The Dodgers are winning, and it’s not hard to see why. They’re winning because they’re hitting like they’re the best offense in baseball history. (Seriously.) They’re winning because the bullpen has been shockingly great, even without Kenley Jansen. They’re winning because the depth we talked about all winter has been incredible, and because they have all of the dollars. All of them. They’re on pace for well over 100 wins.
There’s a lot of reasons why this team is playing well, even if it’s not all sustainable or possibly even close to it. But maybe, just maybe, isn’t it time to throw some credit at the manager? A little?
It seems like Don Mattingly has never been popular, and while a lot of that is simply because managers rarely are, it’s also because he came into this job already trying to make up a deficit. He’d never managed before, and when (as hitting coach) he got a brief chance to step in for an ejected Joe Torre in 2010, he made a memorable gaffe that played a large part in a Dodgers loss. A lot of fans preferred Tim Wallach, who’d had two successful years managing in Triple-A. Some didn’t like that it seemed like he’d just be another Torre, full of all the flaws that Torre had exhibited. I’m pretty sure I was part of that group. He was an unknown quantity, and that’s always worrisome.
Now we’re into his fifth season, and I’m still hearing regularly from fans who want him gone. That’s an occupational hazard of being a manager, but then, sometimes I think we’ve forgotten just how bad things were when he started and how far both he and the organization have come. Remember, this might be year five, but it’s “completely different situation” four:
- 2011-12: Low point of the McCourt disaster
- 2012: Ownership transfer and wild in-season spending
- 2013-14: High expectations with big dollars
- 2015: Completely new front office and remade roster
Mattingly had his struggles and growing pains, I hardly need to remind you. The bunts, obviously. Bunt. Bunt. Buntbuntbunt. We spent a lot of digital ink in those years on the bunts. The only reason I can talk about the 2013 NLDS is because Juan Uribe turned disastrous instructions into a brilliant homer. Bunt. Bunt. Bunt. There were bullpen shenanigans, and the insistence on hitting Dee Gordon leadoff even when he had absolutely no capability to get on base, and hey, remember Game 161 of 2012, a must-win game when he had A.J. Ellis (who could hit at the time) bunt in order to get Elian Herrera (probably) up in the biggest spot?
It wasn’t pretty, often. But even then, I always felt that for all of the on-field miscues, we weren’t quite giving enough respect to what it was like to run this particular team at that particular moment. Here’s me, looking back on 2011, his first season:
Sometimes, I think we underestimate just how bad of a situation the 2011 Dodgers were for a rookie manager to get shoved into. As if getting handed the reins to a team with no managerial experience wasn’t tough enough, Don Mattingly was lucky enough to finally get his dream job on a team that suffered through one of the worst off-field seasons of any club I can remember in decades. That’s on top of an on-field collection that featured two superstars but far more dead space than bright spots.
That’s a team that could have collapsed, and not just in a traditional “we’re going to lose 98 games” sort of way, but in a “we’ve totally given up and we’re going to be an embarrassment on and off the field” sort of way. You don’t have to squint to hard to envision a scenario where we’d have been calling for Mattingly’s head at the end of the worst season in the long history of the Dodger franchise.
But it didn’t happen. The team was awful for the first few months, losing games and being uninteresting while doing so and losing nearly the entire bullpen to injury, but we never questioned their effort. Save for Andre Ethier’s usual outbursts, we never heard about problems in the clubhouse, and from our external view, Mattingly was able to keep the club focused on the field and not in the courtroom. By the end of September, as the team suddenly turned into a second-half force, I had no choice but to praise Mattingly’s performance.
So there was that, but once McCourt was gone, it’s not like it was completely smooth sailing. Remember back in May 2013, when it seemed like he was managing on a day-to-day basis before getting fired? Remember that horrendously awkward press conference with Ned Colletti after 2013? Remember the bunting? Remember when Yasiel Puig was benched for Andre Ethier in last year’s deciding game of the NLDS? If you still didn’t like the manager, there was plenty to point to. (No, don’t start on his bullpen management against the Cardinals. When Clayton Kershaw & J.P. Howell can’t get the job done, and when you have no better options than zombified Scott Elbert, the problems go far beyond the manager.)
But we always heard that Mattingly’s true strength was managing the clubhouse, and that seems to have been generally true. The clubhouse has gone from a few stars surrounded by a lot of scrubs all wondering if McCourt would make payroll to a sudden influx of massive wealth to this year’s enormous overhaul. He’s the one who’s had to deal with rosters that so often just haven’t made sense, from the never-ending TOO MANY OUTFIELDERS mess to everything that Puig is to everything that Brian Wilson was to intermittent unhappiness from Ethier and Kemp and Hanley Ramirez and others. This year, it’s again been TOO MANY OUTFIELDERS — I can’t imagine Ethier was happy this spring, and with Ethier playing well, it’s going to be some kind of juggling act when Puig and Carl Crawford return — and now it’s too many third basemen, in a sense, with the popular Juan Uribe mostly riding the bench as Justin Turner and Alex Guerrero demand playing time.
Maybe, though, his true strength has been to be a survivor. He survived McCourt. He survived the clubhouse. He survived what seemed like an inevitable change to Joe Maddon when Andrew Friedman arrived. And this year… things have been good, though obviously winning makes everything seem good. There’s still been some buntastrophes this year; I won’t pretend otherwise. (Though Brim wisely pointed out late last year that the negative bunts had decreased each year.) But fewer and far between, to my eye. There’s been deft handling, for the most part, of a very uncertain bullpen. There’s been no issues that we know of regarding too many players for too few positions. He eased Joc Pederson into the bigs perfectly, hitting him eighth for a few weeks to get his feet wet and then quickly committing to him at the top of the order.
It hasn’t been perfect, because it’s never going to be. (Jimmy Rollins is still hitting second.) No manager is ever going to do things exactly the way you want, and we know the front office has had considerable input. But for a long while, it seemed like Mattingly was either holding the team back or at best could be defended only by saying “well, every other manager would do that stupid thing too.” Now, it doesn’t seem that way. It seems like he’s the right man at the right time for the right job — at least until the next infuriating choice, of course. Like on Wednesday, when some bullpen ineptitude led to a 5-4 loss to Miami, leading to no shortage of fan grumbling… except that wasn’t Mattingly, who’d been ejected. It was Wallach.
You’ll never love the manager, and you don’t even have to like the manager. But while it’s the players who win the games, it’s the manager’s job to put them in position to and then get out of the way. Right now, it’s hard to see anyone else doing a much better job. It’s not something I thought I’d ever say.