The 2014 Dodgers have their share of problems. There’s no doubt about that. If you try to pretend that’s not true, you’re not being realistic. 35-31, a mere four games over .500, is not acceptable for the amount of talent and salary on this team. It’s not good enough. There’s plenty of valid reasons for why that is, of course, including:
• Poor defense
• Inconsistent bullpen performance
• Criminal assaults in the minors
• Questionable managerial decisions
• Never-ending outfield controversies
And so much more! It’s really not that hard to point at this team and see the reasons they’re under-performing. That’s what makes it so frustrating to see attempts, both from fans and media, to create other reasons to criticize the team. You don’t have to make things up! There are real things. And yet, people insist on finding or inventing other issues. There’s three of them that stand out, really. The next time you hear any one of them, just remember how easy it is to refute them.
Not okay: “They’re 7.5 games behind the Giants!”
This is a favorite, because those good ole’ fun-loving scooter-losin‘ Giants are showing those overstuffed one percenters from Southern California what’s what. But that’s generally used in terms only of how fantastically disappointing the Dodgers seem to be, and that’s more than a little unfair to both them and the Giants, who have the best record in baseball. San Francisco is on pace to win 105 games. They won’t, but that’s what they’re currently tracking to do, partially because they’re a better team than we care to accept, and partially because they’ve run into some particularly good luck. (What I mean by that is that they’ve done better than anyone in high leverage situations, and while they deserve credit for what they’ve done, that’s not a predictable and repeatable skill; just look at the 2013-14 Cardinals.)
So if you complain that the Dodgers aren’t keeping track with the Giants, what you’re really saying is that the Dodgers aren’t on pace to win the most games in the entire history of the franchise, which means that your expectations were hilariously out of whack in the first place. When the two teams aren’t playing one another, the Dodgers don’t have a lot to say about whether the Giants are winning in San Diego or Philadelphia or Miami. To act as though it’s somehow Don Mattingly‘s fault that San Francisco is playing unbelievably absurdly well hundreds or thousands of miles away is just foolish.
It is fair, of course, to note that the Dodgers have dropped seven of ten games against the Giants this year. That doesn’t help. What also didn’t help is that the way the rotation came together, three of those games were started by the atrocious Paul Maholm while Clayton Kershaw was injured. Maholm allowed 24 baserunners and nine earned runs in 16 innings; I imagine things might have been different had Kershaw been available.
The simple fact is this: Forget the Giants, unless the Dodgers are playing them. What they’re doing is incredibly impressive and also unrelated to the Dodgers. The NL West is most likely not in reach, but the wild card absolutely is; if the season ended today, they’d be tied for a spot. The Giants aren’t the team you need to worry about; the Nationals, Marlins, Braves and Cardinals are.
Not okay: “They have a 40 billion dollar payroll and they’re starting _____!”
This is the curse of being rich, I suppose, but it pops up all over the place, most recently from Cincinnati beat writer John Fayman before the Dodgers started Jamie Romak, Chone Figgins, and Justin Turner around Hanley Ramirez, with Tim Federowicz behind the plate. And yeah, I get it. It’s fun. I make fun of some of those lineups too.
But, obviously, life doesn’t really work like that. According to Cot’s, approximately $109 million of the payroll is being used on pitchers (rotation, $63.8m; bullpen, $34m; injured Chad Billingsley, $12m), and I suppose I don’t have to tell you there’s only so many pitchers that can be in the game at once. I would presume that the fact that Juan Uribe and Dee Gordon and A.J. Ellis and Yasiel Puig and Carl Crawford have all missed time due to injury, and that Miguel Olivo BIT OFF Alex Guerrero‘s EAR, and that Adrian Gonzalez would dare get a day off now and then, are not exactly things that can be controlled by endless amounts of money. (Okay, fine, we all saw Crawford getting hurt coming.)
So yeah, sometimes bench players are going to have to play. And when they do, there’s a reason they’re bench players. No amount of money in the world was going to convince Jhonny Peralta and Stephen Drew and Michael Morse and on and on to come to Los Angeles to ride the bench. Money doesn’t work that way. Baseball doesn’t work that way. Sometimes, you have to let a Miguel Rojas in the lineup.
Not okay: “They don’t have chemistry!”
Full disclosure: I believe in chemistry. It’s real, to some extent. It’s not hard to believe you work better with people you like than people you don’t. There’s got to be something to how great the A’s have been over the last few years. Though I believe in math and stats, I don’t believe it’s fair to completely write off the fact that humans are playing this game.
But it’s not fair to — as a certain terrible national columnist wrote in a terrible and occasionally factually inaccurate article last weekend — insinuate that “chemistry” is the No.1 reason the Giants are playing well and the Dodgers are not, for reasons that should be obvious but which never seem to be. You know why? When people think of “chemistry,” they often think of the traditional gritty white scrappy guy, like Nick Punto or Skip Schumaker. Those guys both departed this winter. Without them, the Dodgers have no rudder. They have no hope. They have no chemistry.
…except, the Dodgers did have both of those guys last season, and all the gritty chemistry in the world didn’t prevent them from being an embarrassing train wreck for the first three months of the season. It wasn’t chemistry that turned that around. It was Puig, and it was Ramirez, and it was Zack Greinke, and it was Kershaw. You may have noticed that Schumaker’s new team, the Reds, are limping along in fourth place. Punto’s new team, the A’s, have won essentially as many games through this point in the season with him as they did without him. Last year’s chemistry darlings, the World Series champion Red Sox, are six games under .500. It’s almost as though winning helps create chemistry more than the other way around.
Chemistry matters, sure. It’s not zero. It might be part of why Ramirez has seemed to regress so much on defense, if unhappiness over his contract has caused him not to work as hard at it. (Speculation.) But anyone who’s putting it near the top of the list of “why baseball teams win (or don’t)” has completely gone off the deep end. Chemistry matters. Health and talent matter far, far more.