Leave Don Mattingly alooooooone

USA TODAY Sports

It's not clear what Donnie Baseball has done to contribute to the Dodgers' disappointing start, but he's rumored to be on the hot seat anyway.

I am unclear as to what, exactly, Don Mattingly has done to earn all this speculation about his future with the Dodgers. And I'm not the only one. Chad Moriyama of True Blue LA calls him an "average" in-game manager, but also concedes that "game management is a small part of what managers exist for" and "the universal standard for what comprises a quality manager is basically a jumble of intangibles." What kinds of intangibles? Running a peaceful clubhouse and effective communication, essentially; making the ballpark into a good working environment for 25 guys and a bunch of coaches, while also representing the demands of his bosses in the front office. By all accounts, Mattingly has done that. He has kept his head down, refrained from being overly critical of his players, the front office, or the press. At least as far as those intangibles go, he's done his job.

But what about the tangible? There seems to be a universal acknowledgement among Dodgers fans that Mattingly orders the bunt too much. Maybe he does, but the same could be said of virtually every manager in the history of baseball. The Dodgers have the fifth-highest on-base percentage in the National League, but have only attempted two more bunts (25) than the average NL team (23). Is that really some kind of egregious sin? Moriyama suggests his personnel and bullpen decisions are troubling but "I watch a lot of baseball around the league and follow a lot of other team's bloggers, and I see similar issues/complaints about almost every manager, sans a few."

Dodgers pinch-hitters have done poorly, but it is hard to see pinning this on Mattingly. Sure, a manager is responsible for calling on the right pinch-hitter in a given situation. But even if we completely disregard the issues of small sample size, which pinch-hitters should Mattingly have used that would have given him better results than Nick Punto, Skip Schumaker, and Luis Cruz have? Tim Federowicz? The currently-disabled Jerry Hairston? Maybe Juan Uribe when he isn't starting at third base? Perhaps he should use Ramon Hernandez, who since having been forced on him has gone 1-for-22. The cupboard isn't bare in Chavez Ravine, it's filled with rancid meat, toothpicks, and one stray can of pumpkin pie filling.

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I suppose we could ding him for bullpen management. Kenley Jensen leads the team in relief innings and has appeared in more than half of the club's games, but that's what you want out of a relief ace (a couple of recent bad outings notwithstanding). His go-to guy with runners on has been the spot lefty Paco Rodriguez, who has held left-handed hitters to a .111 average (3-for-27) while walking four. He's also been effective against the right-handers he's faced.

Actually, if anyone has been underused, it's been "closer" Brandon League, who was signed to an unwarranted extension by Ned Colletti before he could hit free agency. And that's the right strategy, because League is at his best, an above-average reliever, not the horse that Jensen (or Ronald Belisario, or JP Howell) is. League has only appeared in three games where he wasn't preceded by Jensen. Hell, the only reason League got near a truly high-leverage situation on Sunday was because Mattingly had already burned his four best relievers. It's hardly League's fault that Juan Uribe botched Andrelton Simmons' bunt attempt, setting up the Braves for a huge inning.

Maybe, then, it's the Dodgers' shoddy defense that's on Mattingly. The Dodgers have been absolute butchers on defense. They rank second from the bottom in the National League in defensive efficiency and third from cellar in fielding percentage, suggesting they can't even pick up the few balls they can get to. Perhaps a manager needs to be able to whip a sloppy club into shape. But Mattingly can't make Matt Kemp into a gold glover because Matt Kemp simply doesn't have the tools now, if he ever did, to be anything other than an abysmal center fielder. Ditto for Skip Schumaker as he fills in around the diamond. Juan Uribe is going to continue to be Juan Uribe no matter what. And things are only going to get dicier when Hanley Ramirez returns, assuming the Dodgers are committed to keeping him at shortstop. What's Mattingly supposed to do? Alienate his best player (Kemp) by making him switch positions with Carl Crawford, who prefers to play left field and who is one of the few good things the Dodgers have going? What's Hanley's effort level going to be like if he's moved back to the easier position he doesn't want to play? Mattingly is stuck, being asked to play chess with his queen moving like a king and his bishop threatening to stop moving altogether if he isn't allowed to go side to side like that castley-piece. Around them, just for fun, are a bunch of thirtysomething pawns like Schumaker and Mark Ellis and Andre Ethier, who can't move worth a damn.

Add it all up and the team has been horribly disappointing this year, currently seven games under .500 and in last place in the NL West, seven games back of the Diamondbacks. I understand that the manager tends to be the fall guy in situations like this, but I have yet to see any kind of an argument as to why Mattingly deserves to be fired. Instead, everyone from Ken Rosenthal to Craig Calcaterra to Mike Petriello to Eric Stephen to Branch Rickey are treating his firing as some kind of inevitability.

Mike McGinnis

The reason that no one is pointing to a reason why Mattingly should be fired is because there is none, just an acknowledgement that, "Shucks, this is how it's done." Well Don Mattingly didn't put this bloated, perpetually-in-crisis roster together. He didn't trade for Hanley Ramirez (who has played just four games) or Josh Beckett (5.19 ERA and now on the DL) or Skip Schumaker. He didn't make it so that the only position open to a one-armed Matt Kemp was center field. He didn't allow Hiroki Kuroda to leave in favor of Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang. He didn't make Carlos Quentin charge the mound to knock out one of his three decent and healthy starters. He didn't sign Brandon League to be the closer. Don Mattingly is running the only team he has at his disposal out onto the field every night, and using those mismatched chess pieces as best he can. That they are hurt and not performing is not his fault; that's their nature.

Sometimes, I suppose, a change in attitude at the top could spark a change in the performance on the field. You can make that argument. But these are veterans, and if they haven't learned how to conduct themselves by now, no amount of yelling is going to get more than a sarcastic eye roll. Maybe if you can get undead Billy Martin to come manage this club, you might get some kind of response from players who have been around the game for years and years. But then you have to deal with Billy's hunger for brains and thirst for seven and sevens and the trampling as players try to escape. Outside of being chased by undead Billy, they aren't going to move faster on the field. They are what they are. There's nowhere to grow (except older, I guess).

But say we grant this much: Say it's possible that, if the Dodgers were to fire Mattingly and hire precisely the right manager at precisely the right time, maybe they could catch lightning in a bottle like the Marlins did under Jack McKeon in 2003 or the Rockies did under Jim Tracy in 2009. The problem with that kind of wishful thinking, though, is that result is incredibly unlikely.

Since 1947, managers have been replaced midseason 269 times, and their clubs have seen their winning percentage improve, collectively, by .018. Over the 118 games the Dodgers have remaining, that works out to somewhere in the neighborhood of two or three extra wins. That's not enough to get them back in contention this year, but it's also possible that they could be an outlier who improve dramatically under new management.

The average fifth-place team since 1996 has won an average of 87 games in the National League. To get there, the Dodgers would need to go 69-50 from this point on, a .580 clip, that's a difference of .167 over their current winning percentage. Here's the entire list of teams who replaced managers midseason, each of whom helmed their clubs for at least 30 games, and played at least that much better the rest of the way:

Year

Team

1st Mgr

W

L

WP

2nd Mgr

W

L

WP

Diff

2010

Cubs

Lou Piniella

51

74

.408

Mike Quade

24

13

.649

.241

2010

Orioles

Dave Trembley

15

39

.278

Samuel/Showalter

51

57

.472

.194

2009

Rockies

Clint Hurdle

18

28

.391

Jim Tracy

74

42

.638

.247

1989

Blue Jays

Jimy Williams

12

24

.333

Cito Gaston

77

49

.611

.278

1988

Padres

Larry Bowa

16

30

.348

Jack McKeon

67

48

.583

.235

1980

Twins

Gene Mauch

54

71

.432

Johnny Goryl

23

13

.639

.207

1969

Angels

Bill Rigney

11

28

.282

Lefty Phillips

60

63

.488

.206

1952

Phillies

Eddie Sawyer

28

35

.444

Steve O'Neill

59

32

.648

.204


That's nine teams in 66 seasons, only two of which (the ‘89 Jays and the ‘09 Rockies) ended up winning better than 87 games. So really, even as the Dodgers are struggling right now, even as it's unclear how firing Mattingly would solve the Dodgers problems, it's incredibly unlikely that a change will turn them into a contender in 2013.

Firing Mattingly has the potential to create an even bigger problem: If his replacement does go on an epic run to salvage the season (or even to just save face): that the Dodgers would be stuck with him going forward. In making changes midseason, teams are often forced to go with who is available quickly, instead of conducting an extensive search to find the best candidate for the job. Teams often feel compelled to let a successful interim manager prove he's not the right guy, which can hold back the rebuilding process by another season. The Cubs kept Mike Quade for 2011, and his Cubs lost 91 games while he got into conflicts with Starlin Castro and Ryan Dempster and was consistently out-managed. Jim Tracy had a handshake deal on a lifetime contract with Dan O'Dowd and the Rockies, but his teams kept getting worse and worse and he became a running joke around the league for his inept tactics. Johnny Goryl started the strike-shortened 1981 11-25 for the Twins, and he was canned. The only managers on the list above who lasted more than three full seasons are Buck Showalter (assuming he makes it through 2013) and Cito Gaston.

The Dodgers would have internal candidates in Davey Lopes and Trey Hillman, who led the Brewers and Royals, respectively, for two and a half uninspiring seasons. Or maybe they give the job to untested Tim Wallach or Jody Reed. Or look around to see if Manny Acta or Ozzie Guillen want to get back into managing. But whichever way they'd go, the Dodgers would simply be picking from what's left over. They wouldn't be conducting a thorough search and making an informed choice that could affect their club for seasons to come.

Given where they are at, and how much they would have to do this year, it's far safer for the future of the organization to let Mattingly play out the string; if he can't pull this club together, start fresh next year with the right man in place.

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