The offense has gone quiet and hasn’t scored a run in 23 innings. Not one run.
Now toss in the latest Dodgers news – starting pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu will undergo shoulder surgery, more than likely ending his 2015 season before it even started.
The Dodgers presently find themselves in the bay area locked in battle with the second place Giants. They entered the series with a 4 1/2 game lead, so even if the worst case scenario should occur, and the Giants sweep the series, the Dodgers will maintain a 1 1/2 game lead.
However, there is more at stake in this series than those numbers. If a sweep should occur, the Giants will be behind in the standings, but clearly ahead in momentum. If the Dodgers can salvage one win this series, that will go a long way toward rebuilding the team’s confidence and take some air out of the Giants’ balloon.
There are those who believe a manager doesn’t make much of a difference in how a team will perform over the course of a season. I’m of the opinion that’s incorrect, and I point to Tommy Lasorda and the 1988 Dodgers as a case in point. If Tommy was anything, he was a motivator extraordinaire, and his presence was a major factor in World Series championships and an Olympic gold medal for Team USA.
Tommy is an extreme example, and most teams will either rise or fall according to their inherent potential. That said, I’m a firm believer that over the course of a season, praise or blame can be laid at a manager’s feet for five to ten wins or losses that are directly connected to that manager’s decisions.
For example, I lay last week’s 7-1 loss to the Rockies directly on Mattingly. In that game, he sat 40% of his regular offense (Gonzalez, Pederson and Ethier), while at the same time adding the lackluster bats of A.J Ellis and Juan Uribe to the lineup. They of course scored only one run – and not until the ninth inning. Mattingly managed the Dodgers into a loss on that one. In a tight enough divisional race, five wins or losses will make a heck of a difference.
I’m not a fan of Don Mattingly as manager. I’m not anti-Mattingly “just because”, but I definitely do not want a manager learning his craft with my team. Over the course of Mattingly’s managerial career, he’s shown himself to be below average in handling a batting order and a bullpen, while showing some modest improvements in his in-game decision-making. However, the area Mattingly has shown his greatest potential is in managing a team of men.
Over the past two years the Dodgers have transformed their seasons from near-disasters into playoff entries. Those reversals came about in a large part because of his ability behind the scenes to keep player egos from blowing everything apart and by strategically calling out players individually and the team as a whole when necessary.
Although the Dodgers are a very different team this year, we’re seeing the first flashes of a return to the bad habits of those previous squads who put up horrendous numbers with RISP and in bases loaded situations. Of course, teams will have offensive ups and downs over the course of a season, but a manager can manipulate and motivate, thus playing a role in a team’s focus and fulfillment of potential.
This series with the Dodgers and the Giants may not settle who is going to eventually win the division, but it is the first real challenge of the Dodgers’ season. While the Giants are their immediate adversaries, the real challenge the Dodgers are facing right now is within themselves.
The Dodgers juggernaut has stalled. The team is in hostile territory and on unsure footing. It’s Don Mattingly’s first big test of the season as leader. Time to right the ship, Skipper.