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!  


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