Early playoff exits sink Mattingly in L.A. as new brass wants its own hire
On Thursday, the Dodgers and manager Don Mattingly announced a mutual parting of the ways, ending the former Yankees icon’s five-year run at the helm in Los Angeles. While Mattingly guided the team to three straight postseason appearances, a run without precedent in the franchise’s history, the Dodgers’ failure to advance past the division series in each of the past two seasons despite record-setting payrolls—as high as $300 million this year—opened the question of his continued tenure, particularly given that he was a holdover from the previous front-office regime. Still, to the extent that the two sides publicly portrayed this split as far from acrimonious, it’s a puzzling situation to digest.
Mattingly guided the Dodgers to a 92–70 record and an NL West title this year, and to a 446–363 (.551 winning percentage) record during his five seasons. That’s good for an average of 89 wins per year, and a higher winning percentage than either mentor/predecessor Joe Torre (.531) or Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda (.526) compiled for the franchise. The Dodgers never finished below .500 on his watch and improved their win total over the previous year in each of his first four seasons, during which he rode out the team’s bankruptcy under former owner Frank McCourt and the record-setting sale of the team to the Guggenheim Group. But despite winning the division in each of the past three seasons, only in 2013, when they beat the Braves, did the Dodgers win a division series. They were ousted by the Cardinals in the NLCS that year, and then again in the division series in 2014. This year, they fell to the Mets in a five-game NLDS.
Mattingly had one more year under contract via an extension he received in January 2014, that after a strangely confrontational press conference alongside then general manager Ned Colletti following the team’s elimination from the NLCS. He had spent 2013 as a lame duck and was nearly fired after a slow start, but the team’s blistering 42–8 hot streak saved his job and propelled the Dodgers into the postseason. Their NLDS win over the Braves vested his option for 2014, setting up yet another lame-duck season that wasn’t averted until the aforementioned extension.
Colletti himself was replaced last November, when the Dodgers hired former Rays GM Andrew Friedman to be their president of baseball operations and former A’s assistant GM Farhan Zaidi to be their GM. By all accounts, Mattingly was receptive to the analytically inclined bent of the new regime, becoming fluent in the language of pitch spin rates and pitch framing (both derived via PITCHf/x data) while implementing platoons with established players such as Andre Ethier (who faced lefties just 44 times all year and wound up as the team’s most productive hitter) and with highly touted youngsters such as Joc Pederson. In 2015, Dodger hitters had the platoon advantage 63% of the time, more often than any NL team except the Phillies, and a drastic increase over the previous year’s 46%.
Meanwhile, the off-season departures of Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez enabled Mattingly to maintain a more harmonious clubhouse than the one chronicled in Molly Knight’s book, The Best Team Money Can Buy (mainly covering the 2013 and ’14 seasons), and he received public support from several player sincluding Ethier (who had been seen engaged in an apparent shouting match with Mattingly during the division-series finale, though that was said to involve an umpire’s call, not a managerial move) and Justin Turner in the wake of the Dodgers’ elimination. At that point in time, Zaidi praised his manager’s behind-the-scenes work. Via The Los Angeles Daily News’ J.P. Hoornstra:
“His preparation has been tremendous … We spend some time with him before every game. We see how thorough he is, having all his lineup cards and matchups ready to go. Some of that is his own preparation; some of that is the conversations he has with us. I view him as very, very prepared going into every game.”
... “The longer I’ve been in baseball, the more it’s tilted toward managing the clubhouse, the personalities, the egos,” Zaidi said. “I think from the outside the average person watching a game just sees the X’s and O’s, whether he took a reliever out or left him in. But again, in my view, a lot of those are 52–48 or 55–45 decisions, and you get judged by the outcome rather than the process.”
Given additional reports that Mattingly had the support of chairman Mark Walter, it appeared likely that that Mattingly would return, but on Thursday morning, the Dodgers issued a formal statement with words from the manager and Friedman:
“As our end of season process began, we discussed the past year, our future goals, necessary changes, roster needs and other matters relating to next year’s campaign,” said Friedman. “As the dialogue progressed daily, it evolved to a point where we all agreed that it might be best for both sides to start fresh. We decided to think about it for a couple of days and when we spoke again, we felt comfortable that this was the direction to go. I have the utmost respect for Donnie and thoroughly enjoyed working with him this past season. I want to thank him for his hard work and collaboration, as well as his accomplishments, including three consecutive National League West titles. I wish him nothing but success in the future.”
… “After meeting with Andrew, Farhan and [senior vice president of baseball operations] Josh [Byrnes], we all felt that a fresh start would be good for both the organization and me,” said Mattingly. “We talked about several scenarios, including my returning in 2016. However, I believe this is the right time and right move for both parties. I’m still very passionate about managing and hope to get the opportunity in the near future. In the meantime, I want to thank the Dodger organization, the city and our fans for the opportunity and wish the club well going forward.”
Neither side spelled out in any detail why they reached those conclusions, either in the statement or the ensuing press conference that afternoon, via which Mattingly participated by phone. On the one hand, the parties' willingness to avoid airing their laundry—perhaps about the length of a potential extension, the composition of the coaching staff, handling of specific players or situations—was a laudable show of restraint by both sides. On the other hand, the vagueness of nearly every statement from the parties involved made the decision no easier to understand, particularly given the general appetite for the type of drama that would compel such a split. If everybody was so gosh-darn amicable, why couldn't they have continued working together?
Some read the vagueness as arrogance. Here’s The Los Angeles Times’ Dylan Hernandez:
The steadfast refusal to answer direct questions typified the arrogance that has become an organizational trademark since Stan Kasten became the team president three years ago. The designated speakers on this day declined to categorize Mattingly's departure as a firing or resignation.
>… How much of this was predicated on disagreements in player-personnel matters? “Zero,” Friedman said.
Why was this the right time to make a change? “Again, it’s not a real clear answer,” Friedman said.
… Zaidi at least recognized the ridiculousness of the spectacle.
“Frankly, I’ve had my own level of cynicism when you hear about people mutually parting ways,” Zaidi said. “But we can sit up here with all sincerity and say that’s how it came about.”>
And so it ends, not with a bang or even a whimper, just a shrug. It’s a good thing that neither Friedman nor Zaidi publicly scapegoated Mattingly because the undoing of the 2015 Dodgers (and the ’14 ones as well) had more to do with their roster construction, injuries and failures to perform than it did to Mattingly's questionable tactics, even if that area was never his particular strong suit. After a hot start, the offense ranked just eighth in the league in scoring, as injuries to Yasiel Puig and Yasmani Grandal and the drastic second-half fade of Pederson left too many holes in the lineup—particularly when a slew of hamstring injuries in August and September thinned the herd even further.
Meanwhile, after losing both Hyun-jin Ryu and Brandon McCarthy to season-ending surgeries, the Dodgers struggled to round out their rotation behind Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. Brett Anderson stayed healthy enough to make 30 starts for the first time since his 2009 rookie season, but he, deadline acquisitions Alex Wood and Mat Latos and the team’s other spot starters combined for a 4.86 ERA in the second half, and a 5.36 mark in September/October, the latter while averaging just 5.0 innings per turn. That in turn exposed a bullpen that, while much improved over last year’s stable of unstable ex-closers (Brian Wilson, Brandon League, Chris Perez), turned in a 4.33 ERA after the All-Star break.
Particularly with Greinke's contractual opt-out looming, the Dodgers arguably should have been more aggressive at the deadline, trading for another frontline starter such as Johnny Cueto, Cole Hamels or David Price, all of whom were dealt elsewhere. Friedman and Zaidi's refusal to part with top prospects Corey Seager and Julio Urias made that a difficult task, so they set their sights much lower and were forced to live with the results, which included the release of Latos in late September and then a shorthanded rotation in the division series.
Despite having home-field advantage, the Dodgers got off to a rough start against the Mets despite solid work by Kershaw, as the team couldn’t score against Jacob DeGrom. Reliever Pedro Baez, a raw 27-year-old fireballer who failed in a key spot in Game 1 of the 2014 National League Division Series, got the call from Mattingly in relief of Kershaw with two on and two outs in the seventh inning instead of hot-handed Chris Hatcher. He yielded a two-run single to David Wright that expanded the Mets’ lead from 1–0 to 3–0; they lost 3–1. After pulling out a victory amid the controversy of the Chase Utley play in Game 2, they were blown out in Game 3 when Anderson was pummeled for six runs in three innings, and after Kershaw helped to even the series in Game 4, Greinke gave up a go-ahead solo homer to Daniel Murphy, who had already victimized Kershaw twice, in the sixth inning of Game 5. That was the difference-maker; the Dodgers lost two out of three games with Cy Young contenders on the mound, hit just .238/.293/.333 with two homers in the series and went 2 for 13 with runners in scoring position the finale, enough to come up exactly a buck short.
Nothing makes a manager look worse than the choice of a reliever (such as Baez) who has a bad day. But ultimately, it's not about that, or lousy batting orders or too many (or not enough) sacrifice bunts here and there. For whatever confusion may reign with regards to this divorce and the carefully worded statements that surround it, the bottom line is that sooner or later the Friedman/Zaidi regime was bound to want its own man in the dugout instead of finding a way to make do with somebody else’s hire. It happens all the time throughout the sport; in the past few months we’ve seen Bud Black’s tenure in San Diego and Lloyd McClendon's in Seattle end for similar reasons. New front offices who are being held accountable by those above them for the team's play would prefer to win or lose with their hand-picked choices.
Friedman and Zaidi will have no shortage of options to replace Mattingly and hope to have a skipper in place by the time of the Winter Meetings in early December. From in-house, bench coach Tim Wallach, who has four years of minor-league managerial experience, has been a popular candidate for a variety of managerial openings in recent years. Third base coach Ron Roenicke, who won a division title in the first year of his five-year run with the Brewers, was a midseason addition to the Dodgers’ staff after being canned in Milwaukee. Director of player development Gabe Kapler, despite just one year of minor-league managerial experience, has enjoyed a connection to Friedman that dates back to their days in Tampa Bay and is considered a future manager.
From outside, names such as Black (who managed the Padres under Byrnes in San Diego), ex-Padres bench coach Dave Roberts (a former Dodgers outfielder), Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez (who worked under Friedman and Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay), Mets bench coach Bob Geren (who managed the A's during Zaidi's tenure in Oakland), Charlie Montoyo (currently the Rays' third base coach, with 18 years of minor-league managerial experience) and former Nationals and Indians manager Manny Acta are names that have surfaced. Despite the calls on sports talk radio, there's no reason to think that ex-Dodger player Dusty Baker (fired by the Reds as manager two years ago) or Mike Scoiscia (currently in Anaheim) could be in play, as they're hardly on the same page as Friedman or the rest of the industry when it comes to the influx of analytics into front-office decision making. As for Mattingly, he’s been connected to the Marlins’ opening, as owner and New York native Jeffrey Loria has a fetish for ex-Yankees, and meanwhile, the Padres and Nationals are currently looking for managers as well.
In all likelihood, the two sides of the Dodgers’ breakup will land on their feet and with a minimum of drama. This isn’t Billy Martin being fired by George Steinbrenner for the umpteenth time, dooming the Yankees to remain outside of the World Series for nearly two decades. Mattingly will manage a major-league team again, and hopefully someday reach the World Series that eluded him as a player. The Dodgers will find a manager who will reap the benefit of Kershaw’s dominance and a wealth of resources to bring them back to the World Series for the first time since 1988. There’s no reason why the two sides couldn’t have continued to work in Los Angeles but for a bad break here and there, but there was no way the center could hold given a $300 million payroll and enough early exits.