Tuesday, October 25, 2016

"We'll Get'em Next Year!" The Dodgers in 2016

Before I wash and hang my Dodger jersey and hang it up until next April, I thought I would reflect on the team’s season that ended in disappointment last night.  
I wasn’t sure if I should start with the things I think the team needs to improve, or what I think they did well.  So, I flipped a coin.  Heads = Things we did well.  Tails = Things we need to improve.  Tails won.  So here we go.
Our pitching was pretty good this year overall.  We ended up fifth overall at the end of the regular season.  The Chicago Cubs, the team we lost to in the NLCS, were rated number one.  
Despite the high rating, I have issues with how we went about pitching against other teams.  Our starting pitchers had a tendency leave games early, about the fifth inning or so.  Kenta Maeda, who lead the team in wins and strike-outs for the year, never pitched in the seventh inning.  
This forced us to rely very heavily on our bullpen.  The bullpen did come through, it lead all bullpens in strike-outs and innings pitched and was rated third overall in effectiveness.  The bullpens for the Cubs and the Baltimore Orioles were rated higher.  
This system got us through the regular season, but didn’t work so well in the NLCS.  I think the Cubs batters were able to get their timing down on our bullpen pitchers and feed on them after a few games.  Maeda as a starter was not as effective in the playoffs either.  They had him on a Japanese-like rotation schedule, resting five days between outings instead of the usual four, which seemed to help, but the longer MLB season left him tanked.  
Another thing I think Maeda needs to work on his placement.  His best pitch is his slider.  It was rated as the hardest to hit in the Majors this season.  His slider ends up in the bottom of the strike zone, as sliders tend to do.  But his other pitches, his change-up and fastball, tend to go low into the strike zone as well.  I think batters were getting use to concentrating their attention on the bottom half of the zone, making forcing Maeda to work harder.  
So, getting our starting rotation healthy and stronger so they can pitch into the seventh inning at least, getting Maeda to elevate some of his pitches, like his fastball, to force batters to look at the whole strike zone, are the items the pitching staff should work on.  
The Dodgers ended up 14th overall in the MLB in batting.  Decent.  Not bad.  But as with our pitching performance, our ranking was due to a strange combination of forces.  
The Dodgers ended up the best team in the league when facing right-handed pitching.  We were also the worst team in the league when facing left-handed pitching.  This gave our opponents a very obvious strategy when throwing against us: Use all the left-handed pitchers on their staff against us.  
The team’s line-up is left-handed heavy, which would tend to lower the batting percentage against left-handed pitching.  Even so, we need to find a way to balance that out otherwise we’ll struggle every time a left-hander is on the mound.  
The Dodgers ended up seventh overall in fielding.  Defense and pitching, and getting enough runs to win, were the basis of our game this year.  This was a prototypical Dodger team.  When you look at the great Dodger teams of the past, good pitching, strong defense and timely if not overpowering hitting, were their hallmarks.  
In the post-season, though, we got sloppy.  We lead all playoff teams in errors through the Champion Series.  And the errors, as they are wont to do, took place at moments in the game when they allowed rallies to start or continue with devastating effect.  I can think of a sequence during game five when our relief pitcher, Baez, made two mistakes, bobbling a toss when he covering first and not covering home, with a runner on third, on a squib-hit to first base, that allowed a five run rally to continue.  
Good defense has to become better defense in the playoffs.  
That’s it for improvements.  It’s not an extensive list, because the Dodgers are a very solid team.  Here are the things I like about them. 
Front Office
I’ve heard a number of people tell me, and have read numerous comments, expressing the opinion that the front office should be replaced.  These people decry the “moneyball” strategy that they appear to be using, and perceive an unwillingness to make deals to bring a a World Series winning team to Los Angeles.  
I disagree.  First, you have to remember that this management team took over a financial situation that was a complete mess after McCourt and his people were replaced.  There were contractual obligations, created by the same sort of throw-money-at-problem way of thinking that needed to be addressed.  They’ve done that while keeping the team competitive.   Four straight division titles don’t get won by accident.  
Second, they’ve recognized that the team had a lot of young talent in the farm system that could help us win future titles.  The deals they avoided that these short-sighted fans were crying for involved trading away this talent.  Pederson, Seager, Urias, three young  players coming into their own this season, were all part of several proposed deals to fill some perceived deficiency in our lineup.  All three contributed to the team’s success this  year.  Seager will very likely be yet another Rookie of the Year for the Dodgers, which leads the majors in producing more Rookies of the Year historically.  Pederson has been described as the best centerfielder for the team since Duke Snider by none other than Vin Scully.  The Blue Jays made the sort of deals that these fans wanted and ended up going no farther in the playoffs than we did.  And I like our chances for next year better than theirs.  
Dave Roberts
I had my doubts about the new manager.  In the early part of the season, I thought he was managing too much “by the numbers.”  If he had it written down that “this guy’s” limit was 90 pitches, then he’d pull him at 90 pitches.  He didn’t seem very creative to me in the beginning.  
But then came this one moment involving Puig.  It was in April.  Can’t remember the team we were playing against.  Puig hit a ball deep.  He thought it was gone.  He did his usual bat flip and trotted toward first base on what he thought would be his stroll around the bases. 
Only problem, the ball didn’t leave the stadium.  It bounced off the top of the centerfield wall and careened into the field.  While Puig did drive in a run, what should have been a stand-up double, or maybe even a sliding triple, became an embarrassing single.  
When Puig got back to the bench, Roberts sat down next to him and had what was clearly a serious conversation.  Puig was taken out of the game.  He sat there looking like a kid who didn’t know what to do.  
A few games later, Puig was back in the line-up.  At one at bat, he hit a ball into the left-field corner.  Not deep.  An easy double.  But Puig ran hard.  He went from home to third in 15.2 seconds.  It tied a record for fastest home to third sprint in the majors ever recorded.  More importantly, it scored a couple of runs.  
That RBI triple came from the conversation Roberts had with Puig in the previous game.  It was one of the first of many instances where Roberts took a situation and handled it to perfection.  By the end of the season, my internal debate wasn’t whether or not Roberts could do the job.  I was wondering whether or not he was a genius or just merely really, really good.  He’ll give us that answer in the next few years, I’m sure.  
A Coming Out Party
One of the best things about this season was seeing the new players coming to the forefront.  Players that would have been traded, or whom we might not be able to afford, had we adopted the “spend anything” attitude some fans seem to want.  
Joc Pederson got his bat straightened out and solidified himself in center field.  A genuine centerfielder and not just an outfielder playing in the middle.  
Corey Seager will be yet another Dodger Rookie of the Year and showed he wasn’t too big to play shortstop.  
Justin Turner continued his transformation from good utility player to a mainstay in the lineup holding down the hot corner.  
Andrew Toles was the feel good story of the season.  Overcoming discipline problems that got him cut from the Rays, he went from working part-time in a grocery store to becoming a good prospect for our next lead-off hitter.  
Yaseil Puig looks like he’s getting his head screwed on straight, finally.  He has so much raw talent that has stayed raw for several years.  Under Roberts’s management, he’s returned to a form where he can consistently contribute to the team.  At the very least, he’s increased his value as a piece in some future trade.  Personally, I’d like to see him stay and develop here than blossom someplace else.  
Kenta Maeda came into the starting rotation after Greinke left.  He ended the season tied for fifth in the league in wins, and lead our team in wins and strikeouts.  He needs to get stronger and work on his placement, but he can become a mainstay of our rotation.  And, important for me, he came to play for the Dodgers because he wanted to win a championship.  I like that type of spirit.  
Overall, I can say this about the Dodgers when I look at what they did this year, and what I think we can expect from them in the coming years.  They were exciting to watch.  They are an improving team.  I think even better things are coming in the future.  
Go Dodgers!  

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Specter of Harper's Ferry

While watching the second presidential debate last week, I finally got an understanding as to why someone might support Donald Trump for the office.  
The moment that really made this insight clear to me was somewhere around the middle of the even as I recall.  Trump was on his feet, pacing about, roaming over a number of different topics after being asked a question by one of the moderators.  Clinton was sitting and watching him.  
Trump had returned to the topic of Clinton’s corruption.  Looking at her, he stopped in the middle of the stage and proclaimed, “You’re the Devil.”  
That one statement clarified for me the difference between the people supporting Trump and those supporting Clinton.  Or even, those NOT supporting Trump.  The 1960 movie “Inherit the Wind” came to mind.  The debate was a re-staging of the Scopes trial, with Trump in the role of the firebrand preacher railing against “evil-loution” and Clinton as the humanist defense attorney, or a famous biologist, trying to explain the efficacy of the theory in explaining how the world of nature came to be.  
For Trump supporters, it is a question of faith.  And no amount of “explanation” will make a difference in eroding their support.  
The Trump canon is pretty straightforward.  It was better “Before.”  They represent what “most people” want.  They are not being listened to.  The fault with how things have become lies in other people.  Their candidate is the only one that can fix it.  Anyone that tells you otherwise is part of a conspiracy to stop him.  If he loses, it was because that conspiracy rigged the election.  
Some of these beliefs, I don’t get.  Such as the “better before” precept embedded in the campaign’s slogan, “Make American Great Again.”  When was this “better” time?  I grew up in the 60’s, when the country was being torn apart by anger and strife, while a foreign war raged in a tiny place on the other side of the globe.  The 70’s were just tough economically.  The 80’s were selfish.  The 90’s brought us new toys and new threats.  The 00’s brought terror and more foreign wars.  The 10’s have this country being torn apart by anger and strife, while foreign wars rage in tiny places on the other side of the globe.  
Some are easier to understand.  None of the electron seems to feel they’re being listened to.  Very few think things are going in the right direction.  Both of the two major political parties had someone promising revolutionary change.  One party choose that candidate, the other didn’t.  
But the most interesting thing about this perception as Trump’s supporters sharing a political religion, and maybe the word “terrifying” should be substituted for “interesting,” is what it is setting up for after the election.  
Since the last debate, Trump has been hammering on the point that the election is being rigged.  His apologists and supporters have been on the Sunday talk shows this week saying that by “rigged,” he means that the media and the “elites” are doing all they can to keep the spotlight on Trump’s bad behavior and ignoring Clinton’s.  
Setting aside a discussion on that topic, which could go pages and pages on its own, what Trump has been saying is seeping into what his supporters are saying.  People admitting that they’ve joined local militias for when, “she starts the war if she gets elected.”  People advocating revolution and assassination.  A clip of an interview with one Trump supporter that aired on ThisWeek, in reply to a question about what he would do if Clinton was elected, showed him saying, “If he had to be the patriot,” then he’d do what was necessary to keep her from taking office.  
I was somewhat uplifted by the second debate.  Sure, it was a World Wide Wrestling form of political discourse, and did not move anyone already decided on who they would vote for one jot.  But after watching it, and gaining the perception of Trump depending on the faith of those following him that things were a certain way, I felt assured that, come November, there would be closure to this ugly, embarrassing chapter in American politics.  I was pretty sure that Clinton would win, and while there would be at least four years of more partisanship and deadlock, there wouldn’t be an implosion of what I regard as our core values as we headed off to find some past paradise I’m not sure ever existed.  
But over the last several days, I’m now starting to think the day after the election could very well be the first day in an accelerating cycle of anger and recrimination as the Trump faithful do what they feel is necessary to “take back” the country they are certain is being taken from them. 
Remember what happened in Oregon, when a group of “sovereign citizens” took over a bird sanctuary in a rural part of the state.  Take that same situation and ratchet it up a few notches.  Instead of a rural nature preserve, make it a federal court house in the middle of a large city.  Instead of a handful of men with pistols and hunting rifles, a team of dozens of men that have self-trained in military tactics, armed with assault rifles and heavy weapons.  It may not be a Fort Sumpter.  But it could be another Harper’s Ferry.
If you don’t recall, Harper’s Ferry was the location of a federal armory in Virginia back in 1859.  John Brown, a radical abolitionist, lead a raid on the armory in an attempt to get weapons to arm the slaves being held in the south so they could revolt and gain their freedom.  The raid failed.  A marine contingent, lead by then Lieutenant Robert E. Lee, overran the armory killing ten men and arresting a wounded John Brown.  A month and half later, he was hanged for treason.  
The Harper’s Ferry raid took place on October 16, 1859.  One hundred fifty-seven years to the day I’m posting this blog.  

I’m hoping that the search of some true-believers looking for a lost promise land won’t result in another such event.  

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Playing the Futurist after Trump's Latest Gaff

I think Donald Trump may have finally delivered a fatal shot to the foot of his presidential aspirations.  The video tape of him admitting that groped and kissed women that he was working with, to the level where the term “sexual abuse” is not inappropriate, has caused such an uproar in the Republican party and such a hemorrhaging of support from elected officials, that it seems impossible for him to recover. There is even talking of the GOP forcing him to step down and have his running mate, Mike Pence, take his place.  
What I also think is very likely, given our nation’s propensity to vote for divided government, coupled with the strong negative feelings held by some voters toward Trump’s opponent, Hilary Clinton, that most people voting “against Trump” will turn around and vote Republican for an down-ballot candidates they have to choose from.  The Senate and the House were supposed to be vulnerable this cycle.  The one silver lining for the GOP in this debacle over their candidate for President is that it may help them retain control of Congress for the next two years, or maybe even four.  
Which leaves us with the same situation we were in that started the push for change seen in both of the two major parties.  A Democratic President, strongly hated and unpopular by many on the other side, with Republican controlled Congress very unwilling to enact just about anything this President may propose.  We may be looking at another four years of stalemate.  
Before I proceed forward, a moment of full disclosure.  Personally, I am registered Non-Partisan in my state (California).  I have been registered Non-Partisan for decades, since I was in college an came to the conclusion that neither party represented me, or had a vision of the future I could fully support.  
My ambivalence toward the two major parties stems from me being fairly progressive when it comes to social issues, while being very conservative when it comes to fiscal policy.  In my voting career I have leaned toward Democratic candidates, but I haven’t been exclusively so.  I voted for Bill Clinton the first time he ran, not the second.  I voted enthusiastically for Obama the first time he ran, reluctantly the second.  I voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary, not “even though,” Hilary Clinton was clearly about to be come the presumptive nominee, but BECAUSE she was clearly going to become the nominee and I wanted to vote my conscience.  I feel the desire for change as strongly as most of the electorate this year and Ms. Clinton represents to me a continuation of the last several years of deadlock and partisan sniping.  
But that still makes her a cut above what the Republican Party has offered us in Donald Trump.  Several cuts above, in fact.  His supporters have posted how the media has unfairly focuses on him and his negatives and given Hilary Clinton a pass.  To them I say, I haven’t had to rely on the media for my opinion on Donald Trump.  You can remove all the media coverage, watch the videos of what he says and does, read the tweets he writes late at night, and see the behavior of his supporters through social medial and know with certainty that this man is not someone that should be trusted to take out the trash, let alone lead our nation and represent our nation to other countries.  This latest send-up over what he said in the Access Hollywood video is the most recent example. What is so telling about it isn’t that it’s huge major surprise and shock that he claimed to doing such disrespectful and atrocious acts.  This is not a sudden left turn as what happened to Gary Hart on the Monkey Business years and  years ago to derail that rising star of the Democratic Party’s presidential aspirations.  What makes this latest event in Trump’s political career is that it draws a straight line from his past beliefs and behaviors to what he has been saying to the American people for the last year and a half.  
It’s isn’t a “controversy.”  It’s “confirmation.”  
If my perspective on this election is accurate, and there are no more “October Surprises” to come, then the Republican Party will spend the next several years, maybe two, maybe four, maybe even eight, licking their wounds and trying to figure out what what went wrong.  
The first and most likely course of action will be to make tactical changes to their process and campaigning gameplay.  Put in new rules to prevent an outsider from hijacking the primary process.  Vet potential candidates that proved to have some traction with conservative voters, like Ted Cruz, and give him a script that will appeal to them.  Maybe even more underhanded tactics such as changing voting laws in the states they control to help confirm a majority of voters that support their basic policies.  This way may help to regain the White House a couple of terms from now, but will only exacerbate the political stalemate our country is in.  
Or…  They could do something else.  
I’ve heard Republican strategists lament on the Sunday talk shows that the “Trump Phenomena” (my quotation marks, not theirs) was due to the fact that their party offered nothing to their constituents.  No vision for the future.  No policies to help or support their dreams.  No encouragement that they were speaking for them, or any other voting group they wanted support from.  
What if, this time, after this embarrassing debacle, they finally get the hint and do that?  
If, for instance, they start by formulating a fiscal policy that is truly conservative.  One that insists on a balanced budget.  One that really does give middle class families a break and asks all people at all levels to pay their fair share.  Just as Nixon was the only President that could go to China, the Republican Party would immediately grab the interest of people of many political stripes.  
It would need to be a deep, abiding reexamination of what their values really are and how they work in the changing social landscape of the twenty-first century.  One that was truly inclusive.  One that expressed what they’ve claimed to stand for, but for all brands of Americans.  Given the nature of what looks like the average Trump supporter, or those that have been most vocal in supporting him, this may be too hard a change to make.  
But if they were to reach down and look at who and what they are and express that in a new political agenda, then they will not only revitalize their party, but may very well create a political engine that will not only allow them to regain the White House, but maybe even put their stamp on the political outlook on this country from now through the middle of this relatively new century.  
The Democratic Party won’t be making the same introspective journey.  Victory in the presidential race will wash away any inclination for such examination under a wave of self-satisfaction.  This is a pity, because the Democrats could use the same sort of soul-searching I believe.  Bernie Sanders would not have been such a competitive candidate as he was if this was not so.  

I will be very glad, and very, very relieved, if Donald Trump loses this election.  If his impact goes beyond this November, and induces a tidal change such as I’ve described above in the party he took over to achieve his own desires for power, political this time instead of financial, then I may end up being grateful to him in the long run for what it ends up doing for this country.