The jury remains out on Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, who is in the final year of his contract and still must prove that he can properly manage a bullpen.
But Mattingly’s even demeanor is a strength, and the impact of his managing style on two former Red Sox, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and left fielder Carl Crawford, is palpable.
Both Gonzalez and Crawford are off to strong starts in their first full seasons with the Dodgers. And both say Mattingly liberated them as hitters, helping them return to form.
Gonzalez said he felt pressure to hit home runs in Boston. He averaged 34 in his final four seasons with the Padres, then hit 27 in his first year with the Red Sox and 15 last season before getting traded to the Dodgers on Aug. 25.
Upon arriving, Gonzalez said that Mattingly told him, “I don’t care if you hit 10 home runs, just drive in runs.” Gonzalez thought, “perfect!” — and experienced instant relief. He believes that he fell into bad habits trying to meet others’ expectations and hit more home runs.
Crawford’s story is a little different, but his willingness to hit leadoff — and his early success at it — is somewhat surprising to those who recall his resistance to hitting at the top of the order with the Rays.
Of course, Crawford was so miserable in Boston, he likely was willing to try anything the Dodgers wanted. But like Gonzalez, he is grateful to Mattingly for allowing him to play to his own strengths.
“They pretty much gave me the freedom to be myself and not really try to be like a traditional leadoff hitter that takes a bunch of pitches and tries to slap the ball,” Crawford told reporters over the weekend. “For me most part, I’m trying to hit the ball in the gap.”
So far, so good — Crawford is batting .307 with four homers and a .913 OPS.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, is hitting .337 with two homers and an .898 OPS.
THE ARIZONA DEEP-BACKS
Regardless of your opinion of the Justin Upton trade, it’s now clear that the D-backs were deep enough in outfielders to trade both Upton and Chris Young — and probably deep enough to refrain from signing free agent Cody Ross.
Left fielder Jason Kubel just returned from a strained left quad. Center fielder Adam Eaton is expected back from an elbow injury by June 1. Ross was on the DL earlier this month with a left calf strain.
Despite those injuries, the Diamondbacks’ outfielders began the week with a .781 OPS, fifth best in the National League.
Center fielder A.J. Pollock looks like a future regular, but likely will be demoted along with Alfredo Marte once the team is at full strength. Gerardo Parra, meanwhile, has been the team’s second-best hitter after first baseman Paul Goldschmidt while rotating between all three outfield spots.
It’s difficult to imagine Parra not playing every day once Eaton returns, assuming the other outfielders stay healthy. The D-backs will face a similar squeeze in the infield once second baseman Aaron Hill, shortstop Didi Gregorius and utility man Willie Bloomquist are back. At that point, Josh Wilson would be a candidate for demotion, and so might shortstop Cliff Pennington, who has minor-league options remaining.
The D-backs could use their surplus to trade for a starting pitcher, but guess what? They’ve got one of those coming back, too — right-hander Daniel Hudson, who could return from Tommy John surgery in mid-June.
Hudson has been working with former Astros and Blue Jays pitching coach Brad Arnsberg, who is serving in the newly formed position of rehab coordinator. D-backs officials are thrilled with Hudson’s progress.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE BLUE JAYS?
To one rival executive, the answer to that question is simple: The Jays were always a high-risk proposition, considering the injury histories of some of the players they acquired.
Sure enough, shortstop Jose Reyes likely is out until July with a sprained left ankle, and right-hander Josh Johnson missed his last start due to right triceps. Meanwhile, left-hander Mark Buehrle is healthy, but not the pitcher he once was.
On top of all that, the Jays are off to a slow start offensively, ranking only 13th in the AL in runs per game entering Monday’s play. That, like Jose Bautista’s .192 batting average, was partly a product of poor luck; Bautista had the game’s third worst batting average on balls in play, and the Jays were last in that department overall.
Already, though, there are rumblings that the Jays don’t have the right mix — “Alex loves to collect players,” a second rival exec said, referring to GM Alex Anthopoulos. “But putting a team together is different than collecting players.”
Infielder Mark DeRosa even called a players-only meeting Sunday, according to the New York Daily News, saying, “There’s just a bad vibe creeping in here and we need to address it.”
I’m not shocked that the Jays are off to a 9-17 start, particularly after losing Reyes — they brought in not only a number of new players, but also a new manager, and sometimes it takes time for such teams to gel.
Still, chemistry can be overrated. Are the Red Sox playing better because manager Bobby Valentine is gone and their new additions are high-character types? Perhaps, but a bigger reason is that left-hander Jon Lester and righty Clay Bucholz are healthy and pitching effectively.
TO TAKE OR NOT TO TAKE . . . THAT IS THE QUESTION
Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated wrote recently that hitters have become too passive. Well, even in major-league clubhouses, the effectiveness of that approach is a subject of debate.
The Reds’ Jay Bruce told me the other day, “Your job is not to get out, however you can do that. If you hit for power, you’re going to hit for power. If you hit for average, you’re going to hit for average. If you have a consistent approach, all the things you do as a player will come out.”
Reds right-hander Homer Bailey was listening nearby as Bruce and I spoke. Bruce said later that Bailey challenged him after I walked away, essentially saying, “On a 3-1 count with runners on second and third, I’d rather see a hitter swing away than take a walk.”
Bruce countered by pointing out that a team is still more likely to score with the bases loaded and one out than with runners on second and third. Manager Dusty Baker later caught wind of the discussion, and in a meeting with FOX broadcasters Saturday, seemed to agree with Bailey, lamenting that hitters too often fail to take advantage of RBI situations.
Many fans and sabermetricians will deride Baker as old-school, but his point — and Bailey’s — should not be dismissed. That same day, Nats manager Davey Johnson hailed Bryce Harper for hitting a 3-2 splitter, down and in, into the right-field corner for a triple on what probably was ball four. It wasn’t an RBI situation, but Harper ended up scoring the game’s only run.
More hitters today are aware of the importance of selectivity; the best hitters not only swing at strikes, but at strikes in their desired zones. Still, the debate is a worthy one. If a hitter gets a pitch he can handle, particularly with runners on base, maybe he shouldn’t worry so much about making an out.
PITCHING SHORTAGE . . . AND SURPLUS?
The Padres are in an interesting and rather odd position. Starting pitching is their biggest need — and greatest strength.
How can that be when the Padres’ rotation began the week last in the NL with a 5.33 ERA? Mostly because of the Pads’ depth, their potential when their young starters develop and injured pitchers return.
Left-hander Cory Luebke and righty Joe Wieland could return from their respective Tommy John surgeries after the All-Star break, increasing the Padres’ options.
At that point, right-hander Edinson Volquez and lefty Clayton Richard could become prime trade candidates — presuming, of course, that they start pitching better.
Volquez, earning $5.725 million in his free-agent year, has a 6.39 ERA after five starts. Richard, earning $5.24 million with one more year of arbitration remaining, has a 7.94 ERA after four outings.
THE MARLINS: WRECKING BALL FOR ALL
A rival executive joked that Astros GM Jeff Luhnow probably is freaking out that the Marlins may finish with the worst record in the majors, ending the possibility that the ‘Stros could pick first in the draft three straight years.
Seriously, the “tanking” by the Astros and Marlins raises the question of whether baseball should adopt an NBA-style lottery system at the top of the draft. Probably not — clubs go through different cycles, and it’s not as if the Astros or Marlins plan to lose 100 games for 10 straight years. Still, their teardown strategies continue to raise concerns throughout the game.
Remember all the talk in spring training about how the Astros might compromise the game’s competitive integrity, leading to both wild card teams coming out of the AL West? Well, how is it any different with the Marlins in the NL East?
The Phillies play the Marlins 13 times before June 6, and that alone might keep them in contention for at least the second wild card — and influence their decision whether to sell off veterans before the July 31 non-waiver deadline.
PITCHING RESURGENCE IN MINNESOTA?
Don’t look now, but the Twinkies are getting good work out of right-hander Kevin Correia, who was awful in spring training, as well as their bullpen, which began the week leading the AL in both ERA (2.49) and opponents’ OPS (.203).
Correia’s 2.23 ERA after five starts is likely unsustainable; he has struck out only 15 in 36 1/3 innings, and his opponents’ batting average on balls in play is .271, about 30 points below the league average. Still, the Twins are impressed by Correia’s ability to read swings and keep hitters off-balance.
As for the bullpen, its success also could prove fleeting; Twins starters are averaging only about 5 1/3 innings, just as they did last season, when the ‘pen — and right-hander Alex Burnett, in particular — wore down from overuse.
Still, lefty Brian Duensing’s stuff plays up out of the ‘pen, righty Ryan Pressly throws 93 to 95 mph and righty Josh Roenicke, a waiver claim from the Rockies, has been a revelation.
IT’S HOW YOU PLAY — AND WHO YOU PLAY
As one executive notes, strength of schedule goes a long way toward determining a team’s record at this time of year. The Pirates’ 15-10 record is all the more impressive, the exec says, given that 33 of the team’s first 42 games are against teams that records of .500 or better last season.
The Reds had a difficult schedule for another reason — they are playing 20 games in 20 days, an unusual run for this time of year — before their next day off Thursday. Considering all of their injuries — catcher Ryan Hanigan, left fielder Ryan Ludwick, right-hander Johnny Cueto and until recently left-handed reliever Sean Marshall — the team’s 14-12 record is actually commendable.
The same goes for the Rays, who are playing 20 of their first 32 games on the road — they had a 10-game trip to Texas, Boston and Baltimore and they’re in the middle of another to Chicago (White Sox), Kansas City and Colorado. Some might even view their 12-13 as encouraging; the team has gotten only one win from lefty David Price.
AROUND THE HORN
• Braves left fielder Justin Upton is batting .393 with a 1.036 OPS and 11 homers when no one is on base. But at least thus far, he hasn’t been nearly as successful with runners aboard.
Though the sample sizes are still small, Upton is 5-for-32 (.156) with runners on base and 2-for-13 (.154) with runners in scoring position.
The numbers should even out over time: For his career, Upton has an .869 OPS with none on, an .809 with runners on and a .788 with runners in scoring position.
• The Cubs, believe it or not, are tied with the Tigers for the third-lowest opponents’ OPS in the majors, behind the Rangers and Pirates. But the Cubbies’ good fortune (and the Pirates’) appears to be partly the product of their opponents’ low batting average on balls in play — in other words, luck.
Offensively, the Cubs are just the reverse, ranking next to last in the majors on BABIP, ahead of only the Jays.
Many of these trends will even out. It’s still relatively early.
• Might the Phillies be poised for a run? Catcher Carlos Ruiz is back from his 25-game suspension, and club officials are encouraged that first baseman Ryan Howard is again driving the ball (10-game hitting streak, .351 BA, .595 SLG).
The team looks poised for a good week: Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee were the scheduled starters in a two-game series in Cleveland, and then the Phillies return home for four games against the Marlins.
• Ah Chicago, the city of broad shoulders and free swingers: The White Sox and Cubs rank 29th and 30th in walk rate, respectively.
I failed to include one of the notoriously undisciplined, shortstop Alexei Ramirez, on a list of White Sox trade candidates in my most recent Full Count video.
Ramirez is under contract for $7 million this season, $9.5 million in 2014 and $10 million in ’15, with a $10 million option or $1 million buyout for ’16.
All for a career OPS-plus of 91 (100 is the average).
• Here’s a surprise: Through Sunday, Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar had more extra-base hits (nine) than first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas combined.
While Hosmer and Moustakas had combined to go 135 at-bats without a homer, Escobar already has three. One rival exec notes that Escobar’s at-bats continue to improve; he’s 26, and maturing as a hitter.
• The Rangers tried to include Chris Davis instead of Justin Smoak in the Cliff Lee trade on July 9, 2010, but the Mariners insisted upon Smoak, according to a major-league source. Oops! Turns out they were both wrong.
• The Reds’ Xavier Paul is such a good fastball hitter, Dusty Baker calls him, “Bazooka.” Why? Because in Baker’s view, Paul can hit a fastball even if it’s shot out of a bazooka.