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DODGER BOO: HOW TO SELF-SABOTAGE A DYNASTY WITH OVERTHINKING
No one feels sorry for a resources-bloated Hollywood production when the beleaguered manager burns out starting pitchers — and the front office’s decisions last offseason turned out even worse
Let this be a lesson about the eggheadization of baseball. Not all pennants are won by crunching numbers, scrutinizing spreadsheets and treating players like automatons. It’s an especially potent warning when the team that embraces Wall Street Ball like few others, the Los Angeles Dodgers, blow a $270 million payroll in the process.
So many resources, so much wasted brainpower.
Fail to resign Joc Pederson, watch him return with a vengeance in an Atlanta uniform and a pearl necklace. Fail to bring back Kike Hernandez, see him lead Boston deep into the other league championship series. Do so to accommodate Gavin Lux and stick him in center field, which he navigated like a drunk in L.A. traffic. Leave the offense shockingly impotent. Prioritize the offseason signing of pitcher Trevor Bauer, who gave them a trail of sexual assault allegations for their $102 million and has been gone for months.
And quicker than the click of a desktop mouse, Dodger Blue fades to Dodgers Boos.
Positioned as a dynasty, the Best Team Guggenheim Money Can Buy is one defeat from another postseason ouster. What should have been a historic run of multiple championships could end up with only one, last autumn in the full-on pandemic season, which stacks up as a maddening stumble of underachievement. While the Braves, who won 18 fewer regular-season games, prepare to party with champagne in the exasperated environs of Chavez Ravine, the Dodgers should exit with a collective smashing of office computers.
Game after game, they’ve been undone by tactical errors of overthinking. It started when manager Dave Roberts, continuing a postseason pattern that rightly has turned him into a fan target, reprised Max Scherzer’s late-innings role in a Game 5 victory in the National League Division Series in the ill-advised form of Julio Urias. If the Dodgers go on to lose the NLCS, that decision will be remembered as the one that sucked the energy from the title-repeat mission. You don’t opt for Urias, a 20-game winner entrenched as an overworked starting pitcher, in the eighth inning of Game 2, when an ample brigade of true relievers was available. Not only did the Braves nick Urias for two runs, Roberts risked the same fate that doomed Scherzer when he returned three nights later and lasted only 4 1/3 innings. Predictably, Urias didn’t have his good stuff Wednesday night in Game 4, and he was knocked around by the Braves in a 9-2 loss before a mortified crowd that rushed to the exits.
In his fourth appearance in 11 days, as the perceptive Ron Darling kept repeating on the TBS broadcast, Urias was suffering from overuse. Or, if you prefer, abuse.
“I don’t think he was necessarily tired,’’ said Roberts, in denial. “I think the stuff was good. They had a very good game plan for him.”
“No, I felt good. I felt good physically,’’ Urias claimed.
The only one telling the truth was Scherzer, who admitted after his ineffective start, “My arm was dead. I could tell, as I was warming up, that it was still tired.”
There is a bigger story here — the Dodgers’ offense has been feeble and outslugged by unheralded Eddie Rosario and the Braves, in part because baseball boss Andrew Friedman underestimated the likes of Pederson and Hernandez and left his bench barren. And there is an even bigger story than that — Major League Baseball, as an industry digging in amid a labor crisis, is trying to blur the lines between starting pitchers and relievers, turning “bullpen games’’ into the norm in an attempt to minimize the lucrative market for starters as a potential work stoppage approaches. That’s why Scherzer, a players’ union activist and marquee free-agent-to-be, continues to speak out against the practice.
“As players, all we want to do is win, so if you tell us this is going to help us win, yeah, we’re all on board, let’s go for it. To speak on the other side of the coin, from a fan’s perspective and baseball as a whole, if you say: “Is this something that we want the game to go into? My answer is no. No, you don’t,” said Scherzer, whose save against San Francisco in the NLDS came only three days after he threw 110 pitches. “You want to see starting pitchers. You want to see starting pitchers pitch deep. I think that’s best for the fans, best for the players, everybody involved. I think that’s how we all envisioned the games.”
And it’s why superagent Scott Boras pointed out that teams have burned out pitchers without consideration of last season’s shortened, 60-game regular-season schedule. “A blind eye has put a black eye on the game," Boras told USA Today. “The commissioner’s office needs to understand we are not back to normal. We are still dealing with the pandemic."
Unless the Dodgers win three straight in the championship series, all eyes will turn to Roberts. When Mike Shildt is dumped after managing the St. Louis Cardinals to a 17-game win streak and a wild-card berth, you wonder if the Dodgers would hang their latest big-money failure on Roberts. But do acknowledge this: He is only the dugout face of a larger organizational philosophy. Notice how Roberts slipped into plural mode when asked about widespread criticism among fans and media.
“That’s certainly something that’s alive,” he said. “It’s something we’ve kind of had to deal with all year, every year, as far as the way we go about how we manage a roster or how we go about playing games and using pitchers. It’s more magnified in the postseason, which I absolutely understand. But again, just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s wrong. A decision that doesn’t work out doesn’t mean it was the wrong decision.
“That’s the great thing about baseball, man, that it opens things up for second-guessing. It’s not basketball. It’s not a missed shot. It’s not football, a play that wasn’t executed. It’s a lot of different variables that you can think through, second-guess.’’
The baseball-as-robotics ideology comes from the too-fertile mind of Friedman — and similar front-office analytics freaks enabled by the Tampa Bay think tank. If Roberts is blamed or fired by upper management, it only would serve to deflect heat from Friedman and the corporate bosses. Roberts made the call to use Urias in relief, which triggered a domino collapse that allowed the Braves and their manager, Brian Snitker, to win the strategy gambit with Drew Smyly and a host of relievers in Game 4. For that error alone, Roberts’ fate become an immediate daily discussion in a town that expects championships, plural. But the decisions to dump Pederson and Hernandez and sign Bauer were made on high.
Which means the Dodgers will feel the civic inferno if bounced by the Braves, whose payroll is just $147 million. Roberts will be the target, an occupational hazard of managing, but the absence of offense is the responsibility of the front office. If not for Cody Bellinger’s miracle three-run homer in Game 3, the Dodgers already would be dead. “I know it’s not for lack of work and preparation, so the last part of it, and most important, is execution,’’ Roberts said. “I just … I don’t have an answer.’’
I have an answer. The Dodgers can’t get out of their own way, about to become the rare team to win 111 games without reaching the World Series. Their confidence melds into an arrogance, a thought process that assumes everything they try will work. When it doesn’t, they are feeble, choosing to use 28 pitchers in one championship series.
Money, as a wise financier said, is a terrible thing to waste. And to think the Dodgers are falling short while the team they dearly wanted in the Series, the cheatin’ Houston Astros, apparently are headed to an American League pennant without the aid of electronically stolen signs and a banging drum.
Think about it: Has a ballclub ever spent so much money and derived so little from the investment? Just call them the Best Team Overthinking Can Doom.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he has gravitated by osmosis to film projects.